‘Radical Cities’: 3 lessons from Latin America’s activist architects

Anyone following the architectural profession at the turn of the millennium might be forgiven for thinking that it was all about splashy icons: Frank Gehry’s undulating titanium sails in Bilbao and Los Angeles, Norman Foster’s naughty-looking Gherkin in London, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s super-tall Burj Khalifa, known for being ... super-tall.

But as some were rushing to plant icons all over the planet, a generation of architects and planners in Latin America were focused on other issues: affordable housing, transportation infrastructure, zoning issues, the creation of public amenities, cross-border relations — issues that don’t necessarily make for sexy buildings, but that are key to creating cities that function well.

British architecture writer Justin McGuirk tracks the phenomenon in his new book, “Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture” (Verso; $29.95), which he will present at the MAK Center for Art & Architecture in West Hollywood Friday evening.

Why Latin America?

“The continent has a history of testing radical ideas about architecture,” McGuirk says. “We keep hearing that the world is more than 50% urban and that there is this huge shift of human civilization to cities. But Latin America experienced a massive explosion in its urban population long before China, India and Africa. ... Many countries in Latin America are 80% urban. They’ve been through this process. Therefore, there must be lessons.”

“Radical Cities” looks for these lessons all over the continent, from the slums of Rio de Janeiro to a small canyon along the U.S.-Mexico border, tracking publicly minded architectural and planning projects from the 1960s to the present.


This includes the PREVI project in Lima — short for Proyecto Experimental de Vivienda — which brought together some of the world’s leading architects to create housing solutions flexible enough to be expanded over time (making for some pretty terrific vernacular architecture). But it also includes a case study of the city of Medellin in Colombia, which shows the ways in which architects can collaborate with broader coalitions of politicians and community organizations to help bring together a deeply divided city with strategically placed parks and well-designed libraries.

McGuirk’s highly conversational book, blessedly free of architecture-speak, also reflects on the way in which some of today’s architects have found ways of working within the informal sector — slums, some would say — for projects that can bring renewal without requiring the razing of entire communities. This might include surgical additions to a community: a gondola system to get residents up a Caracas hillside or a small block of housing in the Chilean city of Iquique, which provides a basic structure that residents complete on their own.

“One of the lessons of the book is that housing is often not the problem,” explains McGuirk. “People can build themselves houses, but they can’t build a transport network or a sewage system. This is where I see architects playing a key role. They become the strategic planners that connect the bottom-up impulses of communities with the public resources and strategic planning that sits in the hands of the government.”

These “activist architects,” as McGuirk calls them — figures such as Alejandro Aravena in Chile, the firm Urban-Think Tank of Venezuela and Teddy Cruz in San Diego — operate quite differently from designers who go from commission to commission.

“I use the term ‘activist architect’ because it is the architects themselves who are initiators of the process,” says McGuirk. “The activist architect is not waiting for the phone to ring. Nobody is calling him with a commission. Instead, this is someone who is researching a community, establishing a set of needs, and then trying to find solutions to those needs, and lobbying the government to make it happen.”

So what can architects and urban planners in the U.S. learn from all this? Well, a lot. McGuirk offers three key ideas:

Invest in transport to the poorest areas.
“One key lesson is that if you have segregated communities like ghettos, they need to be reconnected,” McGuirk says. “Transport is the great social leveler, as we encountered in places like Bogota and Medellin. Those communities need to feel as if they’re valued. Putting valuable urban resources in the poorest part of a city can be a powerful thing. And this is not the kind of thing the market will do. There needs to be political will.”

Make zoning more flexible.
“Informal cities can be tremendously productive places,” says McGuirk. “America has very strict zoning between what is commercial and what is industrial and what is residential. That doesn’t necessarily help people in poorer neighborhoods who want to open a shop in a front room or turn a street into a market. Often times, there is a more productive form of urban life possible in areas where there isn’t as much rigid control.”

“This is something that [architect] Teddy Cruz [of UC San Diego] has been trying to do in San Diego: break up the rigidity and the sterility of zoning,” he adds. “You therefore give people more freedom to maximize the use of urban land and it’s more sustainable.”

See the border as a point of coexistence; not separation.
McGuirk spent time with Cruz, a noted border expert, touring communities around Tijuana and San Diego (something he covers at length in the last chapter of “Radical Cities”). He says that as settlements in this area grow ever bigger, a greater degree of international cooperation will be needed.

“It’s an unnatural border,” says McGuirk. “As I document in the book, it cuts across all kinds of interesting features, like canyons and watersheds. Instead of trying to harden that line, in the way that recent administrations have done, it seems more important to create a greater bilateral cooperation. I’m not saying let more immigrants in. I’m saying, ‘Are there problems that one side can solve that might be of mutual benefit to both?’ This has happened with water. Currently, the U.S. helps the Mexican side process its waste water.”

More of this type of collaboration would likely make life on both sides of the line better for everyone, says McGuirk. “I thought the joint bid between San Diego and Tijuana for the Olympics, that was very interesting, even though it failed,” he says. “It’s about the role of cities as they expand across international borders and become urban mega regions. It is the future.”

Justin McGuirk will present his new book, “Radical Cities,” at 7 p.m. Friday at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, 835 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood,

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.