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Radiant city

20th century Modernist masterplanning in South America stands charged as a catalyst for sprawling urban violence

During this year’s Open House at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), one lecture stood out for its bold proposition that Modernist urban planning is responsible for the chronic urban violence in Latin America. As well as approaching a somewhat unpalatable subject, the lecture by Diane Davis, who starts her tenure as Professor of Urbanism and Development this year, also marks a shift in direction for the school itself (which has become increasingly interdisciplinary under Department Head, Rahul Mehrotra).

Unravelling the borders between history, anthropology and urbanism, Davis’s approach is fundamentally humanitarian and calls for what Josep Lluís Sert might define as life practice: a new model of urban planning that takes into account all facets of society. A sociologist by training, her research builds on the 20 years she has spent investigating urban violence and its link with the increased regulation of space in informal settlements. The most recent case of urban violence in Latin America is the city of Juárez, Mexico, where disorder stems from vigilante rule and where, in 2009, the UN was called on to facilitate a peace process originally designed for wartime.

There are, however, a number of such conflicts unfolding around cities in countries that industrialised quickly and callously. The exponential growth of informal settlements − in some Latin American countries these make up a third of the urban area − that we have come to accept as part of the landscape of developing cities is, according to Davis, an inadvertent outcome of the implementation of Modernist urban planning during the 1920s through to the 1970s.


Le Corbusier’s unbuilt masterplan for a civic centre in Bogotá is a telling example of dehumanising planning

Her focus on spatial and social causality speaks to a specific type of Modernism, characterised by efficiency and rationalisation evolved in Europe in the first half of the 20th century by the likes of Le Corbusier, Paul Lester Wiener and Sert of Town Planning Associates (TPA), and also in the principles laid down by CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture).

Davis argues that the colonisation of urban space in Latin American cities such as São Paulo, Caracas, Mexico City and Medellín, was driven by the belief that Modernism was a force for social and economic change and a fitting symbol of progress. The creation of identifiable urban zones within existing cities as well as the consumption of untamed areas to build integrative infrastructure as part of a larger project of employment, instead marginalised people and forcibly displaced the poorer groups in society. Where the government failed to offer security and represent all its constituents, the regulation of space was replaced with profiteers, corrupt police and drug rings.

Davis’s assertion that this is an unintended fall-out of Modernism is an important distinction as it underscores the significance of social, political and economic factors in the development of urban environments relevant to today’s budding architects and planners. Although ostensibly calling out Modernism’s heroes, in actuality her work lays part of the responsibility of contemporary concerns of urban conflict and violence firmly at the feet of a variety of actors; decision-makers, commercial stakeholders and the government.

As Davis posits, the ideas that had been occupying the minds and sketchpads of European architects at the time were yet to be tested at this large scale. ‘You have to have a sensibility of every dimension, not just [a place’s] culture and topography, but also its institution and economy,’ said Davis. ‘You can have the best ideas but if you don’t understand how to implement them, they fall.’ One such example is TPA’s Medellín Masterplan, during the 1950s, which was the city’s second notable planning effort of the century and was largely abandoned due to the repercussions of political and financial instability.

Suggesting an uncompromising critique, Davis’s position on Modernism is far from black and white, however. Citing Sert’s cultural heritage as a defining factor in his relatively sensitive approach to urban design, Davis concludes that cultural nuance is vital to the future of cities and an understanding of a place’s socio-political fabric and economy provides a canvas for flexibility, relevance and progress. Davis’s challenge to students and practitioners, as premised in the course she has begun to teach at Harvard, is to learn from the flaws in Modernism’s best-laid plans, not just gild them in gold.

Modernist Planning & the Foundations of Urban Violence in Latin America

Lecture by Diane Davis, Professor of Urbanism and Development, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Date: 5 November 2012

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