Radical Cities – Latin America’s revolutionary housing solutions

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

Justin McGuirk’s fascinating study shows that Latin American cities have much to teach the world’s architects

The Venice Architecture Biennale is usually a grand gathering of the biggest names in architecture, where they can display their brilliance to their peers. In the 2012 edition, however, the Golden Lion awarded to the best exhibit went to something whose fascination was not primarily to do with the input of professional architects. This was the Torre David, in Caracas, a 1990s office tower left unfinished when funds ran out. What makes it remarkable is the fact that it has now been colonised by squatters, making it into a vertical barrio, a self-regulating community of the poor, within a frame designed for corporate profit.

In territories once intended for photocopiers, computer terminals, desks and meeting rooms, there are homes, streets, shops and churches. Patches of mirror-glass cladding contrast with the ubiquitous orange bricks and concrete blocks of self-built Latin American houses, with a petrified ooze of sloppy mortar from the joints. There are no lifts, meaning that some residents have to walk up and down 28 storeys by stair, and that the upper levels of the 47-storey tower are unoccupied. Balustrades are often absent or imperfect, such that fatal falls are a hazard of living there, a risk the residents run in order that they can have a home, and one in the centre of the city.

The Torre David has become an icon of something – an awareness that something extraordinary is going on in Latin American cities. Once international architectural interest in the continent focused on the slick modernist trophies of Oscar Niemeyer. Now the outside world looks at its informal, unofficial and amateur constructions. If the favelas of Rio, once seen as impossible-to-enter warzones, have now become tourist attractions, architects and planners study them for the lessons they can offer for the building of cities.

All of which makes Radical Cities timely. Its author, Justin McGuirk, was one of those responsible for displaying the Torre David in Venice, much to the horror of better-off caraqueños, who saw it as a celebration of their city’s disreputable side. In the book he tours some of the successes and failures of Latin American urbanism, from Argentina and Chile to Mexico‘s border with the United States.

He meets Milagro Sala, the woman who has created low-income communities in northern Argentina, with swimming pools and theme parks, which McGuirk calls “radical, socialist, Disney activism”. He interviews the mathematician and philosopher Antanas Mockus who as mayor of Bogotá replaced ineffectual traffic police with mime artists, in the (correct) belief that the latter would make drivers pay more attention. Rather than the hardware of grand engineering projects, Mockus aimed to change the “software” of his city through influencing the behaviour of its citizens. The rates of both murders and traffic deaths fell dramatically.

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