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.

Thursday 29 January 2015

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

Discussed by Preethi Madhana Kumar

Justin McGuirk emphasises the reason to travel across Latin America in search of architects, politicians and grass root communities that are changing its landscape today is to reveal the way architects have taken the lead role in formulating new ways in community building, community living and breathing the city.

The writer’s initial concept for the book arrived after the crash in 2008 when people started rethinking the role of architecture today. He noticed particularly a rise in a generation of architects in the Latin America who work on social architecture. They were not starchitects but those who work in difficult conditions. As a result of his research he found that Latin America has a long history of testing radical ideas in city making. Today mass urbanisation or rapid urbanisation makes us think about China and Africa with a statistics of millions of people moving to cities, but in the mid Twenieth Century the focus was on Latin America. They were undergoing mass urbanisation in a scale which was never seen before.

McGuirk starts with Mexico City where in 1944 the population was 1 million but by the 1980s had risen to 15 million, the kind of extraordinary shift that gave birth to something like Tlatelolco by Mario Pani. It was built for 100,000 people and was a precise example of mass urbanisation. What we see here is Le Corbusier’s idea of a city taken to its logical conclusion. It never really reaches its solution in Europe or America but here in Latin America is also where the modernist idea of utopia goes to die. The fact is the government could not build it fast enough or cheap enough for people to occupy, which would have stopped millions of people moving to cities.

In the late 1970s global politics and economics spread through Latin America. Washington, World Bank and I.M.F started to persuade the governments to abandon building housing and let the free market takeover. Architects lost their power and the urban policies of 70’s 80’s and 90’s result in something like Petare, Caracas which happens to be one of the biggest slums in the world. Across Latin America there is an explosion of slum building. There is slum explosion, withdrawal of architecture and removal of power from planners to intervene in the situation. They re-engage in the 90s and they do it in a different way this time, not with utopian idealism, but a shift to a sensitive kind of pragmatic and much more sophisticated response to the city.

As he travels further McGuirk realises how naïve he was about the whole concept of social architecture and this kind of modern utopia and he realised that in Venezaires when he came across Piedra Buena, Buenos Aires. It was built in the late 1970’s under the military dictatorship. The lead architect was the Uruguayan Raphael Vinoly. The reason why this project did not work was that his design was idealistic but the process behind it was not, starting off designed for the poor but did not go to them at the end. It fell into decrepitude and neglect, a classic story of community housing estates in Europe. At this instance McGuirk raises a question-

“If this top down paternalistic approach to social housing didn’t always result in successful solutions, if modernism seems to be a failure as so many people thought, is there a modernistic bottom up approach to city building that doesn’t just result in a favela or a slum or a barrier?”

He found an answer to this in Argentina. Listening to the rumours he ended up at Huhui and met the extraordinary Milagro Sala, leader of theTupac Amaru social movement. What she does is take a little bit of housing subsidy and builds factories for steel and brick work which eventually provides employment for people. She was building swimming pools and aquatic parks for the community. It was surprising as social housing is a classic example of providing the minimum but she completely reversed the concept by giving the maximum they could get. There are no architectural influences found here. In fact the whole book is not about architectural objects but really about actions and processes. It exists outside neo-liberal framework as it doesn’t rely on property values and this idea of community participation in the city building has a very long history.

In the 1960s English architect John Turner, studying the self-built communities of Peru, the bariados imposed a controversial argument stating;
“There was no need to move people into tower blocks in fact the shacks they are building for themselves are more powerful. Housing is what it does to people and not how it looks.”
On the back of this idea the most radical housing competition ever happened in Lima called PREVI. James Stirling from Britain, Christopher Alexander from the States, The Metabolists from Japan, Aldo Van Eyck from Holland came up with the design of low rise high density housing. The jury could not decide which one was best and built everything. That is a reason why PREVI is famous, the last chance for architects to make a stand in community housing. It was seen as a failure as it was too expensive. This was the end of modernism.

But the idea was reborn 40 years later in Chile through Alejandro Aravena. He came up with a brutally reductive logic;
“If you can’t build a complete house with the available money build half a house.”
an alternative between rigid modernism and random individualistic favela styling.

From there McGuirk went to Rio and a start to talk about the favela on the bottom of Vidigal. He doesn’t mention Brasilia in the book as it is a completely planned city. Of course the favelas come with problems. He also talks about his experience in Alemao and emphasises that this informal city is no longer illegal or a threat. In fact it’s a place with quality. He talks about urban acupuncture in Favela Bairro.This process was to intervene into public spaces with symbols of urbanity. To integrate or divide a city connections are essential and this is what it takes. Again as a result of these experiences McGuirk starts to question;
“Who is the city for?”

He continues to talk about architects who self-initiate projects by talking to people and knowing what the community wants. The thought about the Chacao Vertical gymnasium in Caracas and how it transformed the crime rate and led to a drop of 30%. Barrio San Agustin in Caracas is an extraordinary example of civic pride. He is stunned by the metro cable car to commute from the bottom to the hill top to reach houses in minutes when compared to the long hours it takes to reach the top by climbing. It was definitely a fight between the political power and the activist architect to bring about a radical change. Later he discovered Torre David in Caracas, a skyscraper built to be a banking headquarters in the mid-1990s, a 45 storey mirror glass post-modern skyscraper. The developer died and the economy took a nose dive and after 10 years there were 3000 people squatting in there, the tallest squat in the world.
That raises a question again;
“Why should people live in outskirts when there are buildings empty in the heart of the city?”

It’s not about architecture but about maintaining and giving a life to the concrete skeleton which is empty was the answer he concluded.

Antanas Mockus who specialises in social capital drew McGuirk's attention. He was fired for his behaviour of symbolic violence when he pulled down his pants and showed his backside to the university students in his work place. He became the mayor of Bogota and what he did was to tweak the civic DNA of the city by replacing the traffic police by mime artists which brought a sense of order and place. He said if you can’t change the hardware change the software. Then follows the explanation about Medellin the 'murder capital of the world' where people like Sergio Fajardo started to invest in public spaces and that brought down the crime rate. All these experiments made the invisible places visible.

The journey ends at Tijuana. This is where Latin America hits the global/economic north. Teddy Cruz calls it the political equator between the global south and the global north. At the end McGuirk concludes with the observation that the lessons of Latin America might cross the border like the migrants and influence urban policy in the world’s richest country.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

'What we did on our holidays!'

During the Christmas vacation MA A+U student Peiwu Fang enjoyed some paragliding in Fethiye, Turkey

Thursday 1 January 2015

ALBERT POPE: Ladders - Architecture at Rice 34 (1996)

Reviewed by Honghao Zeng

Primacy of space
The contemporary city is invisible: the process or urban development lacks the conceptual framework that would allow us to understand it. Collective neglect: our perceptions of the city stop us from including the different forms of contemporary urbanism.

Primacy of form
The contemporary city is not an identifiable object: built form does not characterize the contemporary city. The contemporary city is inaccessible to those who live and design it.

An idea of form in a city of space
Built form and the logic of form: urban form and thus the city is always, to some degree, autonomous, for example, the urban grid.

Apparatus of inclusion
As the grid disappears, so does the city. The grid is the city. This relationship is marked by the grid’s ability to generate systems of infinite complexity.
20th century planners' rejection of the grid led to an emergence of an anonymous and dehumanizing urban existence.

Centripetal and centrifugal grid
The grid sustains two divergent organizational characteristics: centripetal and centrifugal. Centrifugal: infinite extension or continuity outward in all directions. Centripetal: a bounded figure, its extent is known.

Grid organization on the surrounding spatial field.
The centripetal grid is cut off from its content - posits an outside to its own inside, an outside that is alien to its own interior. The centrifugal grid has the coordinates of everywhere, there is no such thing as an outside.

Grid transformation: the prewar city has centrifugal organization, postwar city has centripetal organization. Mumford characterized the industrial city as a place of darkness, chaos, and closure, with the Modern Movement promising an open liberated city. Pope claims that as modern building and spaces began to open up, the city itself began to close down.

Marcuse’s 3 phases of grid formations:
1. the precapitalist city.
2. The city of laissez-faire capitalism.
3. the city of mature capitalism. The city was perceived as a process rather than urban plan.

Centripetal vs. closed city
Urban implosion: transition from centrifugal to a centripetal urban order. Catastrophic implosion: a city which undergoes significant population loss. Historical examples of centripetal order: palaces, prisons, schools, monasteries, asylums, forts.

Urban transition
The ladder is the invention of urban reconstruction, it manifests characteristics of centripetal organization. In the ladder, vestiges of traditional urban form survive, yet its spatial qualities are antithetical to those of open centrifugal urbanism.

Urban implosion
There is a closure from the Garden City, to the modern city, directly to the built reality of postwar urban construction.

Grid erosion
The disappearance of the grid coincides with the disappearance of the city, yet it is apparent that this disappearance is never really complete.
A moment in which the city, as it is historically understood, ceases to be – the grid transforms into a ladder. Grid and ladder exist at the same time.

The ladder
The ladder manifests the characteristics of closed centripetal organization.
In contrast with the infinite continuity of the open grid, the ladder is a finite, indivisible, hierarchical structure. Ten grid points: different routes; a variety of itineraries, any number of plans, often at cross-purpose. Ten ladder points: one route; one itinerary, one plan, the virtual suppression of cross-purpose.

Linear cities
Garden cities: they focused on limited-size simulations of provincial towns. Linear cities: they are open-ended, and a limitless extension of the metropolis.
Two broad categories:
1. “band type”: this model was proposed by N.A.Milutin. He proposed 6 parallel zones along the river Volga. Each band had functional criteria. But there was no connection between any of these 6 bands, each band could expand individually.
2. A kind of city organized around a centralized, hierarchical spine. The spine comprised of institutional buildings like schools, hospitals. Since the spine had a direct connection to the path of transportation, there was a scope of formation of new spines.

Hilberseimer is the prime theorist of the ladder. He envisaged relentless punched openings in the urban wall with transparent skin structures arrayed on a series of parallel urban spines.
The settlement unit could be divided into 6 zones: industrial zone, freeway, feeder, commercial and administration zone, residential zone and a park zone. The settlement unit was conceived as the catalyst of spatial implosion.

Grid replanning
Four stages of replanning: existing plan; grid demolition, freeway and feeder connection; industrial park constructed; final grid demolition, commercial and parking relocated.
The superurban stage
Early stages of suburban growth—where traditional centrifugal development is primary and “suburban” centripetal development is secondary—move to the present stage, where the two forms of development are somewhat balanced—superurban stage, where centripetal development fully dominates the hierarchical centrifugal core. It is the moment when the space of the open centrifugal “world” implodes.

The ellipsis
It is the agent of imploded urban space; the overlay and underlay of forms such as bridges, freeways and tunnels which Pope explains then creates an ellipses. It is not caused due to delay or uneven development, while it is a result of the centripetal development.

The centripetal city
When centralized poly-nuclear expansion started to fail, the city got trapped into a conflict where neither the traditional urban strategies could die, nor could new urban strategies emerge.

The spiral
By the end of second world war, metropolitan masses became so apparently problematic, so socially and politically dangerous, that it could no longer take on concrete urban form.
The path of the open grid is theoretically infinite in both directions. Unlike the closed figure of the spiral, it can never establish an end point, or “end of the road”. In contrast to this infinite extent, the spiral is closed and singular.

The strip and the mega-structure
Sprawl can be defined as the residuum of exurban corporate nuclei. As the disorganization of the exurban residuum has come to be known as urban “blight”, so the disorganization of the exurban residuum has come to be known as urban sprawl.
Sprawl, like inner city blight, is only a metaphor for the more general qualities found in the residuum of a closed urban system.

The disorganization of space.
Since there is always a dialectic between the urban form and space, the excessive degree of organization in the enclave triggers an excessive degree of disorganization in the residuum. Now the exurban disorganization can be understood better when not in contrast with a highly formed organization of the enclave. It emerges not as an effect of forces surging out of control, but due to lack of structured organization.

Traditional western urban structure is a kind of continuous grid. Modern suburbanization produced a new kind of urban structure and urban experience which can be defined as ladders. It is discontinuous, targeted, linear connections between point to point.
The rapid development of traffic and transportation hierarchy systems interrupted the continuity of grid space, ruled out choice, formed a “super-urban stage”, and this process is called “grid erosion”.
Vehicular circulation systems benefit people through convenience and promote the development of the region. However, city traffic facilities broke the urban texture, burying the characteristics of the city, which led to the degradation of city quality.
In my opinion, with the development of society, the situations and conditions of urban models have changed fast. It is difficult to find a permanent way to lead urbanism, but what we should keep in mind is that there is a possible to modify a direction of improvement and that humanisation is a vital priority.

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