Miller Hull

Decoding Informality

Bob Hull Research Grant 2022
When it comes to the architecture industry’s definition of a residence, we need to step out of our comfort zone, confront local and global realities, and consider the worth that low-tech building options can offer.

By Tobias Jimenez

The Bob Hull Research Grant (BHRG) is to be awarded to one project annually to carry out research that is of both a personal interest and of benefit to the firm.

The best way to predict our future is to understand our present reality. The practice of architecture is subject to a tension between the formal sphere of theory and the informal daily experience of life. Current architectural methods to analyze, interpret, and design structures are still based on the traditional instruments of the discipline, which utilize a series of parameters and standards that are often incapable of decoding urban complexity and quotidian realities.

Informal settlements are shelters not regulated by law or code and constructed by individuals with the resources that are available to them. Often, those who live in informal settlements do not have the money to afford formal homes, and so they use the surrounding land and materials to build their own.

Throughout time, there have been multiple studies around the topic of informality in developing countries. Often only two approaches are taken to describe informal settlements, one side of the argument being that informality is a potential solution to all the problems around urban design; the other being that informal settlements burden society and contribute to marginalization because of its connection to poverty and the irregularity of public services. Both approaches found in academia and architecture are narrow-minded, and focus only on one side of the argument, treating these settlements as marginal or atypical, thereby justifying eviction which leads to displacement and discrimination.

To progress, we need to break these architectural boundaries by focusing on what has been (and is being) built without architects. The World Bank projects that 50% of the global population will be housed in informal settlements by 2050, making informal settlements the number one housing typology in the world.

Becoming aware of the need to confront and study informality in our cities is an inescapable reality. Such awareness becomes an opportunity to understand and seek alternatives for transformation. This is the context in which this research is based, which invites us to question the formal practice of architecture and to pay more attention to how people are building cities outside of the discipline.

Can we learn from the spaces that are being built with the people, by the people, and for the people?

Decoding informality conveys six months of research in the regions of Colima MX, Tijuana MX, Mexico City and Lima Peru, funded by the Miller Hull Partnership. This research wouldn’t be possible without the support from the Miller Hull Partnership, BAM (build a miracle) and TECHO Peru.