Slow Topography: Informal Urban Order in an Age of Global Change
RIBA Reseach Trust Award 2009
In our era of snowballing slums, development officials and policy makers prioritise systematic orders of urban change, envisaging progress in terms of infrastructure, technology and rational government. But emerging studies of African urbanity are reappraising city-making practices and theories in 'the global South'. The informal dynamics of shantytown life, invariably seen as a threat to orderly concepts of improvement, hold a key to local understandings of community, place and transformational culture.
In this research, the figure of 'slow topography' suggests an urban order more faithful to everyday events than dominant 'Northern' paradigms. New ways of designing, thinking, and writing the city would bring metropolitan ambitions back to how life is experienced on the ground – to the reality of circumstantial judgements, mixed signals, and uncertain times that characterises poverty habitats. These relationships of order refer to questions of urban orientation: what do African city dwellers expect from their lives; how do they make sense of the world; what role does the city play in this sense-making activity? Instead of the consensus model of what makes a city civic, the conceptual analytic of the project will address the conflicts of diversity.
The proposed output will contribute to the 'African Urbanity' theory-building initiative hosted by the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, a three-year workshop bringing together international scholars, practitioners, and activists in an effort to develop new intellectual tools for describing social and spatial relationships that confound conventional urban interpretation.
Matthew Barac is a senior architect at PTEa London, where he works on research and design projects. His doctoral study of shantytown urbanity won the RIBA President's Award for Research (2007) and the International Bauhaus Prize (2004). He regularly speaks at conferences and public events, and his publication record includes academic journals, books and mainstream magazines. He chairs the board of UK charity Architecture Sans Frontières.
Matthew Barac can be contacted at email@example.com