Response to Iwan Baan’s TED Talk

Ingenious homes in unexpected places shed new light on the world’s informal settlements

Meagan Durlak and I were excited to see the TED talk by architectural photographer Iwan Baan on the ingenuity found within informal settlements. In his presentation he walks us through a range of communities across the world, capturing many such settlements, including houses above a lagoon and a repurposed office block.

Baan’s view of informal settlements resonates with our own work; it’s an under-told story that we very much applaud. He shows an overview of people’s lives and their unique methods for adapting to difficult conditions. Perhaps as interesting as his film are the reactions to it from TED viewers. Many found the innovation in informal settlements to be inspiring and heartwarming; others claimed that this talk is just a life affirming story for the rich 1% of the world, perpetuating inaction for areas which need immediate aid. The two sides of the argument reminded us of our own work and the battles we have gone through in trying to wrap our heads around the systems of informal settlements, as well as the difficulties we have had in explaining their hidden properties to others.

Through Mark, our project which deals with community empowerment, we have had the good fortune to spend a few weeks talking with different inhabitants of São Paulo’s biggest informal settlements. Our aim was to tell them about our mission: Show off the cultural vibrancy and incredible way of life within favelas, so that we could move the conversation away from crime, poor sanitation, and low social mobility.

I want to be very clear here. The reason our work is focused on the favela is because of their social troubles. We are not trying to ignore or brush over them. Instead, we are trying to ignite a new conversation. Like Baan, we feel that it is of paramount importance to recognize the duality of informal settlements; there is both abject poverty and an incredible raw, human beauty coexisting in an inconceivable and contradictory tension with one another.

This message is important for two reasons. Firstly, as designers we are looking for points of intervention, where we hope to make change. To do this, it is essential for us to fully understand the design context we are working in. This means acknowledging not only the problems but also the opportunities and differences.



Many nonprofits and NGOs are so stifled by their focus on only the bad that they fail to see all the resources for innovation they have at their disposal. It is all too easy to apply our own cultural lens to any subject. This approach, however, leads to the misdiagnosis of problems, which can lead us to mistake positive attributes for negative ones. I very much like the way Baan expresses his concept of “a different type of normal.” The example he uses, the piles of garbage in Zabbaleen that, to our first world eyes, look uninhabitable. But to the residents this dwelling represents a source of income and a life force. The garbage piles are their equivalent of fertile fields and rich pastures.

The combination of focusing on the negative and enforcing our own value systems leads to projects like the “cookie-cutter” housing projects that Baan cites. These solutions almost universally fail to take into account the cultural norms of informal settlements and they are a good way for governments to hide what they consider embarrassing failings within their countries.

In Paraisópolis, the second largest favela in São Paulo, we were shown two new apartment complexes. One was built quite purposefully to act as a wall to hide the favela from Morumbi, the rich neighborhood that surrounds Paraisópolis. As a consequence, the tower blocks are ill conceived for favela life; they’re known as a very bad place to live, much worse than the self-built housing throughout Paraisópolis. The other tower complex, in the community’s words, was "built with more consideration.” The architect designed the apartments in rings around central utilities, so that people can share kitchens and communal spaces, much like they do on the streets of Paraisópolis. However, even this block was seen as hugely inferior to owning an informally constructed house in the center of the community.

Courtesy Elemental

We discovered one project in Chile, that correctly diagnoses a great strategy for informal developments, entitled “elemental housing.” The project builds bare-bones structures that provide foundations and basic sanitary requirements such as bathrooms and kitchens. The remaining structure is left empty, allowing new inhabitants to make it their own. At first this approach might seem like a cheap alternative to fully functioning housing. But there is an ingrained cultural desire to build your own home in many of these communities, to the point where anything else is seen as sterile and impersonal. It is the favela equivalent of moving into a new apartment and being told you cannot hang anything decorative on the walls—such restrictions can severely limit expressions of personal identities. Not only is the elemental housing project much more aware of favela culture, but it leverages its uniqueness and ingenuity to make cheap yet sanitary housing that is actually desired by the community. Without a deep analysis of the make-up of the favela’s identity, this kind of project would never have been possible. Baan’s talk serves the same purpose. He identifies the unique cultures that sit just below what, at first, seem to be uninhabitable slums.

The second important impact of looking at the positives of informal settlements is for the people themselves. Inhabitants of modern urban settlements are no longer disconnected from the world. They live anything but isolated lives; they have good access to the Internet and interact on a daily basis with the wider city. This reality makes many of them painfully aware of their “lower” status in the world’s eyes.

Indeed the people of Heliopolis, the largest favela in São Paulo, suffer discrimination in the form of lower wages, poor opportunities, and no government services. Despite a population of over 100,000 residents, and a central location, Heliopolis has no regular government garbage collection or other public services, services that are often available to the rest of the city.


When we first spoke to community leaders in Heliopolis we told them about our plan to map the community to show off the positive side of life in the favela. Their immediate excitement about this idea was very powerful for us—it alerted us to the huge pride that people have in their community and their desire to show it for more than just a slum.

Informal settlements discussed as negative places, make communities feel that their hard work is marginalized. We cannot forget that these are places built from nothing. Their history is made up of generation after generation of families striving against incredible odds to thrive in a seemingly impossible situation. For example, Baan’s look at the Tower of David provides a stark contrast to the recent New Yorker article that documents the same location. In their own ways both the artist and the magazine romanticize an element of this community. Yes, the focus on criminal elements and terrible conditions that exist in global informal settlements makes for a good story. At the same time this point of view devalues most of the populations’ work ethic and lifestyle. It’s too easy for us to imagine a dystopian hellhole filled with cowering inhabitants and iron fisted drug lords. While this picture isn’t entirely untrue, it is much more accurate to counterbalance it with Baan’s more positive view.

The negativity around these spaces promotes the idea that they have failed to build a community, that despite their best efforts they didn’t live up to our exacting standards. The leading figures in Heliopolis feel that if they can convince the government and the wider population of São Paulo of their favela’s importance and that it’s something to be valued, they will soon be recognized as an official neighborhood of São Paulo and given the rights they deserve.

Similar to Baan, Meagan and I think that it is essential for the outside world to take a much more nuanced view of these unique and vibrant communities so that we can start to see that there are incredible opportunities as well as complicated problems. Through Mark, we have seen the immense power of displaying the positive side of informal settlements as a way to drive change.


We met young people in the small community of Real Parque who, together, had achieved the impossible and advocated for a new medical center and the rebuilding of their school. Convincing the government that they needed these resources wasn't a matter of pointing to facts and figures or all the problems in the community. It was about helping the government realize that these communities deserve the same affordances as the rest of São Paulo. For that kind of advocacy you can't use guilt or fear. You need empathy, understanding, and human feeling.

In our next post, as advocates of favela empowerment Meagan and I will discuss some more of the amazing youth initiatives in these informal settlements.

All photos courtesy Meagan Durlak, 2013



Meagan Durlak is a recovering graphic designer. After spending the last five years working with a handful of great clients, (such as the Ontario Ministry of Health, Canadian Film Centre, Journalists for Human Rights, MaRS Discovery District, Makeshift Magazine and the Royal Ontario Museum) she has come to realize that she wants to pursue design in a new way. In hopes of making life a little more interesting, and exploring this new dimension of design as an approach, not just an end-goal, she is currently pursuing an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons the New School for Design.

James Frankis uses his personal lens of science and coding to bring logical analysis to the design practice. His experience in coding, science, and data visualization have taught him an appreciation for attention to detail and complex but elegant solutions. These skills help to maintain complexity, define narrative arguments, ground projects, and hone details. While taking his MFA in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons, James is focused on empowering people through informal and self-directed learning.

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