BY BRIAN LIBBY
My apartment has 16-year-old carpet and linoleum. The paint is chipping. The stove burner dials have faded so you can't see what temperature you're cooking at. The duct tape holding together our fridge's plastic produce drawers has failed to keep them from falling apart. Our single-pane windows are cracked in numerous spots, and our furnace dates to the early 1970s.
And you know what? I'm doing great compared to most of the world.
Today close to one billion people live in informal settlements, otherwise known as makeshift shacks. That figure is expected to double by 2030.
So the traveling exhibit now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (and at the Mercy Corps headquarters) makes a much-needed reality check. "Design with the Other 90%: Cities", which originated at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and is making its only West Coast appearance in Portland, is a reminder that our usual obsessions of weathered steel, e-coated glass and blobbing titanium are not solving the world's real problems. Even sustainability, with its focus on energy efficiency and ecologically-friendly materials, can only go so far: Global warming may be our biggest future problem, but with one-seventh of the world not even able to live inside stable architectural spaces, the most pressing issue facing architects is arguably still providing peole with basic shelter.
"Design with the Other 90%: Cities", which opened August 17 and continues through January 5, features design and material solutions in a variety of poverty-stricken urban areas around the world.
Some of the designs on display aren't architecture so much as designed solutions to community problems, many having to do with access to safe, sustainable food and drink. There is the Jiko ya jamii, or community cooker, in Nairobi, Kenya: a large-scale oven that uses trash as fuel to power a communal cooking facility. According to the World Health Organization, smoke from dirty stoves and fires kills almost two million people each year, most of them women and children. There is the Garden-in-a-sack, also in Nairobi, made from inexpensive, available materials to maximize the small amount of space available for micro-agriculture.
There are also plenty of architectural solutions, both in materials and whole projects. The Floating Community Lifeboats in Bangladesh, for example, provide space for solar-powered schools, libraries, and health clinics. In Indonesia, EcoFae Brick is providing an alternative to traditional clay bricks, which are extensive to produce and damage the land. EcoFaeBricks, made from cow dung and soil, are 20 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger, and much cheaper. The Incremental Housing project in Iquique, Chile and Monterrey, Mexico, produced half-finished houses that are completed by residents. The Bang Bua Canal project transformed the lives of over three thousand families living in twelve informal communities along an eight-mile stretch of the Canal, who were living in rickety stilt houses and half-meter bamboo planks that could not survive annual floods. And the Miraculous Hills Community Resettlement in Quezon City, Philippines, addresses the astonishing statistic of one in every 2.68 citizens living in slums by actually building housing on top of a mountain of trash that comes with drainage, roads, off-grid electricity, well water for drinking, bathing, and washing, a daycare center, and bio-intensive gardening and hog-raising ventures for income
Viewing the exhibit, which comes to Portland from the United Nations headquarters, one feels encouraged by so many smart solutions to an avalanche of poverty and neglect. One thinks of how across every culture no matter what hemisphere or time zone, the rich get richer and the poor get the picture - yet compassion has not been completely erased either.
There was just one lingering problem I had coming out of the exhibit, which isn't the fault of the curators: that the exhibits represent enlightened Band-Aids. To truly address poverty would require moves that the world is not prepared to make, like substantial population controls. If the number of people occupying the planet just keeps skyrocketing, the have-nots will always greatly outnumber the haves. And amidst continuing recession even in the richest of countries like the United States and members of the European Union, too often our leaders propose austerity precisely when governments should be looking to New Deals.
The best reason to visit "Design for the Other 90%: Cities" may not be the optimism one feels about solving the world's problems, but instead to marvel at the ingenuity that exists even when budgets are next to nothing. While most of our local and national building industry throws up drywall and tilts concrete into place from cookie-cutter designs, there are people in the developing world literally turning shit into bricks.
Without getting religious on anyone, I'd like to suggest these designers, not the aspiring next-generation Frank Gehrys, will be the ones to inherit the earth. And after viewing this exhibit, I'm all to happy to change my perspective consider my grungy Portland apartment to be a veritable Shangri-la.