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. 

 
 
 
 

Five ways in which the rest of the world can avoid the homelessness crisis plaguing the US

Housing for all. Image: Nicobobinus/Flickr/creative commons.

Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, where the number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, yet it is dwarfed by the scale of the issue in the US. More than 500,000 homeless were found across the US during just one night, compared to the UK’s 2017 count of 4,751. Changes in the definition of homelessness and flawed methodologies suggest that the true number for the US could be anywhere from 2.5 to 10.2 times greater.

Millions more live in overcrowded or slum housing, forced to choose between the damage that poor conditions do to their physical and mental health, and the street. All of the US’s housing issues – from foreclosures to evictions to poor conditions – hit communities of colour the hardest.

This is due to a legacy of discrimination, which continues to undercut any commitment to safe and decent housing for all residents, whether in the private or public sector. In my recent book, City of Segregation, I explain how the long, violent history of creating spaces for the white and privileged classes is embedded in a number of practices, which continue in US cities to this day.

Exporting inequality

As private developers and investors seek out urban land in major cities around the world to secure their fortunes, real estate patterns and practices developed within the US are increasingly being observed elsewhere.

In cities as diverse as London, Sydney and Durban, community groups which have been working for decades to improve their neighbourhoods languish with little public or private resource. Meanwhile, developers create spaces for foreign investors and new residents, who anticipate certain protections and privileges such as greater security, high quality amenities and neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds.

This is a driving force behind rising evictions and the criminalisation of homelessness, alongside gated communities, hostile architecture, “broken windows” policing with its focus on prosecuting activities such as graffiti or jaywalking and the growing privatisation of public spaces through regeneration.

But there is still time for other countries to choose a different path. The UK, in particular, can build on the legacies of the post-war political consensus that all residents should have access to quality housing, and its acknowledgement of institutional racism and some history of government anti-racist campaigning.

Both legacies should be improved, but a renewed commitment to a programme of housing and anti-racism are central to increasing equality, prosperity and well-being for all. Based on my research, I’ve come up with five steps which the UK and countries like it can follow, to ensure that future development reduces – rather than drives – homelessness and inequality.


1. Build social housing

Unlike the US, the UK acknowledges a right to a home, and within living memory provided it for a huge swathe of British society. Social housing – whether in the form of traditional council flats, cooperatives or community land trusts – provides a variety of housing types and keeps rents from rising too far beyond wages.

When social housing is widely available, it makes a huge difference to people who – for one reason or another, and often through no fault of their own – become homeless. With social housing to fall back on, homelessness is a temporary condition which can be safely resolved. Without it, homelessness can become a life-destroying downwards spiral.

2. Preserve and expand community assets

Severe segregation in the US stripped entire communities of access to quality food, jobs, education, green spaces, services, banks and loans. Poverty is endemic, and can easily tip into homelessness. While far from perfect, the UK’s post-war commitment to universal provision of services, such as education and health care, and building social housing across all neighbourhoods underpinned a surge in upward mobility.

This achievement should be salvaged from the damage done by Right To Buy – a policy which sold off social housing without replacing it – and austerity, which has prompted a sell-off of public assets and land, as well as the closure of childrens’ services, libraries and community centres.

3. Decommodify housing

A market geared towards building apartment blocks for the portfolios of investors who will never live in them cannot produce the kind of housing and neighbourhoods which residents need, much less at a price they can afford.

While London has been badly affected for some time, this trend is now spreading to other areas of the UK and Europe. Local and national governments must act to prevent global demand for housing as investments from driving prices beyond the reach of those who need real homes.

4. Build communities, not walls

Gates, bars, armed security and homeowner restrictions are all ugly traits of private housing developed within the US context of desperate inequality and racism. The UK has a long and vibrant tradition of community development, creating a supportive built environment and social infrastructure of schools, libraries and other municipal services for residents.

Community assets. Image: Helen K/Flickr/creative commons.

This kind of development, and the social mobility and growing equality it fosters, safeguards public health and safety – not big walls, barbed wire and security guards. The private rented sector in the UK should be regulated to bring it more in line with Europe, where tenants prosper with security of tenure and strong regulation of rents and rent increases.

5. Raise your voice

Those who are bearing the brunt of our current housing crisis must be at the centre of efforts to change it. From tenants’ associations and renters’ unions, to campaign groups such as Justice for Grenfell, it’s vital to support those voices advocating fairer housing rights.

This also means rejecting austerity’s constant cuts to public services, funding social support for physical and mental health and ensuring that homes are safe, decent and secure, to create a safety net for those who are working to improve their communities.

The Conversation

Andrea Gibbons, Researcher in Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.