Shanty Town Deluxe is the name of a photography project by Roger Eberhard which consists of a series of photographs depicting what appear to be the slums of a South-African city. At a first glance, it could be considered an ethnographic project, but on closer look, we find out the photographs present a 4 star hotel in South Africa that monetizes on what could be called poverty tourism; in other words, a resort inspired by the corrugated iron and rotting wood aesthetics, but which provides all the modern comforts, among which WiFi, air conditioning and most importantly, safety.
It`s difficult to pinpoint when exactly did the wealthy decided they find the image of poverty aesthetically appealing. The reality is, nowadays, few architecture books do not include a chapter or an essay on self built urban areas or at least smaller grassroots initiatives, an idea that has its perks, especially in times when decentralization and self reliance are becoming important concepts in the economy of a healthy society. The problem here is that the line between analyzing the mechanisms of self-organizing communities and pure bourgeois hypocrisy is pretty thin. Do not worry, I do realize that my previous statement and the premise of this article do not make me a potential participant in a popularity contest, but I think I am prepared to assume at least partial responsibility for that.
There are various examples proving that in the last years the design and architecture world have indulged in a pretty dangerous affair with slum aesthetics. An early case could be the Favela Chair, designed in 2003 by Campana Brothers, a Brazilian duo who was inspired by the informality of the favelas and came up with a sustainable concept, manufacturing the chair from scrap wood, without using a standard drawing, which allowed them to act spontaneously and according to their beliefs: “The material dictates the form and function of our work”.
Then there was Rem Koolhaas`s documentary on Nigerian megalopolis Lagos, which ignored the rough reality of ungoverned urbanization and focused on the aesthetics, the final verdict being that Lagos`s mechanisms are super interesting. In 2014, at Salone del Mobile in Milano megabrand Cappellini presented its products as part of an installation inspired by the fluidity and individuality of South African villages : ”Cap Town is an array of form and color, highlighting the fluid and unique architectures of villages in the southern hemisphere. Raw and rough colors contrast with the traditional canons of aesthetics and beauty, against the vision of a world that has been beautified at all costs while leaving room for individual choices.”
It is therefore obvious that the design world has developed a certain boredom with the polished forms and is now seduced by the rough, the spontaneous and the imperfect, which synchronizes very well with another strong trend we`ve been witnessing, the return of the crafts. In this particular case, a possible explanation might be the growing gap between social classes and the remoteness of these harsh realities, which envelops the whole situation in an exotic aura. While getting inspiration from the poorer communities, studying their way of life and translating it in design objects might draw attention to some social problems (although the value of these pieces in the field of critical design is questionable), and is certainly better than destroying their habitat because of its incredible filthiness, I still think donating a percent of the profits resulting from the sale of a 3000 euro chair could have been a better approach, but who am I to judge?