Roving Eye: Fuel for Design


Ever since I was a child, “fixing the world” has been on my list of New Year’s Resolutions. In elementary school, we thought we would grow up to help make the world a better place. Altruism was integral to our education experience. We secured financial sponsorship for every mile in the annual walkathon; saved pennies in piggybanks for the starving in Ethiopia; organized dances to create scholarships; sold chocolates for some purpose or other. We walked, danced, made money and saved it; we worked for those in need.

With Mr. Galindo, our fifth grade teacher, my class would sing “We Are The World.” Not yet old enough to know what capitalism was, let alone irony, we swayed our smiling heads in rhythm to the song’s chorus about changing the world through generosity.

It took me some time to realize that very few people can choose to work for those in need. And that it takes more than generosity to make things happen. It takes ideas and creativity, which is undertaken by “Design with the Other 90%: Cities,” an exhibition about sustainable urban planning organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum at the United Nations building in New York [through Jan. 9].

Given Occupy Wall Street’s motto (“We are the 99%”), the exhibition’s message is as timely as its title. Curated by Cynthia E. Smith, “Design with the Other 90%” presents solutions to improve housing and urban conditions in informal settlements, especially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where social migration from the provinces to cities is rising significantly.

This exhibition follows Smith’s earlier curatorial project, “Design for the Other 90%,” which took place in 2007 at the Cooper-Hewitt and focused on low-cost design solutions for underserved communities. In the museum’s gardens Smith installed shelters from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other environmental disasters.

It’s worth pointing out that, in the title of this most recent show, the inclusion of the word “with” indicates the selection criterion of the projects on display. The exhibition gathered together some 60 projects and proposals created by design specialists in collaboration with local inhabitants. In some cases, these projects have been developed with the participation of governments, NGOs and the private sector. The underlying messages are: good design organizes; effective design mobilizes.

Problems endemic to informal settlements in cities are well known (the lack of basic services like running water, sewage or trash pick-up; haphazard construction; poverty and crime rates; etc.) and might suggest obvious design solutions. Or so it would seem.

For instance, general safety might be enhanced by paving and lighting roads, and facilitating access to public transportation. In Colombia, the Medellin Metrocable, a cable-car lift-system-typically used on ski slopes-is used to connect people from the hilltop slums with the city center. The exhibition presents large landscape and architectural models, as well as photographs illustrating this transit system where they have been actualized.

The life-or-death consequence of many of these design solutions are balanced with innovative form and surprising entrepreneurship. A study has shown that 75% of hospital-reported injuries in Kampala, Uganda, result from motorcyclists wearing no helmets. Cyclists say that the climate is too hot to wear a helmet, and that a helmet makes it too difficult to listen to their passengers. So a team of individuals and organizations, including Vanja Steinbru, Gonzaga Ntege, and Design Without Borders, among others, conceptualized the bePRO Motor-Taxi Helmet. Containing holes for hearing and ventilation, the helmet is meant to be locally manufactured and affordable.

Map Kibera of Kenya and Sangli Inclusive Planning from India draw upon geographical and statistical information to plan their communities-mapping everything from bathrooms and trash deposits to help stations. With Grassroots Mapping, residents from Cantagallo (an informal settlement in Lima, Peru) use a kite contraption made of balloons and cameras to take aerial images of their settlements and upload them to Google Maps, documentation that supports their cases for land-title rights or service provisions.

Another recurring theme is the meeting of architecture and ecology. Teams of architects and collaborators structurally enhance homes in slums with materials made of recycled waste. These enhancements have been executed by the organization Urban Mining in Brazil. In Paraguay, new dwellings are made with newly engineered construction materials that use local natural resources like loofah, or vines.

The distinction between the “We Are the World” ethic of generosity and the projects in “Design With the Other 90%” is that the latter offers tools as part of the solutions. Generosity may never see or feel need; design is fueled by it.

Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy is curator of contemporary art at the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and an agent for Documenta 13. Her writing about art and culture is published regularly in magazines, catalogues and on her blog