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Radical tactics transform Latin American cities

Favelas: not the problem of urbanity but the solution?

In Lima, a city of nearly 9 million people, 70 per cent of the population live in the barriadas, informal housing they built themselves. In his book Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk explores the architecture and politics of housing designed by the people, for the people in South America. Quoting John Turner, a 1960s English architect, McGuirk describes how this marks the difference between ‘autonomy and heteronomy – self-determination and letting the government determine one’s affairs’.

The bravery of the individual and examples of self-help are narratives that run throughout the book, which unfolds with a rich mix of examples. In Bogotá, we meet the academic anarchist mayor Mockus, who with great theatricality, places mime artists as traffic cops to entice drivers to stop at intersections – a move that has halved fatalities among pedestrians. In Rio de Janeiro, successful small-scale interventions in the favelas include infrastructure improvements and the political representation of the residents, such as Jaílson de Souza e Silva, a first-generation favelados who advises the mayor on advancing economic and cultural mobility. In Caracas, we learn how the insertion of a cable car that flies over the barrio has shrunk the two-hour commute from the favela to the city to just 15 minutes in a gondola named Libertad. ‘The answer to a divided city is integration,’ writes McGuirk, ‘and there is no integration without transport connections.’

The journey continues to Alejandro Aravena’s wonderful Quinta Monroy, a collection of 93 homes in northern Chile. According to McGuirk, the project has ‘become a touchstone in the discourse around housing in the developing world… If you only have half the money you need to build a family house, then you build half a house. His answer was to build each family half of a good house’. This half is replete with the essential services, the bathroom and kitchen. The family can then extend the house to fill the remaining structural skeleton, as and when they raise sufficient funds.

Finally, there is the extraordinary narrative of the unfinished 45-storey skyscraper that became the world’s highest squat. Torre David in Caracas is an occupation on the edge of belief; empty lift cores, car parks on the 10th floor, shops that spring up to make life possible on the 20th floor. ‘El Niño’, the head of the squatters association, and Hugo Chávez, the dying president, somehow manage to provide homes for 3,000 inside it. The squat is over now, but lives on in this book which encourages you to share McGuirk’s personal experiences there. A social phenomenon more than an architectural one, Torre David is a paradigm of human ingenuity, adaptability and resourcefulness – of citizens exercising their right to the city.

Given 85 per cent of the world’s housing is illegal, this book poses relevant questions: ‘Who is the city for? When are we going to recognise that favelas are not an aberration, but the primary urban condition? When will we come to terms with the fact that the favelas are not a problem of urbanity, but the solution? When will we accept that the favela is the city?’ Provocative and enticing in both its language and its subject, the fundamental right of shelter for our growing population is one of those truths that we can easily understand, but find ourselves powerless to plan for. As U-TT (Urban-Think Tank) writes, ‘The totally planned city is a myth.’ The optimistic, personal journeys in the book are a lesson in self-help and self-motivation that resonate whatever city we inhabit.

Roger Zogolovitch is the author of Shouldn’t We All be Developers? Published by Artifice, June 2015

Radical Citites

Author: Justin McGuirk

Publisher: Verso


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