Architecture and/or Revolution
On architecture in Latin America
Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980. The Museum of Modern Art, March–July 2015. Exhibition catalog by Barry Bergdoll et al., MoMA, 2015.
Justin McGuirk. Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture. Verso, 2014.
What are architects good for? They design buildings. Occasionally they design very nice buildings. But mostly they design garbage, as the skyline of any city will confirm. Think of those boxy stacks of glass, hundreds, thousands of them, each more banal and oppressive than the last. They come from the brains of architects — supposedly creative people! The truly “architected” buildings are worse. Novelty piles on banality. The top of the box gets sliced at a whimsical horse-ear angle, as with Chicago’s Crain Communications Building, or the base gets enlarged and whittled upward into a pyramid, as with San Francisco’s Transamerica. (This is to say nothing of the ghastly pickles and walkie-talkies that crown London, which may have the worst neoliberal architecture in the world.) Such buildings were dreamed up by people who get museum retrospectives, occasionally in museums they designed, and have the sheer nerve to think of themselves as artists.
Today’s big projects are first and foremost instruments of financial speculation. Take the High Line in New York, a once-abandoned elevated railway that has been converted into a park. It has primarily turned out to be a way to increase the land values in surrounding Chelsea (especially the sixteen-skyscraper Hudson Yards project) and only afterward should be understood as the work of some decent landscape architects. A real estate–enhancing development to spur more real estate–enhancing developments, it has also directed a generous amount of foot traffic to the nearby Whitney Museum of American Art, a hulking metal gunboat of a building designed by Renzo Piano, a once-great architect (remember when he turned the guts of the building inside out to make the Centre Pompidou?) whose recent work, such as the Shard in London, an office building whose shape has nothing to do with its actual use, is shameless. His Whitney has its merits, but mostly provides a context for the High Line: it creates a continuous aesthetic experience, from museum art to outdoor urban wonderland, in the ultimate service of pumping up condo prices.
To be stuck between art and the market has been the drama of the architect for a whileTweet
What is occurring in architectural capitals these days feels like a warm handshake, the long wet smack of deal after deal being struck. Pompous critics (Martin Filler, the late Ada Louise Huxtable) may continue to call it “the building art,” but most architecture is a subsidiary of commercial and residential real estate, and no rhetorical posturing ought to convince us otherwise. To be stuck between art and the market has been the drama of the architect for a while: he (among the big names, thanks to the profession’s enduring sexism, there are still only a handful of shes) is trained in the arts but employed as a link, usually the least important, in a real estate supply chain. Anyone who dares to imagine a social role as an architect is quickly disabused by circumstance.
The result is that much of the field of architecture, having enjoyed a period of excitement and heroism around midcentury, now feels malign. Even the better works have something fundamentally vulgar about them. The snaking cantilever and gray-dark glass of Rem Koolhaas’s hulking CCTV tower in Beijing can create a kind of awe in the soul: the sense of space having been improbably bent, wrenched, and mastered. But it is also a dramatically amoral piece of work — the HQ for a propaganda network — consistent with Koolhaas’s oddly respected argument, in Delirious New York, that the speculative office towers that crowd Manhattan are what make the island great. (Koolhaas has since changed his position to “kill the skyscraper.”)
Skyscrapers are one thing: obvious symbols of the force of money. But since the end of the postwar era of urban development, the venality of architecture firms and of the developers who pay them has stood out most in projects related to public housing. Cities have become panoplies of bad work — depressing housing projects on the periphery, analogously depressing office towers in the center. Why, the logic seems to run, should people live in better buildings than money does? “As things go nowadays, one has only a choice of nightmares,” Lewis Mumford wrote in 1948. He was talking about Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan’s largest apartment complex, which had been built without much public input and was derided as a planning failure. Still, the apartments were rent-stabilized, not to mention cheap. More than fifty years after Mumford deplored the place, Stuyvesant Town — by then widely reported to be beloved by residents — was sold to a private developer, vexing public housing’s diminishing base of advocates. (The developer, Tishman Speyer, defaulted on its mortgage in 2010; the current owner, CWCapital, plans to sell it, which may place the remaining affordable units in jeopardy.) Meanwhile the number of public-housing units in the US has declined, even as demand increases.
Still, the massive investment in public housing in the quarter century following the end of World War II was not just a sign of a socially committed state but was greeted as a triumph for architecture. Modern architects and their proponents recognized housing as a crucial problem of industrial society and devoted enormous resources, intellectual and otherwise, to solving its dilemmas. Similarly, the decline of investment in public housing signaled a decline in the social commitments of architecture; the idea that architecture has become a shallow profession is now proverbial. How to get out of this funk? Can Anglo-American architecture be reunited with its social purposes, and thus reinvigorated as art?
One potentially useful way to approach these questions is to look to the recent history of Latin America — the region that, in the past sixty years, has furnished the most consistent challenges to the supremacy of capital and produced some of the most innovative architectural work.
The Museum of Modern Art’s huge show Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980, curated by Barry Bergdoll, former head of the museum’s architecture department, suggests that the best place and time to have been an architect with social ambitions was Rio de Janeiro circa 1960. A stunning collection of models and plans for buildings, parks, and universities, the exhibition bludgeons you with greatness and is unabashed about its variety. Eladio Dieste’s Iglesia de Cristo Obrero (Church of Christ the Worker), an almost comically humble brick church in Uruguay, is buttressed by a lovely sine wave of supporting walls. Nearby, Clorindo Testa’s Bank of London in Buenos Aires shows what airiness brutalism could achieve: an exoskeleton of concrete struts, perforated here and there by ovals, guards an interior curtain-wall facade to create a magnificent interplay of light and rough textures. A working-class church and an international-development bank, a squat place of worship and a tower of global finance — both buildings are thrilling to see. Together they exemplify the extremes of what Latin American architecture tried to encompass, and the politics it represented.
The later strands of European and North American modernism, even the aggressive grayness of British brutalism, have been enjoying a reappraisal lately. Their Latin American counterparts are not only better but often seem to presage and go beyond their developments. Take the Central Library of the National Autonomous University of Mexico: a rectangular brick slab, adorned with mosaic motifs partly inspired by pre-Hispanic symbology, rises from a wide, square, glassed-in base. It is at once an exemplar of modernist severity and a colorful rebuke to it, with its mosaic stones collected from all across Mexico, making it a singular, unrepeatable triumph. Oscar Niemeyer’s stunning Copan Building in São Paulo — completed in 1966 and, with 1,160 units, the largest apartment building in the Americas — bends the flat surface of the modernist facade into a woozy S-curve that, with its balconies serving also as sinuous louvers, produces an illusion of constant shimmering movement. These buildings, like most in the exhibition, keep faith with the ambitions of modernism while dissenting from its usual austerity; they create new and surprising forms out of the same materials that connote bureaucracy in the Global North: steel, glass, unfinished concrete.
There is a risk of casuistry in conjuring a “Latin American” architecture.Tweet
These buildings also have a distinct political charge that can go beyond anything accomplished in the Global North. One outstanding example is the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), designed by the Italian-born Brazilian (and Communist) Lina Bo Bardi, whose reputation has been growing steadily and who stands to become one of the few women allowed in the canon. Bo Bardi raises the MASP’s long, dark-glassed gallery high off the ground between two enormous red piers. Thus the plaza beneath, lying at street level to Avenida Paulista, the city’s biggest thoroughfare, becomes a large and pleasant public space, allowing for circulation under the museum and to the Parque Trianon behind it. Empty plazas abound in modernist architecture; the one below MASP is used constantly — for concerts, fairs, protests, and more. The variety of its uses testifies to the deference of the architect to the desires of masses of people. John Cage, who well understood the political gesture of artistic self-effacement, called MASP “the architecture of freedom.”
There is a risk of casuistry in conjuring a “Latin American” architecture. You must corral the work of wildly different designers working across thousands of miles, in dozens of countries, over several decades. And yet the show persuasively demonstrates that from the 1950s to the ’70s, architects across the region were committed to an aggressive modernity — and that their methods were enabled by an economic model the Spanish-speaking countries called desarrollismo, or “developmentalism.” In partnership with the US, which wanted to integrate Latin America’s rural and urban poor (thereby preventing them from joining up with the Communists), Latin American countries developed a single-track theory of national development, which held that all countries must follow roughly the same path to affluence. Under this theory, places like Brazil and Peru simply needed to industrialize quickly, moving from agrarian economies focused on export of raw materials to urban societies focused on creating internal markets for manufactured goods. Accordingly, countries from Mexico to Argentina elected (or were seized by) populist leaders who believed in rapid growth and freedom from “dependency” on other nations. Agricultural output was industrialized, and agricultural profits were used to fuel construction of heavy industry in cities, where higher-paying jobs became available. As a result, people flowed in from the countryside, forming the many rings of informal settlements — villas miseria in Argentina, barriadas in Peru, and favelas in Brazil — that are now a stereotype of the Latin American city. At the same time, national governments accrued immense power and sought to administer more and more levels of society. The slogan of one of Brazil’s presidents in the ’50s, Juscelino Kubitschek, was “fifty years of progress in five”: development that took a half century in Europe and America could be achieved in Latin America in one-tenth the time.
Latin American architecture was allied with developmentalism but also — the MoMA show implies — exuded it. Developmentalist thinking held that immense economic energies could be unleashed swiftly and then somehow contained. Much of the exuberance of Latin American architectural forms comes from the sense that, socially, anything was possible, and that the challenge was to conjure building styles that could express these social possibilities. Because of the speed of urban growth in Peru, Brazil, and Argentina, public housing was being built on a grand scale. But the euphoria went well beyond housing, into the architecture of finance, bureaucracy, domesticity, and even tourism. One of the outstanding images from the show, whose impression lingers long after you’ve left, is Peruvian architect Miguel Rodrigo Mazuré’s plan for a hotel at Machu Picchu (1969). A long hexagonal prism resting on three piers sunk into a green mountainside, with rooms extruding as rhomboids and stepped pyramids, it looks like a mashing together of all the ships from Star Wars. Though never built, it shows what was plausible for the era — anything! — and also how strongly Latin American societies wanted to confront touristic reverence for their past monuments with a vigorous modernism that showed their protean visions for the future. (One of the titles originally floated for the exhibition: “When Latin America Was the Future.”)
The personality of Latin American architecture offended many in the Modern Movement, especially those committed to the ideals of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), the international organization partly founded by Le Corbusier that was intended to propagate and refine an architecture of sheer tedium. To partisans, Latin American architects (especially Brazilian ones) were not only dissenting from design orthodoxy but shirking the political duty to be boring. A widely circulated attack by the Swiss architect Max Bill (originally published in Architectural Review in 1954) laid down the indictment. In Brazil, he wrote,
I saw some shocking things, modern architecture sunk to the depths, a riot of anti-social waste, lacking any sense of responsibility towards either the business occupant or his customers. . . . Here is utter anarchy in building, jungle growth in the worst sense. . . . For such works are born of a spirit devoid of all decency.
Later critics would echo Bill’s fury. Nikolaus Pevsner, one of the earliest historians of architectural and design modernism, added an update to his classic Pioneers of Modern Design in 1960, in which he viewed the Latin American scene with alarm. “The structural acrobatics of the Brazilians and all of those who imitate them are attempts to satisfy the craving of architects for individual expression,” he wrote, “the craving of the public for the surprising and the fantastic, and for an escape out of reality into a fairy world.”
Some of the loudest complaints were lodged against the Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa plan for Brasília, that most beautiful and strange of architectural follies. Since its cornerstones were laid in 1960, the city has been regarded as the height of modernist presumptuousness, the lurid endgame of technocratic reason. Laid out on an axis by planner Costa, with arms of civic buildings curving out east and west from the center — seen from above, it was meant to resemble the wings of an airplane — Brasília was architecture and planning as pure form. A square nearly as large as Tiananmen fronts the Plaza of the Three Powers, where a double ramp bisects two slab concrete towers, graced on either side by a flat dome and a saucer. Fantastically wide esplanades and enormous roads frame these still-futuristic buildings.
…a vision of the city as art object, a place best contemplated from the middle distance, or the air.Tweet
Denounced at the time in articles like “Brasília: Majestic Concept or Autocratic Monument?” (one of those nonquestions), Brasília has ossified in the minds of postmodernists as a series of missteps. In the 1980s, Marshall Berman offered a brief against its “emptiness” and hostility to “community and dialogue,” and in the ’90s, James C. Scott cited it as a perfect example of “seeing like a state”: a relentless attempt to force people into cars and private spaces and to forestall public meetings and demonstrations.
Like all consensuses, this one is fun to unsettle, and the MoMA curators gamely try to do so. The primary proof of Brasília’s failure has been the favelas that sprang up while it was being built, ersatz housing for construction workers that the planners, in their modernist hubris, supposedly did not make room for. The MoMA curators counter that the planners did, in their original proposal, design housing for this purpose; it was the government that asked that satellite cities of construction workers be moved to the capital’s outskirts. Fair enough. Beyond that, Brasília remains an oddity, a monument less to the technocracy of modernism than to its spaciness — its willingness to sacrifice the chaotic, lived-in wisdom of city life to a vision of the city as art object, a place best contemplated from the middle distance, or the air. Bergdoll nonetheless tries to argue that Brasília wasn’t insensate to social needs by pointing out that the housing superblocks have recessed parking, which creates landscape courts with clear lines of sight between them. This is a nice touch, but an empty formal one, better to think about than to live in, and a pittance compared with what any city with a few parks and walkable streets can offer.
The most problematic section of Latin America in Construction has to do with public housing. Bergdoll and company are content to list, along the rear wall of the exhibition space, a chronology of housing experiments, without describing the political conditions under which these experiments took place. Viewers will need to note for themselves that one of the biggest housing complexes in Argentina, Piedrabuena, was largely built in the early years of the military junta (1976–83), when leftists were nabbed off the street by the thousands, and providing for the poor was not the utmost priority. The implication is that while dictatorships were rounding up leftists for disappearance, they saw public housing as a way of containing and placating the poor, whose tacit support they needed for their legitimacy. Though public housing eventually came to be associated with failed social-democratic efforts, it remained very much part of Latin American policy, even under far-right governments, into the 1980s.
Throughout Latin America, the astounding scale of public-housing projects failed to keep pace with the more astounding scale of urban poverty. While the infamously large Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis contained 2,870 apartments, the Carlos Raúl Villanueva–designed 23 de Enero complex in Caracas had 9,000, which in turn was dwarfed by Tlatelolco in Mexico City, a miniature city of 15,000 dwellings. And yet by 1975, as the social critic Jorge Enrique Hardoy wrote, the favelas, villas miseria, and barriadas were dwarfing these:
The population of the villas miseria in Lima represented 9 percent of its population in 1957, 21 percent in 1961 and 36 percent in 1969. . . . Between 1947 and 1961 it began to represent . . . from 14 to 46 percent of the population in Mexico City . . . between 1961 and 1964 from 21 to 35 percent of the population in Caracas. The villas miseria represented 41 percent of the population of Brasília in 1962 and 46 percent of Ciudad Guyana in 1966. . . . There are dramatic cases in all the countries. 80 percent of the population of Buenaventura (Colombia) . . . in 1964 lived in informal slum housing, as well as 49 percent of the 730,000 inhabitants of Guayaquil.
Apart from whatever design inadequacies lingered over the housing projects — and many of them faithfully mimic International Style principles that other buildings in the exhibition do not — Latin American development models were producing impoverished cities that could not be fully housed, even by hugely ambitious programs.
Bergdoll and his fellow curators provide a pat explanation for the loss of energy that enveloped Latin American architecture in the 1980s: neoliberalism. Development policies were failing, and the dominance of other models in the US and UK sapped state interest in ambitious programs; the Pinochet regime in Chile furnished a homegrown example. A more familiar style of developer-led building began to take hold, indistinguishable from that of the glazed, corporate North.
Founded by poets as well as architects, it sought to subsume architecture “as a practice in the service of poetry.”Tweet
This isn’t wrong, but it also isn’t fully satisfying. Neoliberalism wasn’t simply a paradigm that placidly succeeded developmentalism. Like the Keynesian state in the North, the developmentalist state in the South began to fail on its own terms. It created massive amounts of state debt, eventually preparing the way for the notorious IMF “rescues” to come. It generated demand for housing that it couldn’t satisfy, leading to the still-existing rings of informal settlements in cities throughout the region. It produced enormous inequalities, especially between the bureaucratic governing class and the working poor, whose living standards ultimately failed to rise. By the 1960s, the developmentalist state was being attacked from the left, by restive trade unions and guerrillas, and dictatorships emerged to protect it (or, in the case of Pinochet, transform it into what would become neoliberalism). In other words, to be allied with the developmentalist state, as many architects were, no longer came to seem socially progressive. The public-housing and associated planning projects that they were building began to seem less like aggressive claims on the future and more like rearguard efforts to minimize the impact of out-of-control urbanization. The architecture of the modern movement could not solve the problems generated by developmentalism, and in its proponents’ zeal to inflict enormous, increasingly standardized solutions on the urban landscape, it might even exacerbate them.
Architects began to perceive this as early as the ’60s, and defections from big modernist projects happened well before the Washington Consensus. Before neoliberalism, many architects were beginning to feel that the grandiose scale of modernist architecture, the sheer imposition on landscapes and people, was out of touch with the social concerns that were meant to animate their work. For instance, Chile’s La Ciudad Abierta (Open City), an architecture collective established on the beach north of Valparaíso in 1970, is incomprehensible in a framework that lays blame at Thatcher’s and Reagan’s feet. Founded by poets as well as architects, it sought to subsume architecture “as a practice in the service of poetry.” It offered courses on “the culture of the body” and arranged for students to travel from Punta Arenas, at the tip of the continent, to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in eastern Bolivia, which the school’s founders declared the “poetic capital” of the Americas. Its cemetery of rough-hewn brick and its spindly water tower of conjoined poles reflect urgent need, more like a prehistoric farm than the heroic, land-subduing modernism of a Niemeyer. It represents a kind of escape from architecture — from its professionalization and its possibly misguided aims.
One of the most influential figures in contemporary radical Latin American architecture, cited fleetingly in the MoMA exhibit, came, like Bo Bardi, from outside the continent. John Turner was a British architect who in the early 20th century went through what became the de rigueur training in the dogmas of modernism. His formative experience took place in Lima in the 1950s, where he studied the squatter barriadas ringing the city. Unlike public-housing developments, Turner saw, squatter housing reflected the initiative of residents. Construction proceeded in stages, as residents — some of whom had de facto if not titular power over their homes — acquired money to make improvements. Turner compared the prefab ultramodernity of superblock housing unfavorably with the class-appropriate materials and products selected by the squatters. The apparent freedom in squatter housing eventually provoked him into a political dissent against the prevailing modes of housing provision and a spiritual defense of the squatter as an emblem of autonomy. In a special issue of Architectural Design from 1968 on the “Architecture of Democracy,” Turner wrote, “The man who would be free must build his own life. The existential value of the barriada is the product of three freedoms. The freedom of community self-selection; the freedom to budget one’s own resources; and the freedom to shape one’s own environment.”
The force of these lofty sentiments registered in the years that followed, as North American social-housing projects were turned to rubble and their Latin American counterparts were left to founder. In one gruesome incident, which took place the same year Turner proclaimed the squatter’s heroism, a celebrated modernist housing complex became the site of a massacre when students protesting the PRI government in Mexico City were shot in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. Octavio Paz saw echoes of Aztec rites: “several hundred boys and girls sacrificed on the ruins of a pyramid.” In the 1980s, under IMF- and World Bank–sponsored restructuring rules, housing entitlements were cut drastically, and arguments like Turner’s were converted into apologies for neglect. Neoliberal economists such as Hernando de Soto made the case that protecting property rights, rather than the right to housing, eliminated poverty, while World Bank president Robert McNamara, fresh from dousing Vietnam in Agent Orange, saw in Turner the ideological cover for an offensive against the lingering socialist commitments of South American governments. It is this irony that has led marxisant writers, such as Mike Davis in Planet of Slums, to treat Turner as a willfully naive conspirator in World Bank machinations.
“The list of participants reads like a roll-call of the 1960s architectural avant-garde.”Tweet
Yet Turner is the sage presiding over architecture critic Justin McGuirk’s account of contemporary Latin American “activist architecture,” Radical Cities. Inspired by the great ambitions of the modernists on display at MoMA, but exuding the chastened melancholy of the late-capitalist left, McGuirk tries to recover both the militancy of the old modernism and the promised fusion with anarchism mooted by Turner. Before setting out on his contemporary tours — of Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico — McGuirk pays a visit to an older, still extant attempt at this fusion. PREVI (Proyecto Experimental de Vivienda) is a low-rise, high-density housing development built in a Lima suburb with the aid of the UN in 1974. By then, the monolithic consensus on “towers in a park” had begun to falter, and architects were seeking more flexible, forgiving forms. On exhibit at MoMA too, it marks a total departure from the International Style superblocks, and the charisma of its example is still powerful.
Conceived by the British architect Peter Land, the idea was to provide individual homes rather than apartments in a high-rise. “The advantage of houses over tower blocks,” writes McGuirk, “was that residents could expand them over time as their families grew. This was one of the lessons of the barriadas, the capacity for incremental growth.” Following the logic of barriada housing diversity, Land’s idea was to divide the complex into neighborhoods, each designed by a star architect — James Stirling, Aldo van Eyck, Charles Correa, Christopher Alexander, and Candilis Josic Woods among them. “The list of participants reads like a roll-call of the 1960s architectural avant-garde,” McGuirk notes with awe. But walking through PREVI, he realizes that the complex no longer discloses the original style of the architects, because they’ve been built over. The result is that each family tends to think of their house as just that — their own, even as it remains a state provision. The one legacy the houses acknowledge is the provenance of the team that designed them: people speak of their house as Dutch or French, and during the World Cup families tend to support the national team of the house they live in.
PREVI was an anomaly. This is not only because the funding and initiative for such projects has dried up, McGuirk thinks, but because architects themselves have “lost their social purpose.” A prime example is Rafael Viñoly, the Uruguayan architect, whom McGuirk seeks out to discuss one of Buenos Aires’s most storied housing projects, Piedrabuena (built under the junta). McGuirk meets him in London, on a trip Viñoly must make from and back to New York City in a single day — “a fact that, on its own, reveals one way in which the architecture profession has changed since he began his career.” But nothing Viñoly says to McGuirk is as telling as the fact that he designed 432 Park Avenue, a skinny, white-concrete-clad, utterly gnomic luxury condominium tower that, when completed, will be New York’s tallest residential building. Viewed from the New Jersey Turnpike, it’s unmissable, an elegant middle finger extended toward the nonrich.
“Some owners have really gone to town […] Other add-ons look like slum shacks wedged between concrete houses.”Tweet
Some architects are following up the self-building impulses embodied in PREVI. One is Alejandro Aravena, with his lauded Quinta Monroy housing complex in Iquique, Chile. Tasked in 2003 with relocating ninety-three families squatting near the city center, Aravena was given a stingy subsidy of $7,500 per unit. He drew inspiration from the “less is more” idea of housing construction, as well as experiments like PREVI, and decided to offer his residents half a house. They would get what they could not build on their own: a concrete structure, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Over time, they could add more in the manner they saw fit. The ingenious parsimony of the plan captured shallow design imaginations everywhere, and so did Aravena. McGuirk admits to having been one of the breathless enthusiasts: “Long before I set foot in Chile, I was calling [Quinta Monroy] a masterpiece of open design, a platform for adaptability, the iPhone of housing. I even put Aravena on the cover of the magazine I was then editing, with the cover line ‘Housing for the Millions.’” But compared with these outsize expectations, the site proves disappointing. The residents’ extensions “are of varying quality. Some owners have really gone to town, with balustrade balconies and nice windows. Other add-ons look like slum shacks wedged between concrete houses.” Some of the variability can be ascribed to the fact that the work is largely nonprofessional. Aravena explains that “some residents at Quinta Monroy . . . felt daunted by the task of having to do their own construction work” — as if this were something of a surprise.
There are instances of social housing where residents have done their own construction work, but architects have had nothing to do with it. Such has been the case with Túpac Amaru, a group that advocates for indigenous rights and causes in northern Argentina. Built with modest subsidies provided by the Néstor Kirchner government, Túpac Amaru’s housing program reflects the energy of a social movement but also the bitter sobriety of people disenchanted with government programs. Started by the activist Milagro Sala, Túpac Amaru hires indigenous laborers to build houses — thus providing jobs and housing in one stroke. But the result, unlike the hulking workers’ homes planned by generations of socialists, resembles a poor people’s movement’s fantasy of wealthy living. The houses are “unremarkable,” according to McGuirk — “a standard-issue media agua, or half-pitch design handed out by the ministry of housing,” and designed without the hand of architects (the local association’s fee was too high). But the rest of the grounds are extravagant: “Driving in, you’ll encounter a vast swimming pool and a Jurassic-themed playground. . . . Beyond the pool is a giant, stepped pyramid. This is an exact replica of the ancient temple of Tiwanaku in Bolivia. Admittedly it’s made of breezeblocks, like something in a Hollywood film lot, but that doesn’t stop Mapuche Indians from Patagonia coming all the way up here to celebrate.” McGuirk calls this prodigality “aspirational, Christmaslist urbanism,” but one could also read it as the authentic populism that postmodernist architects like Robert Venturi and Charles Moore claimed to be aiming for in the 1970s. They rarely succeeded, producing instead erudite, mannered, semicomic pastiches. Ironically, to achieve the desired effect, one needed to dispense with the architects.
Buildings are, after all, judged not just by how they look but by how they are used.Tweet
Architects appear again and again in Radical Cities, only to be frustrated or to fail on their own terms. McGuirk journeys to Caracas to visit the notorious “vertical slum” Torre David, a thirty-five-story office skyscraper left incomplete in the 1990s after an economic collapse. The building was taken over by squatters, who have turned it into a functioning, if precarious, community. Not even a case of a building adapted for reuse, it is a failure of both developer and architect made into a success without help from either. In a favela in Rio, McGuirk finds an airy, well-stocked public library designed by the Argentinean-born Brazilian architect Jorge Mario Jáuregui, a source of unchecked satisfaction to McGuirk, the architect, and the residents alike. But Jáuregui’s more important ambition — to reconnect the favela by raising the rail line that cuts it off from the rest of the city and turning the street beneath into a pedestrian park — has been thwarted by bureaucracy. Jurisdiction on either side of the rail line belongs to different state entities, and after 172 families have been relocated the process stalls. The houses remain in states of half-demolition and ruin.
Traveling from Latin America in Construction to Radical Cities reveals not the inflation of the designer to the figure of the “starchitect,” as in the usual narrative in the Global North, but rather the diminution of the architect to a deferential arm of a political body. In Radical Cities, the projects that succeed are largely built by social movements — sometimes, as with Túpac Amaru, without architects at all. This would seem to complete the vision not of more presumptuous figures like Niemeyer, but of the more self-effacing John Turner, for whom the barriadas were greater than any plaza in Brasília. Turner seemed to want to obviate himself, to cede architecture to the self-organizing activity of the poor. This would seem like too much — architects do have expertise, and not all self-built housing is as stable or smart as pious observers would have us believe. But the monumental aspirations of the old Latin American modernists, extraordinary as they appear in models under glass and in renderings, reflected policies that were unsustainable. And though they are nonetheless great buildings, buildings are, after all, judged not just by how they look but by how they are used. We ought to look at them not just as objects to admire but in terms of what activities, what life, they enable or encourage. One image remains: beneath the two red piers of Lina Bo Bardi’s MASP, the wide plaza, the framing of the movement to come.