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. 

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).