Formalising the Informal  with Alfredo Brillembourg

Formalising the Informal with Alfredo Brillembourg

October 11, 2019 Off By Tiziana Heck

Statistics taken by the OHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) in 2016 indicate that one in seven dwellings in South Africa is informal, a higher rate of one in five applies in metropolitan areas¹ (6). The need for housing models to provide for a shift to adequate housing is ubiquitous, particularly to create housing which is affordable, practical and sustainable to handle the booming growth of informal settlements which further propel wealth inequalities in developing cities. Alfredo Brillembourg, founding partner of interdisciplinary design studio Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), is a leading architect addressing this challenge. In 2013, U-TT launched Empower Shack (EC) residential units in Cape Town’s densest populated township, Khayelitsha, for approximately 286 residents, and 68 houses.

With South Africa’s Gini coefficient ranking the highest globally, Cape Town remains one of the most unequal cities in the world in its young democracy. One is able to see the legacy of the land segregation from the Apartheid regime still intact by looking at the racial tapestry of Cape Town in 2011 with Figure 1 below. The shadows of Apartheid remain omnipresent, creating physical, economic and social divides through insufficient infrastructure and a lack of affordable transportation into the city centre which holds the majority of the city’s economic opportunities.

Figure 1: Social Tapestry of Cape Town 2011 | Source: Statistics South Africa

The government attempts to deliver various social housing projects in order to grant people the right to adequate housing as promised by Section 26 in the South African Constitution, which provides: “reasonable legislative and other measures within its available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing”² (2). One of those initiatives was previously called Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing, now Breaking New Ground (BNG) housing. To qualify, applicants must be South African or permanent residents, be at least 21 years of age, the household’s joint income must not exceed R 3500 (222 EUR) per month, applicants must provide proof of cohabitation, or if single, present financial dependence. Thus BNG housing may still hinder young single people to be granted eligibility, due to its strict guidelines of financial dependence and the existing high demand. Currently, 230,000 people are on the waiting list and may remain to be there due to steady demand, rigid restrictions and government inefficiencies which combined may lead to people waiting on a chance to move into adequate housing for the next 10 years.

Longer times may apply, as some candidates who move up on the waiting list may refuse the city’s offer because the candidate is not able to choose the location of their housing. Thus they may have to relocate to a neighbourhood which may be further than two hours away from their current community by public transport, which is frequently the only affordable option for people waiting on subsidised housing. Thus BNG housing is a viable concept, but not a quick solution to many peoples’ current pressing issue. Thus another initiative organised by the National Department of Human Settlement includes the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme which enabled 67,548 households to be upgraded in the year 2017/18 as stated in the department’s annual report³ (10).  Such may take form through improvement of public spaces in collaboration with the community, creating safety facilities and providing building materials, Alongside state-run housing projects, smaller private initiatives, such as the Empower Shack pilot research project, prove to be a strong hands-on solution to help fill the large delivery gap of helping the people’s situation now, rather than in the distant future.

     Mr Brillembourg introduced himself as a grassroots designer and architect, but also as a professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Having received his Master’s degree in Architectural Design at Columbia University and founding U-TT in Caracas, Venezuela in 1993, he now shuttles between Zurich, Cape Town, and his city of birth, New York. The focus is set on challenging the existing divisions between communities of formal and informal settlements in metropolitan cities to create housing hybrids of the “informal” and formal, as Brillembourg refers to them.

His solution of practical urban housing was first redirected in Caracas, which experienced a housing crisis followed by a revolution in 1992. Brillembourg took that as inspiration to focus his work as a designer and an architect on upgrading informal settlements which strive to build and unite communities through affordable, transformative and creative design. His idea is, that people are the objects of architecture, thus “it is more about them than about the building structure, it is about how the people live life in their homes”.

His urban design projects are built on the following three pillars. Firstly, integrative infrastructure, as seen in the form of a cable car connecting the favela San Augustin located at a hillside in Caracas with the city’s metro stations at both ends, allowing for easy pedestrian transportation into the city’s hubs. Secondly, is the idea of viewing public buildings as public space, which he manifested through the construction of community centres as melting points for the formal and informal settlements. Lastly, the aspect of aesthetics and ethics seen implemented in the Empower Shack project in Khayelitsha. It represents the importance of engaging the community in the remodelling process by empowering them to create their own vision, rather than forcing foreign ideals onto them. In order to achieve practical designs for the people, it is crucial to engage with the people of the community to understand how they live, work and move, in order to create efficient change which is sustainable for the community, so Brillembourg emphasised.

Hillside cable car in San Augustin favela | Image Courtesy: Urban-Think Tank, Alfredo Brillembourg

His ideas resonate with plans voiced by local non-profit organisations, because his approach aims at improving the housing situation for the people where they are, rather than relocating them out of their communities – something that has been a big issue as a result of the city’s developments. The pilot research project was pulled up with the help of the local NGO Ikhayalami and helped to remodel houses to two-story buildings with a budget of $600 per building. The blueprint of the dwellings allows for improved safety levels through larger spaces in between buildings and through more sturdy building materials it becomes more fire-retardant. Easier access to sanitation cores between the building units of three houses allows for improved safety levels and comfort. Additionally, the building technique and materials allow for a convenient way to renovate, for example, to add another story to one’s building one may easily strip the building of its roof to add a foundation for the third floor. Previously adding a stable second floor was dangerous as the dwellings were built on the sandy ground, now a stabilising base was utilised to enable the build up, rather than building wide. The roots for Brillembourg’s most recent experiment stem from his time living in his hometown Caracas where his passion for “pragmatic rather than unique” housing solutions was fueled, so he mentioned.

A family’s previous home | Image Courtesy: Daniel Schwartz, U-TT at ETH

Brillembourg understands the significance of agent provokers within communities who enable their neighbourhoods to grow as self-sustaining economies, as his life has also been centred around multiple metropolises which took shape through bottom-up development. Whilst constructing Empower Shack, Brillembourg and his team sought close communication with team leaders of the community so that the housing hybrids of the informal and formal, with living space upstairs and space for a business on the bottom floor, could develop to a community project which was appreciated and fueled by the neighbourhood. By employing up to 20 percent of the workers for the building process from the township, they offered the community an opportunity to broaden their skill sets. The concept of EC allowed the developers to receive first-hand feedback and gave the residents a sense of ownership in the change which is crucial for their identification with their new home and which also sparks a sense of agency within the community. With the possibility of an informal economy on the bottom floor and living space for a family upstairs, U-TT helped to remodel crowded streets to spacious communities, centred around their four core concepts for EC: a two-story housing prototype, participatory spatial planning, ecological landscape management and integrated livelihoods programming.

The family’s new Empower Shack | Image Courtesy: Daniel Schwartz, U-TT at ETH

In order to finance the project, the new owners of the two-story buildings were able to afford their new house partially through micro-financing. Such may take the form of an initial investment of 20 percent for the construction of the remodelled house through savings, another 30 percent financed through the trading of land and or room with community members and the rest of the funding provided in cooperation with U-TT. The goal of this housing project is to encourage the city to grant property titles to the people living in the yet considered informal settlements through ‘advanced reblocking and implemental compliance’. Thus the rearranging and remodelling of houses through a step-by-step system, developed by U-TT, whilst also working towards securing legal ownership of the land to its inhabitants to aid the diminishment of Cape Town’s current housing crisis.

South Africa’s most populous city remains to face a multitude of challenges to supply the less fortunate with decent housing options. Despite long waiting lists and strict guidelines which hinder the quickly needed transition that its people are deserving of, many private initiatives are taking action through bottom-up projects. Such as Urban-Think Tank’s collaboration with the local NGO Ikhayalam which enabled fast and efficient housing solutions for people in Khayelitsha. They show that change is possible to be implemented pragmatically and sustainably through collaboration with the community.