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. 

 
 
 
 

Network Rail let me have a play on Manchester’s new rail bridge. Here’s what I learned

The new bridge in all its glory. Image: Network Rail.

By the time the railways arrived in Manchester, the city was already built up, forcing trains to finish their journey on the edge of the urban area. To this day, it still has two main stations: Victoria, which sits on the northern edge of the city centre, and serves destinations across the north; and Piccadilly, which serves a smaller chunk of the north, but also provides trains to Birmingham, London and points south.

There are many ways in which this situation is less than ideal. For a start it means that travellers get off a train, only to find they’re still surprisingly far from the city centre. For another, terminating services take up more space (because you need more platforms) and time (because crews need to change ends) than through ones.

Then there’s Manchester Airport, the busiest in the north, used by travellers right across the region. But that’s to the south of the city, on a line into Piccadilly, which makes it annoyingly hard to get to by train.

The proposed PiccVic tunnel. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So what with one thing and another, linking up Manchester’s two stations in some way has been an ambition for decades. In the mid-1970s, there was a plan for a “Picc-Vic” tunnel, which would have served five underground stations in the city centre – but that, inevitably, got cancelled due to lack of funds. The city council instead started to focus its efforts on the new Metrolink tram network; but while that’s been great for locals and commuters, it’s not done much for longer-distance travellers

A few weeks from today, though, trains will travel directly between Piccadilly and Victoria for the first time. To do so, they’ll use existing lines to the south and west of the city centre, as well as 300m of new track, known as the Ordsall Chord.

And, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, the nice people at Network Rail let me have a go on their new bridge. Here I am, in my fetching new personal protective equipment:

Jacket, trousers, boots, gloves, eye protection, hard hat: all present and correct. Ability to take a remotely flattering selfie: conspicuous by its absence. Image: author provided.

(The trousers were my size, which was unexpected, because I hadn’t actually told Network Rail what size I was. This lead me to worry they kept a database of such things, but the press office assured me that this had literally never happened before, and was extremely unlikely to happen again. So anyway.)

The Ordsall Chord has been talked about for a very long time: parliament actually agreed to build the thing, then known as the Castlefield Curve, all the way back in 1979, just after the cancellation of the Picc-Vic tunnel. In some ways it’s an obvious missing link – remember we’re talking about just 300m of new track, costing under £100m, which isn’t that much as these things go. But Britain being what it is, it proved rather easier to persuade ministers to build London’s £15bn Crossrail instead.

A schematic of the new curve. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, though, then chancellor George Osborne unexpectedly announced £85m of funding. The project somehow survived austerity and the new bridge in the borderlands between Manchester and Salford, officially opened last week (although the first trains won’t run until next month).

A scale model of the new link, nearby in what was Manchester Liverpool Road station; it’s now a part of the Museum of Science & Industry. Image: author provided.

I say it’s a bridge: as it happens, it’s actually two bridges. The bit your eye is drawn to is a structure known as a “network arch”, which means those wires crosses at least two others. That part will carry trains over the River Irwell, which divides Manchester from Salford.

Beyond that, though, there’s a second bridge: a flat one, across a section of the inner ring road. Linking them is a slight dip in the metal sides of the bridge (though not, obviously, in the track).

A map of the area. New curve highlighted in yellow. Image: Google.

This, along with the asymmetrical shape of the arch which facilities it, is a purely aesthetic feature. So is the colour: the metal was allowed to rust in the Manchester climate, apparently for no other reason than to make it look cool. “We don’t want it to read as different structures as you look along the river,” Peter Jenkins, the head of transport at architects BDP and lead architect on the project, explained at the official opening ceremony. The design, he added, was “not uncharted, but rarely charted.”

To be fair, it is a great looking bridge: something that looks like a landmark, rather than just a piece of infrastructure. One of the guys who’d worked on the project told me, as a group of us stood on the bridge, that he hoped it would be illuminated at night, just to show it off and make it a feature of the city’s skyline.

(Incidentally, as excited as I was to go play on the bridge, it wasn’t entirely clear what I was meant to do once I got there. I tramped up and down a bit, took some pictures of the city’s skyline, and occasionally checked nervously that there was no way a train could get near me. But what was I actually meant to do? And what was a decent interval before it was acceptable to, y’know, get off the bridge again? Ah well, better take another photo I suppose.)

A view from a bridge. Image: author provided.

Looking good is all very well, of course, but what will the Ordsall Chord actually do? 


For a start, it’ll allow travellers from Yorkshire, the north east and other parts of the north to travel directly to the airport for the first time: that should hopefully work out well the airport, the road network and the wider economy.

It’ll also speed up journey times. Longer distance services will no longer have to reverse, or trundle all the way around Manchester on far-flung bits of track. Instead, they’ll be able to go straight around the city centre.

(Seriously, I’ve been up here 20 minutes now. Is it okay to get down again yet? Surely they must all have noticed that I have no idea what I’m doing right now. Surely.)

Mike Heywood, the director who managed the project for Network Rail, pointed me to another, less obvious benefit. At the moment, the various trains terminating at Piccadilly often have to cross each other’s paths to reach their platforms. This, if you don’t want trains to crash into each other, limits the number of trains you can actually run.

By diverting a share of trains via two new through-platforms and the chord, Heywood told me, you can reduce that, and add 25 per cent to Piccadilly’s capacity at a stroke.

The side view. Image: author provided.

Oh, and by making the new bridge look good, those who built it also hope it’ll help kick-start regeneration along a rather neglected stretch of the River Irwell, too.  Not bad for 300m of new track.

This is only one part of what the industry has termed the Great North Rail project. Others include an extra platform at Manchester Airport, electrification on assorted routes in the north west, and – best of all, given the state of the existing rolling stock – vast numbers of new trains, due to appear next year.


 The region’s transport network is still not getting anything like the care or attention that we take for granted in the south east, of course, but all the same, it’s nice to be able to write about a new railway line in the north for once. AND they let me go play on a bridge.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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