Justin McGuirk defends Urban-Think Tank from accusations of aestheticising urban poverty
I take issue with your article Enough Slum Porn: The Global North’s Fetishisation of Poverty Architecture Must End. The piece is not only cynical, it’s poorly informed and it gives time to an argument that is frankly specious. On the right topic Dan Hancox is a fine writer, but this breathless attack on Urban-Think Tank could have used a little more research. It is based on an architecture and film night at the Barbican to which he evidently took exception. I chaired that event, and welcome his critique of it. But he goes on to take a series of cheap shots that betray a more worrying trend in social and cultural criticism generally.
Let’s overlook Hancox’s mocking of U-TT’s volume on Torre David as ‘a coffee-table book’ despite it being the only serious research into the building, presenting its self-organisation, floor plans, the layout of the water and electrical systems, the distribution of commerce etc. We can also brush off the way he sniffs at the Torre David exhibition at the 2012 Venice Biennale for containing ‘a pop-up restaurant’, as if the idea that an exhibition can incorporate food makes it entirely frivolous. Of course, if food was involved then no serious point could have been made, no attempt to jolt the architecture community out of its complacency. Such jibes come with the territory − they don’t trouble me. No, it was the sly slipping in of the fact that the panellists were ‘male and white’ that I find pernicious. This, as we all know, is an all too easy way to discredit an event. The fact that the ‘male, white’ member of U-TT that Hancox tries to undermine is a Venezuelan who spent more than a decade researching and working in the slums of Caracas doesn’t make it into his argument. The fact that U-TT produced one of the earliest and best architecture books to draw attention to the slums − Informal City, 2005 − is also omitted. The work that U-TT did with the support of the Chávez government, including building a cable car to the barrio of San Agustín, is conspicuously absent. I list these things not to defend U-TT, they can do that themselves. My point is this: if all of that experience and knowledge is worthless because they’re male and white, then who is it that can raise the issue of the slums?
Is it only brown women, or brown poor people? Can only Jews criticise Israel’s bombing of Gaza − everyone else is an anti-semite, right? This is fatuous logic. It’s knee-jerk political correctness of a simple-minded kind. I would go so far as to say it’s dangerous, because if people who are that committed to the issue of the informal city are so easily written off as slum tourists or slum pornographers, then who is it that’s going to shift
society’s attention to this pressing global issue?
Reading the title of your piece, I wholeheartedly agreed. Absolutely, enough slum porn, enough romanticisation of poverty from a distance. But at least point your guns in the right direction. Don’t take ill-informed potshots at people who have dedicated their practices to trying to make a difference. Architects − male and white though they may largely be, alas − have a role to play in the eradication of urban inequality, and they’ve ignored that for far too long.