The contemporary architectural profession has little to say about at least 1/3 of the world’s population (UN-Habitat, xxv). These are the people who live in slums, favelas, gecekondus, squatter settlements, and shantytowns of the developing world. The names for these places vary, but their living conditions are similar around the world: slums – as we will call them in this paper – are housing settlements, typically in cities of the developing world, with inadequate access to safe water; inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure; poor structural quality of housing; overcrowding; and insecure residential status (UN-Habitat, 12). Why are architects unable, or perhaps uninterested, in helping to improve living conditions for this vast chunk of humanity? And should the architectural profession even be involved in slum improvement efforts in the first place? What can architects offer?
This paper addresses these questions. First, we will outline the architectural profession’s social agenda in history, tracing the lineage from early Modern social reformists to the Postmodern obsession with form and style, through to the contemporary resurgent concern for social and humanitarian design. Next, we will look at the historical formation of actual on-the-ground slum improvement programs, as applied by international development agencies like the UN and the World Bank, nation states, politicians, and urban planners. In the final section, we will attempt to draw connections between the architectural profession’s renewed interest in social issues and the already-established practice of slum improvement. This paper argues that architects currently have little place in institutionalized slum improvement practices, partly because planning and development discourses have advanced without the participation of architectural specialists. Their voice has been absent for a number of reasons – admittedly, often for good reason. However, there seems to be ample room for architects to reinvent and reapply their skills, alas contributing to the physical, environmental, and social improvement of slums in the developing world.