:: Article

Two Billion Squatters

By John Houghton.

Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities, Verso, 2014

By 2030, two billion people, a quarter of humanity, will live as squatters in the world’s urban centres. How will these rapidly growing ‘informal cities’ of squats, slums and reclaimed buildings interact with officially planned and developed ‘formal cities’? How can architecture help negotiate these liminal spaces to create graceful mixture instead of gated and guarded division? Will planners and architects attempt to ‘cut out the cancer of the slums’ or accept that “the informal city [is] an unavoidable feature of the urban condition”?

There are pessimistic answers to all these questions. Cities are dividing, people are seething. The Brazilian authorities assumed the preparations for the World Cup would be a cause for national unity. For the people, they were the trigger for a wave of protest at rising costs and falling living conditions.

And yet Radical Cities is an “optimistic book”, because McGuirk has met and witnessed the work of activist architects who are “reprising spatial solutions – design – to social problems…rescuing space as a tool of politics”.

The death of architectural purpose

McGuirk starts his story at the totemic burial spot of architectural modernism in Latin America. The Tlatelolco development in Mexico City, completed in 1964, was supposed to be home to 100,000 of the city’s poorest slum dwellers. Its architect was Mario Pani, an adherent of Le Corbusier and firm believer that “much of Mexico City deserved the wrecking ball”, to be replaced by machines for living like Tlatelolco with their “gridded, ultra-repetitive facades”.

In reality, bureaucrats and state workers scooped up most of the new homes and “the slum dwellers were shunted elsewhere”. The modernist vision for Tlatelolco was destroyed by the wrecking ball of reality in other ways. It became associated with repression after a violent government crackdown on protesting students and required a major structural overhaul in the 1980s after an earthquake exposed structural weaknesses. This was Ronan Point on a vast scale, and Tlatelolco was far from being alone.

“For all its bravura,” McGuirk observes, “Latin America is where modernist utopia went to die.” The death of modernism coincided with the rise of right-wing juntas in the region and neo-liberal economics across the world. McGuirk contests that architecture abandoned any concept of social purpose, opting to go along with the new orthodoxy that markets were the answer to every social and economic problem.

Modernism was replaced by post-modernism. The architect became the starchitect. A galvanising philosophy was subsumed by “a culture of ¥€$, in which the architect and client mutually fulfilled each other’s wildest fantasies”. Squatters and slum dwellers would have to fight in the free market like everyone else.

And yet, even in this intellectual waste land, branches can grow from stony rubbish.

The birth of the activist architect

Radical Cities is optimistic because “in the last decade a new generation of architects has emerged.” McGuirk terms these ‘activist architects’ and travelled Latin America to explore their commitment to working with the residents of informal cities, to co-creating homes, to finding new ways of generating civic interaction and creativity.

The author travelled to Iquique where the 1960s PREVI philosophy is being re-applied. At the core of the PREVI philosophy, developed by John Turner is the belief the poor are better served building their own homes than waiting to move into pre-set, pre-built units. This had radical implications:

It was also apparent to Turner that the combined wealth of the poor – if all their assets were capitalised – was far greater than any government’s, and that all the poor needed was assistance in deploying their resources in the ways that suited them best, not in the manner that suited the government The work of Elemental in Iquique therefore is premised on building ‘half a house’ and leaving the eventual resident to grow, shape and adapt the home as they wish. Urban-Think Tank built a cable car that linked the barrio of San AgustÍn to the heart of Caracas, making access to jobs and services easier and creating a psychological connection between the informal and formal city. In the same city, an organised collective took over and squatted the three-quarters built Torre David and now run it as a self-organised commune. Antanas Mockus, twice mayor of Bogata, cut road deaths by dismissing the city’s corrupt traffic police force and replacing them with 400 mime artists. He also reduced crime by offering children’s toys in exchange for guns. The city administration received and destroyed over 2,500 weapons.

Each of these examples poses profound questions about how we currently organise the physical and social spaces of our cities, as the author explores. McGuirk relates these tales with a sharp writing style and a clear commitment creation of new urban possibilities. There is a tangible excitement in the tone of his writing when he describes the possibility of forming an urban “heterotopia” in which bottom-up community solutions can evolve and grow, away from the dead hand of state solutions.

His accounts are the result of real engagement with the people and places he describes, not impressionistic fly-by notes. I flinched several times as he described the dangerously precarious environment of his five days spent in Torre David; a swinging glass pane about to become an ‘airborne guillotine’, stray bullet from gun battles in the surrounding streets, sheer drops from floors without outside walls. If you suffer from vertigo, you might want to skip the otherwise stunning collections of photographs illustrating these environments.

McGuirk also has a great eye and ear for telling details. At times, he acts as the medium for the eloquence he encounters. Such as here when he transcribes Alfredo Brillembourg, one of the co-founders of Urban-Think Tank:

If the nineteenth century gave birth to the horizontal city, and the twentieth century gave birth to the vertical city, the twenty-first century must be diagonal city, one that cuts across social divisions.

As I said at the top of this review, I’m deeply grateful to Justin McGuirk for taking these risks and bringing his stories back home.

Learning from Latin America

I’m particularly grateful because we have a great deal to learn from Latin America. Devotees to the regeneration orthodoxy in the UK may give Radical Cities a read. They’ll have a giggle at the antics of those crazy Latinos – a mayor who replaced traffic cops with mime artists??? – before getting back to business as usual.

That means the property-led, profit-first ‘regeneration’ of deprived areas, leading to the displacement and dispersal of lower-income households. It’s this approach which led to chronic inequality in our cities and huge gaps in life chances and quality of life between our poorest neighbourhoods and the rest. The recession killed off regeneration. 90% of all schemes in England were postponed or cancelled completely. The ‘Bradford Hole’ became the ultimate symbol of the flaws in the debt-laden, development-led regeneration business model. The Chancellor at least had learned little, using another housing bubble and promises of regeneration to re-float our sunk economy. We’re in danger of going back to the old model.

Those of us interested in developing alternatives for a post-regeneration landscape should pay much greater attention to this book because, as McGuirk puts it:

It is on the question of the city that Latin America may have most to offer. The fact that Latin American nations endured the levels of urbanisation that they did in the mid twentieth century, in conditions of scarcity, had made them a prime testing ground for radical ideas in urban development and management. For if growth was the paradigm of the twentieth century, so scarcity looks likely to be the pre-eminent condition of the twenty-first century.

We desperately need a wave of activist architects here in the UK, learning from pioneering initiatives like 2Up 2Down in Anfield, which is supported by the architect Marianne Heaslip. How can we apply to the insight from PREVI to the asset-based community development agenda in the UK? How can the radical community land ownership models being developed in Latin America inform the growing movement here, symbolised by London’s first community land trust? What can we learn from vertical gyms in order to bring communities together and cut crime? And I’m sure cities in Latin America can learn a lot from us about how to do cable cars…

Radical Cities invites us to think afresh about how we organise our built and social spaces. Let’s seize that invitation before we get dragged back to the de-radicalised orthodoxy.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities. He tweets at @metlines

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 10th, 2014.