Radical Cities: Activism and Architecture in South America
Radical Cities – Across Latin America in Search for a New Architecture by Justin Mc Guirk is an interesting read, which shows how social change can be realized under difficult circumstances. The book reads like a travelogue, manifesto and argument all at once.
The top link connects to the review I wrote for a Dutch website, the second link gets you to the English review for Blueprint magazine and after the picture the English synopsis:
Radical Cities – Across Latin America in Search of New Architecture by Justin Mc Guirk is a riveting travelogue which narrates the stories and lives of activist architects, politicians and radical communities in pursuit of a more dignified existence for the inhabitants of barrios, villas miserias and favelas across South America.
The title alludes to both David Harvey’s Rebel Cities and to Le Corbusier’s famous manifesto; the writer Justin Mc Guirk is clearly inspired by both the utopianism of modernism, by Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City, and by the anarchism of people like John Turner, a British architect who worked in disadvantaged communities in Peru in the 1960s.
The book starts with a visit to one of the Superblock estates in Mexico, Tlatelolco, a gargantuan and strangely technocratic modernist housing complex designed in the 1960s by Mario Pani. ‘South and Central America were home to some of the greatest experiments in urban living in the twentieth century’, McGuirk contends, but however large, the projects were ́tokenistic ́ in comparison to the scale of the problems of poverty, explosive population growth and mass urban migration. It is telling that in Tlatelolco the modernist layer was superimposed on an archaeological site, centred around the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, bordered by Aztec pyramids and a Spanish Colonial church. It was supposed to be the symbol of a bright future, modernity as the proverbial third culture, but was not immune to the violence of an oppressive regime and natural disasters. In the run up to the Mexican Olympics of 1968 protesting students were brutally murdered by the military on the square and later, during the earthquake of 1985, some of the towers, – which had been poorly built by corrupt contractors -, came crashing down. The estate continues to deteriorate, as the state has largely withdrawn from public housing expenditure. Such, in a nutshell, are the problems one continues to deal with in South America and which Mc Guirk emphatically explores. ‘Latin America is where modernist utopia went to die’, he dramatically asserts, and this sets the tone for the argument for the more democratic, egalitarian and inclusive urbanism as practised by the communities, politicians and activist architects in the book.
McGuirk visits radical communities, for instance Túpac Amaru in Argentina, a collective movement which builds its own houses, swimming pools, and community facilities at a fraction of the cost of regular house builders, he meets with the squatters occupying the Torre David, an empty and unfinished office building in the centre of Caracas. He explores the projects and picks the brains of several activist architects such as Alejandro Aravena of Elemental and Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of Urban Think Tank, and last but not least meets with ‘activist’ politicians such as Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and mathematician who became the mayor of Bogotá and whose unorthodox approach helped to turn the city around. His political career was launched on the platform of ‘No P’ – no publicity, no politics, no party and no plata (money), and he famously and successfully employed 400 mime artists to regulate the unruly traffic of the city.
This generation of activists, pragmatists and social idealists are finding successful ways to address poverty and inequality, and their power lies, as McGuirk shows, in the paradigm shift which they bring about. Inequality is one of the biggest problems which needs to be addressed at the start of the twenty-first century and I think it is to Mc Guirk’s credit for delivering a book that strikes a hopeful tone, is multifaceted, personal, and yet is realistic about the challenges that need to be faced.
The combination of narrative, argument and anecdote is particularly effective in highlighting the complexities of urban renewal in deeply divided, and often violent, societies. The comparison of the relative merits of top-down large scale housing programmes and the bottom-up approach of self-help programmes and participatory design is one among many narrative strands in the book, but the argument runs much deeper than this. McGuirk is spot on in his observation that the argument for self-help programmes has been turned against itself; governments withdrew from public housing programmes, and instead tried to ‘manage’ the growth of informal settlements, thus in essence accepting and reinforcing the deep class divisions expressed in the contrast between the favelas and the formal city. The problem of housing was left to the free market, and architecture lost its social purpose.
The turn to neo-liberalism in political-economic practices from the 1970s onwards is, of course, a global phenomenon, but the way in which the Washington Consensus has been forced upon Latin America has been extremely violent, coercive and counterproductive. It is no coincidence that countries like Argentina started to do better economically by ignoring the directives of the International Monetary Fund. The effects of neo-liberal policies may have led to a rise in activism, personal initiative and independent politicians, although I don’t necessarily think that these are new developments. Economic exploitation has always been stark, by Western powers and by domestic elites, but visionary leadership (Kubitschek, Allende) has also been present. Furthermore, there have been many socially engaged architects, often working with communities; the figure of John Turner in Peru has been mentioned, but João Batista Vilanova Artigas, João Filgueiras Lima and Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil come to mind as well. In Mexico Juan O’Gorman pioneered a native architecture, blending folk motifs with Aztec symbolism. The difference between then and now is mainly that the power of the United States in South America is lessening, and that more stable democratic governments are emerging. With protests again taking to the streets the silent majority is no longer silent, and I hope, just as McGuirk, that governments will be held accountable for guaranteeing the right to the city for all.