British author and critic Justin McGuirk’s talk about his recent book, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, on 04.6.15 at the Center for Architecture, was a thorough account of his preoccupation with improvisational/informal housing in ultra-urban Latin American cities, and the role of the activist architect in these extreme conditions. The event brought together McGuirk with Miguel Robles-Durán, professor of Urbanism at Parsons The New School. The slide presentation elegantly highlighted the photographs, in particular those by Cristobal Patima, and established the scale of engagement that McGuirk is so expert at discussing. Robles-Durán reminded us that the book illustrates a very particular time in the history of Latin American housing development, and put forward a theoretical conversation of the neoliberal forces reckoning with social urbanism. The power of McGuirk’s book is that he strays away from theoretical constructs; his search for radical solutions is pure.

Radical Cities is, as Oculus Editor-in-Chief Kristen Richards, Hon. AIA, Hon. ASLA, framed it, pretty swoon-worthy. It is clear, kinetic, and adept storytelling at its best. This book (dare I say it) is a page-turner. The cast of characters McGuirk unearths to tell the embedded stories of places and projects, like PREVI in Lima, Torre David in Caracas, and Quinta Monroy in Iquique, are unique and get at unabstracted truths of urban living.

McGuirk confessed to the audience that, though the book was conceived to be about architects, it ended up being a book about cities. Ultimately, I think it’s about his search for citizen architects (and the fact that sometimes there are none), and his power of observation. His ability to see the hope in the experiments is impressive, but the fact that he is hesitant is equally informative. McGuirk’s travels to every project he discusses frame the book as a participatory celebration. When engaging with the phenomenal “pirate” project Torre David, he describes the intricate process of gaining access to the complex. Once inside, he relates the reality of climbing 20 flights of stairs and the dangers of raising families 40 stories up with no handrails in sight. The construct of Torre David is presented with the romance of a citizen-based housing project, but not without McGuirk’s clear-eyed illustrations of the downside of living in such a radical condition.

McGuirk’s basis for the set of projects is the work of John Turner, a British architect of the 1960s who first put forth the idea that the favela offered value to the urban landscape and should not be considered a temporary construct. He maintained that shaping low-income housing by citizens was healthier than providing people with proscribed high-rise flats.

The book sets out to clarify the role of the activist architect. McGuirk carefully observes the Urban-Think Tank duo Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, assessing their strengths and weakness and how they engage with a community, a constant process of “self-initiation.” He describes how the pair work a room, and how one partner with a more focused personality will “finish” the project as the other moves on to the next ideal. McGuirk is an acute observer of how politicians, activists, and architects have shaped the spatial future of Latin America and his book offers a way to rethink architectural practice. During the talk, he and Robles-Durán agreed that practice should be steered away from an object-based preoccupation. Many people say this; Keller Easterling pronounced the same concept at the same podium four weeks earlier. But it’s a book like Radical Cities that is both inspiring and cautionary that can stir young designers to be the “social connector,” as Brillembourg proposes, and change the ultra-urban climate forever.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.06.15
Speakers: Justin McGuirk, Author, Radical Cities, and Miguel Robles-Durán, Co-founder, Cohabitation Strategies, and Assistant Professor of Urbanism, Parsons The New School for Design
Organizer: AIANY Oculus Committee