01/07: Informal Armatures

David Gouverneur, a Landscape Architecture professor at PennDesign in Philadelphia, has spent much time and energy exploring the problems, possibilities and characteristics of informal settlements (as discussed a few days ago). His research has focused on preemptive design of areas of city expansion, in contrast to retroactive improvement of informal settlements, sometimes called “acupunctural” interventions. (For a more thorough look at both Gouverneur and Informal Armatures see the Q & A: David Gouverneur invterview.) Note: in this context the word “armature” should be considered in the sculptural sense of the word, as in the wire framework around which a piece of sculpture takes shape. Informal Armatures would constitute public infrastructure around which self-constructed settlements could arise.

The basic premise of the Informal Armature approach is to find a middle ground between the existing uncontrolled informal development and the top down intervention (be it governmental project or formal private development). Somewhere between the effective but uncontrollable laissez-faire informal growth and the calculated but inefficient statist model of formal development processes, Informal Armatures seek a hybrid model which guides and supports an existing power structure of community leader or pirate developer leading the process of settlement. Gouverneur focuses on a six step process: 1)Advocate for political acceptance of the idea; 2)Assemble appropriate public land; 3)Adapt design principles to local conditions; 4) Introduce initial strands/components… the D.N.A. [of the armature]; 5)Foster and monitor transformations; 6)Monitor expansion.

Of particular interest is step four, the “initial strands/components.” These are defined by 1)Protectors/buffers, seeking to protect specific pieces of land from development; 2)Attractors, resources and amenities serving future development; 3)Productive patches, economic drivers or public uses; 4)Neighborhood patches, areas intended for self-constructed settlements; 5)Custodians, public stewards managing the settlement and enforcing protector patches and buffer zones.

Protectors/BuffersAttractorsProductive PatchesNeighborhood Patches


Slides by David Gouverneur

As part of a studio run by both David Gouverneur and David Maestres, students from PennDesign got the chance to travel to Medellin and explore how that city as dealt retroactively with improving existing informal settlements. As part of the trip, we students tool part in a small design charrette to brainstorm ideas for the preemptive planning of self-constructed neighborhood. But how do you engage with a not-yet-formed political structure? And how do you ensure that improvements do not price out the poorest and neediest citizens?

Definition of PatchesInfrastructureProductive Patches

My diagrams above (not the prettiest, a charrette is inherently rushed and rarely polished) focus on the distinct needs of both formal and informal development. Informal development requires extremely low land costs, land costs which rise with every intervention either formal or part of an Informal Armature. This could be mitigated by demographically specific programs, catering to lower economic strata and therefore potentially suppressing demand among more aspirational potential residents. Imagine putting in a social services office or methadone clinic in a gentrifying neighborhood in an effort to slow the rising housing costs. Could a building’s program and purpose be used to keep a neighborhood affordable? In the preemptive model of the armature there would be no NIMBY committee of existing residents because there would be no existing residents.


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