Ornament as a need in spontaneous architecture. Learning aesthetics from self-constructed dwellings

Cristina Dreifuss-Serrano

Lima has a population of more than 8 million inhabitants, mostly immigrants coming from different regions of the country, searching for a new life – a “modern” one – which can provide with all the opportunities that, apparently, rural settlements lack.

Despite the constant arriving of new groups to the city, the public administration was never able to cope with the large numbers of families and never provide with effective solutions to the housing problems. Therefore, the contemporary city grew from “invasions” these new citizens made, occupying empty areas of the peripheries, mostly deserts.

Today the immigration phenomena is far less intense: what used to be poor dwellings with no public services such as water or public transport is today an integral part of the city with a constant economic growth and constitutes an important productive force. Poor settlements nonetheless keep on growing at a slow and constant pace in a mechanism known as “invasion”, occupying public or private wasteland or the surrounding mountains.

In a socalled “invasion”, initial dwellings are usually basic structures made with panels of wood or straw. As the economic situation of their inhabitants improves, houses develop with better materials and constitute consolidated neighborhoods. These new residences, accompanied by shops and public dwellings, are in most cases a product of self-construction: architecture without architects. There is no professional in charge of their design, but they have been conceived by their occupants and built gradually.

It is important to notice that, at some stage, these are not poor constructions lacking appropriate services. To have a land and a house of their own is a condition of substantial value for the new inhabitants of the city, and new dwellings are planned with illusion and care.More than an enclosure providing protection, it is a sign of belonging and status. It is architecture full of symbols, ornament, formal elements, representing a complex ensemble of its inhabitants’ affections and aspirations.

Ornament or decorative elements are placed for the purpose of making the building “beautiful”, therefore it is no surprise to find variations in the shape of the windows, the materials or colour of the façade or the configuration of the roof in houses that started as small huts and that grew in such a spontaneous way. It is remarkable to see how, in these aesthetic elements, some of the traditional (vernacular) architecture can be recognized, mixed with solutions of the modern (academic) architecture, strongly modified to fit specific needs.

It is also notable to see a modest version of such elements in the very small, poor dwellings belonging to early stages of the configuration of a new settlement. Right after the placing of walls and roof, and even before the consolidation of the floor or the division of the dwelling in more than one room, ornament appears; inhabitants seek for beauty even before guaranteeing the constructive stability of their houses. This “beauty”, in itsfirst stage, is represented by very simple decorative elements such as the colour of the walls (even if they are made of wood or hay), the shape of the corners of the windows, the use of curtains or even the creation of small gardens with a few plants outside the entrance.

A consensus on the aesthetical quality of these decorative elements is not the objective of this paper, nor their evaluation of judgement. It is not expected for this kind of enhancement to please or to be liked by everyone. Their importance resides in its mere existence, in its “growth” in the described precarious conditions. The study of human motivations and needs has usually made emphasis on physiological requirements, such as food, safety and health, leaving the enjoyment of beauty or leisure as a far more sophisticated desire. Looking at spontaneous architecture – or, in other words, at the making of a shelter – and focusing on this small signs of ornament in extremely poor dwellings, it is proven that beauty is indeed a basic need for the inhabitant of the city, and that it can be even more important than stability, privacy or comfort.

The aesthetic elements are generally disregarded by architects and scholars, who see in it a poor expression of bad taste, often related to poverty and kitsch. There are two elements, though, that should be observed: firstly, that there is a strong component of academic aesthetic elements influencing spontaneous ornament; second, that there is, likewise, a search for differentiation and originality.

The first characteristic tells us, architects, about the meaning that is being carried away by the elements of our architecture. Whether we aim for it or not, architecture carries a message; the reinterpretation used in spontaneous dwellings highlights which elements exactly are the ones that tend to stay in people’s cultural background. Those elements are actually working as memes1 for the evolution contemporary architecture. Their identification, thus, makes us aware of the direction in which our architecture is moving towards.

The second characteristic, maybe the most important one, makes us aware of the exact opposite idea. The changes made to such aesthetic elements by self-construction processes lead to particular applications that may had never been thought by the architect. In a way, the changing of academic elements by the users of the dwelling constitutes a very particular and direct critic of some aspects in contemporary architecture.

For us architects this leads to a point in which we could learn from clients’ spontaneous manifestations in order to truly appreciate the meaning of beauty, as understood not by those who learn about it at universities or academy, but by those who are guided just by their own taste. Although there is not such thing as “pure taste”, since everybody is, one way or another, influenced by context and fashion, what people make on their own is a clear sample of what they like, and the importance they give to different elements of it.

In learning architecture, there are some “sure”, scientific matters, such as construction, environmental issues, or flowcharts. Aesthetics and beauty do not belong to this group for taste is not something we can understand in a scientific or even take for granted by means of academic learning. It is not even something we can easily understand since it depends on a variation of factors and our clients’ particular stories. As professionals in design we should start to consider such variation and, instead of taking a pose in which we know what beauty is, we should start listening to particular tastes as shown in the spontaneous ornament people chose for their homes. Our aim would not be to copy or mock such interventions but to study them and learn from what is constant in spontaneous ornament.


Meme: Element of a culture that could be considered as transmitted by non-genetic means, specially by imitation. (Dawkins in Blackmore, 2000:13)


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This study was part of the research for the PhD Thesis “The architecture of kitsch in contemporary Peruvian architecture”, for the PhD in Architectural Composition at the Università degli Studi di Roma, La Sapienza.

Cristina Dreifuss-Serrano es doctora en Teoría de la Arquitectura por la Università degli Studi di Roma, La Sapienza. Magiste Science en Arquitectura: Teoría, Historia y Crítica por la Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería. Se desempeña como docente-investigadora en la Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas, la Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería y la Universidad de Lima. Ha publicado artículos científicos y de divulgación y ha sido invitada como conferencista y profesora visitante a universidades en el Perú y en el extranjero.