Justin McGuirk

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator of architecture and design. Formerly the editor of Icon, he has written for The Guardian & Domus. In 2012 he shared, with Urban Think Tank, the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, for an exhibition about Torre David, a half-finished skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, occupied by thousands of squatters. His book, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, deals with still-emerging histories of rapid urbanisation, asking if architecture can really have a social agency. Shumi Bose chatted with him over a bowl of pho on London’s Kingsland Road.

Shumi Bose Radical Cities looks to Latin America for examples of top-down versus informal, ad-hoc urban systems. What did you learn about contemporary citizenship researching the book?
Justin McGuirk One way to define citizenship is involvement in creating your own rules. There are other forms of citizenship, which are participatory, but which do not involve regulatory or public services. It’s certainly a parallel society in some sense, but I’m not sure if you could call it democratic.

SB Did you find instances of democratic participation in either the informal or formal city?
JM On the subject of participatory urbanism, certain things spring to mind. Porto Allegre in Brazil is one of the cities that really pioneered participatory budgeting, whereby the citizens could decide how the municipal budget would be spent. I don’t dwell on it in the book, so I’m not quite sure how it came about, but from what I understand the politics of Porto Allegre became more right wing and the idea got watered down. At Torre David, which is participatory in terms of community building in the purest sense of the word, the inhabitants are not taken seriously as citizens; they are not given a legal status. They were tolerated, even encouraged by Chávez and his replacement Maduro, but if a new government comes in and decides to kick them all out, there’s nothing stopping them. It is participatory citizenship borne in adversity, if you see what I mean. So maybe my examples are not as utopian as the term citizenship implies.

SB In your book, informality seems to win against the massive scale of top-down solutions.
JM In Brazil, for example, for years all the government wanted to do was demolish slums and re-house their populations on the peripheries. And yes, that was just normal speculative development, opening up that land to private sector. City of God, the classic example, is a slum that was moved to government housing on the urban periphery, which then became a slum. There are a lot of advantages to informality, but it’s not so much that I would argue in favour of it – I would never pull hard in that direction – rather that with the level of informality there already is, it needs to be understood and accepted in its own terms. It’s not a problem that needs sweeping away; informality needs to be reinterpreted as part of the facts on the ground. It needs to be incorporated into the city proper.

SB How much of that incorporation is really to do with the built environment?
JM I think the problem that happened in the late 1970s was a loss of faith in the capacity of architecture to improve the city. People said, Oh, modernism has failed, what we really need is social and financial programmes. This continues today, so you get things like Lula’s Bolsa Família programmes, which are great in terms of giving money to the poor, but the result is that you get people in slums with fridges, rather than proper drainage or transport. The modernists had a sense of scale and they had the political backing to be able to take that approach. When that backing died, when politicians pulled the plug on paternalistic house-building programmes, you get this period where the scale of the informal city takes over in somewhat equal proportions. I guess where the book comes in is the late 1990s, when architecture starts to come back; architecture is revived as a tool for addressing social and spatial injustice. It rediscovers its sense of purpose in the city.

SB What do you think of architecture that explicitly tries to learn from ad hoc, informal environments, for example Alejandro Aravena’s Quinta Monroy scheme?
JM I think there are a huge number of successes and strengths to that scheme, but it’s not expandable to an urban scheme. It’s not scalable, not without all the problems associated with mass-housing estates. A real cityscape is more diverse, with a mixture of scales and function. If you treat the Aravena scheme – a kind of half-modernist, half-informal settlement – as a schematic plan to be taken to its logical conclusion, you don’t get anywhere very different from the kind of housing estates that have become slummified.

SB Do you think there is a greater sense of ownership the more such practices are participatory?
JM Yes, absolutely, this is classic John Turner [British architect and theorist] through and through. People take greater pride in the things they have built themselves; they feel more in control of their lives, and so on. Turner’s argument is that “housing” is a verb; it’s what it does for you rather than how it looks. A shack in the city centre is far more valuable to you than a flat on the periphery where you have a two-hour trip on a bus to get to work. But it’s quite a right-wing argument in a strange way, and I struggle with that – and it’s the same with Aravena. It’s about private ownership and gain, rather than collective responsibility. But maybe it’s only in adversity that the collective really emerges, as in with the current evictions in Rio.

SB Is the only argument “for” slums a slightly patronising celebration of DIY self-sufficiency?
JM It definitely does have something of that quality. I mean, it’s a clichéd comparison perhaps, but Italian hill towns, if you look at them, are visually not so different from favelas, other than in the higher quality of materials – more stone and terracotta tile than earth brick and corrugated steel. They were also built informally, incrementally, in very tight and dense arrangements. When they upgraded some of the slums in Rio in the late 1990s, there was a debate about this aesthetic. It was felt was that the one thing these people did not need was housing – their housing was perfectly good – what they needed was “urbanity,” meaning anything from infrastructure to public space. So they started this programme of parks and roads, which would kind of break down some of that favela texture, and therefore the barriers between the formal and the informal cities. Also to create some sort of symbols of urbanity in the favelas, to reduce the stigma of the slum. But some people feel that the favela has an innate character that needs to be preserved. For example, if the street is already recognised as public space then maybe they don’t need the parks or squares that we might associate with the public spaces as seen in other cities, what Saskia Sassen would call “cityness.” Rio in particular really pioneered that kind of work in the 1990s. There was a scheme called Morar Carioca [formally known as the Municipal Plan for the Integration of Informal Settlements] – a much bigger, much more ambitious plan to upgrade the slums, but they never implemented it, partly because of the World Cup and the Olympics. The whole agenda just got sidetracked.

SB How was it for you watching how the Olympics played out in London even as Rio prepared for the same event?
JM A lot could have designed differently, with more of an eye to a legacy, in both cities. One can’t compare London and Rio because their situations are wildly different, but London at least made the decision to place the Olympic Park in the poorest, most undeveloped part of the city. Rio didn’t do that – the Olympic Park is in Tejuca, this middle-class enclave in the west of the city full of shopping centres, while the northeast is where the poverty is. Consequently all the development, the transport infrastructure is going to go west, all the developers are going to follow – it’s these decisions, really urban-planning issues, that are made favouring the private sector, the construction industry, developers and politicians. §

  • Justin McGuirk