Crossbenching – Interview with Markus Miessen [commonthejournal]

Konjunktur und Krise?, No 2

Federica Bueti: I would like to start from the very beginning, from a simple question that could help us to contextualize your practice. When and how did you become interested in participatory practices? And what interests you in a collaborative approach?

Markus Miessen: I spent three years between 1998 and 2000 in Glasgow after which I moved to Berlin for a year. This moment in Berlin at the tail-end of the 90’s was very interesting; when I moved to London in 2002 for further studies at the Architectural Association, my belief in the potential of architecture had almost diminished and I was hoping for it do be revitalized, which – thankfully – it did. In the late 90’s one could witness a very interesting phenomenon in Berlin, which was that many architectural practices had moved towards participatory approaches, and I was really sceptical of this. In retrospect, one realizes that many of these practises were the result of an economic crisis in architecture: practitioners simply needed to define and inhabit a niche, a margin of opportunity. However, it wasn’t exactly the case that they had originally set out to become social workers.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter.

When I finished my studies at the AA, I started a research-project called Did Someone Say Participate?, which I developed throughout my post-graduate work and later in a book, co-edited by Shumon Basar. In it, we attempted to give a non-romantic overview of what we thought of as interesting and challenging practices, which redefine the way in which we look at and understand the production of space today. What they all had in common was that they rethought the relationships between the participatory and their own role as independent actors, they set out to interrogate the often romantic and nostalgic participatory practices that are or were at play. Not in the sense of them inviting others to participate, but in the sense of immediate single-handed involvement, pro-active agency and authorship.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

This project provoked a series of projects and on-going inquiries in regard to the subject of participation and collaborative approaches in the fields of architecture, spatial practice and art, from a distance so to speak, from an outsider’s perspective. I am interested in the role of someone, who is not – by default – assuming the character or position of the good-doer, but a passer-by, an observer, who is attempting to understand a particular phenomenon, or cliché one might say – and then to act upon it without being entangled in its intra-politics. I tried this through projects such as The Violence of Participation, which was a project at the Lyon Biennial as well as a publication, ›The Nightmare of Participation‹, a more theoretical work, and ›Waking Up From The Nightmare of Participation‹, which presents a reflective anthology of texts by authors, who are critically dealing with and interrogating The Nightmare of Participation.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

The text (NOP) was always thought of as a starting point, a trigger so to speak; to throw something in the ring in order to start a productive conversation around a particular subject. These projects were thought of as a set of different species of work around a single question. I am now working on a book called ›Crossbench Praxis‹, the actual propositional work, which essentially is the PhD I am working on at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths in London and which will both present a thesis towards an alternative type of praxis as well as a series of examples, which will act as case studies, work that I have produced as an architect. Since 2002, when I was still studying at the Architectural Association, I have been working through a sort of agency or platform called Studio Miessen, through which I have been collaborating with a very differentiated set of practitioners. The way that I tend to work is instead of pre-empting project-teams or working with a set structure in an office, I assemble working groups in order to approach every context with the necessary specificity.

Participation, collaborative practices, self-organized practices, autonomous, independent and community-based practices, are all terms used to describe working modalities in the cultural field. However, this seems to be the mantra of the moment, collaboration is somehow what and how we are expected to work in seemingly open neoliberal working environments. What I found interesting in your approach is that you try to destabilize the dominant consensual model of collaborative practices by introducing the figure of the uninvited outsider. How does this figure function in relation to the neoliberal demand for collaborative labour?

I think there are two things to recognize here: one is that we need to be very careful when considering participation and collaboration as practices per se. What does this really mean? There is often a slight romanticization involved, which goes hand in hand with a nostalgia that relates to and calls for the 1960s and 70s. My understanding of collaboration is neither one of auto-exploitation nor one, which exploits others. I think everyone is responsible for him- or herself. As a collaborator, you should always follow your own, opportunistic agenda. You can always say no. Only when people with different agendas meet there is actually a productive outcome, which produces new ideas or concepts. One has to set up professional frameworks and working mechanisms in order for this dynamic to eventually turn prolific.
To get back to your question regarding collaboration, what I would like to promote is a frictional and potentially dissensual production towards a common goal, which is in fact the whole point about collaboration in the first place: working with friendly enemies. In each project the force-field of actors needs to be redefined. Otherwise one should rather think about partners as pre-empted consensual colleagues to cooperate with over a longer period. The creation of the role of the Uninvited Outsider and Crossbench Practitioner is an attempt to propose a model in which participation is radically rethought: moving away from the romantic idea of all-inclusive democratic processes, where everyone is invited to the round-table to add one’s point, which – from my point of view – ultimately will lead to watered-down and weak consensus. I think we need to work towards the notion of the first-person-singular actor, an independent actor with a conscience. Collaboration can only work if there is something in it for everyone. But this does not mean that it needs to turn into uncritical and consensus-oriented cooperation.

Where does the model of the crossbencher stem from?

What I am refering to when I talk about Crossbench Practice is a specific role that I am developing, which works towards an independent and pro-active individual without political mandate, who retains an autonomy of thought, proposition, and production. This role entails that in a given context one neither belongs to nor alligns with a specific party or set of stakeholders, but can openly act without having to respond to a pre-supposed set of protocols or consensual arrangements. Especially in the context of the recent culture crisis in the Netherlands the role of the crossbencher – as they call the independent politician in the über-conservative British House of Lords – becomes increasingly relevant. I am hijacking this role from this conservative setting in order to (mis)use it as an analogy: it proposes a way of acting, in other words a practice, which operates on the basis of alternative and self-governing political parameters. Crossbench Practice aims to open up a fresh debate, not as a theory, but a way of acting politically.

I think what we need today is a new vocabulary to describe our practices. I recently watched a documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back‹ and in one scene he complained about that fact Times magazine defined him a Folk Singer, but he wouldn’t consider himself a folk singer. In this sense, there is a fundamental problem of how to define a practice without forcing it to fit a limiting definition or consensual model. Is there any way to define participatory practices differently? What terms do you propose to describe your practice? How would you position yourself in the general field of the discourse around the definition of participatory practices?

I think you are absolutely right; it all comes down to the question of one’s role, and the way in which this role becomes productive from the point of view of praxis. Historically, architecture, as a profession, is very interesting in this regard. During the Renaissance the architect was thought of and taught to be a polymath. In reverse, what we are witnessing today is that architects tend to be, both by education and personal choice, highly skilled and super-specific experts, who are very good at catering for one particular item within the complexity of construction, but are often not equipped with the gear that it needs in order to understand and act upon the complex cultural specifics around a particular project. Someone else can easily replace them; and that makes them expendable. They become office robots. It really reminds me of the great recent movie The Expendables, starring essentially the whole bunch of getting-aged action-superstars, from Sylvester Stallone to Bruce Willis, Arnie and Dolph Lundgren to name a few. This stuff simply does not fly any longer.
I am not so much interested in thinking about what genuine participatory practice may be or entail. From my point of view we have in fact been trying to theorize it too much over the past two decades. What we instead need to do is to force ourselves into contexts into which we have previously not been invited, redefine our position, and demonstrate that we can deal with the cultural complexity that surrounds contemporary spatial production. To rethink participation, I would like to introduce the German word ›Einmischung‹(intruder) to our conversation. Germany’s former minister for foreign affairs, Joschka Fischer, poses an interesting example in this regard. He is essentially a self-educated thinker, who first became active during Frankfurt’s 1969 student revolution in which he played a pivotal role as a non-student. He then, later, decided against armed resistance and became one of the founding members of the German Green Party and their first minister. Under the Labour/Green government led by chancellor Schröder at the tail-end of the 1990s Fischer became minister for foreign affairs. He is really the only person I can think of, who fully physicalized and turned into praxis Gramsci’s notion of the long march through the institutions. Absurdly he was the one that was for a long time the focal point of critique within the German Green Party and the Labour Party, which is quite telling I think. As we know, the Left is best at auto-critique and not so productive in terms of coming up with turning into practice counter-proposals. Although one can of course criticize particularities about his decision-making in the past, Fischer can and should be understood as an interesting case, someone who has been interested in the framework of democratic structures, but not for the sake of the structure itself, but in order to generate and stir change. This also means that the party in which one is a member is only a means to place oneself in the larger formal-political structure, which is the parliament. I do not believe that Fischer was ever very interested in intra-party politics and consensus. In this way, he could be compared to a crossbencher, although he is not, at least not from the point of being a fully independent actor.

Fair point and difficult task. To think about structure, not for the sake of the structure, but in order to generate and stir changes, how does this translate into your practice?

To start to answer this means to start to think about, rethink and interrogate the role of the architect and the role that architecture with a big »A« can and should assume in society today. In order to ask what is new knowledge in architecture today, one must ask or rather define what architecture means in the first place. Over the last two decades the role of the architect, at least viewed from a critical perspective, has been interrogated and developed substantially. The question of what does one consider to contribute to the production of space is one that circulates around the potential effects on space and how those effects and affects are and can be generated, amended and influenced – and who are the people and practices in charge of those proliferating changes. Architecture with a big »A« can only assume relevance again once it assumes responsibility: responsibility in terms of negotiating, mediating and enabling relationships and conflicts that individuals and groups, whether public or private, can perform within space. Anyone interested in a subject of societal relevance will by default realize that any reality is based on complexity. »A«rchitecture deals with precisely this complexity: socially, and therefore politically, and spatially. Where critical and collaborative research, first-person singular participation (i.e. »I contribute«), and individual dedication towards an ethical position question the modalities of practice, new sets of knowledge are being generated. This is the way in which I hope to practice. Sometimes this works more successful than at other times. Some of my projects are dealing with a-physical frameworks, such as a consulting project I ran for the last two years for the Dutch art organization SKOR, together with Andrea Phillips. Here, the main question was how, as an external observer, you could help to redesign the organizational and content-related »software« of an institution.

Miessen_Institution Building_Goerlich

Institution Building; edited by Nikolaus Hirsch, Phillip Misselwitz, Markus Miessen, Matthias Görlich; Sternberg Press,2009; photography by Matthias Görlich

In other words: how can you alter the way in which the institution functions on a day-to-day basis, what is its goal, what kind of programme to they produce, how do they speak to different sets of audiences? Together with Nikolaus Hirsch, Phillip Misselwitz and Matthias Görlich I worked on a project for the European Kunsthalle (Cologne) called Spaces of Production. The project conceptualized, tested, and practically applied a spatial strategy for the European Kunsthalle. The investigation did not result from purely theoretical or conceptual considerations, but was the result of the activities incorporated into the European Kunsthalle’s founding phases’ two-year work practice from 2005 to 2007. Our spatial strategy for the European Kunsthalle was the direct result of applied research – an iterative investigation informed by resonances between theory and practice.

Miessen_Manifesta Backbench

Backbench, Manifesta 8, Murcia, Spain, 2010. Spatial design by nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson). Photography by Pablo Ferao.

In the past I have also worked on several architectural-scale projects for institutions such as Performa Biennial in New York, an archive and film-set for Manifesta in Murcia, an interior for Archive Kabinett, a Berlin-based discursive forum and bookshop. These three projects were done in collaboration with my former partners at nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson).

Miessen_Winter School

Winter School Middle East, nomadic, currently based in Kuwait; founded and directed by Markus Miessen, co-director Zahra Ali Baba;

At the moment I am working on projects with the Witte de With in Rotterdam, Powerplant in Toronto, an office space in New York, the Winter School Middle East (Kuwait), an NGO in Los Angeles, a public forum in Gwangju, and the development of a rural art centre in the greater Frankfurt area.


Gwangju Biennial On Site, a community Hub for content production, 2011. A project by nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson). Photography by JomgOh Kim.

But my practice also concerns teaching, writing, editing, sometimes curating. However, I would still introduce myself as an architect. Teaching and writing is very important for me. The constant exchange stimulates thinking in all sorts of directions. Also that one is constantly being exposed to different backgrounds and nationalities that sometimes just laugh at one’s own suggestions is very healthy.

The concept of participation and the term crisis seems to be equally present in current discussion about cultural politics. It seems that the two concepts are closely linked, they complement each other as indispensable parts within contemporary political rhetorics: crisis is the problem, participation the therapy. Do you think that collaborative practices can help to solve‹ or to survive the crisis? How do collaborative practices work in a time of crisis and how does a crisis play itself out within the space of a collaborative practice?

I think your point about participation being understood and used as some form of therapy is brilliant. Modes of participation have, in terms of state politics, but also on smaller, less formal scales, most recently been used as a kind of placebo. Just look at the United Kingdom or The Netherlands. What was once thought of as a pro-active mode of individual engagement has been cleverly revamped as a populist tool to regain a larger consensus, even if agendas do not add up or meet. However, there is the question of what we are really talking about when we talk about crisis? Are we talking about a content crisis or an economic one, which then leaves us with infrastructural changes that have an effect and affect on the cultural landscape? I think there is a danger of calling everything a state of crisis today. This is similar to the danger of refereeing to the notion of urgency. If we only ever deal with the urgent we may in fact forget the important. Collaborative approaches can on the one hand be sustainable while on the other they can produce and foster specificity, which would otherwise be very difficult to achieve.

You have recently been appointed Professor for Critical Spatial Practice‹ at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and on many different occasions you have expressed the need to define spatial practice in terms of a »critical modality«. Could you elaborate on this concept?


Architecture + Critical Spatial Practice, annual newsprints, edited by Markus Miessen, design by Matthias Görlich, Städelschule Frankfurt, 2012/2013,

What I am doing in Frankfurt is to set up a framework through which one can critically think, learn, and pose questions about and around the production of space; not only in terms of a theoretical construct, but also in regard to specific spatial problematics. The most important question in architecture, to me at least, seems to be: how can we, as practitioners, manage to be involved in some of the most pressing societal issues and questions. I think the way to do this is not to get too bogged down on the nitty-gritty of the building or construction processes, but to understand the cornerstones of spatial design and to be able to curate the very complex cultural territory and its processes, the many different stakeholders, interest groups, benefactors, sufferers et cetera. This is where the role of the Outsider comes in as a very productive character. The problem of course is that it is a very thin line: you are either a morally responsible individual with a conscience or a fucked-up autocrat with neoliberal intentions – there is not really too much space that one could inhabit in-between those two polar conditions. What is fantastic at the Städelschule is that it offers me the possibility to open up the process of investigation across different student communities, from architecture, but also from the different art studios directed by Douglas Gordon, Simon Starling, Tobias Rehberger, Willem de Roij or Isabelle Graw, to name a few. Students are coming to my studio with very differentiated personal agendas, which makes it a real pleasure to teach there. It is not about communicating hard skills, but to carefully sensitize the group as to how one can act in space: how one’s individual practice can alter existing and produce new spatial conditions, be they of urban, architectural, or 1:1 scale.

In »the Production of Space« Lefebvre argues that »a Spatial Practice refers to the production and reproduction of spatial relations between objects and products. It also ensures continuity and some degree of cohesion. In terms of social space, and of each member of a given society’s relationship to that space, this cohesion implies a guaranteed level of competence and a specific level of performance.« Lefebvre seems to suggest that to engage with space in a critical mode is a matter of competence and performance. Do you agree?

Absolutely! Competence not in the sense of being authorized to do so, but in the sense of being sensitized and being able to understand the forces and variables that have an effect on the production of space. Not every problem favours a physical solution. There is the legendary quote by Cedric Price that he was once having a client-conversation with a couple, who approached him to build a house for them. His response was that what they really needed was a divorce.

Markus Miessen is an architect, consultant and writer. The initiator of the Participation quadrilogy, his work revolves around questions of critical spatial practice, institution building, and spatial politics. His practice, Studio Miessen, is currently working on projects for an with Bergen Assembly, Performa Biennial, Witte de With, Kosovo National Gallery, Weltkulturen Museum, and the artist Hito Steyerl. Their largest project to date is a strategic framework and new Kunsthalle building for a former NATO military site in Germany. In 2008, Miessen founded the Winter School Middle East. He is currently a professor for Critical Spatial Practice at the Städelschule, Frankfurt, and guest professor at HEAD Geneva as well as USC Los Angeles”



Philosophy of the Possible or Utopianism in the 21st Century Urbanism

By Anna Koledova

‘If I could wish for something, I would wish for neither wealth nor power, but the passion of possibility; I would wish only for an eye which eternally young, eternally burns with longing to see possibility’.

(Søren Kierkegaard, 1849)


Historically, the search for a model of a good city has been a quest, equivalent to the search of a precious object or knowledge of a venerated narrative (Hall, 2002). Due to a significant contextual influence of actual difficulties of the city, those of economics, sociology and politics, it is problematic to assume that such models existed unaltered through time and space. Yet, paradoxically, as Amin states (2006, p. 1010) the history of practical efforts to enhance the experience of city’s inhabitants ‘has also been influenced by universalistic imaginaries of the good life, with cities placed at the very heart of the various projections on offer’.

It is important to remember that a good city debate is by all means a debate about utopia or ‘no place’, which in turn always implies an ideological dimension of looking at and of portraying the city form. Thus, city planners such as Howard, Haussmann, Le Corbusier, were pushing radicalism in addressing the evils of Victorian cities. Utopian vision of modernist planners, often underpinned by shire environmental determinism and associated with the belief that society was not riven by contradictions, argued that a good, clean city could make a better society  (Fishman, 1982, Beauregard, 1996, Hall, 2002). Such urban imaginations, however, proved to be problematic when realising ideas into brick and mortar. London, Paris, Barcelona, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have all undergone significant urban interventions and transformations, which left cities as symbolic, highly expressive of power and status places, yet depressingly incapable to serve all wider social purposes (Hall, 2002).

Today, it can be argued, planning practitioners conceive their duty more modestly. Fainstain (1997) believes that the concept of visionary leaders imposing their perspectives on the urban populace is in disrepute, whereas the notion of an identifiable model of a good city meets skepticism. Hence, the aim of creating a good city over the last decades ‘has been content with theorising itself unencumbered by the economic and political realities of the global capitalist system and has been self-referential within a singularly contained mainstream ideology’ (Banerjee and Sideris, 2011, 57). Along this line, Amin (2006) suggests that utopia has lost its gist, appeal and organising force, as meanings of the good city shift to immediate, temporary, private and hedonistic projects.

There has been an extensive academic debate on the topic of utopian thought and its role in the creation of modern day urban landscapes. The 20th century in particular saw many negative depictions of the good city, including Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. On the contrary, academics like D.Harvey, H. Lefebvre, J. Jacobs, L. Sandercock, D. Pinder and others believe, although there can be no one good or neutral city like those imagined in the past and driven by totalitarian practices, ideals of processes and objectives can determine fair and flexible practice in generating urban change. Drawing on the example of London and two of its urban narratives, this essay discusses whether utopia as a process in contrast to utopia as standardized urbanism can be seen as a germane approach to raising questions about cities and their development.

Got an idea? Got IKEA.

Urban development of London and its East End has been under considerations of politicians, academics and city’s populace over the last few years. Olympic Games of 2012 have definitely assisted in pulling the trigger in the process of this urban change, especially for the Stratford area. Millions of pounds have been invested into several large-scale interventions dedicated to expansion and renewal of local transport infrastructure, public realm, housing stock etc. The case of Strand East or IKEA city, urban planning project launched by Swedish home-furniture giants, is of the particular interest to this paper.

The idea of the project, said the head of the LandProp (a real estate subsidiary of the Inter Ikea Group) is to bring a very Scandinavian model of urban design and ‘managed living’ to turn the ‘post-industrial wasteland surrounded by goods-shipping canals and highway ramps’ into a flourishing neighbourhood titled Strand East (the, 2012). This IKEA city will boast ‘480,000 square feet of office space, yoga studios, a crèche, a Marriott hotel and shops’ all these on the 26 acres of land acquired by Landprop in 2009 (independent,, 2012). By the plan, 1,200 residential units are very much family size as well as price orientated, cars will be kept off interior streets in the underground parking garage, leaving only bus lanes and accessible pedestrian walkways cutting across neighbourhood, which will also enjoy numerous squares and public spaces. ‘The whole thing is designed to create the sense of felicity and discovery you get when wandering around a historic European neighbourhood’ (, 2012).

anna 1

(, 2012)

anna 2


Although, it seems like a better urban design than most of the centrally planned neighbourhoods that have infected British cities for the last 60 years, the IKEA city does pose some questions as a modern-day urban planning project. Firstly, the IKEA Empire encompasses more than 300 furniture stores in 27 different countries. Swedish brand’s furniture designs are known and appreciated by various consumer groups mainly for three outstanding features: pleasant appearance, simple to assemble and bargain price. When interviewed, developers of the IKEA city repeatedly state:

‘this place will not be an Ikea. There will not be Poäng armchairs adorning the living rooms and Billy bookcases covering the walls. The houses will not require Allen keys to assemble. Meatballs in lingonberry sauce will not be served at the restaurants’.

Nevertheless, all those wanna be’s Strand East’s residents will be offered three possible types of interior design for their new apartment along with vouchers for IKEA stores. In this respect, it can be argued, although IKEA might dominate the way people furnish their homes, it can be problematic when the brand comes to design the whole district. While interior design is private-urban design should remain a strong public component that claims to have an unalienated collective right to make the city (Harvey 2000, 2012; Jacobs 1989; Sorkin 1991; Soja 2000). Also, the concept of a ‘sense of place’ as characteristic of a good city often emerges from an experiential appreciation of the uniqueness and distinctive feeling of a particular place, one connected to history, culture and locality (Hall, 2002) something that even the best creative minds behind IKEA city project can hardly provide.

Secondly, the IKEA city is not only a private urban development project but also an all-rental private neighbourhood, which is run and overseen by a company that will supposedly impose an artificial order of selecting those who gets to become a resident as well as limit and control the rights of the community to adapt the neighbourhood according to their needs. This brings us back to the critic of the utopian urbanism that in Pinder’s (2000) opinion, while opens up possibility of improvement in what is known, simultaneously attacks the dynamic of change to a single outcome. At a larger scale according to Amin (2006), today, place urbanization is labeled with homogenization, referring to ‘the imprint of globalization that duplicates urban experiences in different places.

Thus, while utopic representation remains within dominant values and ideologies it still fails to offer a mode of critique, ‘it takes status of myth or collective fantasy’  (Marin, 1990) and creates a plausible environment for conjoining of technologic creativity, commodity culture and endless capital accumulation (Harvey, 2000). It can be suggested that the IKEA city project, which is by all means a nowadays utopian urbanism might on the first sight constitute a model of a good city. However, it still lacks a vision of urban and social future of East London as those who will practically fill it with meaning can imagine it; it counteracts the cynicism of urban form and attend purely utilitarian or materialistic regime (Liscombe, 2006). Harvey (2000, p.406) describes it as ‘politics of contempt and neglect’ that is moving nowadays planning.

Warehouse Culture. Hackney Wick, Fish Island case.

To the West of the Olympics’ Site is located the area of Hackney Wick, Fish Island. In the beginning of the 20th century HWFI was a hub for diverse industrial activity including food processing, importing and processing of raw materials and engineering works. During the war, part of HWFI suffered severe bomb damage, which led to extensive residential housing clearance and further development as predominantly industrial zone (, 2012). The latter, defines much of HWFI character today with a mix of industrial buildings, ‘ranging from two and three-storey brick warehouses and factories dating from the 19th century, to more recent post-war buildings of up to 6-9 storeys, including factories, mix-use buildings, storage and distribution units’ (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Currently, residential population is very small (approximately 800 people) party due to the industrial character but also because planning policies have restricted residential development except a limited number of live/work blocks. The existing residents are relatively young with 40% aged between 25-49. (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets,2012).

What about HWFI that is of the essence for this particular paper is the radically different mode of development that has brought about seemingly successful urban change in this area. Although, lacking planning in its conventional manifestation and led by a pioneer community of young creative practitioners, local urban living in simple terms is based on ‘recycling’ of already existing structures no longer suitable for modern requirements. Individuals are taking advantage and re-using fragments of former factories and industrial warehouses as living-working spaces designing them exclusively up to their taste, needs and lifestyles. Research undertaken by the London Development Agency (LDA) identified over 600 live/work studios and small businesses across Hackney Wick and Fish Island area; occupiers include designers, media practitioners, artists, galleries and a variety of supporting businesses from printers to financial consultants (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Also, a number of buildings are transformed into multifunctional cultural platforms accommodating church services, community festivals, licensed music events and theatre performances what invites people from the neighbouring areas and from other parts of London into HWFI.

anna 3

(, 2011)

anna 4

(, 2011)

A few years of existence and bottom up growth have gained HWFI district a substantial level of attention within official planning institutions and received practical support from economically powerful development agencies. Thus, in 2010, Thames Gateway Development Corporation (LTGDC) has published a report identifying that although HWFI is showing a high potential to become a successful creative hub in this far off part of East London its growth is presented as dependent on a set of basic and then more advanced ‘hygiene factors’ ranging from intermediate public realm (connectivity and porosity of the area) to improvements to on going affordability and security of tenure for creative businesses (LTGDC, 2010).

A model of HWFI’s creative neighbourhood was not so much as a goal of urban development (initially at least) has been generated by pluralistic imaginations and practices of its residents. Academics such as Jane Jacobs 1989, Michael Sorkin 1991, Edward Soja 2000 and Leonie Sandercock 2003, supported such alternative interpretation of a Good City, one that can grow out of local climate, custom and culture, one that is discovered instead of imposed condition of civic life. The ability to envision a transformative potential of the physical landscape of HWFI and its future has interrogated the status quo of modern-day urban living and efforts of town planning. The greatest lesson one needs to learn from utopian thought in creating cities of the 21st century, as suggested by a number of academics and this particular paper is the on-going questioning of our assumptions about urban futures.

Philosophy of the possible.

Calvino (1979, cited in Pinder 2002, 232) urged, ’cities like dreams are made of desires and fears’. In fact, the discourse of how the cities are imaged and how these imaginations come about in reality is crucial for understanding how cities are thought, conceived and lived. Hence, what is happening in modern day urbanism according to Harvey (2000), is that much of the creative urban thinking concentrates on how to escape from urban ills and from the so-called conditions of ‘otherness’ in order to protect those with money, whilst the capacity to imagine and conceptualise social transformation and different urban futures is itself thrown in doubt. Jane Jacobs, also castigated planners for attempt to impose an artificial order, as if ‘a city is a recalcitrant child who must be forced to obey those who think they know better’ (cited in Alexious, 2006, 5).

In course of this paper we have looked at the urban narratives of IKEA city and HWFI creative district in dialog. It is clear that both of narratives have a particular utopian dimension to them, although epicentres of analysis vary. Ikea city project offers us a model of a good neighbourhood as it is portrayed and in this case literally pre fabricated by a private development agency. Despite the intentions of developers to include considerations of the significance of history of the area, its local identity, environmental concerns and issues of affordability in the master planning it is done in a fixed way like there is one defined solution to a problem. It can be argued, that IKEA city just as almost any other example of modern urbanism takes form of an utopian degeneration, a project that does not radiate a transformative move but takes the status of a myth, of a collective fantasy (Pinder, 2000). Such projects of spectacular architectural entertainment and fantasy spaces that are ordered secured and controlled, as Harvey (2000, 168) points to in his sharp criticism are substances of ‘developers utopia’.

Therefore, in the times when urban experiences and representations have been colonised by private concerns – progressive utopia, one that has more to do with becoming rather than with achieving and being, is scarcely in demand (Scherpe, 1992). Utopia in this case should be understood as a social project concerned with living together and celebrating difference in the urban landscape, where the agency of the possibility to portray city in a desired way is distributed in a more equal manner among various stockholders inhabiting this city. To put it simple, planning practices should consider modes of social interchange that recognise difference and resist suppression by one other group (Jane Jacob, 1989; Sandercock, 2003; Liscombe, 2004). For Healey (2003, 110) planners should evaluate planning practices according to normative concepts of the just city. Although, it is argued, concepts of the ‘good’ and the ‘just’ are themselves constructed in a dialog of knowledge and power, the processes of articulating values and the manner in which these might become embedded in established discourses and practices of urbanism are important. In addition, process should not be understood merely as an ultimate outcome, but equally have process results.

The case of HWFI’s creative district discussed earlier serves an example of a collective action in attempt of transforming a derelict area into a new functional space through preservation of its existing physical landscape. The interplay of industrial past and the continuation of a creative productionist character of the area today reproduces its historical narrative and by doing so preserves local identity so much important for the sustainability of an urban landscape. Along this lines, when thinking about architecture, urbanization and utopia Yona Friedman (2007,203) stated that city’s architecture is a continues process with no terminal phase where details are of a special importance for the daily life. However one cannot always plan details and that for every domain. ‘We plan too much. Reality is in state of equilibrium.’ In this way, he believes that architecture should not be rooted, as we are incapable of predicting how it is going to be used, its evolution.

The vision of possibility of the industrial ruins points to the anticipatory moment in thinking about conventional urban living of its inhabitants. Such an alternative way of envisioning a model for a good city has trigged a reaction within conventional development agencies; it has attracted their minds in a way what could be done further to help HWFI to thrive into a creative hub of East London. As suggested by Sandercock (2003), working towards more creative and sustaining cities, we need some new models of planning system, which expands the language of planning beyond instrumental rationality and the system world; one that speaks about negotiating, hope, organizing fear, mediating memory and daring to break rules as well as developing the habits of critical and analytical mind.

There is a certain danger in longing for one model of a good city because it will be constrained by the frames of a moment in time and its context. Nevertheless, conceptualizing utopianism as transformative in its intentions one which accepts the contestation and anticipation in the production of space as in need of acknowledgement rather than something to be hidden plays a significant role in the questions about cities and what they might become (Sandercock, 1998, Pinder, 2002).



Controversial documentary ignites press freedom debate in Chile

Talking about the media as the fifth power, here is a reference to “El Mercurio” a Chilean newspaper which was fundamental in the 70s and 80s to all the things that happened in the country.

Also, here is the documentary called “El Diario de Agustin” (just in spanish by now) which was censored in all medias in Chile, spite it has been prized internationally.

Controversial documentary ignites press freedom debate in Chile.

A reclusive media baron, accusations of censorship and a prize-winning documentary that won’t be shown on television: The story of ‘El Diario de Agustín’ resurfaces.

In a triumph of irony “El Diario de Agustín,” a documentary tracing the murky influence of Chile’s historically largest media chain throughout the last half century, has become the center of a censorship battle after the film’s television premier was cancelled.

el-diario-de-agustin-500x364The documentary, directed by Ignacio Agüero and produced by journalist Fernando Villagrán, traces the media conglomerate El Mercurio S.A.P.’s involvement in Chilean politics throughout the last 60 years.

The film’s title, which translates to “Agustín’s Paper,” refers to El Mercurio owner Agustín Edwards Eastman who, since taking control in 1956, has presided over a period of unprecedented media influence.

Five years after its release, the documentary has still not been shown on television, sparking questions over Edwards’ and El Mercurio’s continued influence over Chilean society.

A Chilean institution

Often described as the Andean country’s paper of record, nationally distributed El Mercurio is the Santiago version of a Valparaíso newspaper of the same name opened in 1827. Taking into account its Porteño heritage, El Mercurio is the longest-running Spanish-language newspaper in the world.

In 1877, the Edwards family acquired the newspaper and it has remained in his family ever since.

The conglomerate currently owns three national and 20 regional publications and, together with Copesa media group, which owns La Tercera, accounts for 95 percent of print media in Chile.

“Chileans: El Mercurio lies”

The documentary follows six Universidad de Chile journalism students as they complete their thesis on El Mercurio’s influence on the country’s politics.

The investigation focuses on the newspaper’s campaigns of misinformation as well as its complicity in covering up human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

El Mercurio has been the subject of numerous controversies since Agustín Edwards inherited the media group more than 55 years ago.

During the 1967 university reform movement, El Mercurio falsely labelled student protesters as “Marxists”, alleging a “patent communist influence.”

The students’ response, spelled out in a banner hanging from their university’s entrance, was unequivocal: “Chileans: El Mercurio lies.”

The phrase is now a key reference point and, more than 45 years later, was recently updated by the modern student movement to “Chileans: El Mercurio still lies.”

The documentary explains how, in 1970, shortly after Salvador Allende’s election, Agustín Edwards traveled to the U.S. and met personally with U.S. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. While there, Edwards secured U.S. government funding for a propaganda campaign against the Allende government.

Most shocking is the conglomerate’s collusion in covering up human rights abuses perpetrated by the military regime during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

By 1975, mounting international pressure and a potential U.N. visit convinced the military regime of the need to explain the disappearances of hundreds of opposition party members. The media was its tool of choice.

La Segunda, a part of the El Mercurio media group, ran the infamous  headline “Exterminados como ratones,” (“Killed like rats,”) falsely claimed in-fighting among leftist groups was responsible for the deaths of people who had in fact were disappeared by the regime’s military police.

The students’ thesis research on El Mercurio has now been published by the Universidad de Chile.

While there has been no official recognition by El Mercurio of their complicity in the dictatorship’s abuses, some of the documentary’s most striking scenes arise from the student investigator’s attempts to question former staff such as former company director Arturo Fontaine, who led the group from the late 60s to early 80s.

In one scene, Fontaine appears relaxed as he answers questions about the origin of the newspaper’s nickname when a question on his knowledge of the military regime’s human rights abuses takes him by surprise causing him to abandon the interview, colliding with a microphone stand in his haste to escape.

newspaperFear of provoking debate

Following its release in 2008, “El Diario de Agustín” was featured in numerous film festivals and won Best Latin-American Documentary at Atlantidoc in Uruguay.

Since then it has been shown widely around the Spanish-speaking world, making its absence from television screens in Chile notable.

In 2010, TVN bought the rights in a contract that committed them to show the documentary three times in as many years.

Two years later, with no screening in sight, the filmmakers began to ask questions.

Then, a showing at midnight on Nov. 23, 2012 was announced, only to be cancelled at the last minute.

In January 2013, TVN claimed that the film would be shown in an upcoming documentary series, only for the program to be announced with “El Diario de Agustín” conspicuously absent.

A public spat between Villagrán and the channel’s director, Mauro Valdés, culminated in the former accusing the TVN boss of being “scared” of Agustín Edwards in an interview with The Clinic in December 2012. The television company chose to break the contract citing the application of “unacceptable public pressure” on the part of Villagrán according to local press.

At first, Valdés’ apparent reluctance to screen the film seems puzzling. Chile has a free press and, although shocking, the film’s subject matter has already been published in various academic research projects and is widely available on the Internet.

Villagrán sees the problem as one of self-censorship emanating from a fear of upsetting the established powers or provoking debate.

“It is still a guide for the political class. Politicians are scared of entering into conflicts with El Mercurio because its vast media power means that they could be punished. They feel that if they are not in El Mercurio they could lose their political career,” Villagrán said.

On Monday, award-winning journalist Faride Zerán expressed similar sentiments during a debate entitled “Why El Diario de Agustín won’t be shown on Chilean television.”

“It is not because the right have such great tentacles of power that they can silence citizens,” Zerán said. “It’s that bureaucrats and politicians look after their jobs, their relationships and their networks, and they don’t want to upset the powers that be.”

Then and now: The state of independent media during the dictatorship and under democracy

A strange paradox in Chilean media is the contrast between the thriving alternative scene that, despite censorship and intimidation by security forces, proliferated in the late-1980s and the comparatively low number of independent publications today.

Villagrán is unequivocal about the limits of Chilean media today, saying that key issues are often neglected by the homogenous and conservative mainstream.

“It is not exaggerating to say that for a time during the dictatorship there was more diversity in the press than we have today in democracy. This speaks very badly of Chilean democracy,” Villagrán said.

While Chile enjoys freedom from government intervention in the press, structural factors limit diversity of opinion according to independent watchdog Freedom House.

In May 2012, Freedom House cited the print duopoly and its “stifling” effect on independent print media as a factor in their downgrading of Chile’s press status from “free” to “partly free.”

El Mercurio’s and Copesa’s domination means that the editorial positions of the vast majority of Chile’s media are considered right-wing and center-right respectively.

What caused the collapse?

The mainstream narrative of the collapse of the independent media sector is that it was a simple consequence of the market — the alternative publications simply could not compete and so they failed.

A former manager of the iconic anti-Pinochet magazine APSI, Villagrán says this narrative is belied by the collapse of La Tercera and El Mercurio in the 1980s, only for them to be rescued by the government.

“They are here now because the state saved them. They were rescued while the publications that didn’t support the dictatorship were suppressed and harassed,” Villagrán said.

Freedom House currently suggests that structural issues curtail the potential of new publications starting up.

“Media groups are tied to financial and advertising interests, and control distribution channels throughout the country, creating high barriers to entry for new publications,” reads the watchdog’s report.

Villagrán sees distribution of advertising as a key factor in the collapse of many alternative publications in the 1990s.

“Not just private companies, but even the supposedly democratic government distributed the majority of advertising to large media chains, without considering sales numbers,” Villagrán said.

“El Diario de Agustín” will be shown at Arte Normandie cinema, Santiago from April 23 to 28 2013.

By Sam Edwards (
Copyright 2013 – The Santiago Times”

Towards an understanding of participatory processes in development: The case of the Incremental Housing Strategy in India

by Andrea Cubides


The purpose of this essay is to discuss notions of participatory processes in Urban Development through the analysis of a specific case. Participation in design is without doubt a buzzword in the actual development practice. Although it is supposed to improve social and physical situations and or elements behind the idea of inclusive feedback and involvement from the communities that are to be benefited, it actually can just be sometimes, to better inform people about the project with absolutely no consideration of the local community member thoughts. However, there are more responsible implementations of participation towards a more inclusive process of design for development. This paper use concepts of participation such as empowerment and power relations encrypted in participatory methods for social transformation like radical planning and the capability approach for the discussion of the case of study. The analysis presented aims to highlight the importance of development strategies built on permanent flux of knowledge between vulnerable communities and practitioners, which would generate the adequate mechanisms to resist injustice and lack of opportunities in the cities.

The essay will first introduce the case of the Incremental Housing Strategy developed in a shanty town in Pune, India chosen by its participatory strategies with the community, implemented at different stages of the process thanks to a close relation between the  community based organisation of women leaders, their supportive NGO and the team of architects. The information would be presented as complete as possible regarding the sources of information available about it. Accordingly, it will highlight the different strategies and resources related to participation that were used along different stages of the process of the project, and will follow also, in the next sections. In the second section, the study case would be analysed from the perspective of radical planning built on community capacity. The final section would show discussions of the case from notions on the capability approach focused on process and product.

Incremental Housing Strategy[i] for an informal settlement in Pune, India.

Architects Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson were invited by the NGO SPARC to work on a strategy to develop informal settlements into permanent urban districts with the participation of a community based organisation of women called “Mahila Milan” which would facilitate and lead the work with the community. In essence, the strategy should require the influence from the communities from the areas included in the project. They were asked to design a process of gradual improvement to existing dwellings instead of demolishing and rebuilding. In order to prioritise and work on what was really necessary, one of the main strategies of the project was created, consisting it in the replacement of the old temporary houses made form recycled materials called kacchas, located between a number of well built houses in the Yerawada City neighbourhood (one of the most densely populated areas of Pune); this also aiming to respect the actual urban and social fabric of the neighbourhood.

Following the use of existing urban formations as a starting point for development, the interdisciplinary team of professionals composed by a group of international architects, urban planners, landscape architects and graphic designers lead by Balestra and Göransson with the community based organisation Mahila Milan and SPARC started a series of participatory strategies to mobilise around 700 families in 7 slums to participate in the design and construction to upgrade their homes through the incremental housing project.

They started by mapping the kacchas (most vulnerable temporary houses) of seven different slums (Nagar) of Yerawada, identifying those houses by singles, doubles, triples, quadruples and clusters for more houses together for two reasons, the first one to prioritise the houses to be transformed within the project and consequently to inform the rest of the community this prioritisation and secondly, to preserve the social and organic patterns that have evolved during time so that in the implementation of the project neighbours can remain the same through the possible mix  of the three typologies of houses created.

It is important to highlight that the community based organisation was strongly involved in every step of the development project, that is with complete power to influence and make decisions. The three typologies were designed with the local knowledge of the Mahila Milan women. Together they came up with three options for the actual requirements of the project but also with the possibility for future expansions, taking into account family extension and/or future resources  for business initiatives in every household. This was made possible through a structure of two floors with the introduction of a void that could be in the first, second or third storey. As this was thinking in future extensions, the void adaptation would not be met by the project itself as the idea was to use effectively the available money for the basic house (two floors) and the utilities connections (the kacchas normally lack of toilet and kitchen).

As the project was carried out with the community based organisation, there where various workshops organised with the purpose to explain the strategy of the project to the different communities of the nagars, regarding the prioritisation of action and also, in an advanced stage, to explain the different typologies and assist the people in choosing the most suitable alternative for their needs and ambitions in the future. To be more precise, the alternatives where design to allow a future parking , extra room, shop or workshop space in the first floor, a workshop, veranda or extra room in the second floor and a terrace or extra room in the third floor. Again, each of this typologies were design to be mixed in order to maintain the existing spatial configuration of the nagars but the project also proposed a reorganisation of the footprint of some houses to widen and open the streets and spaces between houses, generating a more organised general space through the use of structures suitable for vertical expansion. For the mixed clusters, families will share walls, columns and infrastructure that would help lessen the cost.

One big benefit that came along the upgrading strategy was the participation of the Pune Municipal Corporation that enter to be part of the project in an advanced stage without being expected. They offered a grant of 4500 euros (total cost of the house, ten percent of which have to be covered by the elected family) to eligible households living in structures made of recycled materials for rebuilding their homes on roughly the existing footprint. Such participation from the government came in part out of negotiations and collaborations with SPARC and Mahila Milan over years. Considering  that many families would not have the resources to contribute with the total equivalent of a ten percent of the cost of the house, the alternative of sweat contribution was considered, the families can help placing windows, doors, painting the house and placing their own floor tiles, after the reinforced concrete structure is up.

In the process, the Mahila Milan women had vast responsibilities that gave a deep component of participation to this particular project. They lead the community mobilisation process and were meant to complete household and plane table surveys, secure consent letters, and manage the construction scheme, which was planned to be implemented through local labor.

Few projects can claim such participatory extend where grassroots leaders are in an advisory or decision-making position and where participation means working in-depth with local groups at some or all stages of a project, from design to implementation to post-construction work.

Assertively, Katia Savchuk (2009) a former consultant in SPARC and journalist focused on urban and international development, points out that many times the extension of the community participation depends mainly on the practitioners understanding of their roll in a development project and equally important, on the level of organisation of the community itself. This mean that a community´s capacity of organisation and strong leadership cannot only influence but also guide and take decisions at different stages of a project.

Having presented the information about the project, what follows is an analysis of the case in relation to two participatory concepts, community empowerment and power relations. This concepts are explored from the perspective of methods such as Radical Planning and the Capability Approach because of their possibilities for social transformation. In this essay, social transformation is when people in situations of vulnerability is mobilised to lead the change by a project, but from which they get the capacity to continue improving their situation by themselves, rather than just taken what is given because of lack of other options.


Empowerment and power relations from the notion of Radical Planning.

Building on Friedmann´s writings from 1987 on Radical Planning[ii], Beard interprets that planning as social transformation is radical planning (2003), which has as aim, the emancipation of humanity from social oppression according to Friedmann and Sandercock. The latter, could not say it clearer in the next definition: “Radical practice emerge from experiences with and a critique of existing unequal relations and distributions of power, opportunity and resources. The goal of this practices is to work for structural transformation of systematic inequalities and, in the process to empower those who have been systematically disempowered” (Sandercock, 1998 in Beard, 2003 p. 19). This definition encompasses two concepts of participation: power relations and empowerment. Regarding the latter, although the community based organisation Mahila Milan already had a vast organisational base, skills in financial management, data collection, and collaboration with government authorities; the power and even -it can be said- management they had over the process in the IHS project, set a higher capacity to institutionalise big scale projects to take work forward with other communities in Pune. They lead a process in which communities were genuine partners rather than consultation respondents.

Around the notions of power relations, the case shows a strong leadership from the group of women that it can be argued, would not have the same impact and extend if it was lead by man. This is important when notions of male domination are considered, particularly from those with most power within the communities. The experience and responsibility for which this women are known and the way they work together as a collective were decisive in the project. Additionally, such experience, and in particular  by previous collaborations with the local government and the fact of being supported by SPARC, were able to influence the participation of the Pune Municipal Corporation with the grant. In short, the community gained a formal recognition from the government.

In the radical planning model, the necessary knowledge is obtained “through an overlapping and intertwined process in which theory, strategy, vision and action inform each other in social learning” (Friedmann, 1987 in Beard, 2003 p.17). With this in mind, the case presents a clear process of mutual learning through the strong work and management between the community and the practitioners. Proof of that are the strategies created in partnership, to prioritise and work on what is really necessary and make use of the existing urban formations as starting point for the planned development. Basically, the practitioners adapted plans and strategies built from the local experience of Mahila Milan and SPARC. Equally, the project would not have the same participation extend if it was not for the leadership and involvement of the women collective.

David Harvey suggests that radical planning must take place at multiple operational scales to generate a wider structural change (Harvey, 1999 in Beard, 2003). In that account, the Incremental Housing Strategy was able to influence both local and national scales, producing the introduction of the grant from the Pune Municipal Corporation which widen the scale of the project.  Although this help was unexpected, the management, strategies and involvement of the local communities in the project were so powerful that managed to catch the attention of a higher institution, with a positive impact for the urban poor. What is more, in addition to the financial help, the local government scheme also includes the improvement of infrastructure, roads and basic amenities which would improve the connection of the households to the city.


Empowerment and power relations from the Capability Approach.

As discussed before, a number of development projects include participation just as a repetitive term without real efforts to work with  and be influenced by the people it supposed to be benefiting. In that sense, the strategies used, seek in the end not more than to convince people of the project presented as the best alternative or to involve communities in processes where they merely can support the implementation of pre-stablished plans without the power to shape them. However, as illustrated in the table below by Frediani and Boano (2012), it depicts in a simple manner the fine line between such manipulative use of participatory strategies and a more responsible and just manner of the use of participation in the design process for development.

Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Figure 1   Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Building on notions around participatory design, Sanoff suggests that coming discussions”environment works better if citizens are active and involved in its creation and management instead of being treated as passive consumers” (Sanoff, 2007 in Frediani and Boano, 2012). The capability approach is intended to secure such citizen participation in their environment creation. It can provide the framework to both develop a participatory process of design and their appropriation and ownership with the physical environment once produced.

In relevance for the case study, the two areas closer to participation as transformation in the figure would be discussed. According to Frediani and Boano (2012), the area C of the figure represents participatory initiatives in which 3D models are implemented to facilitate the discussions of the physical characteristics of a project. That is, facilitating the participants to influence the design plan. However, such development strategies are criticised for giving little attention to power relations between community members and institutional actors related with the project. Thus, providing localised solutions that do not present a critical view on structural and institutional processes that maintain poverty and injustice in cities.

In other words, area C represents participatory strategies that pay more attention to the design, but less to the process. On the contrary, area D depicts participatory strategies that focus more on the process, leaving the design product aside. According to the authors, the projects and cases included in this area, enhance and strengthen the capacity of grass-roots organisations. Thus, empowering vulnerable communities to gain influence and decision power in processes that otherwise, would be managed and decided by institutions and other powerful actors. However, this strategies are criticised for leaving behind the attention to quality in the design product. With both sides in mind regarding the participatory design strategies, different points about the case study would be discuss below, demonstrating the careful attention in the process and design product (intended as its meant to be in progress), resulting from the permanent collaboration between the community based organisation of women Mahila Milan, SPARC, the communities and the team of practitioners.

In the Incremental Housing strategy, different participatory workshops were created and 3D models and real scale delimitations were used as comprehensive tools to facilitate the participatory process. Is important to highlight that the Mahila Milan where the actors who lead the different workshops. In those, explanation of the strategies, the three typologies created, and the assistance to choose the most suitable one for each family needs and aspirations, where conducted at different stages, using this tools.

Conflictual situations about the participatory process are unknown so far. Yet, there must have been strong moments of disagreement but, the active involvement and strong leadership form the women collective must have been fundamental to reconcile coming differences and continue with the implementation of the project. The gained support and credibility from the community over years, is an assurance that their feedback is influencing the project design and implementation. With that in mind, it can be said that, it depends on whom makes the use of the tools to secure participatory processes, as for the meaning that the actor represent for the communities.

Regarding structural and institutional processes of injustice, the case produced a positive impact. The upgrading project started as a local initiative with the invitation of the international architects to participate and facilitate the design and implementation of an incremental upgrading scheme. This was meant to be covered with a big effort form the community, by saving programs implemented by Mahila Milan and SPARC. However, the project acquired such attention that the local government came in with financial support, at an advanced stage of the process. Fortunately, this and other cases shown that, organised communities have been recognised and supported in some manner (be it financial, resources provision, skills training, among others) by their local governments.

It is of common knowledge that the pursuit of welfare and opportunities for a population and moreover, the most vulnerable part of it, should be the responsibility of its government. However, the most vulnerable population, socially and physically, is often located in developing countries which governments lack of sources and funds to successfully assist. Therefore, local organisation and mobilisation towards own physical and social improvement, is a fundamental process for more just cities. As it often gains the attention and even support of its government which would increase the scope and capacity of such projects, hopefully without manipulating the process and decision making. But it depends on the community based organisation capacities.

In short, the Incremental Housing Strategy represents the collective efforts of the community to improve their physical existence which in turn, influenced the recognition from the government.


Having analysed the case from different participatory concepts and perspectives, I argue that participation can help to overcome complex power relations but it depends on empowerment practices. In other words, without empowering the people in situation of vulnerability, be it social, political and/or physical, they would not be able to defend, resist or generate the necessary change against disempowering mechanisms in the city. People cannot resist or influence strong mechanisms of power without being empowered through capacity building processes. In essence, it means that development projects require participatory processes not only to secure the adequate solutions and engage communities to own and produce the initiatives but also to generate the necessary resistance to the actual forces that maintain the injustice and lack of opportunities in the cities.

The strategies and participation developed in partnership with the practitioners in the Incremental Housing Strategy shows the respect and the influence of the local knowledge and experience along its development.

The extension of the involvement from the Mahila Milan in the project was possible thanks to their organisational experience, and was key for the participatory capacity that they lead with the community. This demonstrates the fundamental difference that it makes to create successful strategies for development through permanent work with community based organisations. They have the knowledge of and trust to mobilise the community, encourage their participation and catalyse the change.


1 Incremental Housing Strategy project information for this essay built on the data available from different sources: Balestra (2010), Basulto (2009), Fairs (2009) and Savchuk (2009).

2 Notions of radical planning from analysis of various sources in case study of community participation: Beard (2003).


Balestra, F. (2010) ‘Acupuncture architecture & urban villages‘, PechaKucha, (accessed 30 December 2012).

Basulto, D. (2009) ‘Incremental Housing Strategy in India / Filipe Balestra & Sara Göransson‘, ArchDaily, (accessed 29 December 2012).

Beard, V. (2003) ‘Learning Radical Planning: The Power of Collective Action‘, Planning Theory 2(13) pp. 13–35.

Fairs, M. (2009) ‘Incremental Housing Strategy by Filipe Balestra & Sara Göransson‘, Dezeen Magazine, (accessed 30 December 2012).

Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012) ‘Processes for just products: the capability space of participatory design‘ from Oosterlaken, I. and Hoven, J. The capability approach, technology and design, pp. 203-222, London: Springer.

Savchuk, K. (2009) ‘Participatory Design in Poor Communities: Beyond the Rhetoric‘, Where: Imagining an urban future, (accessed 29 December 2012).