22 Jul 2014 01:43:15
The Venice Architecture Biennale is usually a grand gathering of the biggest names in architecture, where they can display their brilliance to their peers. In the 2012 edition, however, the Golden Lion awarded to the best exhibit went to something whose fascination was not primarily to do with the input of professional architects. This was the Torre David, in Caracas, a 1990s office tower left unfinished when funds ran out. What makes it remarkable is the fact that it has now been colonised by squatters, making it into a vertical barrio, a self-regulating community of the poor, within a frame designed for corporate profit. In territories once intended for photocopiers, computer terminals, desks and meeting rooms, there are homes, streets, shops and churches. Patches of mirror-glass cladding contrast with the ubiquitous orange bricks and concrete blocks of self-built Latin American houses, with a petrified ooze of sloppy mortar from the joints. There are no lifts, meaning that some residents have to walk up and down 28 storeys by stair, and that the upper levels of the 47-storey tower are unoccupied. Balustrades are often absent or imperfect, such that fatal falls are a hazard of living there, a risk the residents run in order that they can have a home, and one in the centre of the city.
The Torre David has become an icon of something – an awareness that something extraordinary is going on in Latin American cities. Once international architectural interest in the continent focused on the slick modernist trophies of Oscar Niemeyer. Now the outside world looks at its informal, unofficial and amateur constructions. If the favelas of Rio, once seen as impossible-to-enter warzones, have now become tourist attractions, architects and planners study them for the lessons they can offer for the building of cities.
All of which makes Radical Cities timely. Its author, Justin McGuirk, was one of those responsible for displaying the Torre David in Venice, much to the horror of better-off caraqueños, who saw it as a celebration of their city's disreputable side. In the book he tours some of the successes and failures of Latin American urbanism, from Argentina and Chile to Mexico's border with the United States.
He meets Milagro Sala, the woman who has created low-income communities in northern Argentina, with swimming pools and theme parks, which McGuirk calls "radical, socialist, Disney activism". He interviews the mathematician and philosopher Antanas Mockus who as mayor of Bogotá replaced ineffectual traffic police with mime artists, in the (correct) belief that the latter would make drivers pay more attention. Rather than the hardware of grand engineering projects, Mockus aimed to change the "software" of his city through influencing the behaviour of its citizens. The rates of both murders and traffic deaths fell dramatically.
The most persistent theme is the interaction of planned and spontaneous, of legal and illegal, of top-down and bottom-up. There are the favelas and the barrios, which constitute a greater proportion of the fabric of cities there, but also some of the world's most ambitious and vast attempts at government-directed mass housing, such as the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco estate in Mexico City, which at its height housed 80,000 people. Many such developments were ordained by military dictatorships, as a way of ordering their populations. Some were sponsored by the US government, such as the City of God in Rio de Janeiro, with the intention of neutralising the sedition that might arise in slums. The City of God gave its name to a famous film about gang violence, which shows just how unsuccessful was this plan.
McGuirk points out that as long ago as 1963 the English architect John Turner wrote in favour of informal housing in South America, and "was making a convincing case not to see them as slums that needed clearing, but as creative and efficient solutions to the needs of the poor". For some time, and in several different cities, the authorities have been trying with varying degrees of success to upgrade rather than erase, to insert sanitation and open spaces, and cable cars to help people reach the inaccessible locations where unauthorised development tends to take place.
A particular phenomenon stands out, which is the hybrid of formal and informal. The Torre David, as the popular colonisation of a professionally designed concrete structure, is one example. So are the much-publicised houses in Iquique, Chile, by the architect Alejandro Aravena, where the limited budget was spent on creating "half a good house", to be completed by their residents with their own resources of time and labour. McGuirk also visits Previ, in Lima, a 1970s project where a stellar list of architects – the sort of figures who would now be designing the Serpentine Gallery's annual pavilion – created housing prototypes that have since been modified almost beyond recognition.
Latin American cities, as portrayed in this book, are like cities everywhere, only more so. They are the sites of Darwinian struggles for survival in which haves and have-nots are in perpetual conflict. Victories are fragile, and ideals easily perverted. Corruption and violence are rarely far away. It is usually easy to spot the bad guys, but the good guys are not always what they seem. How to tell when a cable car or a sanitation project is a beneficent act, and when a political gesture, a tool of gentrification and displacement, and a business opportunity for corrupt contractors?
There is plenty of despair, as one brave initiative after another falls foul of vested interests. There is a moment when McGuirk sees a positive future in a young, dancing crowd in Caracas, and you feel he is clutching at straws. But his underlying message is more convincingly hopeful, that it is possible to apply human ingenuity and organisation to the benefit of the displaced and the marginal. He describes a sort of activist planning that could, with local variations, be applied to cities anywhere in the world.
The complexity and scale of the subject gives rise to the book's weaknesses – the cities of an entire continent make a big subject for a medium-sized book, and any one of the projects McGuirk describes could justify a volume of its own. So depth can be lacking. Unable to delve fully into the contradictions of a given situation, he often can only reach tentative and impressionistic conclusions, and he's at his best with places he knows best, like Torre David. But these weaknesses are occupational hazards of what is an important task, to give a glimpse into the present and future of the world's cities.
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