In order to accommodate people migrating towards cities (which in principle is good news), the world will need to build the equivalent of a city of one million inhabitants per week with only $10,000 per family. Urbanization will require building at a pace and with a scarcity of means never before seen in human history. If we don’t do so, people will not stop coming to cities; they will come anyhow, but will live in appalling conditions. So what can we do?
A clue may come from Paraguay, one of the most improbable countries in the world. There, Solano Benítez has been giving a new meaning to two of the most abundant resources in the world: bricks and unqualified labor. Bricks in Paraguay are a constraint—there is nothing but bricks there. But instead of complaining about what is missing (industrialized building materials), Benítez has increased the understanding of the brick’s properties. His extremely sophisticated yet natural structural approach has paved the way to build using unskilled labor. In developing countries, the construction industry is not so much a craft as a way to keep unemployment low; that is why decision makers prefer inefficient (labor intensive) building systems. The downside is the quality of the construction. Benítez has been able to use design to decouple the quality of the end product from the unqualified workforce. Sometimes he has prefabricated panels in a very counterintuitive way: by simply pouring mortar in between bricks placed on the ground. Sometimes he has “folded” bricks into a three-dimensional self-supporting panel. Sometimes he has used bricks as nerves in handmade stereo metric slabs.
In all these cases, highly ingenious low-tech pieces use form as a way to achieve resistance. This has allowed even those who do not have formal mason’s training to be included in the building economy. Benítez has used his design skills to channel abundant resources, namely brick and unqualified workers, to create a simultaneously pertinent and unexpected architecture. This knowledge applied to a ubiquitous material makes it in principle an operation with universal scope; his structural wisdom has turned the use of unqualified labor in transforming an unappreciated resource into a democratic practice. These are the kinds of operations that we have to deal with in the rapid global process of urbanization.