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Shantytowns and social engineering in 1950s Argentina

Adriana Laura Massidda

Adriana Laura Massidda’s research shows how Argentina’s military junta sought to reorganise urban space on its own terms in the 1950s. It was shortlisted in the RIBA President’s Awards for Research

Shantytowns in Buenos Aires by the mid-1950s. The red tracing indicates the location and boundaries of the shantytowns. The yellow dotted lines indicate the neighbourhoods built as part of the Plan de Emergencia.
Shantytowns in Buenos Aires by the mid-1950s. The red tracing indicates the location and boundaries of the shantytowns. The yellow dotted lines indicate the neighbourhoods built as part of the Plan de Emergencia. Credit: Adriana Massidda

For many decades, architects, governments and planners considered clearance to be the most suitable response to the presence of shantytowns within the city space. This approach was closely aligned with the main precepts of modern architecture, which favoured the complete erasure of spaces deemed unsanitary to make room for more wholesome and hygienic designs. In many cases, shantytown removal was also underpinned by the conviction that those residing in such areas were socially backwards, ‘of low cultural level’, and therefore in need of external assistance in order to inhabit a modern city.

What these responses to the emergence of shantytowns overlooked, however, were the limitations faced by the residents who had chosen to settle in those shantytowns in the first place.

In the context of an extremely tight housing market, shantytowns were often the only accommodation available to low-income families in close proximity to work and educational, health and leisure facilities. In addition, shantytown clearance failed to the recognise residents’ voices or political sensitivities. This was particularly important in 1950s Argentina, where a popular government was overthrown by a military junta which sought to silence the working class and to reorganise urban space on its own terms.

In order better to understand the architectural and conceptual origins of shantytown clearance, and the consequences of its implementation, I found it necessary to examine an early example – namely, the Plan de Emergencia (Emergency Plan, 1956), the first such eradication plan developed in Argentina.

Like many contemporaneous initiatives in Latin America and throughout the world, this sought to completely remove shantytowns from the urban landscape by forcibly relocating the inhabitants into purpose-built social housing. To this end, six neighbourhoods featuring the repetition of three housing typologies structured in rows were designed.

Given that the military government viewed shantytown residents disparagingly, as inadequately educated for the city they sought to create, the neighbourhoods were also an experiment in social engineering. Thus, the units were designed as ‘adaptation houses’ and equipped with fixed furniture to coerce the inhabitants into a specific ‘modern’ lifestyle.

The adoption of this modernist approach also meant that the urban fabric resulting from the repetition of rows broke with the traditional grid layout of Buenos Aires, therefore contributing to the neighbourhoods’ spatial, as well as social, segregation. In a further contradiction, the Plan sought simultaneously to construct social housing while displacing the responsibility for affordable housing to the private sector in order to expand delivery in the longer term.

Ultimately, the military government failed either to meet residents’ needs or their own lofty ambitions. Nonetheless, despite these failings, the Plan’s advocacy of forced relocation justified by a derogatory attitude toward the urban poor established the pattern for a series of eradication attempts which were enforced with increasing violence in the decades that followed, greatly worsening the living conditions of low-income city residents.

Despite the clear importance of this case study, when I began this investigation, no research had looked in detail at either the history of shantytown eradication in Buenos Aires or the Plan de Emergencia. Indeed, although the main initiative analysed was undertaken by the state, its reports and working documents were not easy to locate, and some were not available at all.

Surprising as it may sound, then, due to the nature of Argentine archiving, there were no official drawings of the original neighbourhoods designed by the Plan de Emergencia. A key part of my research, therefore, was to work with city council employees and gather plans of the typologies and damaged but readable street-lighting schemes with which I could redraw the neighbourhoods myself in order to analyse the urban spaces that they created.

I then contextualised these design plans by accessing the archives of the Sociedad Central de Arquitectos (Central Architects’ Society), parliamentary records and national repositories. Finally, I conducted site visits and interviewed long-time residents of the neighbourhoods fully to grasp the experiential and spatial implications of the Plan.

Shantytowns and low-income neighbourhoods are a fundamental part of urban space in many cities throughout the world, and government eradication attempts are a key part of their contested histories. In my research I engage with residents, academic researchers and architectural practitioners in order to shed light on the ways in which the tensions encountered in the histories of impoverished spaces continue to affect our cities, and how architectural design can provide better living environments in low-income contexts.

Beyond Buenos Aires, I collaborate with London’s social enterprises Canning Town Caravanserai and Architects for Social Housing, I am a member of the international research network La Ville Informelle au XXe Siècle, and I address urban informality in my studio and architectural humanities teaching at Leicester School of Architecture.

I believe that reconstructing the past of low-income communities is not only fundamental for residents’ self-esteem and the articulation of their identities, but also for a more thorough understanding of wider urban history. Shantytown history is an emerging field, and this research contributes to a key moment in its development.

Shantytowns, Housing and State Order: the Plan de Emergencia in 1950s Argentina by Dr Adriana Laura Massidda was shortlisted for the President’s Awards for Research 2020 History & Theory

A longer version of this article appeared in Planning Perspectives

See the other winners of President’s Medals and President’s Awards


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