INTRODUCTION The need for housing is a worldwide phenomenon without respect to one continent or another. With more people now living in cities and more projected to move into cities, demand continues to surpass housing inventories in a market that now seems to be two steps behind.1 The United States is not exempt, and can learn much from its neighbors to the south. Latin American and Caribbean countries are the most urban in the developing world.2 The purpose of this essay is both to celebrate and critically question the phenomenon of “informal” housing in South America and the Caribbean and both its positive and negative implications on resolving the ever-growing housing deficit. By examining informal housing in Latin America, the United States can learn from its emerging typologies and apply a new paradigm shift to innovatively adapt a new housing model particular to its situation.
THE LATIN AMERICAN CHALLENGE Latin American and Caribbean countries are the most urban in the developing world. These countries have higher home ownership rates and average family incomes in comparison to developing world standards. The Inter-American Development Back recently released an indepth study of these trends in their publication, Room for Development: Housing Markets in Latin America and the Caribbean. Despite the great progress made in South America to reverse and cure their housing shortage, many of the regions’ city inhabitants still do not have adequate housing. “Of the 130 million urban families in the region, 5 million rely on another family for shelter, 3 million live in houses that are beyond repair, and another 34 million live in houses that lack either title, water, sewerage, adequate flooring, or sufficient space.”3
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The rate of urbanization population growth in Latin America has frequently surpassed their governments’ capacity and resources to provide basic infrastructure and public services that are fundamental to the healthy growth of cities. “Latin America is the only developing country region with high urbanization rates. The urban population in the region totals around 470 million people and is expected to exceed 680 million by 2050.”4 Consequently, most of the families suffering from the housing shortage are not only the poor but also come from the lower middle class.
Figure 1 - How many families that do not have a roof over head or inhabit poor quality homes
INFORMALITIES Informal housing is inevitable in developing regions. All of the colonized regions throughout North and South America once began as informal housing, but not entirely for the same reasons. The informal housing, more popularly known as favelas, in Latin America began as a temporary solution for placing the poor as well as huge influx of immigrants into the cities. Supply is down. Demand is up. People need a place to live; so those displaced found land on the outskirts of town where land was either cheap or “free” for the taking. The favelas of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro Brazil are some of the most prominent examples of informal housing becoming a main part of a city’s identity. I do not want to focus on the history of favelas, rather why they are still around. The continual generation and up cropping of favelas still today is a doubled-loaded issue that establishes two fundamental points. First, favelas and the their counterpart interventions actually do improve the conditions of the lifestyles of the
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poor. Second, that collectively the political and socioeconomic systems currently in place are insufficient to battle the real problems with both quantity and quality of housing currently at hand. And these issues are not going away. The architectural profession and governments must accept them as a reality that is here to stay unless they proactively change it. “The capitalist markets see housing as a commodity; while most of those without basic housing see it as a right, a right they don’t have, because their government has refused to provide because they have not taken action to build it.”5 This phenomenon is not a new occurrence, and is spelled out quite clearly in Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity.6 When the top down approach fails, the bottom up will prevail. It comes down to survival.
TOWER OF DAVID Anarchy or activism? The Centro Financiero Confianzas in Caracas, Venezuela has become an icon of urban decay, and a place of solace and hope to nearly 3000 people. It is also know as the Tower of David after the developer David Brillembourg that began construction on the complex in 1990.7 The soaring glass and concrete structure juts from the Caracas skyline as the third tallest building in the country. But to this day the tower remains unfinished after construction was halted in 1994 due to the Venezuelan financial crisis. The project with its government’s economy collapsed. “The tower was originally part of an urban renewal plan to privatize and modernize the center of Caracas's business district with a gigantic glass skyscraper meant to symbolize Venezuela's arrival at the global economic stage. The project, which was to be outfitted with luxury apartments, a swimming pool, and even a helipad, would have been the domain of bankers and their wealthy clients.”8 The era of Venezuela’s attempt at global economic dominance has waned, and now more visible than ever is their vulnerability to govern themselves, leaving the half-built skyscraper standing as an accidental monument to financial disaster. The complex stood vacant for more than a decade, when a group of families nearing 2500 individuals collectively staged an orderly move-in and founded an instant vertical community in 2007.9 It became an instant vertical favela – the tallest slum in the world.
PUSH BACK Since then, the tower has created a lot of buzz. The buzz from within is generated by a busy, complex community including commerce and bodegas, a barbershop, a tattoo parlor, a dentist office, a gym, security, taxi service for goods and the elderly on the first 10 floors, and buildings managers and floor coordinators. Unfinished and without elevators, the selfcoordinating squatters rigged up electricity up through the 28th floor and aqueducts that provide water to more than 20 floors. The vibrant community looks after their elderly and out for one another. The eclectic mix of people includes immigrants from bordering nations. Many residents own motorcycles and some even cars. The majority are working people: store managers, clerks, chefs, and bankers.10
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Figure 2-5 - Barbershop, residence, and gym
The buzz from outside the tower expresses a general public disdain and push back for the once 2500 homeless citizens. Their gripe is that they illegally took what was not theirs, it is unsafe, and a hive of drug abuse and violence. Of course the building was unsafe when they moved in. It sat for 13 years unfinished. With a majority of the façade still not in place, no elevators, electricity, running water or sewer, or handrails, I would say it is unsafe. Remarkably, the inhabitants of the Tower of David are finishing it. Maybe not in the same luxurious manner Brillembourg had envisioned, but they are improving its current state for a healthier and more secure habitation. Some call this anarchy. I call it activism and innovation. For years the Tower of David has stirred debate about housing shortages – more specifically the need of 2,000,000 additional homes in Caracas alone.11 But no one has made any move in the right direction. The government has not kicked the families out, neither have they built alternative options for the families to move into. Approximately 29% of families in Venezuela currently do not have a roof to live under or inhabit poor quality homes.12 The Tower of David is not a Kowloon. It is much more organized, systematic, and orderly by the initiative inhabitants themselves; but architects and planners do not share the same view. In a video documentary by Derek Mead, Guillermo Barrios a professor of architecture and urbanism expresses his feeling about the Tower of David: “Torre de David is a symbol of what has happened with Venezuelan cities. A sad symbol. I have bad news for you. This is not a better or nice use of an abandoned structure. In reality this is the “anti-housing” the “anti-residence”, and the government has looked away from the issue. It is a very violent place. It is completely outside the authority of the law.”13 So where exactly do the displaced fit into law? Where do they belong if it is not in unclaimed space? In your space? In my space? Or better on the outskirts of town amongst the sprawling favelas. I completely agree that the 3000 people in the tower are there illegally and that is not the best solution, but I do think that it is a solution. That is why they are all still there. Barrios may call it “anti-housing” or “anti-residence”, but it still is a type of housing or residence. As the world’s tallest slum, it has drawn a lot of debate and negative international attention to the Tower itself, but the debate goes much deeper. It is more than just the Tower of David. It is more than just the housing deficit of Caracas. It is about how we as a society treat our poor. And it is usually based on visibility and proximity.
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VISIBILITY When seeking to formalize or regularize housing it is usually on the basis “to promote social inclusion and mobility.”14 Inclusion is a relative term that must be defined by the relationship to two things – in this case formal and informal settlements. In fewer words rich and poor. These relations then pose issues of proximity and ultimately visibility. Are the poor visible? “Visibility can also refer to a felt presence within its urban context.”15 Like the presence felt by the neighboring buildings near the vertical slum in downtown Caracas. Barrios does not simply criticize what is going on at the Tower of David, but poses a solution. “The right path would be to relocate these families into adequate residences adequately planned around a vision of habitat, of housing with integrated public services. And then return that tower to its original use. That is what is really needed here.”16 I agree. However, more often than not, the poor are treated as nomads – constantly being relocated and pushed from one area to another in the name of gentrification or amelioration through public works of their current state. Often the poor are sent out to the far skirts of the city where land is cheap or unclaimed and therefore, to them, free for the taking. This process of exclusion renders the poor invisible as it removes them from the central core of the city and out of the spot light. And it happens more frequently than governments acknowledge. Another way to render the poor invisible is to dilute them and immerse and assimilate small quantities of the poor into the dominant society and the current inertia and condition of the existing fabric. This method is behind the motif and reasoning behind many of the mixeduse affordable housing projects of the United States. Architects and planners work hard to find the right mixture and balance of housing types to include low-income affordable housing, while not drawing too much attention to them as to make them visible. Why not reserve it? Why not include a few medium to upper income units into a predominantly low-income housing project? Or would it throw off the perceived balance of their visibility? The idea that in order for the poor to live in cities they must acclimate to the ways of life of the middle and upper classes is a falsehood. Invisibility is not achieved through absorption. As for the Tower of David, it is too close to home. It is too visible. It is too big to ignore. The visibility and proximity of the vertical slum is half the problem. In reality informal housing makes up 40% of all housing in Caracas.17 The phenomenon of the Tower of David is not uncommon to the citizens. In fact, squatters occupy 20 other buildings in the area including abandoned malls and the Visa and Radio Continente Towers.18 The visible paradox of cause by the informal sprawl of favelas can be seen in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It folds inward on itself. The poor are forced outward and pushed further and further out until they climb the mountainsides and look back down upon the city. It is retrospective. It is centrifugal and centripetal. The informality takes on a tangible form and becomes an integral part of the city’s identity – not too different than what the Tower of David has become for Caracas. Figure 6 – informal housing rising reflecting back on the city.
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CULTURAL COMPLEXTIES A better comprehension of the cultural complexities throughout the American continent will reveal many valuable lessons to be learned. It requires a candid and unbiased look at who we are, what we build, and why we build the way we do. Recent architectures in Latin America reveal a different attitude toward urban informality.19 Some recent studies have shown how even in Valparaiso, Chile informal housing has been accepted due to successive earthquakes and ease of mobility.20 Also, how in Bogota, Colombia informal housing helps to capture unforeseen land value.21 The goal for architects, urbanists, and planners is to dig deep and discover and embrace the paradoxes, complexities, and intricacies of our society. It is through the innovation and creativity of design that problems can be set and solved. Paradoxically, urban informality, which in the second half of the 20th century was though to represent the failure of a nation to achieve progress at all levels, has recently become a demonstration of success, proof that governments (and other participants, like architects) can improve quality of the life in poor urban areas.”22 Our internal cultural struggle must also overcome our own pride and self-inflicted barriers, and double standards – especially when dealing with proximity and visibility. The inherent double standard springs forth from the seeds of our cultural complexity. We shun informal housing, but deny people formal housing (by not providing it) or even an arguably valiant effort to formalize housing in an unoccupied space such as the Tower of David. It is an ethical paradox – a Catch 22. Just because we don’t know how to deal with our homeless or dislocated, does not mean that we do not have to deal with them. “It doesn’t look good, but it has the seed of a very interesting dream of how to organize life,” says Alfredo Brillembourg, an architect and relative to David Brillembourg who launched the construction.23 A co-founder of the firm Urban–Think Tank, Brillembourg sees the settlement as a source of valuable lessons on how to adapt broken cities to the millions who flock to them. Alfredo is one of the few who has shown genuine interest in helping and improving the adequacy of living in the Tower of David. If a housing project fails, it is most likely because we have failed to understand affordable housing itself. Let us take a step back from the top down approach and simply admire the efforts from the bottom up for a moment. It is almost like doing a science experiment in elementary school where children are set to observe ants in an acrylic case filled with dirt. Let us sit back and see how nature works. Admire the strength and effort of the ants to turn dirt into an elaborate masterpiece. Our top-down view sees dirt as a singular collective object. But the ants see the beauty and potential in each grain and therefore begin sculpting. Much like those in Venezuela saw the Torre de David as an object, the inhabitants however saw it as home for some families, each with a dry, safe roof over top. Interestingly enough, the original plan for the complex also planned for 600 condominiums. Not too far off, just the wrong crowd. If our society is to embrace the daunting reality of our housing situation, we must accept both sides of the coin. Bjarke Ingels in the last five years has deconstructed the way we see and experience architecture. We must take a Yes is More approach in housing as well – the “both and���not either or.”24 This realization may force a paradigm shift – maybe even to learn from and accept alternative forms of architecture as informal as they might be. Robert Neuwirth’s eye-opening book Shadow cities: A Billion Squatter, a New Urban World sheds light
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on prevalence of informal settlements world-wide and how we can learn from this new urban model. He begins cleverly with a quote of invitation: “’Let the wall crumble on which another wall is not growing.’ Cesar Vallejo”25
OUR OWN STATE OF EMERGENCY Let us be quicker to help than to judge. Let he without a home cast the first stone. While from a first-world perspective in the United States, architects, planners, and policy makers should laud the valiant efforts of their counterparts in Latin American and Caribbean countries. Our disposition in the United States is not too dissimilar. We too have housing hurtles and difficulties of our own to overcome and disentangle. We must accept alternative architectures, architectures that from the top-down we may not understand. We need alternatives that are more inclusive, more efficient, more readily available, and more sustainable. Growing up in south/central Florida, I was accustomed to seasonal displacements of populations due to hurricanes. As I grew older and better understood my community, I began to realize that disasters typically only emphasize current issues already occurring in housing. The housing problem was a perennial problem, not a seasonal episode. A quick look at the numbers manifests a housing deficit more daunting than any one profession would like to admit or could handle single-handedly. In the United States, “the number of renters now paying upward of 50% of their income for housing has risen by 2.5 million since the recession  and 6.7 million over the decade. The number of poor renter is growing, but the supply of new affordable housing has dropped over the past years.”26 While many of our cities have grown large accommodating the large influx into more urbanized areas, affordable housing has not followed suit quite as quickly. “39% of working households in the Los Angeles metropolitan area spend more than half their income on housing, 35% in the San Francisco metro area and 31% in the New York area.”27 Each year The National Low Income Housing Coalition asks simple questions in search of simple answers regarding the affordability of housing. In March of 2013 in the annual “Out of Reach” report they published shocking new data. “Where in America can a low-wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment? Nowhere.”28 Figure 7
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NEW TYPOLGIES & NEW PARADIGMS “How do we meet this problem? How about with a sense of urgency?”29 The urgency of the situation demands a call to action. It demands the collaboration of the best minds to think differently and best resources available to be used differently. This call to action, also known as initiative, is precisely what the 2500 citizens did in 2007 when they occupied the Tower of David. They took a risk. They took a risk in hope of instant shelter. They envisioned and took action, much like the famous mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, Jaime Lerner, did when he closed several block of downtown road and transformed them into a permanent and beautiful pedestrian zone within 72 hours.30 They took the small windows of opportunity that were given them to create something new. Call them opportunists if you must. Through their bravery, they created a new typology. By occupying the empty tower they created a vertical slum – a vertical favela, upward sprawl. The idea to occupy the Tower of David was so unruly it was genius. The overwhelming urgency to find shelter led to new, creative solutions. Why had no one in the realm of architecture, planning, and policy thought of it first? Actually, they did. It is called adaptive reuse.
ADAPTIVE REUSE AS SOLUTION The idea of repurposing buildings has been around just about as long as buildings. However, it became common practice in the 20th century. Now, adaptive reuse marches forward as a widespread movement within architectural practice promoting historic preservation, creative thinking, and sustainable practice. In the last decade, adaptive reuse projects have produced some of the most beautiful and intelligent spaces superimposing historic layers of context and detail with modern programs and materials. The architectural market in the United States, especially the Pacific Northwest, thrives on repurposing buildings and adaptively reusing them. But only for the sake of high-end, high-priced office space, condominiums or luxury loft apartments, or museums and civic centers. Never for the poor. It is time to reverse that trend. It’s about treating class with class. Every city has a number of large, empty, or underutilized buildings in their portfolios and on their balance sheets that can be converted into architectural gems. Unfortunately, this kinetic architectural potential has only been reserved to the wealthy. Why can we not do the same for affordable housing? Why are those making decisions insisting in “improving” the housing situation and quality of the poor right where they are? As if where they belong is on the invisible outskirts of town? Or forced to be moved to a new location for the sake of gentrification – where once again the upper class takes advantage of and enjoys the kinetic architectural potential? Is there a reason we cannot make the same sustainable campaign pushing adaptive reuse for affordable housing? More often than not, these types of projects are cheaper and faster to complete than new construction. And people love them. It is time for a creative awakening – a refreshed perspective that creates a new model. The solutions to the shortage are not beyond us. They might simply be between us. Next door to us. Along our walk to work. They are right in front of us. They are within the buildings we have forgotten about. Many progressive professionals work endlessly to find new ways to face the rapid growth of urban areas. Ellen Dunham has proposed a method to retrofit our suburbs31, Kent
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Larson ways to use design to fit more people into cities.32 As praiseworthy as they are, these solutions still require massive amounts of time, resources, energy and financial investment – commodities that frankly we do not have when faced with the reality of our deficit in affordable housing. CONCLUSION - LEARNING FROM MISTAKES Derek Mead admits that what happened at in Caracas at The Centro Financiero Confianzas was an accident.33 It should not have happened. But what ever happened to learning form our mistakes? The cities we live in are urban laboratories. Let us celebrate the vertical favela! Why not? Let us learn from it rather than hide from it or try to hide it. The lesson learned is not to board up our abandoned buildings and never let it happen again. The take away is quite the opposite. It is to open the doors. Not all of them…but strategically and legally plan to occupy empty space, neglected spaces that the greed of private investors has maintained as pockets of ghost towns in the heart of downtowns. It allows affordable housing access to existing infrastructure rather than building additional infrastructure as well as affordable housing structures as well. Adaptive reuse allows architecture to meet the complex problem with a complex solution. It was the creative efforts of the desperate that made the Torre de David an icon. Its rich symbolism shows that the adaptation and repurposing of an abandoned space can provide quick, adequate, affordable housing at much less of a cost to the government than the futile efforts to build new every time. If anything, this model can help ease the increasing pressures we face. Let us forget poverty for a moment. Let us forget about visibility. If nothing else, the shear availability of the space should inspire architects to consider it as an alternative architecture. The spaces can be filled with life. Literally. They can be filled again with people, commerce, community, conversation and laughter.
Photo Credits: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
Bouillon, César Patricio. Room for Development: Housing Markets in Latin America and the Caribbean. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print. Bouillon, César Patricio. Room for Development: Housing Markets in Latin America and the Caribbean. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print. Iwan Baan. http://architizer.com/blog/life-‐in-‐the-‐torre-‐de-‐david-‐3/ Iwan Baan. http://architizer.com/blog/life-‐in-‐the-‐torre-‐de-‐david-‐3/ Iwan Baan. http://architizer.com/blog/life-‐in-‐the-‐torre-‐de-‐david-‐3/ Domenico Marchi. http://www.archdaily.com/214726/rio-‐de-‐janeiros-‐favelas-‐the-‐cost-‐of-‐the-‐2016-‐olympic-‐ games/domenico-‐marchi/ Bolton, Megan. Out of Reach 2013. National Low Income Housing Coalition. Washington, D.C. 2013 < http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/2013_OOR.pdf>. 11 November 2013.
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"Urban Population Growth." WHO. N.p., <http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/> Web. 05 Nov. 2013. Bouillon, César Patricio. Room for Development: Housing Markets in Latin America and the Caribbean. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print. Bouillon, Pg 1. Bouillon, Pg 9. Mead, Derek. The World's Tallest Slum: Caracas' Notorious Tower of David. N.d. Documentary. VOCATIV, 01 Aug. 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1p9jlQUW0k>. Aquilino, Marie, Alfredo Brillembourg, Patrick Coulombel, and Hubert Klumpner. Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity. [S.l.]: Metropolis, 2011. Print. Romero, Simon; María Eugenia Díaz (1 March 2011). "CARACAS JOURNAL; In Venezuela Housing Crisis, Squatters Find 45-‐Story Walkup" <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/01/world/americas/01venezuela.html>. The New York Times. Retrieved 3 November 2011. Medina, Samuel. "Life in the Torre De David." Architizer. N.p., 05 Dec. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <http://architizer.com/blog/life-‐in-‐the-‐torre-‐de-‐david-‐3/>. Romero, Simon Romero, Simon Romero, Simon Bouillon, Pg 25. Mead, Derek. Mostafavi, Mohsen. Architectures of Latin America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Graduate School of Design, 2011. Print. Pg. 66 Mostafavi, Mohsen. Pg 72 Mead, Derek. Caldieron, Jean, M. “From a Skyscraper to a Slumscraper: Residential Satisfaction in ‘Torre de David’ Caracas, Venezuela”. The Macrotheme Review 2(5). Fall 2013. Romero, Simon Mostafavi, Mohsen. Pg 70 Vásquez, Andrea P., and Lautaro O. Ledesma. "City and Informal Habitat: Illegal Occupation of Land and Self-‐help Construction in the Ravines of Valparaíso." Revista Invi Aug. 2013: 109-‐42. <http://revistainvi.uchile.cl/index.php/INVI/issue/view/85>. Universidad De Chile, Aug. 2013. Web. Camargo Sierra, Angelica Patricia, Adriana hurtado Tarazona. “Informal Urbanization in Bogota: Agents and Production Philosophies of Urban Space”. Revista Invi Aug. 2013: 109-‐42. <http://revistainvi.uchile.cl/index.php/INVI/article/view/756/1086> Mostafavi, Mohsen. Pg 70 Davidson, Justin. "Emergency Architecture: Occupy Caracas." NYMag.com. N.p., 09 Oct. 2011. < http://nymag.com/homedesign/urbanliving/2011/caracas/>. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. Ingels, Bjarke. Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution. Köln: Evergreen, 2010. Print. Neuwirth, Robert. Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print. Kotkin, Joel. "America's Emerging Housing Crisis." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 26 July 2013. Kotkin, Joel. Bolton, Megan. Out of Reach 2013. National Low Income Housing Coalition. Washington, D.C. 2013 < http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/2013_OOR.pdf>. 11 November 2013. Kotkin, Joel. Azevedo, Gabriel. "Vida E Cidadania." Gazeta Do Povo. "Uma Cidade Para Os Pedestres", 30 May 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.gazetadopovo.com.br/vidaecidadania/conteudo.phtml?id=1131268>. Dunham-‐Jones, Ellen. "Retrofitting Suburbia." TED: Ideas worth Spreading. N.p., June 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/ellen_dunham_jones_retrofitting_suburbia.html>. Larson, Kent. "Brilliant Designs to Fit More People in Every City." TED: Ideas worth Spreading. N.p., Sept. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/kent_larson_brilliant_designs_to_fit_more_people_in_every_city.html>. Mead, Derek.
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