A few days ago, I went to the United Nations Headquarters for the first time, specifically to check out an exhibition Design with the other 90%: Cities, that featured design-based solutions for urban issues in cities of the developing world.
It was a fascinating, if rather sobering affair. Some of the issues addressed included water and waste management, poverty and opportunity, community planning and rejuvenation, informal settlements (i.e. slums), public transport and public space. Cities featured included Manila, Caracas, Dhaka, Dakar, Rio de Janeiro, Medellín (Colombia), Mexico City, Nairobi – I hate to say this – the usual list of cities.
Beyond the obvious lesson to be learnt – that design can improve the day-to-day lives of the other 90% of the world’s population, often at low cost – I drew three other lessons that I felt were equally, if not more, important.
1. Women lead Change. Many of the displays for the projects featured women – playing a lead role in community rejuvenation, being entrepreneurial and innovative, taking the first step in trying out new practices. In other words, being the vanguards for change.
2. Tradition is Cutting-edge. A key theme of the exhibition was how design needed to be sensitive to climate, (geographical) terrain and to culture. Some of the displays featured design solutions that drew heavily upon traditional material and architectural / design styles, or which adapted architecture to nature, rather than vice versa. It got me thinking that many traditional practices in the developing world now eclipsed by modern “Western” technologies had actually been far superior and sophisticated in responding to specific challenges of climate and terrain in their places of origin, because they had evolved to do so. In other words, tradition is in many ways, more cutting-edge than modernity.
3. The pursuit of Beauty makes us Human. An observation I made in all the displays was how even in the midst of poverty and disenfranchisement, people cling onto beauty with such pride, taking ownership of beautiful spaces as a community. I thought that what really unites us all as a species is this ability to collectively appreciate beauty within the harshest of conditions and in the simplest of things.
The exhibition is on at the UN till Jan 9, 2012. More details on the design solutions featured can be found at the excellent website: http://designother90.org/cities/home.
In the meantime, I end off with some visuals from the exhibition, broadly organised according to the 3 lessons I learnt.
Run the World (Girls) – [inspired by Beyoncé]
JR, 28 Millimetres : Women Are Heroes in the Favela ” Morro da Providencia”, Rio de Janeiro. August 2008
Environment and Development Action (ENDA), Yoff Sustainable Wastewater System, Dakar
Global Studio–University of Sydney, WASSUP (Water, Amenities and Sanitation Services Upgrade Project), Johannesburg
Solidarités International, Garden-in-a-sack, Kibera, Nairobi
Terrain / Tradition / Technology
Mohammed Rezwan, Floating Community Lifeboats, Bangladesh
Medellín in relief – from Medellín Metrocable and Northeast Integral Urban Project
Urban Think Tank (UTT), Vertical Gym, Caracas
Urban Mining, Heliópolis favela, São Paulo
Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, Haas & Hahn, Praça Cantão Favela Painting Project, Rio de Janeiro
COOPA-ROCA, Cristal de Luz, Rio de Janeiro
Water for Low-income Communities (Tubig Para sa Barangay) Program, Manila
Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit System, Guangzhou
The United Nations – Les Nations Unies
The UN Building, designed by a multi-national team with American architect Wallace K. Harrison as Chief Architect and a Board of design consultants consisting of N.D. Bassov (then-Societ Union), Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Le Corbusier (France), Liang Seu-Cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), Howard Robertson (UK), G. A. Soilleux (Australia) and Julio Villamajo (Uruguay).