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Radical Cities — Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture Justin McGuirk Verso, £18.99 Review by Thomas Wensing

This is a riveting travelogue that narrates the stories and lives of activist architects, politicians and radical communities in pursuit of a more dignified existence for the inhabitants of barrios, barriadas, villas miserias and favelas across South America. The title alludes to both David Harvey’s Rebel Cities and to Le Corbusier’s famous manifesto; author Justin McGuirk is clearly inspired by both the utopianism of modernism in Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City, and by the anarchism of John Turner, a British architect who worked in disadvantaged communities in Peru in the Sixties. The book starts with a visit to one of the Mexican superblock housing estates. Tlatelolco was a bafflingly technocratic and gargantuan modernist estate designed in the Sixties by Mario Pani around the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. ‘South and Central America were home to some of the greatest experiments in urban living in the 20th century,’ McGuirk contends. But however large, the projects were 2



´tokenistic´ in comparison to the scale of the problems of poverty, explosive population growth and mass urban migration. It is telling that in Tlatelolco the modernist layer was superimposed on an archaeological site, and centred around a square adorned by Aztec pyramids and a Spanish Colonial church. It was supposed to be the symbol of a bright future but was not immune to the violence of an oppressive regime and the effects of natural disaster: before the Mexican Olympics of 1968 protesting students were murdered by the military and during the earthquake of 1985 some of the towers, which had been poorly built by corrupt contractors, came crashing down.

McGuirk is spot on in his observation that the argument for self-help programmes has been turned against itself... with ‘activist’ politicians such as Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and mathematician who became the mayor of Bogotá and whose unorthodox approach helped to turn the city around. His political career was launched on the platform of ‘No P’ — no publicity, no politics, no party and no plata (money), and he famously and successfully employed 400 mime artists to regulate the city’s unruly traffic. We currently live in a neo-liberal society, which is to say that our laws and governments continue to be dedicated to the promotion of the ideology of neo-liberalism, and that the opposition between corporate power and the state has all but


1 Iwan Baan 2 Thelma Vilas Boas 3 Cristobal Palma 4 Tomás García Puente


The estate continues to deteriorate, since the state has largely withdrawn from public housing expenditure. Such, in a nutshell, are the problems one continues to deal with in South America and which McGuirk emphatically explores. ‘Latin America is where modernist Utopia went to die,’ he dramatically asserts, and this sets the tone for the argument for the more democratic, egalitarian and inclusive urbanism as practised by the communities, politicians and activist architects in the book. As such the book effectively reiterates several points made by the self-help pioneer John Turner decades before: among others that favelas are the primary urban condition of growing cities, and that no state can afford to finance the total demand for housing, but more importantly that the people themselves are best equipped to build for themselves and decide how to live, given the chance. The comparison of the relative merits of top-down, large-scale housing programmes and the bottom-up empowerment of self-help programmes and participatory design is one among many narrative strands in the book, but the argument runs much deeper than this. McGuirk is spot on in his observation that the argument for the support of self-help programmes has been turned against itself: governments withdrew from public housing programmes, trying instead to ‘manage’ the growth of informal settlements, but in essence accepted and reinforced the deep class divisions expressed by the favelas and the formal city. The problem of housing was left to the free market, architecture became spectacle, form without Utopia, and architects lost their social purpose. The turn to neo-liberalism in political-economic practices from the Eighties onwards is, of course, not unique to Latin America. But through the IMF’s restructuring programmes in Latin America, the disastrous effects of these economic policies are more acutely felt. This in turn has led to original and hopeful responses of citizens, who despite the pressures of laissez-faire, extreme poverty, conflict and violence, continue to resist these oppressive structures and collectively build a better future. McGuirk visits radical communities, for instance Túpac Amaru in Argentina, a collective movement which builds its own houses, swimming pools, and community facilities at a fraction of the cost of regular house builders. He meets with the squatters occupying the Torre David, an empty and unfinished office building in the centre of Caracas. He explores the projects and picks the brains of several activist architects, including Alejandro Aravena of Elemental and Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of Urban Think Tank. And last but not least he meets

vanished. This collusion between state and private interests has eroded the rights of citizens and is a continuous threat to democracy, especially in the fragile economies of South America. This generation of activists, pragmatists and social idealists are finding successful ways to address poverty and inequality, and to my mind their power lies in the paradigm shift they bring about. Inequality is one of the biggest problems which needs to be addressed at the start of the 21st century and I think it is to McGuirk’s credit for delivering a book that strikes a hopeful tone, is multifaceted, personal, and yet is realistic about the challenges that need to be faced. 1 – A panoramic view from the Caracas metro cable car, an infrastructural masterstroke 2 – ‘Ruins’ of favelas at Manguinhos, Rio 3 – The celebrated Quinta Monroy incremental housing, by Alejandro Aravena & ELEMENTAL 4 – Alto Comedero, a ‘new town’ in the Argentinian city of San Salvador de Jujuy


Radical cities review blueprint  

Book Review of Justin Mc Guirk's Radical Cities - – Across Latin America in Search of New Architecture for Blueprint by Thomas Wensing

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