For the billion-plus people that currently live in at least 200,000 informal settlements – often simply called ‘slums’ – in cities across the developing world, they are habitats of last resort that are created because of a desperate shortage of conventional housing in the rapidly urbanising global South. Whatever their local names – favelas in Brazil, barrios in Colombia, bustees in India, callejones in Peru, or gecekondus in Turkey, to name but a few – these informal settlements are characterised by both self-built housing, usually constructed illegally, and an almost total lack of basic urban infrastructure, such as sanitation, water supply and waste disposal. As urban critic Mike Davis has pointed out in Planet of Slums, if the predictions of the UN Global Urban Observatory are correct – that by 2020, up to 50% of the total population living in cities will be housed in informal settlements – then the cities of the future, particularly the new mega-cities across the developing world, will not be primarily made out of glass and steel but rather ‘crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap-wood. Instead of cities soaring upwards towards heaven, much of the 21st-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay’.
If critics like Davis are unapologetic in their condemnation in the political, economic and social reasons for such appalling urban conditions, then others, such as the architect John Turner and critic Justin McGuirk, have argued that informal settlements must be accepted as part of the new urban condition, ones that will likely grow to become an ever larger part of future cities whether we like them or not. For the current and future generation of architects and urban planners, the ‘rehabilitation’ of slums might mean learning how to integrate them into the city a a whole, ‘creating connections and flows, the points of communication and inclusion that will dissolve the lines of exclusion and collision’.
One example of this collision of the formal and informal already indicates what direction this architectural meld might take in future cities, namely the Torre David in Caracas. From September 2007 until July 2014, an unfinished 52-storey skyscraper in central Caracas was home to 3,000 squatters, who had taken over what were to be prime downtown office spaces and turned them into their own apartments. As documented by the Caracas-based architectural collective, Urban Think Tank, who made a film and book about the squatters and presented it with McGuirk as an exhibit at the 2010 Venice Biennale, the occupation of Torre David was a direct result of president Hugo Chávez’s demagogic politics, whose rhetoric encouraged the appropriation of redundant property by the disadvantaged. It was Chávez’s untimely death in 2013 resulted in a change of government and the eventual eviction of the Torre David squatters in 2014 (the skyscraper subsequently renovated and returned to its original function as offices).
The occupation began in 2007 with refugees from Caracas’s barrios located on the edge of the city deciding to take their chances living in a city-centre building that had been left unfinished since the death of its developer in 1993; in Caracas, like most Latin American cities, the urban poor are generally denied access to city-centre housing which has a dramatic affect upon their ability to access employment in the urban core. With only a open concrete frame and unfenced stairwells completed, the structure was initially far from habitable; yet, over the years, squatters refashioned it into homes using a mixture of breeze-blocks, bricks, bed-sheet curtains, cardboard, plastic and newspaper to infill the spaces, creating a startling juxtaposition of the formal and informal, as seen in many photographs of the building. McGuirk has compared Torre David to Le Corbusier’s Dom-ino House of 1914, in which the fledgling soon-to-be arch-modernist architect attempted (unsuccessfully) to make his fortune by selling two-storey concrete frames and letting buyers fill in their own walls. In this reading, Torre David was an (accidental) flexible architecture, a model of building in which ‘citizens … complete the city, its buildings’ remaining ‘as works in projects’ and where the distinction between the informal and the formal dissolves. Here, what was to have been a beacon of finance capital was temporarily turned into one of social capital – the characteristic vertical exclusivity of the skyscraper subverted, for a time at least, into ‘horizontal redistribution’.
Urban Think Tank believe that the occupation of Torre David offers a powerful model of how architecture might become more flexible in the face of increasingly chaotic and unstable urban futures. Indeed, they have seen in the building a mirror of their own Growing House project for the Anglican Church in Caracas, begun in 2003 and completed in 2005. Here, Urban Think Tank were asked to design a system of emergency housing for the parish but, given the lack of available land, they instead chose to construct a concrete frame over an existing building and allowed residents to construct their own apartments within that frame. In this sense, architecture becomes ‘a paradigm of human ingenuity, adaptability and resourcefulness’, where ‘citizens [exercise] their right to the city’ – in other words, they are allowed to create the very ‘freespaces’ that architect Lebbeus Woods first proposed in the 1990s and which I explored in an earlier post. Of course, Torre David doesn’t look anything like Woods’s angular but beautiful drawings; but it nevertheless mirrors their basis in the collision of the formal and informal, creating a messy aesthetic that would be anathema to an architectural modernist, but which reflects a utopian social vision that embraces rather than rejects ‘precariousness as a fluid, mobile force in the city’.