Crossing the Streams

by David Week on 12 December 2010


In “Aid as a conversation between cultures”, I recounted my early experiences in understanding aid as a two-way exchange, rather than a one-way flow. This paper, from 1993, was my first attempt, together with Howard Davis, to put that understanding in writing.

On re-reading, I now see this paper as representing an important first step: to rethink the role of the professional from “container of superior knowledge” to “bearer of a different and useful perspective.” But for me this is the beginning, not the end.

CROSSING THE STREAMS*: Aid as a confluence of cultures

Howard Davis, University of Oregon, and David Week, Pacific Architecture (now Assai Consult)

Paper delivered at The Fifth International and Interdisciplinary Forum on Built Form & Culture Research: The Second CSPA Symposium on Architectural Practice, CROSSING BOUNDARIES IN PRACTICE, Cincinnati, October 14-17, 1993

* In an early scene in the film Ghostbusters, Dr Venkman asks Egon “What happens if we cross the streams?” Egon replies: “Crossing the streams would be very bad…” But in the end of the film, the world is only saved by crossing the streams…

The boundaries to be crossed…

As an outgrowth of colonialism, foreign aid embodies attitudes that often reinforce the very conditions of “underdevelopment” that it is intended to correct. These attitudes assume a one-way flow of knowledge, expertise and money — “aid” — across various boundaries: from North to South, from professionals to lay people, from wealthy to poor.

This one-sided view devalues non-European culture, reinforces dependency, throws away the opportunities afforded by the knowledge and skill of billions of people, and fails to ask how the experience of the “South” can help our own situation in the North, which is no less problematic.

There is however a growing recognition that aid can also be seen as a two-way exchange, which recognizes the power, knowledge, and history of the cultures conventionally seen as being at the receiving end of the aid pipeline.

In India, an organization called ILLAM: The Centre for People’s Housing/Tamil Nadu has been formed as a new kind of international collaboration.

ILLAM sees international development as mutual exchange rather than as one-way delivery. In this exchange, local culture is taken as a starting point. This leads to models of housing production that support and re-generate the local culture, by helping marginalised groups take control of the organization, financing, design and construction of their own communities and houses. But we are also keenly aware that we in the West are in ways equally poor in the environments we create for ourselves, and that what we learn in this joint work has strong lessons for our work back home.

As an example, we will describe aspects of ILLAM’s first project: a new settlement of 136 houses for the families of bicycle-rickshaw drivers in the city of Vellore. These aspects are described in a series of seven stories. Each story serves to illustrate how, in this project, certain boundaries become blurred, and it becomes difficult to tell who is poor and who rich, who has power and who has not, and who represents Indian culture, and who represents the West.

The story of ILLAM

About two years ago, we began to work with a community organization called the Centre for Development Madras, or CEDMA. CEDMA’s business is the improvement of the lives of poor people—laborers, rag-pickers, domestic servants, rickshaw drivers — in Tamil Nadu State, mostly in the cities of Madras and Vellore. Most of these people are recent migrants from villages in the countryside of Tamil Nadu and its neighboring states of Kerala, Karnataka and Andra Pradesh.

CEDMA was founded by a man named Nelson, a South Indian with enormous energy and resourcefulness, who believes strongly in two things:

  • first, the ability of people to improve their own situations, through their own will and determination, if given the right and means to do so; and
  • second, the importance of the house in people’s growing economic and cultural empowerment.

During our first conversations with Nelson, as he took us to projects and various slum communities, we began to talk about an international alliance of organizations, including CEDMA, that would help in CEDMA’s attempts to develop a model of housing production that reflects its ideas about empowerment and houses. As a name for this collaboration, Nelson came up with “ILLAM,” which means “home” in the Tamil language.

This alliance now includes:

  • the Center for Housing Innovation at the University of Oregon
  • Pacific Architecture of Sydney, Australia, which works extensively in Papua New Guinea and with Australian Aboriginal communities
  • and the Cooperative Housing Foundation in Washington, which has forty years experience in housing and housing finance all over the world.

Where can North meet South?

The idea of an organization such as ours immediately makes evident all sorts of challenges, opportunities and potential contradictions. Not the least of these questions is, “what are we doing there at all?” Isn’t it the case, after all, that it is just such involvement in the Third World by the First World, with intentions that were ostensibly honorable ones, that created the Third World in the first place? Shouldn’t we just now, finally, stay out of it?

Of course our own answer is “no.” It is true that the First World and the Third World are themselves products of a mentality that has taken certain cultures and set them apart as objects of study and colonial and post-colonial exploitation.

But partly as a result of that activity, and partly as a result of the natural tendency of people to learn from and appropriate ideas and material things from other cultures, there is no longer — if there ever indeed was — a sharp dividing line between “our” culture and “theirs.” Hundreds of millions of Indians know the Mahabharata partly through television broadcasts that are beamed into hundreds of thousands of villages, every week. The Indian film industry is the world’s most prolific.

A friend of Howard’s described his arrival in a rural village in Gujarat state, far from any city, thirty years ago. He began talking to a young man in this village, asked him about his aspirations; this man said that what he most wanted to do was get on a jet plane and go to California.

Everyone has similar stories; the author and journalist Pico Iyer has written eloquently about Asia — not in the nostalgic terms of mythical lands of lotus blossoms and peaceful meditation, but in terms of what happens when West meets East — or more accurately, when stereotypes of West meet stereotypes of East.

Within this exchange, differences still live…

At the same time that this cultural mixing exists as a global reality, cultural differences persist and people act in ways that maintain distinct cultures.

In south India, villagers who migrate to the city do not necessarily abandon village ways. The village-like community may remain strong, with life around the temple, under the banyan tree, sleeping on the lanes between the houses, women at the public well or water-pump. People maintain ties to their home villages, sending money and visiting there for important festivals. Houses may reflect ancient ritual and established patterns of daily life.

Their traditional culture — to the extent that it can be sorted out from the international communications and consumer culture — seems to remain a large part of people’s lives. And for very poor people — whose situation has been brought about to some extent by the perception of inferiority — by the first world/third world dichotomy — this culture is the source of strength and a means of coping with their situation… the source of their own empowerment.

So what we have is a situation with two interrelated realities, where the role of professionals must be to take both these realities into account, simply because they are both part of people’s lives.

But by and large, present housing policy and practice in India does not do this. Instead, it is dominated by the “first world-third world” model, which conceptualises 1 people as being in a position of dependency, rather than by a model which recognizes people’s own efforts to sustain their own cultures in their own way.

The existing model is used not only by the international development community, but also by many Indian professionals, who have been trained in the West or by institutions which follow Western models, and by a planning and regulatory environment that is a direct carryover of British colonial practice. The work of Le Corbusier in India is well known, but somewhat less well known is the work of many architects and planners who tried to emulate him after his departure from the scene.

In other words, a fresh look at the situation from the outside provides additional points of view that in some respects may be more sympathetic to the existing culture and the existing situation than professional assistance from inside the country itself.

Seven stories…

The following incidents have all taken place during our work on our first project, which is a settlement of 136 houses for bicycle rickshaw drivers and their families, on land just outside the city of Vellore. There are about 2200 cycle rickshaw drivers in Vellore, and CEDMA has been working with several hundred of them for a few years. With that help, they now have their own rickshaws, which they are paying off with a few rupees a day, and they have successfully made representation to the state government for land, on which their houses are now being built.

Story #1: The discussion about the roofs

On our first visit to India for this project, we met with Nelson and the bicycle rickshaw drivers and their families. We asked them what kind of house they wanted, and they said, concrete houses with flat concrete roofs. We could have acceded to their statement immediately. After all, that is similar to houses typically built in urban India; it is permanent, and has the ability to add more rooms, on top of the roof slab. It also fits a certain image of city life, and progress. But it also costs more than a rafter-and-tile roof, and requires cement that may not be locally produced, and does not provide for natural ventilation the way a high gable roof does. In addition, the problem of upward expansion is not as severe as in the slums where the people were then living, since the lots on which they were about to build were rather generous, and would allow for a group of small buildings in a compound.

We discussed all sides of the issue. At that time the budget for the houses was about 12,000 rupees… the equivalent of about $400…  so the cost issue was a serious one. The issue remained unresolved at that time, and was only resolved — although only temporarily — later on, with the construction of the first several houses, when the families took a series of decisions that indicated that they wanted more rather than less space built initially for the money, and therefore the pitched tile roof… the less expensive, and more traditional solution.


In this story, we, the foreigners, take a stand for an Indian cultural tradition. The rickshaw drivers speak for the Western innovation — the flat concrete roof. The debate is resolved temporarily (and such debates are only resolved temporarily they always re-emerge) in favour of the Indian historical pattern. This temporary resolution is not forced on either party.

Story #2: The investigation of local settlement patterns.

During this first visit, Nelson agreed that we would return to India in three months’ time, to undertake the layout of the new settlement, on the site. In order to prepare for this, two of our colleagues in India — Paul Moses and Thomas Kerr — undertook an investigation of existing patterns of settlement. They looked at villages, at slum communities, and at the old parts of the city of Vellore. They found about two dozen patterns, which together formed a settlement typology for our work. Their observations covered such things as street hierarchies, positions of bazaars and shops, relationships of buildings to streets, and community structures such as temples and wells.

This work formed the basis for our subsequent work on the site. It was a rough-and-ready study, and it can be improved, particularly with more discussion among the rickshaw drivers themselves. But when we used this typology on the site with the rickshaw drivers, they seemed to make sense, and we were able to talk about the shape of the main square, or the position of the temple, or the width of streets, in ways that the community was able to relate to directly.


Paul is Indian and Tom is American. Both are US-trained architects. The patterns they saw in Indian towns is one that is revealed through foreign eyes. It’s not easy for rickshaw drivers to see these patterns… for them it’s just home. For the Indian-trained professionals that staff the planning offices, they’re just slums, or antiquated tradition. They’re blinded by familiarity, as we all are in our own places.

Story #3: Changing the standards for site layout

When we were about to do the site layout with the families, following the settlement pattern study that had been done the month before, we realized that the local government set standards that would have made it impossible for the layout to achieve the positive qualities that we had observed. In fact their standards had some of the qualities of places that seemed more desolate and unused, and represented a much less efficient use of land. We knew that these standards were based on rational, western models, and had not been arrived at by doing what we were doing: looking at what existed, and how people themselves were living.

In this case we were lucky. We got the local government to relax its standards for this project, and that allowed us to have a layout that was more akin to that of the more successful traditional settlements, but also to have about 30% more house sites than originally asked for.


The notion of Western cultural superiority does not live only in the West. It also lives in colonial institutions that still exist: the bureaucracy and the professions.

As Westerners, we were most able to see the inappropriateness of these standards in this situation — precisely because they were from our place, we knew the sense and nonsense in them. But it is only in the interaction with the rickshaw drivers, and with India, that we came to understand this and were able to say it.

It is the meeting of North and South that allowed this to be revealed.

Story #4: Nelson the builder

During the week that we did the site layout, we were not planning to do any construction. But after a discussion one evening about a technique for poured mud walls that David had used in an Aboriginal community, Nelson said: “we must try that.” David: “Of course. I’ll send you some information.” Nelson: “No. I mean now, before you leave.” We hesitated, saying that we were leaving in a few days, but Nelson said that we could finish it by then. So the very next day, the site was a beehive of construction activity, with trucks making deliveries, and masons starting to place foundation stones.


It’s almost inconceivable in the West that a building begin construction 24 hours after first being conceived. Here, it was matter of fact. The West prides itself on speed and efficiency, but here, free of its own bureaucracy, it was India that was able, that was fast, that was effective, and we saw here the rigor mortis that cripples our own building activities.

Story #5: The front porch

Most houses in Tamil Nadu, both village and city houses, have a front porch. It is for cooking, for children to play, to sleep at night. Very often, it is made out of a bamboo structure and a woven palm frond roof. This has a cheaper first cost than a porch made of brick columns. It also has, in our eyes, a softness and “natural” character that we saw as somehow desirable for this tropical place.

The families were adamant about not wanting this, even if it would add to the initial cost of the house. They knew that such a roof needs to be replaced every couple of years, at least, and would cost several hundred rupees every time they did so. So the first houses were built with integral porches… and different from the solution of the roofs, this represented the more expensive, and more modern solution.


In contrast to the story of the concrete slab roofs, the outcome here swung the other way, towards the modern. This we take as evidence of honest open-ended dialogue, in which the outcome is not predetermined by any principle such as “traditional is better then modern” or “modern is better than traditional”… just the outcome of the process, whatever it may be.

Example 6: The placement of the toilets

During [Howard’s] visit to India last spring, Nelson decided that although we did not have permanent construction financing, we would begin the construction of three more houses, to move the project along by developing the construction system and the house layout process. While we were working with the families to lay out their houses, the question came up as to the position of the toilets. The toilet is to be a simple fixture, surrounded by a small enclosure, connected to a pit latrine.

The families were unanimous that the toilets be away from the houses, not connected to them. Nelson on the other hand, insisted the opposite: that they should be connected to the houses, that this position had been decided at a community meeting, and not only that, but CEDMA would teach the families how to keep them clean.


Here we were, the outsiders, more in sympathy with the families and their habits based on Hindu notions of purity and dirt; less in sympathy with the man who had earned the trust of the families over several years, but who was apparently bringing his own outside beliefs to the situation. We had a big argument with Nelson, who ultimately agreed that the toilets should be where the families wanted them. We believe that the issue is not yet resolved. What we hope is that two different versions of the toilet location will appear early in the project — one connected and the other not connected to the house — and that families will see them, talk to those who use them, and make up their own minds.

Again, the standard boundaries are muddied… we take up a Hindu position, Nelson takes up a technocratic one. The resolution is worked through, over time, in its own time.

Story #7: Paul Moses and Annamalai’s house

This last story is taken from the field notes of Paul Moses, during construction of the Annamalai’s house:

“At the end of the second day, the building had come up to plinth level. We stopped work, and again I initiated the discussion of the position of the doors of the house. The Annamalais wanted the front door on the left side of their house, so that the cooking can be done on the other corner. But it surprised me when they wanted to place the rear door diagonally opposite. I intervened and stressed the importance of placing doors in a straight line for efficient usage of space. But the Annamalais corrected us: by having the doors at diagonally opposite corners, they created private corners for the parents and children, when they sleep facing the wall.”


We Western professionals take pride in our understanding of concepts like “efficiency”, and the principles of design and action that follow from such concepts. This story reveals that we, living in our 2000 square foot houses, have little real understanding of efficiency. An Indian family, in a 200 square foot house, knows how to make one room work as two. They know, we know not. In this situation, they become the teacher, we the student.

We’d like to conclude by speaking about the relationship between the ideas of empowerment growing out of people’s own culture, and the sorts of involvement, by professionals from outside that culture, that we have been describing.

In each of the above cases, our role is different from one in which housing is being provided for people, as a direct transfer of knowledge from professional to client. It is also different from one in which professionals stay out of the picture altogether, expecting that people will thereby be liberated from any sort of domination.

Instead, in these examples, the existing situation — the slums, the ways of building that people have, the ways of living that people have — is the starting point for action, rather than problems to be eliminated or corrected.

This is different from modes of professional operation — in both the Third World and in our own society—in which there is the assumption that the existing situation has no redeeming or positive qualities, and that projects can be defined from the outset, and from the outside, in very precise terms of procedure and “deliverables.”

Housing production happens within a building culture that includes brickmakers, masons, surveyors, bankers, laborers, building officials, users, architects and many others. It has its own history, its own structure, and its own momentum, and therefore cannot be changed rapidly, even from within.

Three concepts of development

Let us outline three conceptions of development.

  • Concept A is “development comes from outside—from foreign assistance”.
  • Concept B is “development comes from within people themselves” (which would indeed seem to imply that if we would just leave them alone, things would change for the better.) Concept B is a reaction to Concept A.
  • Concept C — which we are exploring in our projects and in this paper—is that positive change comes from a certain kind of honest and equal exchange of experience, and working together. That it comes from neither without nor within, but from this kind of meeting of peoples. That development comes from exchange.

Historically, Concept A is a variant of the Colonialist position: our culture is superior, we have and you have not, etc.

Concept B is a local, Nationalist position: this is crap, these colonialists have not only brought a few benefits, but they brought us all their problems. What we need is to get control back over our own communities, to do things ourselves, in our own way, etc.

Concept C is more even-handed. It says: You have problems, we have problems. You have strengths that you developed from coping with these problems, so do we — different strengths. You have insights and blind spots that arise from the way that you see life and the world. So do we. Neither of us are intrinsically more powerful, knowledgeable, or face more difficult situations…

Compare the problems India faces with water, housing, sanitation, with the problems the US faces with gun control, the ghettoes, the educational system. Just at the level of the housing, for any litany of problems they have, we can recite a litany of problems of our own… Not greater, or less, not bigger, or smaller… just different.

From this position of equal respect to both cultures, to both peoples, we can see a wonderful opportunity, that is not disclosed if one attempts to see either Western culture as superior (Concept A) or the local Indian culture as superior (Concept B.) That is this:

Precisely because our situations are so different, your strengths are not mine, your insights are not mine, your blind spots are not mine. So that if we work together in a way which allows both of our strengths and insights to emerge, we produce something much stronger, and truer, than either of us was capable of alone.

This is Concept C.

And this is the reason for our professional involvement: to help recognize and legitimize these subcultures, in the eyes and policies of the larger culture around them — of which we professionals form a part.


  1. We say “conceptualises” rather than puts, because it is not clear that this “dependency” exists outside our own cultural world construct. For instance, most of these people cope, and even flourish, under circumstances which would see most of us wither and die. They also don’t generally seem to see themselves as our dependents.

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