How I lost my shoes

When building proper housing for poor populations, technology can be found all around us, if only we know where to look. Often architects seem to have the answers, but that does not mean we have asked the right questions.

Many years ago, an architect in Rio invited me to participate in a national competition. The goal was to find a way to provide proper housing for people from the countryside who were settling on the mudflats facing the city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia. Close to 100,000 people were building their houses hovering barely above the mud, with most of the materials coming from city garbage dumps nearby.

We won the competition and shortly afterwards we went to the city's Alagados district to check out our drawings in the field. As a young assistant and I were stepping along the raised wooden walkways between the houses, we noticed a man cutting a board with the kind of saw I used to give my kids for Christmas, while his little son was pulling nails out of a broken crate and straightening them so they could be reused. When I asked him if he was building his own house he answered that he was the builder for the whole neighbourhood, which consisted of rows of houses on stilts on both sides of the walkways.

Closer to the centre we stopped at a small square, which had been made with an accumulation of city garbage, to have a look at our drawings. Soon a number of people gathered around us. Initially they were just curious, but then someone shouted: "Here they are again, those good for nothings, getting big salaries, paid with our misery." The crowd became restless and my young friend whispered, "We'd better make a run for it." Deciding to do precisely that, we were promptly followed by a crowd of angry shouting inhabitants. Luckily we managed to outrun the mob and safely reach the main road. I can still picture that moment now: two young architects running for their lives over those rickety walkways and bridges.

Back in Rio I told my partner that all our plans were rather unrealistic. It would have been far better to spend the money on tools, materials and information. As an example, in this whole section of the city, neighbourhood after neighbourhood was entirely built with wood and tin cladding, and apparently nobody knew about triangulation in structures. We saw houses that were already starting to keel over even while under construction. Fortunately the houses all stood quite close together, and as a result they were able to lean on each other for support.

But my fellow architect back home in the metropolis thought it was too late in the proceedings to come up with a different approach, as the builders for this housing project had already been chosen. Unwilling to compromise, I withdrew from this game in which I could no longer believe. Technology, including alternative ones, can be found all around us if only we know where to look. Often we seem to have the answers, but that does not mean we have asked the right questions. I feel it will be necessary to provide ways of stimulating people to question their situation and learn to look for those who might have the answers.

While working in Mexico on human settlement design, I was asked to make building instruction posters and games. I also worked with local populations to teach about earthquake-resistant structures. Noticing that far too much cement was used, we set about making very thin curved floor panels, which worked very well. Furthermore, to improve sanitary conditions we introduced self-built prefabricated water filters and dry composting toilets. Everything was made from ferrocement, except that instead of using metal reinforcing we recycled open woven plastic food bags from markets.

Nonetheless, the distribution of these techniques was still somewhat uneven. We thought that a small handbook containing all kinds of building techniques would be more accessible for the self-help builders. The manual was ready two years later, and was subsequently translated into several languages. During the late 1980s we were able to start a new project, this time setting up a centre to teach Bio-Architecture and Intuitive Technology, soon to be known as TIBÁ .

Johan van Lengen published the Manual del arquitecto descalzo: cómo construir casas y otros edificios (Editorial Concepto) in Spanish in 1982, selling over 200,000 copies. The book was later translated into Portuguese and, in 2007, also into English with the title The Barefoot Architect: A Handbook for Green Building. Written with the intention of transmitting the techniques of self-building to poor populations, the book resulted from the extensive experience gained by the Dutch-born architect in Latin America. In 1998, with his wife Rose, Van Lengen founded TIBÁ, a training centre for intuitive technology and bio-architecture near Rio de Janeiro.

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