[Form]ing the Informal | [Inform]ing the Formal

It is a well-known fact that much of the world’s population by 2050 will be living in informal cities and it will be become the most significant and prevalent form of global mega-urbanism.  Today, one billion people live in informal cities (36% of the world’s population) and this is expected to grow another one billion over the next 30 years. As currently evolving the informal city is an urban phenomenon set up within the planned city’s territory and increasingly an integral part of it – often comprising up to 75% of the city – thereby becoming an increasingly relevant design and development challenge. Notwithstanding this, it is a territory that heretofore architects and architecture has attempted to erase and/or abandoned as unworthy of consideration and/or at the most, has limited interaction. This exploration not only traces the development trends and key issues facing informal urbanism but poses the question of how design and designers can engage the informal city through a formalization process of the informal, and in turn how the process of informalization increasingly impacts formal urbanism. All this is considered in the context of a resource challenged world and the search for a sustainable future.

This work builds upon and reflects John Hoal's long-term personal commitment to the development of informal communities and understanding the process of informalization beginning in South Africa as an activist student of architecture in Cato Manor, Durban and continuing through Hoal's creative practice in South Africa and H3 Studio, as well as the seamlessly integration with the speculative design work completed by students and collaborators in six (6) design studios in Tijuana and Mexico City, Mexico and three (3) design studios in South Africa that he conceived and led for Washington University in St. Louis. In every studio, we engaged local design professionals and most importantly the communities themselves such that the understandings reflected hereon are a collective enterprise.

Importantly, this process of investigation is an inquiry into the very nature of what constitutes research. As a “practitioner-researcher," Hoal teaches that the creative act of making is a method of inquiry in and of itself – as informative and legitimate as the social science and scientific research enterprise. This implies a belief and commitment to understand the art and science of informal urbanism as a mode of inquiry and research integrating multiple methods of research inclusive of creative practice, social science and traditional scientism in order to ensure both hard (quantitative) and soft (qualitative) evidence mingles with praxisbased knowledge and the engagement of the other – the community and user. The design process is action-research and through the very nature of the inquiry – the community-based participatory design process – the discipline itself is defined, evolved and made visible. This work reflects this action-research methodology of inquiry as applied to the challenge of building a more resilient, just and sustainable future for informal urbanism.

Hoal has recently taught two architecture studios and three summer urban design studios in Tijuana and Mexico City, Mexico. He developed and teaches a course every spring addressing slums in a global context:  Informal Cities: The Future of Global Urbanism. This course has always been well attended and provides a field trip to Mexico so that students engage in experiential learning. In addition, he have also developed and implemented a fall one-credit Informal Cities and Architecture Workshop to build a network of international experts and scholars working within informal communities and completing innovative research and/or architectural and urban projects. They bring to the university the current best practices and research in this field. The workshop is structured around a series of lectures and a design charrette to provide an interdisciplinary, aspirational learning experience for all the design disciplines.  The workshops also encourage the development of a critical position on the potential role of the architect to engage in a design process that mediates broader social, political and economic systems.

The 2013 workshop was focused on informal cities in Lima, Peru and was co-taught with Professor Sharif Kahatt, Ph.D, Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and Principal, K+M Arquitectura & Urbanismo. The workshop focused on developing a new self-build community and the historic connection to the PREVI Competition, which established a theoretical framework that revised the functionalist urbanism established by the former CIAM according to new urban principles, as well as understanding how the resultant PREVI neighborhood has evolved over time. 

The 2014 workshop is focused on creating architecture prototypes for housing in informal cities in South Africa and will be co-taught with Professor Alfredo Brillembourg, Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at the Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich and Co-Founder of Urban-Think Tank. The workshop will develop a block out strategy and housing prototypes for the township of Khayelitsha in the City of Cape Town, an apartheid-created township that is now the largest and fastest growing informal community in Cape Town.