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Infiltration Tactics in Latin America Fernando Diez

Large-scale planning, centralized command, and dissolution of the distinction between architectural planning and urban planning—these were once considered powerful ideas, were ingredients of housing development in the nineteen-seventies when the notion of reforming people’s lives through architecture had grown to incredible proportions. Big budgets, centralized decisions, and unlimited power for those at the drawing boards have allowed the demolition of existing cities, erasing both history and communal bonds, erasing the botanical, archeological, and social footprints to instead create a flat and neutral surface—the tabula rasa—forming the point of departure for a “new” city, the technological and rational dream of the modern city. Following the initial years of occupation, this dream became a nightmare: the ghetto of social isolation, the island of sleeping neighborhoods with no street life and, in many cases, with no streets at all. In absence of both social life and a sense of belonging, lacking a sense of place identity, the “conjuntos habitacionales,” or “projects,” became the place from which to escape. In Buenos Aires, the optimistic 1,400 units built by Staff (Bielus – Goldemberg – Krasuk) in Villa Soldati in 1972 became known as “Fuerte Apache” in reference to the lawless frontier it represented, and to the fact that police could enter only after concentrating an assault unit three-hundred-men strong. A full section was completely demolished by the governor of the Province of Buenos Aires after accepting that it has drifted completely out of control. Enclosed, isolated, disinherited from the public city, the dwellers of the conjuntos habitacionales were likewise deprived of a sense of belonging and became victims of crime gangs. Confined to these distant ghettos, they were also forced to travel more hours, either to their workplaces or to the public services in the real city. Ironically, if this concentration of investment and alienation from the preexisting city characterized urban growth for subsidized housing during the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, similar conditions characterized urban growth for the wealthy and middle classes in the nineties. Although of a quite different character, these projects also revealed the preference of avoiding the existing city and denying the possibilities presented by its public space: typically two or more towers in the middle of a block, separated from the streets. High-rise residential enclaves surrounded by a wall became a new model, with their own recreational amenities (and big garages) that would allow its dwellers to avoid the public parks and streets. In fact, this trend heightened the very problem to which it was reacting. Since these high-rise developments were so hostile to public space, their appearance contributed to a stifling of life on the streets no longer being walked by neighbors. Tabula rasa was the necessary precondition for a way of thinking in which a closed and imperfectible result was being viewed as a permanent and irrefutable solution. This is what a “strategy” looks for: a distant and previously defined goal, inviting the sacrifice of anything in its way. A “tactic,” rather, is a more modest and provisional way of acting, implying only the devising of provisional goals instead of sacrificing the means to the ends, accepting an open future, changing circumstances, or taking advantage of them.1


A series of actions by young architects in the previous years have taken this common approach, which I have termed infiltration tactics: different ways of trying to act within our existing cities, catching missed opportunities, and completing the built texture; taking advantage of undervalued urban space and injecting new life into decaying quarters. For these young architects, infiltration tactics were at the same time a way of finding work, creating the conditions in which to work in line with their own architectural interests. As a consequence, these numerous and diverse low-scale actions began to create new understanding, making the environmental conditions of walking streets and enjoying quiet quarters visible again—and thus allowing more people to recognize these qualities, something that has fueled the process with more investment and has stimulated more young architects to enter the experimental path of infiltration tactics. Infiltration requires the taking of risks. Working in previously avoided plots with inconvenient shapes or scarce surfaces. Discovering new locations in lateral or unnoticed quarters. Proposing new building typologies that break the conventional partition of the domestic surface or of communal spaces. Using cheap or untested materials. Allowing people to be more involved or to themselves define more aspects of construction and of the finishing surfaces. Working in the small scale and being sensible to local conditions. Recycling existing buildings and structures, taking advantage of their embodied energy, their scars and traits of use, that historical texture of matter that can only be achieved through time. Infiltration tactics take place at different levels—as respects architecture, operating inside and around existing buildings. Expanding their potential and filling gaps in order to increase their useable area can be called infiltrating architecture. At a larger scale, in a sort of urban infiltration, young architects have managed to become their own clients, working both as entrepreneurs and as designers, finding opportunities in the city, alternatives for obvious layouts, finding a gap in the market where experimentation could be pushed forward and new building types tested with a wider public. This is what I have called infiltrating the market. The third kind of infiltration tactic not only requires entrepreneurial and design skills, it also demands social sensibility, political maneuvering, organization and communication skills to find gaps in bureaucratic structures, sector interests, and structural blindness. This I call infiltrating poverty, a task that in Latin America requires all these many skills, but also determination and persistence.

Infiltrating Architecture Working within existing buildings, using their own hands to build, or using discarded materials, A77 (Gustavo DiĂŠguez and Lucas Gilardi) from Buenos Aires infiltrate the gaps and the unnoticed opportunities where an existing home can expand, gaining floor area or usable air space. To do so, they imagine unconventional spaces, they expand into the roofs, or they partition space in vertical or rather diagonal sections, merging above and below in new operational dimensions. A77 keeps the aspect or the recycled materials they use as a valuable texture whose previous marks become neutral in relation to their new contexts: a ready-made texture with certified unpretentiousness. Small spaces can fulfill specific needs which are put in motion by the human presence,


a potential that speaks through the bodies, their movement, and a redefined relation to the scale of space.2 Ariel Jacubovich, also from Buenos Aires, works in a similar way, expanding the usable space or the built area of existing buildings. In his case, materials and forms combine to propose joyous expression, a plastic substance that is useful and suggestive at the same time. The forms evolve as a narrative discourse that talks about the way it was conceived and built, allowing improvisation to be part of the process, where successive decisions, each one influencing the next, produce a strong pattern. In the rooftop on Castillo Street in the Villa Crespo quarter of Buenos Aires,3 Jacubovich added onto an existing building, filling the gaps of regulation and property lines, exploiting the contrast that allows the wild landscape of the massive city to frame the delicate imaginative forms of his light constructions. Michel Rojkind from Mexico, taking advantage of the sloped urban landscape of a Tecamachalco city quarter, built a house over a house in such a way that the upper home can have an independent entrance from the upper level. Giving the house a strong and synthetic shape painted in furious red, he compensates the weakness of the situation and gives the house an unforgettable identity: its contrasting form, emerging from the rather monotonous repetition of the anonymous houses of the quarter. The abstract shape suggests a continuous folded ribbon, the result of wood boards and metal sheets folding a steel structure, obtaining a literal and perceptive lightness of weight.4

Infiltrating the Market This kind of urban infiltration is mostly undertaken by young architects willing to build experimental architecture, avoiding the conventionality of the standardized demand of real estate. In search of such an opportunity, they are willing to find their own investors, typically a consortium of relatives and small investors, and to find a location that holds opportunity in terms of anticipating market trends or of even possibly setting future trends. In other cases, these opportunities arise from finding bizarre low-cost plots, either for their shape or in adherence to regulatory conditions, and a way to conceive intelligent apartments and inspiring common spaces is found. Typically, these buildings develop in relatively small plots, with around a dozen small two-room apartments, but are enriched by double-height interiors and augmented by exterior terraces. Specific qualities are obtained through the intelligent choice of materials, and a special visual and functional relation is achieved between outer and inner spaces. The innovation in location, typology, and design is also accompanied by symbolic innovation—abandoning the old signs of distinction and social status and embracing the plain expression of materials with their natural colors; simple forms, alternating between a predominantly abstract elementarism and a more complex narrative expression. As more young architects have demonstrated they can be successful in the market, others have entered the game, following a track that has also started to become visible for a new generation of buyers. All these aspects in combination have given birth to a new public sensibility among a new breed of potential dwellers: open-minded, interested in change, and delighted by the pluralism of the new situation.


Caram & Robinsohn from Buenos Aires built their first small, truly successful building in 1999 in Cramer Street, in a quarter separated by the railway from the more consolidated part of the quarter, comprising eight small, two-level apartments with outer terraces and two office units.5 On the street, these exterior spaces, big enough to accommodate a table and chairs for open-air dining, avoid blocking the light entering the interiors since they are separated from the façade, giving form to a virtual façade that follows the line of the street. Rough concrete and simple materials keep their natural colors, merging between the “Paris stone” of the traditional nineteenth-century façades. Relatively small apartments in terms of area, but with double-high rooms, have remained a constant in Caram & Robinsohn work, as in the Charcas Street6 apartment in Buenos Aires, with its flat flexible façade made of tensed canvas that encloses the large double-high balconies. Berdichevsky–Sánchez Gómez The very restrictive urban regulations sanctioned in Buenos Aires in 1977 limited the possible layouts for housing, favoring a block built up on its outer perimeter and a central void. As good as this scheme may be for a rectangular block, it is hardly appropriate for Buenos Aires’s large square blocks. Finding a gap in zoning regulations, Julián Berdichevsky and Joaquín Sánchez Gómez were able to propose a new pattern for occupying the great depth of a big plot in the Colegiales quarter. A taller five-story building faces the street, and a lower building is situated at the center of the block, and even lower homes fill the end of the plot. This configuration allows for a very rational administration of density, allowing Berdichevsky–Sánchez Gómez to include very different apartments in terms of size and features. All have exterior spaces of their own—the front to level apartments in the form of large terraces and balconies, the lower ones in the back resembling houses with gardens and private pools. This configuration suggests a block that is higher in perimeter and lower in the middle, providing a more rational morphology for the square block and, at the same time, allowing different homes to share the same building and quarter, hence allowing for a more integrated society in terms of ages and income. Javier Sánchez worked for several years designing small apartment buildings in the cozy scale of the barrio Condesa en México. Partially abandoned after the major earthquake of 1987, Condesa’s land prices had fallen very low during the nineteennineties, which Sánchez saw as an opportunity to take advantage of its superb urban quality and walking-friendly scale. In contrast to the instant “condos” of the suburbs, Sánchez’s buildings in Condesa offered the rich atmosphere of an authentic urban context, surrounded by big trees and much closer to many of the city’s main points of interest. Taking advantage of strategic locations and small plots, he built several projects over a period of ten years using contemporary materials and innovative typologies, helping a young new generation identify with the old quarter. In the end, this vision drew more young architects and developers and set a broader tendency that consolidated Condesa as a prime location with ever higher land prices. This is the reason why Sánchez kept looking for new opportunities in other quarters, such as the Ofelia Street apartments in Tizapán de San Angel.7 This building has a relatively blind façade over the small-scale street, and with its small horizontal windows it could have been an industrial building. Entering the longitudinal common space, the visitor arrives in an urban landscape of a city of the future on the scale of a medieval city. The suggestive landscape of this interior street paved in hardwood boards is comprised of the living rooms from the apartments on the left side of the street and the bedrooms on


the right side, connected by floating glass bridges that cross the alley giving it a peculiar intimacy. This radical operation allows Sánchez to better orient all living rooms of the twelve apartments, facing them to the south. In order to walk into this communal space that distinguishes the building, the visitor must climb up half a level. In contrast, cars must go down half a level to reach the garage beneath. In this way, cars are kept below the public and social space, liberating it from a presence that would have destroyed both its functional potential and its delicate atmosphere. Seen from inside, the division of the apartments into two separate blocks fosters a desired independence between the public and the private areas of homes with restricted surface areas. The bridges function as a transition between public and private, and at the same time they enliven the outer space through the insinuating shadows of the crossing people that can be seen from below.

Infiltrating Poverty The main purpose and goal of Elemental (Alejandro Aravena, Alfonso Montero, Tomás Cortese, Emilio de la Cerda, and Andrés Iacobelli) from Santiago, Chile, appears to have been to infiltrate the city. This infiltration tactic arose from the belief that the worst social punishment for the poor is to be given a home outside the real city, outside the public city of civic life, which means little more than outside society. Precisely this was the standard solution for Chilean subsidized housing (and most social housing in Latin America): building on land at lowest possible cost and therefore doing so outside of cities, in repetitive new quarters with neither identity nor sense of place. In the northern Chilean city of Iquique,8 Elemental sought out the opposite, for they understood that even a smaller house in the real city was an improvement, which, coincidentally, was the understanding of the poor as well. So Elemental tried to provide an answer to those specific things that the poor wouldn’t be able attain by themselves: access to the public city, sanitation, and seismic-resistant houses. With a capped budget of 7,500 U.S. dollars per unit, Elemental had to relinquish half of the built area of each home to buy land several times more expensive than usually paid for public housing, but inside the real city (the same plot the dwellers had been occupying illegally). This made sense since the poor were able to build the rest by themselves in a rigid earthquake-resistant frame. They were also able to themselves provide all the finishing surfaces and artifacts. They even planned self-construction processes while the main work was being done. Therefore, upon completion it took them no more than several weeks to duplicate the built area. And that was the real inauguration day. Applying the same resources as standard social housing, Elemental achieved its most important task, infiltrating poverty: breaking the isolation and alienation of the social housing ghettos, integrating the poor in quarters with different incomes and thus their children into mixed-income schools, and giving them a chance for social integration and better opportunities. Not surprisingly, the slightly chaotic look of the finished homes is far more interesting than the poor expression of the repetitive single home cubes of the ghettos. The dwellers developed an instant sense of pride and identity with what they had accomplished: their own homes erected with their own hands and willpower. Because this is so important, the participative work conducted by Elemental with the community before and during construction must be underlined. This is a housing model showing that it can be successful, not only in the specific context of Chile but in the wider context of Latin


America. (While this article was being written, Elemental won the Silver Lion at the 2008 Venice Biennale.)

Infiltration tactics suggests that we are not condemned to abide by the prophecies of the market sorcerers. That the unidimensional reality of real estate trends and bureaucratic state dictations have alternatives. That it is possible, and even better, to work outside of the mainstream, in small scale. That the gaps we find infiltrating the structure of reality can open a new understanding of the development of our present. Infiltration tactics are not a lateral, second-choice way of acting, a subsidiary and meaningless possibility in the mainstream of massive trends. They are much more—they are the path to enhanced vision, to better understanding. Small is beautiful because it can achieve more with less. Less energy, less stress, less waste—but more intelligence is then needed. These projects proved that there is plenty of it among the young Latin American architects.

Notes 1 This idea was previously analyzed in Peter Eisenman, “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning and the End of the End,” Perspecta 21 (1984); also available in Neil Leach, ed., Rethinking Architecture (London: Routledge, 1997). 2 Cayetana Mercé, “Chicos grandes,” Summa 82 (September 2006), p. 156. 3 Mauricio Corbalán, “Alto Castillo,” Summa 85 (February 2007), p. 70. 4 AUTHOR, “ARTICLE TITLE,” Barzón 2 (May 2007), p. 140. 5 Fernando Diez, “Edificios discretos, ciudad de fragmentos,” Summa 44 (September 2000), p. 60. 6 Cayetana Mercé, “Ecuación horizontal,” Summa 64 (March 2004), p. 70. 7 AUTHOR, “Ciudad interior,” Summa 71 (February 2005), p. 78. 8 Alejandro Aravena, “Proyecto y Autoconstrucción,” Summa 79 (April 2006), p. 136.

Image captions: Staff (Bielus – Goldemberg – Krasuk), 1,400 units in Villa Soldati, Buenos Aires, 1972. A77 (Gustavo Diéguez and Lucas Gilardi), sleeping cabin for children in an existing house in Boulonge sur Mer, Buenos Aires, 2006 (17.5 m2). Ariel Jacubovich, Castillo 255, Villa Crespo, Buenos Aires, 2002 (80 m2 within and above an existing building). Michel Rojkind, Casa PR34, Tecamachalco, México, 2003 (136.34 m2).


Caram Robinsohn, Edificio Cramer 1642, Buenos Aires, 1999 (11 units, 620 m2). Caram Robinsohn, Edificio Charcas 5270, Buenos Aires, 2001 (36 apartments, 2,000 m2). Berdichevsky–Sánchez Gómez, Edificio Urbanverde, Buenos Aires, 2005 (17 homes, 3,032 m2). Javier Sánchez, Viviendas Calle Ofelia, Mexico DF, 2002 (12 apartments with parking, 1,622 m2). Elemental (Alejandro Aravena, Alfonso Montero, Tomás Cortese, Emilio de la Cerda, and Andrés Iacobelli), Elemental Iquique, Quinta Monroy, Iquique, Chile, 2004 (100 expandable units, 3,500 m2 on 5,000 m2 of land).

Housing in latinamerica  

Arq. Fernando Diez

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