The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for December 2011

Reinventing the Global City at the UN’s “Design” Exhibit

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Colorful rays of sunshine over a shantytown in Rio at “Design with the Other 90%: Cities,” at the UN Visitors Centre. (Apologies for the low res)

In 1960, after a hundred thousand years of human activity, the world’s population stood at just over three billion. Today, that number has reached a staggering seven billion — especially astounding considering that we’ve added a billion people in the last twelve years alone.

The United Nations has declared October 31 to be the birthday of Baby 7 Billion — a wholly symbolic designation, of course, as population estimates are, at best, very educated guesses. Whoever the seven billionth human turns out to be, it’s also a good guess that he or she will grow up in an informal urban settlement — the charitable term for a slum. With half of the world’s people now living in cities, more than one billion inhabit shantytowns and squat settlements, and that number could easily double in the next twenty years. Seeking the upward mobility and opportunity that cities promise, these slum dwellers nevertheless lack immediate access to the basic amenities of a developed society: clean water, secure housing, reliable infrastructure, and quality health care and education.

A model of a redesigned village along Bangkok’s Bang Bua Canal (above the water) versus the original layout (below). The homes have been realigned to allow for unimpeded access to the waterfront.

Design with the Other 90%: Cities, at the UN Visitors Centre, goes a long way towards illustrating the full scope of global urban development in the 21st century. Rather than focus only on statistics, which tends to induce a sort of guilt-trip-by-the-numbers over the challenges of eradicating poverty and curbing population growth, the exhibit presents the solutions that are actually being implemented. The communities profiled are found on the outskirts of sprawling cities in what is commonly labeled the Global South: Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Oceania. While their inhabitants struggle for full incorporation into their cities proper, a network of urban visionaries is designing new ways to formalize the informal, and rekindling the conversation on what cities can be.

The celebration of design is part and parcel of Design Other 90’s raison d’etre. As its name suggests, the non-profit group concentrates on design of products, both essential and artistic, to benefit the large population that, it believes, doesn’t traditionally receive it. (The focus in this case is not on 90%, but 15% of the world’s population, which is still pretty significant.)

Urban design, it turns out, covers a lot of bases. It can be as simple as aesthetic beautification, as in the exhibit’s most arresting image, a block of a favela in Rio de Janeiro painted over with rays of color by the renowned Dutch artists Haas & Hahn. (NOTE: this sentence has been corrected; it originally identified the painted favela as being in São Paulo.) It can also involve bringing a visual identity to what are often overlooked, unmapped communities, as in the case of a hill-climbing barrio in Lima that sees itself for the first time when a weather balloon captures the neighborhood from above.

While the theme of marginalization is recurrent in “Cities,” the unique difficulties posed by the geographical and sociological ensure that no two poverties around the world are identical. Dhaka’s villages endure periodic flooding, while Nairobi’s are feeling the effects of a severe drought that has pushed a population bigger than New York City to the brink of starvation. São Paulo’s favelas have electricity, even wifi, but little security; Bangkok’s relatively peaceful slums crowd canals and are in danger of collapse.

A public artist paints the faces of women onto houses in hillside slums to draw greater attention to the role of women in society.

Similarly, the innovations arise from the particular needs and resources of a given locale. Community centers and public spaces grant more power and security to women and children, whose vulnerability remains far more universal than any geographical limitation. Energy-efficient solutions, smart yet simple, also get a lot of space. Solar panels are introduced into housing in a planned settlement in Kenya. In neighboring Tanzania, where few homes have electricity, a cell phone charger powered by heat from a revolving bicycle wheel keeps people connected and mobile. And in Indonesia, EcoFaeBricks are developed as a lighter and cheaper alternative than clay bricks; their magic ingredient, it’s revealed, comes from cows. (Hint: a non-dairy ingredient.) They’re also stronger than clay and, since they’re made from replenishable waste, emit less carbon dioxide to produce.

The exhibit includes a mix of media, from small-scale models to video footage of quotidian city life, to underscore the sense of vibrancy in these communities, celebrating progress without shying away from the persisting hardships. Although there is some interactivity — you can walk across the life-size floor plan of a Bangkok hut — it’s not the exhibit’s strong point. Visitors can browse through a booklet on a iPad, but this can feel more cumbersome to use than a real paper edition. Some pieces also appeared to be out of commission during my visit, like the Ugandan “Digital Drum,” essentially a computer station constructed out of a periscope-shaped oil barrel. A non-functioning computer at an exhibit is like a book cover with all the pages inside missing.

Where “Cities” succeeds, however, is in the delivery of its message. There is no dreaming of a better world, imagining the possible; there is instead making the possible happen, putting ideas into action and yielding results. That it holds itself back from imagining even more could be perceived as a weakness by some. Yet it is hard to argue with what has been realized in these communities with smaller resource pools than developed societies, examples that should be especially informative to those of us who are not accustomed to achieving more with less.

Although it’s currently fashionable to divide society into percentages denoting the haves and have-nots, the “Other 90%” designation should not be seen as invidious. The technologies highlighted in the exhibit are not limited to wealthy nations reaching out to poor ones. They come from all over: international NGOs, municipal governments, homegrown artists and Western-educated entrepreneurs. (The EcoFaeBricks were designed by students at an Indonesian business school.) More than anything, “Cities” shows off the creativity that is transforming underdeveloped communities via solutions that are practical, resourceful, aesthetically dignifying and socially empowering. They make it easier to perceive the world in terms of a single community — the one hundred percent — instead of one stratified and reduced to statistics.

“Design with the Other 90%: Cities” runs through January 9, 2012 at the UN Visitors Centre, First Avenue and 47th Street, New York. Entry is free and open to the public. To learn more, go to