With no lifts or escalators, the tower is essentially a forty-five-story walk up. You’ll find seniors or those less physically-abled on the lower floors, and the young and healthy near the top. Public spaces like this stairwell are painted with care in order to make the tower feel more like an apartment building.

Iwan Baan is not as interested in what architects build as he is in the beautiful ways that people appropriate the spaces once the planners are gone. In his TED Talk, Baan — whose breathtaking image of lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy hangs on at least one of our walls — shows incredible images from communities thriving in ways that seem quite opposite to the uniformity of suburbs. First, Baan takes us to Chandigarh, India, where people inhabit buildings created by modernist architects Le Corbusier in very different ways than expected. Then, Baan takes us to Caracas, Venezuela, where an abandoned 45-story building has become a miniature city. From there, Baan takes us to a Nigerian slum built on water, to a community in Cairo thriving amid recycling heaps, and to an underground village in China.

Baan’s talk will have you marveling at human ingenuity. In it, the photographer shows 154 images. Since they appear rapid-fire, Baan has selected some to share here, where you can take your time and appreciate the details.

All photos courtesy of Iwan Baan.

Join the conversation! 21 Comments

  1. In other words, what happens when socialists take over the government, and capitalists give up. Cuba with skyscrapers?

    • Let’s not act like 100% of one (capitalism or socialism) is better than the other. A mixed economy is what’s ideal. You’ll find the same thing if capitalists took over a gov’t.

      • You mean like the mixed economies of our era – where the difference between rich and poor is the greatest we’ve ever seen?

        It would be useful to reject the cliche that compromise is always the best forward, and look for a logic that actually works.

        We’ve witnessed the unhappy results of communism and socialism. We’re currently witnessing the unhappy results of a ‘mixed’ economy. One day we might decide to actually give the free market a try. But be sure that it won’t be at the behest of any government…

        It’s worth noting that all these photos are examples of a basic ‘capitalising’ (on an opportunity) impulse — that capitalism at its root comes from the streets, from the individuals trying to make there way without government support. If you think capitalism is a corporate agenda, then you’re mistaking it for a government-supported (socialist) agenda.

      • Daniel, I do not disagree that these pics depict “capitalizing at it’s roots”…however, I feel you are sadly mistaken to believe there’s one ideology that’s the answer to society’s ills. America’s income distribution is no better or worse now than it was during the “hey day” of our free market capitalizing ways (the days of slavery…free labor…free markets). And America has enjoyed nearly all of it’s successes under a mixed economy. And to that point, our most recent economic collapse was the result of eight years of an anti-regulation, capitalizing ideologue and his Republican Congress.

        Historically, being an ideologue…and believing in one golden system has never, ever worked. While mixed economies have seen success time and time again.

  2. I’m thinking we might want to stop romanticizing poverty.

    • Thank you. This is the smartest comment here. Those of us who know the misery in which the poor of Caracas live don’t see anything beautiful about it.

      • You may have a point there I could not believe the pictures of Caracas, wow, that picture really needs change gosh.

    • that was my thought.

    • You can also look at it as not so much about “romanticizing poverty”, and more about celebrating the ingenuity of self-created places. There is already a lot of media about all the things that these people lack. This is not denying the issues that come with living in slums but rather admiring the fact that people have created so much when they started from almost nothing. These community spaces form pretty organically and are built by the residents, for the residents (I see the innovation that is often associated with capitalism at work, but without the greed). In many ways they function better for community that built them than does state-planned housing infrastructures, which are often very problematic themselves.

    • We’re romanticizing human ingenuity and resourcefulness. It’s a good lesson to see how those do more with less. Conditions are squalor compared to what most of us have in the west, but are they any more or less happy? Does their life have any less meaning? By our standards, maybe. But probably not by theirs.

    • exactly. this is horrible

  3. Interesting places, I have seen similar in Egypt and Sao Paulo but didn’t dare to get inside and watch deeper! Nice pictures!

  4. Amazing story. On the one hand, this highlights the insane inequality in distribution of money, resources. A living proof of how we have failed ourselves by making the worst invention ever – currency.
    And on the other hand, its an inspiring celebration of human potential – our ability to not only survive anything, but do it in a spectacularly beautiful way – with a smile.

  5. wow! these are beautiful photos! But I do agree with what some other people are saying: these people aren’t really living in a “thriving” society or a good life. For sure, the pictures capture a beautiful image of a specific time, but their lives are no doubt much more difficult than we can comprehend.


  6. I’m afraid I agree with Alexa James on this one, that this is a disturbingly romantiscised view of poverty. I wouldn’t exactly call these displays of human ingenuity, but rather that of human desperation borne of lack of viable altnernatives.
    Ask those kids in the boats whether they’d prefer a house that has safe running water, and is linked to a sewer system, and I’m pretty sure they won’t pick living in a house on stilts because it is perceived as avant-garde

  7. amazing pictures! so touching

  8. And the “City of thr Dead” – Cairo’s main cemetry filled with mausolea often in the form of tiny houses, and all too often occupied by the poor, at least until the police chase them away again.

  9. I think this is a decent recognition for those who live in poverty. Agree, there is no need to romanticize poverty.

  10. Cozy homes? GTFO….

  11. I’m impressed to see the true in many provinces. So different and unbelievable. Fantastic photos. Congratulations!

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About Kate Torgovnick May

Kate Torgovnick May is a writer at TED.com. She can also solve a Rubik's Cube in less than two minutes (or at least once could).




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