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. 

 
 
 
 

When should you forget the bus and just walk?

Might as well talk, tbh. Image: Getty.

It can often be tempting to jump on a bus for a short journey through the city, especially when it’s raining or you’re running behind schedule. Where there are dedicated bus lanes in place, it can feel as though you speed past gridlocked traffic. But as city authorities begin new initiatives to get people walking or cycling, that could all change – and so could you.

British people are wasting tens of hours in traffic every year: London comes top, with the average commuter spending 74 hours in traffic, followed by Manchester, with 39 hours and Birmingham and Lincoln, both with 36 hours.

It might surprise some people to learn that cities are intentionally slowing down private vehicles, in order to shift people to other, more efficient, modes of transport. In fact, Transport for London removed 30 per cent of the road capacity for private vehicles in central London between 1996 and 2010. That trend continues today, as the organisation gives over more space for buses, cyclists and pedestrians.

London’s road capacity, over time. Image: Transport for London/author provided.

Clamp down on cars

The loss of road capacity for cars has occurred across most UK cities, but not on the same scale everywhere. The good news is that the changes, when made, appear to have reduced actual car congestion. It seems that by making it less attractive to use your car, you’ll be more likely to use other transport. In fact, the average speed of buses and cyclists can be up to twice as fast as normal traffic in cities such as London.

The relationship between walking and improved health has been proven to such an extent that it seems everyone – your doctor, your family, regional and national government – wants to increase physical activity. The savings in health care costs, are via improved fitness, reduced pollution and improved mental health, and its impact on social care are huge.

For instance, Greater Manchester wants to increase the number of people who get the recommended level of exercise (only about half currently do). The most advanced of these plans is London’s, which has the specific goal of increasing the number of walks people take by a million per day.

So, the reality is that over the next few years, walking will gradually appear more and more “normal” as we are purposefully nudged towards abandoning our rather unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles.


The long journey

Consider this: the typical bus journey in the UK is almost three miles, with an average journey time of around 23 minutes. The equivalent walk would take approximately 52 minutes, travelling at just over three miles per hour. It seems obvious that the bus is much faster – but there’s much more to consider.

People normally walk at least a quarter of a mile to and from the bus stop – that’s roughly ten minutes. Then, they have to wait for a bus (let’s say five minutes), account for the risk of delay (another five minutes) and recover from the other unpleasant aspects of bus travel, such as overcrowding.

This means that our 23 minute bus journey actually takes 43 minutes of our time; not that much less than the 52 minutes it would have taken to walk. When you think of the journey in this holistic way, it means you should probably walk if the journey is less than 2.2 miles. You might even choose to walk further, depending on how much value you place on your health, well-being and longevity – and of course how much you dislike the more unpleasant aspects of bus travel.

The real toss up between walking and getting the bus is not really about how long it takes. It’s about how we change the behaviour and perceptions we have been conditioned to hold throughout our lives; how we, as individuals, engage with the real impacts that our travel decisions have on our longevity and health. As recent converts to walking, we recommend that you give it a go for a month, and see how it changes your outlook.

The Conversation

Marcus Mayers, Visiting Research Fellow, University of Huddersfield and David Bamford, Professor of Operations Management, University of Huddersfield.

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