Developed – Developing: Dialogical Integration in International Conferences

Developed – Developing: Dialogical Integration in International Conferences
This editorial was originaly published in Architects for Peace, January 23, 2008

I recently came across a question posed by Dr. Ashraf Salama in his website. Dr Salama asks, “Conference Attendance: Do the Developing have Something to Offer the Developed?”[1]

The question is interesting because it may not be possible or prudent to try and answer it without first understanding the conditions imposed by the notion of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’. Can an answer be attempted without questioning this dichotomy? And as Dr Salama rightly points out, if there is more than ‘something’ already offered by poorer countries, what has prevented an even larger contribution and due acknowledgement? Dr Salama illustrates the question by providing some examples. He notes a low level of attendance to international conferences on the part of developing countries. He also notices that when people from poorer countries attend, there is an “implicit assumption that they go to learn”, rather than to share their knowledge or, why not, even teach. Dr Salama however claims that there may indeed be a lot of learning coming from the ‘developing’ world but that it is not appropriately acknowledged. For example, he claims that much is learnt from the developing world in matters of conservation, ecological design practices, historical analysis and education.

I would add to the list: water treatment, emergency housing, disaster management, community planning, alternative building technology such as bamboo, rattan and earth construction, low cost and social housing, desert architecture and public transport (for example Curitiba and the TransMilenio in Bogotá). From theory to practice, to some degree we have embraced the knowledge of scholars such as (to mention a few), Spiro Kostof, Constantino Doxiadis, Ali Madanipour, Necdet Teymur, Alberto Pérez-Gómez, to the social and urban knowledge of Jaime Lerner. Scholars, philosophers and practitioners have in one way or another shared their knowledge. However, it could be argued that while some have achieved a degree of recognition—and in the process references to the geographical origins fade away—what most have in common is that they had made their way through an international, mostly Anglophone institution, for example a British or US university. Something prevents a direct input, one that is not mediated by renowned Anglophone institutions, or by having migrated to richer countries and with that having mastered the English language. In discussing this matter Dr Salama suggested that perhaps different historical conditions to those of today may have determined the path of scholars such as Spiro Kostof and Constantino Doxiadis. If this was the case, it would be important to ask how opportunities for recognition and/or influence may have changed in the last decades.

At this point it is pertinent to make a distinction between acknowledgment and influence and to ask whether or not international conferences create equal conditions for dialogue, acknowledgment and for the influencing of the discourse by all and what determines such opportunities.

While commonly used, an established convention on the use of the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ does not exist.[2] According to The World Bank, some countries (with ‘transition economies’), might fall within either category according to the criteria used to make the judgment. For example The World Bank classifies countries according to income. However, it makes exceptions for, among others, countries such as Israel, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. Within academic circles, the lack of proper definition (if this could ever be reached) is not often accounted for or acknowledged. Instead these terms are used as if they reflected an objective reality and most times used subjectively to validate enormous oversights that, if properly examined, could indeed have enlighten the discussion.

More than a divide across developed and developing—a very poor dichotomy that does nothing to explain rich cultural differences within and which promotes a degree of stagnation among the ‘developed’—I suggest that the divide might lie along the lines of an Anglophone world and the ‘rest’ of the world. The reason why I put forward this untested hypothesis springs from an ongoing research into architectural education, where I have noticed that leading theoreticians in America (a continent with a majority Spanish speaking population), such as Edgar Morin, are virtually unknown in Australia and I assume equally less known in other Anglo speaking countries. Edgar Morin has been translated from French to Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Russian, but little can be found in English. In a similar case, Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, today one of the most influential books among urbanists and some architects, was originally published in French in 1974, and translated to English almost twenty years later in 1991. Many more could follow in this important list of mostly unknown architects and scholars to the English speaker.

While a degree of unawareness of what others are doing may not be intentional, this is reinforced by architectural institutions and an architectural media, that insists on the architectural achievements of large, mainly European companies and architects, giving no opportunity for an equally great work produced by local architects and companies in poorer countries. For a random example, this month, the electronic newsmail produced by the World Architecture News (Issue No.123 / 04 January 2008) features six projects, all of which, whether in the UK, Dubai or Shangai, are designed by British/European architects and all of which are large, to very large corporate buildings. Within this list of six architects the work of Zaha Hadid is featured—some may want to consider her an exception.The notion of a conference as an opportunity to advance knowledge and ideas is important. However, too many of them are stifling and costly, making it difficult for those coming from poorer countries to justify the expense. This situation prevents the most needed multiplicity of views while recycling stagnant ideas from a prevailing culture.

Back to the original question, I have no doubt that professionals and scholars from poorer parts of the world have much to offer to the rest of the world—in fact some have already done so, and it is here where Architects for Peace has a great role to play, to be the gateway for direct input of the many forms of contributions and the many unpublished projects happening right now everywhere. It is perhaps in poorer countries where creativity and alternative approaches are the norm and are daily tested.

If there is anything I like about the notion of ‘developing’ it is that it conveys movement, a positive energy used to inspire and to evolve—shouldn’t we all be developing?

Beatriz C. Maturana
Architects for Peace, January 2008


[1] See Dr. Ashraf Salama’s website at http://www.arti-arch.org/Ashraf%20Salama-Thoughts.htm

[2] The terms “developed” and “developing” lack proper definition. While commonly used by organisations such as the United Nations, the UN has not defined them. See: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/methods/m49/m49regin.htm. See also The World Bank’s glossary: http://www.worldbank.org/depweb/beyond/global/glossary.html#12

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