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. 

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.