Radical architects, skyscraper slums and informal cities: an interview with Justin McGuirk

Image supplied by Justin McGuirk.

Torre David is a half-finished, 52-floor office building in Caracas, Venezuela, which has been tagged with a bewildering array of labels. When its 4,438 residents were evicted last June, the world’s media variously described it as a “world-famous ‘vertical slum’”, an “abandoned skyscraper”, and an “empty tower”. One Australian newspaper led with the hopeful, “This slum could finally become a finished skyscraper.” 

The residents were evicted because they weren’t really residents at all. They were squatters, who’d moved in seven years ago and divided the tower into temporary apartments. They established communal areas and cleaning rotas; photos taken for exhibition at the Venice Biennale show them playing football and watching TV in apartments papered with pages ripped from newspapers.

The press remains divided on whether the occupation of the Torre David was a radical solution to a housing shortage in Caracas, or an inconvenient blip on the road to a finished office block. Justin McGuirk, however, feels no such conflict. The story of the Torre David occupies the central chapter of his book, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in search of a New Architecture, and he celebrates it as an inventive, even “radical” example of urban planning.

Its inclusion, however, hints at one of the recurring themes of the book. Many of the schemes or experiments he highlights are now, like the Torre David, nothing more than footnotes in the history of South American urbanism.

The Torre David. Image: Getty.

McGuirk first came across the “radical” cities and urban experiments of Latin America while editing architecture magazine Icon. Noticing that some of the industry’s most inventive projects were coming out of Latin America, he began to worry that featuring them in the magazine wasn’t enough.

“What I saw [in Latin America]was a generation of architects who were doing socially conscious work, socially meaningful work,” he says. “For a long time, that wasn’t a fashionable position at all: everyone wanted to be to be Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry” – two architects known for their big-name, big-money projects which redefine skylines and public spaces.

Latin America’s megacities helped to spark his interest, too. The region is already 80 per cent urbanised, a figure predicted to rise to 90 per cent by 2050 – and it has the sprawling slums to show for it. “My idea was that, because Latin America experienced mass urbanisation before China, Africa or India, there would be answers there for the future of urbanisation across the world,” McGuirk says.

The introduction to Radical Cities explains how Latin America became the place where, in McGuirk’s words, “the modernist idea of Utopia goes to die”. A quick history lesson is in order here. In the mid 20th century, the region’s architects, planners and governments developed enormous, high-rise housing estates to house the exploding urban population: the 23 de Enero prefabricated public housing estate in Caracas, for example, contained 9,000 apartments.

Within 20 years, however, these plans had collapsed. Sometimes literally: Mcguirk uses Mexico City’s Nonoalco-Tlatelolco estate as an example. The enormous, 15,000 unit estate was built in the 1960s, but by 1968 was already deteriorating. During an earthquake in 1985, the Nuevo Leon building collapsed completely, killing around 500 people.

"If you can't change the hardware, change the software"

So, planning policy made an about turn: British architect John Turner argued that, instead of sending slum-dwellers to newly built estates on the outskirts of cities, it’d be better to work within the slums to improve existing housing. The authorities took this advice, insofar as they stopped building housing projects – but the proposed slum improvements never happened. As McGuirk puts it, Latin American governments “dropped the notion of housing as a right”. 

This laissez-faire policy led to an explosion in informal housing in the last quarter of the century: slums, favelas, barrios, or villas miserias, depending on which city you’re talking about. That turned a problem of housing into one of permanence: areas of informal housing aren’t generally supported by transport, services or infrastructure, and can be bulldozed at a moment’s notice.

For McGuirk, the solution is to integrate the informal and formal cities. In the introduction to his book, he argues that, “Accepting the informal city as an unavoidable feature of the urban condition, and not as a city-in-waiting, is the key lesson that this generation of Latin American architecture can offer the world”. In other words, getting rid of slums won’t solve the problem: improving and integrating them might.

In McGuirk’s eyes, architects play a crucial role in this process, sitting somewhere between civic officials and the people of the city: “The job of the architect is to harness government resources; to rehabilitate or retrofit the informal city with some of the advantages of the former city, and to bring the two together.”

The role of the slums is in some ways changing anyway. In Rio, one recent development that could improve quality of life is the favelas’ growing tourist industry. But for McGuirk, this has had an “ambiguous” effect: while it gives slums a sense of permanence, tourism-oriented development diverts funds away from much-needed infrastructure and towards cable cars and guest houses.

Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. Image: Chensiyuan at Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, city officials did have more concrete plans to improve the favelas, but these were sidelined during preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. McGuirk calls the Brazilian government’s approach to both events a “wasted opportunity”. “I think it’s obscene that when it comes to favela upgrading, only a little bit of money can be found, but when it comes to building white elephant stadiums, billions of dollars can.”

More positive, in his view, is the fact that European migrant workers are moving to the favelas, something that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. “It does suggest that if Europeans can find value, and homes, in the favela, Brazilian politicians might start to see them differently too.”

This admission, that demographic change can be as revolutionary to slums as new transport networks, mirrors a pattern that runs throughout Radical Cities. As McGuirk says, “It started off as a book about architecture, and became a book about cities.”

The chapter on Bogotá, for example, focuses on the eccentric policies of Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and lecturer who was the city’s mayor in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His campaigns, including cutting licensing hours during December to cut homicides and raising domestic violence awareness among children, have become iconic in the experimental city politics.

“I just thought it was important to share Mockus’ ideas in particular,” McGuirk goes on, “because mayors tend to think they have to build things and cut ribbons, whereas actually, sometimes there's no money to do that. But that doesn't mean that you can't leave an important, intangible legacy. If you can't afford to change the hardware, change the software.”

His emphasis on improving the slums, rather than reinventing them, has attracted its fair share of critics. In a review for Disegno magazine, Owen Hatherley warns that the book is “potentially bad counsel for the future of public housing and public architecture”.

Yet McGuirk thinks this is missing the point. “[Top-down planning] makes sense if you’re building a city from scratch, but the problem with the informal city is that it is already there. These people who say 'you need good planning, you need good architecture’ – well, it's too late, for a billion people across the world.”

His next piece of research will move even further away from architecture, towards design technology. Yet his work in Latin America has left him with unanswered questions: “Radical Cities a very optimistic book, but now, the question on my mind is ‘What have I just documented? Is it the beginning of something, or the end?’”

A week after our interview, the evictions at the Torre David begin, which seems to suggest the latter. By email, McGuirk tells me:

“What would have been really interesting is if the government could have helped the residents gradually transform the building into a genuinely viable residential tower – but perhaps that’s too unorthodox for any government. Ultimately, finance capitalism gets its way in the end.”

Torre David was “a radical experiment in self-organised urban living” – but it remains to be seen whether such experiments can bring about permanent change. One day, perhaps, a more pragmatic approach to slums and urban planning will lead to more than just series of optimistic case studies, and become a commonplace of Latin planning. 

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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