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Radical Cities: Activism and Architecture in South America

Nederlands /Archined: Radical Cities: Activisme en  Architectuur in Zuid Amerika

English / Blueprint: 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:

RadicalCities1 RadicalCities2


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.


How social is Dutch architecture?

How social is Dutch architecture?

The English translation of my article ‘How social is Dutch architecture?’ has been published online by Archined.

Enjoy. (if you haven’t already).

How Social is Dutch Architecture?

First published on, December 6th 2013, translation March 9th 2014. This opinion piece is intended as a starting point to research solutions to the current laissez-faire direction of urban planning which the Dutch government has adopted…


A Vinex neighborhood, somewhere in the Netherlands. Photo: FaceMePLS

A Vinex neighborhood, somewhere in the Netherlands. Photo: FaceMePLS

In the recently published ‘Double Dutch – Dutch Architecture after 1985′ Bernard Hulsman[1] characterizes recent architecture in the Netherlands as a belated victory march of postmodernism. By predominantly interpreting this period in a fashionable and stylistic sense, Hulsman distracts, according to Thomas Wensing, from the truly worrisome and problematic development which has occurred since 1985: the blind following of neo-liberal doctrine. National urban planning directives, the healthy architecture climate and exemplary government patronage have all disappeared. Wensing calls on architects to take position and to actively develop a more social vision for architecture in the Netherlands.

“I think it is absolutely essential, and I think it is incomprehensible that this has not happened yet in any way, that there will be an ideological response to the sudden disappearance of socialism, which has been in almost all cases the latent nourishment and justification of our modern architecture, whether we are honest about it or not.”[2] – Rem Koolhaas

In 1990 Rem Koolhaas organized a symposium at Delft University centered on the question ‘How modern is Dutch architecture?’ The lecture is intellectually rich, intense, and emotional in the best sense of the word; it is testament to an internal struggle which is rare in current architectural discourse. The lecture marked the beginning of a blooming period in Dutch architecture, an era which has for the time being, through the credit crunch and drastic cuts in government subsidies to the cultural sector, came to a close. In the text Koolhaas explicitly points to a crisis of confidence within himself, a crisis caused by the falling away of socialism and the rise of neo-liberalism.

“In the mid-eighties socialist ideology also started to fall away, which in the case of the IJ Plein project was symbolized by a series of successive developments. Firstly, Amsterdam was split up in boroughs, and one of the first boroughs to be formed was Amsterdam-Noord. At that moment the paradoxical phenomenon occurred that the borough council, which was purportedly dedicated to socialist principle, was the first to grouse about the socialist point of departure, namely social housing at the waterfront, which had been realized by the central city government, and for which we had been the instrument. This council made a few absolutely laughable, but at the same time maddening trips to America, decked out with video-cameras and other modern equipment to see how things could be different, and this council discovered, especially in Baltimore and San Francisco, the vision which with respect to the IJ-plein should have been discovered, and should have been realized.”[3]

Kasbah Housing, Hengelo, Piet Blom. Photo: Archangel12

Kasbah Housing, Hengelo, Piet Blom. Photo: Archangel12

In his typically confronting manner Koolhaas accused Dutch modern architecture of a series of negative characteristics and failings. One of the reasons for the shortcomings of Dutch modernism was that it had never completely surrendered to the maelstrom of modernity. The figure of Van Eesteren was cited by Koolhaas as the ultimate, and negative example of the Dutch modernist as a busybody. Not the intense fire of the avant-garde was the true essence of Dutch modernism, but the will to lay down rules, the need to qualify and quantify, the will to plan.

Koolhaas’ lecture solicited different responses at the time, but no one at the symposium delivered a critical reflection on the stealthy erosion of the welfare state, nor did anyone ask whether the concomitant dismantling of the planning apparatus of the central government was such a great idea. Apart from Koolhaas it was Kenneth Frampton who, at the beginning of the nineties, sharply pinpointed the developments in the Netherlands:

If any European country has continued to maintain a reflective practice in architecture at both national and local levels it is certainly the Netherlands, and yet with exception of the Delft Structuralist School, a consistent culture of architecture and urbanism has also eluded Dutch practice since the 1970s, and private speculation and laissez-faire culture politics came to play much stronger roles in Dutch life as a whole.”[4]

Frampton acerbically added that the success of Koolhaas was due in large measure to these economic and political shifts and he expressed the hope that the state would again fulfill a more active role.

The neo-liberal dogma is here put forward as the reason for the loss of the Dutch planning and urbanist tradition, but it is not as if Frampton only points an accusing finger in the direction of government. The coinage of the term ‘reflective practice’ is meant to point towards the combination of enlightened patronage, quality education and exceptional architectural talent, which are all prerequisites for a healthy architectonic culture. This therefore implies political and critical consciousness across sectors.

ABKM, Maastricht (Wiel Arets). Foto JPMM

ABKM, Maastricht (Wiel Arets). Foto JPMM

The neo-liberal trend continued, however, and it was Bart Lootsma who in 2000, in his book SuperDutch, borrowed the term “Second Modernity” from the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens to underscore mainly the positive aspects of the confluence of globalization, an open society, economic growth and the development of new networks and communication technology.

While the first phase of modernity was largely shaped by the industrial revolution and its consequences, the second phase is an outcome of the rise of electronics and communications technology. As a small trading nation and prosperous welfare state, the Netherlands is perhaps more susceptible to these developments than other countries and therefore forced to anticipate the developing situation, among other things at a political level. The unification of Europe has played an important part in this because of policies committed to developing open markets. The required process of deregulation has obliged the Dutch government to abolish, privatize or otherwise change countless public and semi-public agencies, subsidies and laws.”[5]

It follows from the quotations above that a field of tension undoubtedly exists between the foreign perception of Dutch social achievements and the appreciation in the Netherlands itself for what through centuries has been built up. Although Lootsma here and there drops a critical note, the contemporary reader does not get the impression that he was fully aware at the time of many of the negative aspects of globalization, privatization, or the opening up of markets. It is furthermore suggested that the Dutch state did not have any alternative options to the shedding of tasks and services and privatization . This is a gross misconception; it is not as if ‘Europe’ ever demanded of the Netherlands to decentralize urban planning. This was a political choice.

Railway station Zaanstad redevelopment (Sjoerd Soeters). Photo: Frits de Jong

Railway station Zaanstad redevelopment (Sjoerd Soeters). Photo: Frits de Jong

By putting Van Eesteren forward Koolhaas aimed to emphasize a suffocating aspect of the Dutch planning compulsion; this is too short-sighted and too negative, however. A characteristic of the Dutch organizational obsession is that on the basis of a wide consensus a balance is sought between economic and social interests[6]. Our long social tradition has since the Dutch Golden Age been driven by both social consciousness and economic motives.

That foreigners were regularly amazed by the attention, and resources, expended on creating an orderly, well-equipped, and smooth-functioning system of old-age and sick care, and poor relief, is undeniable. But charity and compassion, it should be noted, were not the sole motives which went into producing this result. In fact, the Dutch civic welfare system was a product of numerous social, economic, religious, and cultural goals and priorities and it is this broad background which made the Dutch system at once incomparable and inimitable.”[7]

The previously used anecdote of the socialist council member who visits America to get to know the ropes of neo-liberal urban planning is to me an apt illustration of the morbid Dutch passion to conform and to be a pet student[8]. Hulsman thus typifies in Double Dutch the period after 1985 as ‘the normalization of Dutch architecture[9], with which is not only inferred that the Netherlands are now finally in step with globalization, but also that postmodernism has become a fait accompli. With such a superficial and uncritical reading a new low has been reached in Dutch architectural discourse, and I would like, just as Koolhaas did years before to me, to make a call to architectural practice in the Netherlands to critically reflect on the golden years since 1985 and to formulate a vision on where to go from here.

With reflection I most certainly do not mean the superficial observation that postmodernism finally has arrived in the Netherlands, that we are finally free to build ‘modernism without dogma[10]’, or more nihilistic still, that now “anything goes[11]. I think that we need to rise above these shallow stylistic qualifications and establish that the construction fever was fed by a self-destructive economic model. In addition, I pose that architecture is a reflection of values which a society holds and that, by extension, architects have a public responsibility to question the prevailing status quo.

The 'Rotterdam', Rotterdam, OMA. Photo Raban Haaijk

The ‘Rotterdam’, Rotterdam, OMA. Photo Raban Haaijk

How can it be that leading economists such as Joseph Stiglitz convincingly argue that a well-functioning government is needed to stabilize ‘the market’[12], but that the Dutch government still eagerly relinquishes the means to exert any kind of control of the construction industry and housing production? I refer here naturally to the further weakening of social housing corporations with a ‘corporation tax’ of 1.7 billion Euros, the abolition of the ministry of urban planning and the environment (VROM), and the drastic cuts to education and cultural budgets. How can it be that meanwhile architects and critics lose themselves in fretting over ‘fusion’[13], neo-traditionalism and neo-modernism? Are there not more urgent matters which cry out for a solution?

To give but one example: the Netherlands have dropped from 31st to 49th place on the Climate Change Performance Index.[14] To put this in a larger context, this is slightly better than China (54) and a lot worse than Denmark (4) and Germany (8). It is therefore justified and hopeful that the Dutch state has recently been summoned  in court by a class action lawsuit, because it falls short of combating climate change.[15]

In 1990 Koolhaas called for a ‘revision of the Dutch concept’, and I argue that such a revision could consist of a rediscovery of ideas which have since long been part of the make-up of Dutch identity, and which have unrightfully, or too early been relegated to the dustbin. This revision will undoubtedly be painful as it entails sustained fighting against vested interests and dysfunctional economic dogma. I am convinced that activism and engagement of citizens needs to increase. It is worth to embark upon this uncertain adventure, not in the least since so many odds are at stake.

Utopias are not the real fantasy, but our current reality of private property, waste and inconspicuous consumption is. The 21st century will have to bear witness to unrestrained experimentation to formulate and achieve a new balance between humans and nature. Architects, roll up your sleeves!; make a start by writing angry letters, organizing petitions or starting a conversation with the (leftist) representative in your borough.

[1] Bernard Hulsman is the architectural critic of NRC Handelsblad, NRC Next, a right of center daily in the Netherlands.

[2] Rem Koolhaas,’Hoe modern is de Nederlandse architectuur?’, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 1990, p.18-19, translation by author.

[3] Ibid., p.12

[4] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture – A Critical History, Thames & Hudson, London, Third edition, 1992, reprinted 2002, p.330

[5] Bart Lootsma, Superdutch – New Architecture in the Netherlands, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, p.21

[6] This is usually referred to as the ‘polder model’.

[7] Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic – Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, paperback with corrections, 1998, p.355

[8] I refer here to the post-war tendency in Dutch politics to rarely ever challenge US imperialism and, in the European context, to be one of the staunchest advocates of fiscal austerity.

[9] Bernard Hulsman, Double Dutch – Nederlandse architectuur na 1985, Nai010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2013, p.188

[10] Modernism without dogma (Modernisme zonder dogma) refers to a book by Hans Ibelings, published in 1991 by Nai Publishers, in which the generation of emerging Dutch architects such as Mecanoo, MVRDV and Neutelings & Riedijk are typified as applying modernism without the ideological moral constraints of the heroic period.

[11] Bernard Hulsman, Double Dutch – Nederlandse architectuur na 1985, Nai010 Uitgevers, Rotterdam, 2013, p.188

[12] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall – America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2010, p.201 “Economists have developed a short list of instances where markets fail – where social and private incentives are not well aligned – that account for a large fraction of the important failures.”

The creation of too many externalities, a word to describe the socialization of the costs of economic production and the privatization of its profits, is perceived by Stiglitz as a systemic failure of markets.

[13] Fusion is a term used by the Dutch architect Wilfried van Winden to avoid using the term postmodernism. The website of WAM architecten states (, accessed March 09, 2014:

“FUSION is geen stijl maar een houding; een strategie van de open geest, die geen taboes aanvaardt”,  aldus architect Wilfried van Winden. De toenemende diversiteit van culturen en subculturen in de moderne samenleving vraagt om een nieuwe architectonische strategie. FUSION staat voor een inventieve wijze van mengen en verbinden van heden en verleden, van Oost en West, van traditie en vernieuwing, van high en low culture.”

“FUSION is not a style, but an attitude; strategy of an open mind, which does not accept any taboos”, according to Wilfried van Winden. The increasing diversity of cultures and subcultures in modern society requires a new architectonic strategy. FUSION means to mix and connect of the present and the past, of East and West, of tradition and innovation, of high and low culture.”

[14] <> accessed December 2013.

[15] <> accessed December 2013

Revolutionary Spangen Housing Restored

Revolutionary Spangen Housing Restored

Photo credit: Bas Kooij

Photo credit: Bas Kooij

A recent article from me for the Architectural Record on the renovation of the Spangen social housing complex in Rotterdam, Netherlands by Molenaar & Co and Hebly Theunissen Architects. Unfortunately this kind of high-end renovation of social housing will probably be something of the past.

To give you some further background information:

In December 2013 the Dutch government approved a 1.7 billion Euro tax to be levied until 2017 on the housing corporations. This money is diverted from social tenants to cover the government’s budget deficit. It is of course ironic that the rise of the deficit has in large part been caused by bailing out the banks in 2008 (Fortis and ABN Amro to the amount of 16.8 billion Euros, total cost of this aid eventually ballooned to 30 billion Euros. ING received 10 billion Euros and transferred 21.6 billion Euros of U.S. mortgage assets to the Dutch state (data from Bloomberg).These are the same banks which were part of the real estate bubble and took on inordinate amounts of risk.

To add insult to injury, it was again Labour (PvdA) who was part of this disastrous vote. A similar policy was of course followed in the UK when Thatcher sold off the council housing with the ‘Right to buy’ policy. From then on the rent of corporations largely went to servicing the deficit, creating a downward spiral of neglect of the estates. James Meek’s article in the London Review of Books of January 8 clearly describes the disastrous consequences of these failed policies.

It remains to be seen if the Netherlands will continue to follow a similar path and one would hope the tax gets lifted after 2017. As these things go, however, I am not too optimistic. This renovation was partly financed by selling off some of the apartments. The corporation Woonstad built a mere 450 new socially rented units in 2012, against the sale of 716 units in the same year. According to their own admission, they have had to let go of 80 people and will pass on a rent increase to their tenants to be able to pay the new tax.

The last sentence of the article, before editing read:

Furthermore, in December 2013 a law was passed which levies a tax of 1.7 billion Euros on the assets of the housing corporations until 2017. This tax will be reflected in higher rents for social tenants and is likely to bring building of social housing to a close, a new reality that makes a mockery of the spirit of responsible governance and collectivity in which Spangen was originally conceived.

Postscript: A day after writing this post I came across an interesting quote in the book “Hugh Maaskant – Architect of Progress” by Michelle Provoost. Hugh Maaskant was a modernist architect, and mainly active during the reconstruction period immediately after WWII. In the book attention is given to the socio-political context of that era:

“The industrialization project began in 1949, when the first Marshall Plan funds were received from the United States. The first ‘Memorandum Concerning the Industrialization of the Netherlands’ was issued that same year, to be followed by eight further industrialization memoranda. This policy reflected the characteristics of the Roman Catholic-social democrat government coalition of the reconstruction period: a policy of planned wages and prices coupled with a social housing policy predicated on low rents, in order to keep labour costs low for business.”

What is interesting in this description is that the government, in spite of the austerity of the post war years, was quite keen to strike a balance between economic and social interests, and opted for a model which now reads as a planned economy. Socially rented accommodation was seen as an effective way to keep wage demands down and the subsidies towards housing were thus understood as a subsidy which would create a favorable business climate. In other words, subsidizing housing helps the population and helps business.

If we now fast forward to the 1.7 billion Euro housing corporation tax, and the fact that this tax can be tied to the bank bail-outs and the economic crisis which followed, we see the application of an austerity  doctrine which will only lead to a further contraction of the economy and will lead to additional social costs (externalities) which will again have to be picked up by the taxpayer. Firstly, the bank bail-outs will have the effect of the continuation of a model which is based on rising debt and an unrealistic rise of house prices. The real estate crash has brought the building of new stock to a standstill, which means that demand will continue to outweigh supply. Secondly, the taxpayer subsidy towards the banks will do nothing towards real economic growth. As we have seen, the banks have hoarded the money to balance their books, and have done little to pump the money back into the real economy. Finally, the tax will have to be paid by people who have already had to endure a large drop in their real wages over a few decades of sustained neo-liberal policies. (they are in no position to deal with a year-on-year rent increase of 4%). Sooner or later this will translate in wage demands from people who hold jobs or, – worse still -, increased pressure on social services, which will lead to an increase in – you guessed it -, the government deficit.

Would it not be better to return to a model in which social housing subsidies are used to construct more affordable stock, aid the ailing construction industry, and kick start economic recovery, as opposed to cause a further increase in income inequality and continued support for the financial industry which has created this situation to begin with?


Book Review: A New Kind of Bleak by Owen Hatherley

Cover "A New Kind of Bleak" - Owen Hatherley

Cover “A New Kind of Bleak” – Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley is on his way to become a force in architectural criticism in the United Kingdom. I prefer his shorter pieces on his blog and in magazines to his books, as he has the tendency to become repetitive in the books. I found that when he assesses European modernism this is done through a particularly British lens, perhaps in the same way as I look at British modernism with incredulity at times. This review was intended to encourage Hatherley to ground his thesis better, to do deeper and more original research and, perhaps most of all, that the narrative and argument will follow an arc throughout his future books.

I say this from a position of modesty, however, as I have yet to write my first book myself.

On a funny note, there is a soundtrack to accompany the reading of the book, by the collective GOLAU GLAU ->

On a final note, to underscore that Hatherley does address the right issues, read this article in the Guardian.

Renting needs to become fairer in the UK (2)

For those of you interested in the extent of the problem, I have dug up two interesting articles highlighting this problem:

1. The New Internationalist

2. The Observer

A nice Keynesian quote from the last article to underscore that solutions are possible but tank because of inaction of the government:

“The best thing that could happen to the economy would be for a centrally-funded housebuilding and renovation programme, which would restore the construction industry to health and employ thousands. It was what got us out of recession in the 1930s and left us a legacy of mostly good-quality homes.

“The main political obstacle to doing this isn’t lack of money: it comes down to the fact that most of this housing should be for rent, not for sale. The current government wouldn’t countenance such a shift in British housing culture.”

Renting needs to become fairer in the UK


It is May 1st, and of course an excellent day to post a message for a call to action. You will all be aware that getting on the housing ladder is all but impossible these days, and that this means that a lot of people have to rent. Unfortunately, however, the legislation in the UK is heavily prejudiced towards landlords, not renters, and rents have therefore become extortionate.

If you agree with the fact that the government should put stronger laws in place to protect renters, please sign your name on the website of  Shelter.

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