The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Justin McGuirk: Radical Cities - Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture (2014)

Reviewed by Selma Ayduz

In RADICAL CITIES Justin McGuirk takes us on a journey through Latin America outlining some of the most inspirational projects carried out by the new generation of architects striving to make a meaningful difference. He highlights the shift in attitude towards informal settlements throughout the years, and how different approaches were attempted to deal with them. McGuirk chooses to observe cases across Latin America as this is where the largest development and housing schemes in the world took place, ‘where modernist utopia went to die’ (McGuirk, 2014, pp.8). The earliest forms of this mass urbanisation took place in Latin America, long before China and Africa.

The book begins by giving an example of one of the largest modern urbanisation projects in Latin America. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s plans for cities, Mario Pani wanted to clear out the slums in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, by matching the density of them with high rise buildings surrounded by public space. However, the project did not succeed in its intentions as it was inhabited by middle class citizens rather than the poor. McGuirk describes this project as the ‘birth and sudden demise of utopian modernist planning in Mexico’ (McGuirk, 2014, pp.6). The social housing projects in Latin America often followed the same pattern and were inaccessible to those most in need.

Housing projects started to be criticised in Europe and America. However, due to construction companies cutting costs, poor maintenance and poverty, people started to generalise about the problems and blame architects for ‘treating people like ants, making cities ugly, replacing variety with standardisation, repetition, repetition, repetition’ (McGuirk, 2014, pp.7 ). Conveniently governments started to take note of the research of John Turner, an English architect, who believed the slums were ‘creative and efficient solutions to the needs of the poor’ (Turner, no date, pp.10). He suggested that the governments could not possibly finance the total demand for housing and that the poor building their own houses should be seen as an advantage. As a result, governments stopped building housing estates and opened the door for the private sector, leaving the poor to their own devices and to be pushed further and further out of the cities. With social housing no longer a government priority, there was a loss of social purpose in the professions.

Amongst the new generation of architects in Latin America however, there are signs of hope. They brought new ideas and worked with determination to address the various problems threatening the cities of Latin America, and the ideas they brought forward could be an inspiration for transforming other parts of the developing world. One of those is Urban-Think Tank, who brought innovative solutions to improve conditions in slums. They designed vertical gyms to replace football pitches, which went down very well with the communities and were used intensively. They also introduced a cable-car system connecting the hillside slums with the city centre and thus improving the mobility of the residents. They proved that small interventions could have a much greater impact on the surrounding community.

A further example of activist architects McGuirk followed is Alejandro Aravena with his Quinta Monroy houses. Faced with the challenge of settling ninety-three families legally in houses with only $7.500 per house, Aravena came up with the solution to build half of a house and allow the families to develop their houses as their situation improved. The half of the house provided families with the essential base, a concrete structure, a kitchen and a bathroom. The gaps left in between houses allowed families to expand further in time, and potentially sell their houses later and move on to better housing. This made Quinta Monroy houses an investment. According to John Turner, this scheme was a success as ‘people derived a great deal of personal satisfaction from self-building’ (Turner, no date, pp.86 ). Although there was also the conflicting opinion that the government should provide people with proper housing rather than half-houses, when put into perspective that the majority of housing in the world is self-built, the solution offered by Aravena is very positive.

In the 1990s there was a change in attitude towards the slums as they were no longer seen as a disease to be cut out of the city, but an urban condition part of the city and this started the Favelo-Bairro programme in Rio. The programme’s aim was to upgrade the slums’ conditions by connecting them to the rest of the city, building roads and stairs, and therefore improving the mobility of the slum-dwellers. Installations included new public spaces and community buildings. The new improvements aimed to remove the stigma attached to the favelas, and connect neighbourhoods by softening the boundaries and therefore raise the ‘perception of the favelas in the urban imaginary’ (McGuirk, 2014, pp.118). During this process the favelas were added to maps, and started to be recognised as neighbourhoods thus ‘breaking down the barriers of a divided city’ (McGuirk, 2014, pp. 116). The Favelo-Bairro went beyond upgrading, as their ideal was to integrate the slums into the city without loosing their identity or displacing residents. Similarly, Alfredo Brillembourg argues that, in an upgrading scheme, communities need to have a plan for the whole area rather than become individual owners upgrading their own buildings with no profound effect on its surroundings.

Previous to the Favelo-Bairro programme governments refused to improve the slums regarding them as places that should not, and even did not, exist. However, with the realisation that the slums were part of the urban condition they were awarded with innovative public architecture such as the Espana library park in Santo Domingo Barrio of Medellin, former murder capital of the world. These installations made the slums become prominent neighbourhoods, and broke down the stigma about them.

In conclusion, McGuirk suggest that the most important lesson for this generation of Latin American architects to offer is to accept ‘the informal city as an unavoidable feature of the urban condition, and not as a city-in-waiting.’ (McGuirk, 2014, pp.26). He says that an activist architect must find a difficult context and intervene, using the support of the local community, as those most in need can neither come to them nor afford them. Tiny interventions can be an uplifting cause for the whole community, a process which integrates them into the city as well as improving the quality of life and addressing poverty and inequality. In order to handle unplanned change, McGuirk suggests urbanism has to be flexible and involve the communities who live in the informal city. McGuirk argues that we must accept that favelas are not a problem of urbanity but are the solution. He says the favela IS the city, and by coming to terms with this the activist architect can make interventions that have social and political meaning and revitalise architecture and urban design.












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