Theses Doctoral

The Informal as a Project: Self-Help Housing in Peru, 1954-1986

Gyger, Helen

This dissertation examines the history of aided self-help housing through the case study of Peru, which was the site of significant experiments in this field, and pioneering in its efforts to enact a large-scale policy of land tenure regularization in unplanned settlements. As the sheer scale of the housing deficit tested the limits of conventional modernist housing reform, aided self-help presented itself as a response to the constraints and apparent opportunities of this situation; its essential premise was to bring together the benefits of "formal" architecture (an expertise in design and construction) with those of "informal" building (substantial cost savings, because residents themselves furnished the labour).

The analysis focuses on three key spheres: the circumstances which made Peru a fertile site for innovation in low-cost housing under a succession of very different political regimes; the influences on, and movements within, architectural culture which prompted architects to consider aided self-help housing as an alternative mode of practice; and the context in which international development agencies came to embrace these projects as part of their larger goals during the Cold War and beyond. Aided self-help housing in Peru took a variety of forms, ranging from highly co-ordinated projects constructed using communal labour, with on-site technical assistance from architects, to sites-and-services developments, which included the provision of basic services (water, sewerage, electricity, roadways), on the expectation that residents would eventually consolidate their neighbourhoods into more-or-less conventional urban areas. These projects generally offered a very basic core house, which residents were expected to expand and complete over time following standard plans set out by an architect. Housing on this progressive-development model (also called the "growing house") could be built incrementally as the family's needs demanded and its budget allowed.

At the other end of the spectrum was the UN-sponsored Proyecto Experimental de Vivienda (PREVI), an international design competition which endeavoured to draw upon the experience of prominent avant-garde architects to devise new approaches to low-cost housing; foregrounding innovations in building technologies, construction systems, and urban design theories, this experiment ultimately brought the latent conflicts between high architecture and affordable housing into high-relief. This research reveals that although aided self-help housing promised a means of resolving a housing crisis that conventional architectural techniques had failed to meet, it quickly encountered the seeds of its own failure--at the political level, the organizational level, the implementation level, and perhaps most crucially, the funding level. Despite the promises of technical assistance to self-builders, in practice the needed resources and trained staff often failed to appear, suggesting that the rhetoric of self-help could simply become a mask to validate the state's disengagement from housing provision. While this withdrawal of the state (and as a result, of the architects it employs) from the provision of low-cost housing has seemed inevitable, the dissertation aims to reexamine the effectiveness of these experiments in aided self-help, in order to open the way to reassessing their potential and reframing their strategies for contemporary practice.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Martin, Reinhold I.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 28, 2013