When did I hear the word “community”?
I do not remember. But, what I do remember is how it sounds. Wholesome, familial and conveying a sense of belonging. In other words, it sounds good!
In the absence of a greater narrative and direction in the act of doing (and the act of designing), the idea of ”community” seems to answer the missing “why” .
But why must it be?
In his book Sociology: A Brief but Critical Introduction (1983), Giddens recalled Tönnies (1887) on distinguishing elements between “community” (Gemeinschaft) and “association” (Gesellschaft). While the former denotes cohesiveness dominated by “spontaneous self-expression”, the latter brings impersonal yet instrumental social relationship. Any group of people may belong to one, and the individuals within may form another bond with another set of groups. But the distinctive quality of community is the sense of purposefulness that reflects a common basic (or even instinctual?) unity of will – an implicit endorsement of individual diversity within a set of group.
Disasters often become a point in time when people find their commonalities to overcome the disaster itself and to rebuild their community. To put it simply, their (the article will unfolds how problematic the word ‘they’ is) desire to rebuild is a shared aspiration that bonds the individuals. However, where and how they take their aspiration is another matters, but the genuineity of purposefulness is there, and thus the sense of community is born.
The above mentioned argument was clearly proven in Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo during the massive flood in the late 2013 in Jakarta. I took the opportunity to volunteer in logistics distribution in the area. And the event unfolds. On that day, the area along the main road of Jl. Jatinegara is surrounded by people from media, long stretch of ad-hoc emergency evacuation points and public kitchens (among them are associated to political parties). The formation was located outside the actual flood site. Yet, it relays an image of a disastrous environmental effect, as well as people’s reaction to it that, unfortunately but rightly, befalls upon unified bodies of the helpless, needy and powerless. However, this is far from the truth.
There were numerous impressive attempts to mitigate the disaster from within, particularly the efforts by Ciliwung Merdeka (for which I volunteered). Although their roles were quite ambiguous, yet the sense of leadership was present. Volunteers are freely partakes in any role that motivates him/her. Fortunately, it was not a chaos, in fact, it is applied quite evenly throughout the volunteers. It is also coupled with pro-active involvement of many of Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo young people who are well versed in their areas. It somehow resembled what Orwell wrote in his book Homage to Catalonia (1938) that ‘revolutionary’ discipline depends on political consciousness – an understanding of why orders must be obeyed.
At the spatial level, as commonly seen in informal settlements, Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo settlements are highly adaptive. One particular local intelligent is the use long stretch of ropes tied connecting different houses at different levels and zigzagging along the street. The rope serves two practical purposes. First, its purpose during major floods. The water level often rise to up to 3 meters off the street, which submerges all single storey houses and left only the upper floors. The rope acts as a guide to help the rescue boat to deliver food and emergency kits to people who are trapped in the upper floors of their houses. Moreover, it helps to define the structure of the built environment. It is crucial for people who are not familiar with the area that may find difficulties to discern the environment, especially during the night due to the extremely low availability of street lamps. Thus, it is not a coincidence that the rope is bright red in colour. Additionally, it also helps to maintain stability against the water current. The second practical purpose is as a collective clothes hanger to dry when the flood subsides. Thus, the presence of the rope is increasing already intensified community togetherness on the street.
It was perhaps an ad hoc decision – an improvisation to brace for what has become a routine. Ad hocism described as the tendency to establish temporary and improvisational procedures to deal with specific problems. It is a common framework in spatial expansion within informal settlements context. In Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo, the street appears to be the generator of activities. The river is less so. The scale and interfaces of the houses reflect the fluctuating street intensity. No structures towers the street, and the combination of upper floors (balcony) and lower level (front porch) activities creates a volumetric inter-relationship that fills the public space. The amalgamation of different ideas without a particular aesthetic direction characterise the area. It is a layer upon layer of intervention, a process of continual addition and erasure. A palimpsest. There is a highly functional order in what appears to be chaos.
And here lies the difficulty: how does one design for community? My problematic use of the word “they” earlier signifies detachment. Communities are certainly of many types, and the above is just one example. But the point is that design arises out of a common understanding and purpose of why certain things must be done, hence its potential result in an aesthetic of patchwork. It is worth comparing this briefly, though, to the development of Modernism that has dogmatically pervades the design discourse: the singularity of authorship that results in fixed aesthetic and spatiality. If one is about the individual genius, the other is about the collective agency. If one sees a client, the other sees stakeholders. The aesthetic is one thing. By just looking at the flood, the missing “why” in the first question is to reveal that “community” is no longer a singular entity to design for, but a living condition comprised of a diverse set of networks and agencies. Thus, we may be a part of it, unified by a common purpose.
Dovey, Kim, ‘Informal Urbanism and Complex Adaptive Assemblage’ (2012) 14(2) International Development Planning Review p. 19
Giddens, Anthony, Sociology a Brief but Critical Introduction (The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1983)