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Enough Slum Porn: The Global North’s Fetishisation of Poverty Architecture must End

Heralded as interesting architects and creative urbanists, the desperation-driven inhabitants of slums have lost their voice amid Western ‘beneficence’

When the eviction of the infamous Venezuelan ‘vertical slum’ – the 45-storey Torre de David – was announced last month, tears were shed beyond the borders of greater Caracas. After the skyscraper was abandoned, half-built, in 1994, it entered a legal limbo – a decade later, more than 2,500 people occupied the tower and made its bare skeleton their home. They sought not just shelter but community, and families helped one another out via mutual exchange and spontaneous informal economies specific to the tower itself. It is now being cleared to make way for a sale to Chinese investors intending to use it as commercial space, and the government have pledged to rehouse all 1,200 families in new social housing by September.

With its eviction, a strange dream appears to have died. Leading the mourning is the Zurich-based ‘interdisciplinary design studio’ Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), who have become synonymous with Torre de David in the global north, after they won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale for their ‘exploration’ of the tower. The noun is well chosen. Five or so centuries ago Spanish imperial troops did their own ‘exploring’ in Venezuela, and received the garlands and adulation of European kings for what they brought back, too.

What won U-TT the Golden Lion at Venice was an installation – a pop-up Venezuelan restaurant called Gran Horizonte, illuminated with extravagant multi-coloured lights, bringing ‘a taste of public life in Caracas’ and arepas to the Biennale’s visitors. Their Torre de David work is described as a ‘research and design project’, but whose design are we talking about here? Analysis of what has been happening in Caracas is entirely worthwhile, and so is documenting remarkable stories of adaptation, but it’s hard not to see this practice as fundamentally parasitical, feeding off the toil, risk and enterprise of the building’s thousands of slum-dwellers – and devoicing them, to boot. I’m sure the desperate families who scrambled, stressed and strived to house themselves in a dangerous, quasi-lawless environment were delighted to hear about the pop-up restaurant. Look at the language of ownership used by Urban-Think Tank on their official project website (they have even registered it under the domain name www.torredavid.com, ensuring their ownership transfers into cyberspace): ‘Where some only see a failed development project, U-TT has conceived it as a laboratory … in their forthcoming book, Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities, the architects lay out their vision for practical, sustainable interventions in Torre David and similar informal settlements around the world.’

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The government has pledged to rehouse Torre de David’s 1,200 families by September

Sorry, whose vision? Whose conception? The U-TT hardback coffee-table book is available for a practical and sustainable £38, if you didn’t manage to make it to the pop-up restaurant in Venice.

As it happens, less than a fortnight before the evictions began, on 10 July, I had seen the British premiere of Urban-Think Tank’s film on the Torre de David, at an evening of short films at the Barbican about the great cities of the global south. Over 22 minutes, it told the stories of the people left with no choice but to squat in the infamous tower block, and exulted the informal dynamics and alternative economies put in place by the occupiers to survive: let down by the state, the slum-dwellers arranged their own refurbishments, washing systems, electricity, shops and so on. It told the Venezuelans’ remarkable stories half of the time, but then ruined it by drifting off into wordless visual reveries about the beauty of the semi-ruined tower, concrete cast against a hazy urban skyline, sound-tracked by thumping latino hip-hop. It was in love with itself, and the ‘edginess’ of its subject matter was worn like a Wu Wear t-shirt by a middle-aged graphic designer.

This self-declared ‘mood poem’ struck a self-indulgent note, dressing up as slum porn the story of how people are forced to live in, and adapt to, the desperate situations that global capitalism, poor planning and rapid urbanisation foist upon them. Driving these ever-precarious urban adaptations is the fundamental paradox of what it is to be poor in the new urban future: the need to be in the heart of an ever-growing metropolis, to scramble for its terrible, low-paid jobs, while being simultaneously prohibited by soaring rents from living within two hours of the city centre, where the jobs are. After the precariat, the commutariat – you can sleep when you’re dead.

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Dharavi in Mumbai, one of Asia’s largest slums, has been pored over in photographs depicting its narrow alleyways and makeshift urbanity; desperation dressed up as architectural invention

There was another film screened at the Barbican that night by Urban-Think Tank – Mumbai: Maximum City Under Pressure – which repeated the folly, and amplified it.

For 15 minutes, a succession of about 10 or 15 ‘experts’ – academics, urbanists and architects – talked to the camera about the Mumbai slums. A large majority of them were white men. They all extolled the slums’ dynamism, creativity and pioneering urbanism, and their interviews were intercut with footage of life and work in the Mumbai slums. The (white, male) co-chair of Urban-Think Tank was sent out to Mumbai, where he walked through the slums towards the camera like a Comic Relief host, gesturing in praise towards the bustling energy around him. Some people, he explained, wanted to put Mumbai’s slum dwellers into high-rise blocks instead – but this was a folly, an ignorance of the slums’ robust qualities: ‘they are so interesting’, he said. So interesting.

One expert told us with a beneficent smile, that the slums were ‘so full of hope’, while another laughed that there was no call for architects in the Mumbai slums, because there you have ‘18 million people – 18 million architects’.

Eighteen million slum-dwelling Indian architects, and how many were interviewed, profiled, alluded to or even acknowledged to exist as individuals in this film? Zero. Still, I’m sure there is a pop-up Indian street-food stall in the offing.

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