Latin improvisation

The squatting of an unfinished Caracas office tower is an example of Latin American people-led informal settlements – a phenomenon explored by Justin McGuirk in his book Radical Cities

Towards the end of July, the government of Venezuela began to evict the residents of Torre David, an unfinished office tower in downtown Caracas, which over the last decade had been occupied by thousands of families squatting up to 28 floors in the air. In this time, the tower had become an emblem of radical, ground-up solutions to the seemingly insurmountable challenges of housing the poor of South America. Its self-organised community offered a tiny fragment of a better alternative to the discredited world of state-provided housing or the hyper-dense informal settlements encrusting the edges of Latin American cities.

  • Atrium at Torre David, Caracas.
    Atrium at Torre David, Caracas.
  • Apartment interior at Torre David.
    Apartment interior at Torre David.
  • Staircase at Torre David.
    Staircase at Torre David.
  • Torre David exterior.
    Torre David exterior.
  • Gym at Torre David.
    Gym at Torre David.

Torre David has a special significance for writer, editor and critic Justin McGuirk, who, along with photographer Iwan Baan and Swiss-Venezuelan design firm Urban Think Tank, won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Biennale with a curated exhibition that told the story of the tower and its unlikely residents. Seen one way, the tower represented a new form of experimental urbanism, born of desperation but signalling ways in which worldwide urban problems might begin to be solved. But the fascination of designers for the tower and its surreal spatial juxtapositions ran the risk of minimising the hardship of the people who lived there. In his new book, Radical Cities, McGuirk interrogates these issues further, looking at various different kinds of experimental activist practice across Latin America, and asking whether they are a model for the future of urbanism. 

He sets the scene with various infamous examples of Corbusian planning from the post-war era, before the state lost control of housing and the informal settlements became the image most associated with Latin American cities. McGuirk’s journey then takes him through all manner of radical approaches to urbanism, each making a positive change for people in a world where the state often seems ever further removed from daily life.

 

Fascination of designers for the tower and its surreal spatial juxtapositions ran the risk of minimising the hardship of the people who lived there

From the settlements constructed by and for the social movement Tupac Amaru in northern Argentina, surreal ‘luxury’ towns built by their occupants; to the half-built houses of Alejandro Aravena’s firm Elemental in Chile, we see attempts to create new innovative housing for the poor. We encounter various kinds of ‘urban acupuncture’: the cable cars that have begun to stitch the informal settlements back into the fabric of cities such as Caracas, Medellin and Rio; or the squares and public buildings that attempt to formalise and render civic the barrios and favelas. We are also invited to consider radical methods of local governance, such as the performative mayoral strategies of Antanas Mockus in Bogota, or the San Diego academic Teddy Cruz leading politicians across the US-Mexico border through a sewage culvert. 

A lively reportage style and a focus on human stories sets Radical Cities apart from much architectural polemic. Whether he is interviewing local personalities, politicians, designers or residents, McGuirk lets various voices make their own arguments. Again and again, the story is about how people almost completely excluded from the state can become part of the body politic, whether that be through the provision of housing or civic infrastructure, or – as with Torre David – through direct action and organisation. 

The underlying thread is McGuirk’s notion of activism. He believes the solutions to the problems of urban inequality are only going to be come from ingenuity, creativity and a disregard for institutions. The large-scale architectural solutions of the past are taken to be relics of a different world. Radical Cities ask what role the state can possibly play in the amelioration of urban crises moving into the future. Whether a system where small groups of charismatic activists exploit their skills and privilege for the common good  can lead to change of the necessary scale is a debate that needs to be had. Radical Cities is an exciting, thought-provoking contribution.

Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture is published by Verso.