Latin america at the crossroads

Latin American citizens are constantly reminded of the social polarities in our cities through the urban form where 3-metre (9-foot) tall security walls and bars on windows are the norm within island-like enclaves of wealth. Within this context, architects currently work to produce well-designed interior spaces that deliberately turn their back on the public realm – streets and public spaces – resulting in large sections of cities where the street is overlooked only by inactive walls. Until the last 20 to 30 years, with obvious exceptions such as Curitiba, there has been little consideration among Latin America’s architects and urbanists as to how practitioners might mitigate strong social and spatial polarities and challenge the prevailing architectural language of segregation and fear.

Even today, many Latin American architecture students are taught to look to Europe and the US to learn from the latest trends of the northern hemisphere. On the rare occasions when Latin America-based projects are studied, these generally are the grand projects from the mid-20th century that were an imposition of occidental thought in anticipation of progress and modernity, but within a different social and political reality where older residents can still remember life within a feudal system. This transposition of modernity is exemplifi ed in projects like Brasília, perhaps the largest-scale ‘realization of Le Corbusier’s theories and ideas built anywhere in the world’,2 and in the Modernist university projects that took root in Rio de Janeiro and Bogotá in the 1930s, in Caracas in 1944, and in Mexico in 1954.

The development of these grand projects was extolled in a number of exhibitions and publications of the time, including MoMA’s ‘Brazil Builds’ (1943)4 and ‘Modern Architecture in Latin American Since 1945’ (1955)5 At the time, none of the cities had the industrial capacity to produce the prefabricated materials required, as predicated by the modern discourse, in order for the projects to be realised. They were only feasible through the availability of mass cheap labour. Since then, the centralised, utopian model has broken down. The socioeconomic climate behind these modern projects triggered an increasing informality and mass migrations from the countryside leaving cities socially and spatially divided. All in all, over the last 70 years, Latin America has undergone an urban revolution comparable to the mass migrations resulting from the industrial revolution in Europe, which took place over a period of 200 years.

In response to urban expansion, mainly during the 1960s and 1970s many governments initially sought to house migrants in large superstructures or tower blocks, mimicking postwar housing projects in Europe. Despite their grand intentions, such projects represented a vision that clashed with the social and cultural reality of the time, as the dwellers for which these units were built were ‘mostly rural migrants, and were still very dependent on a traditional subsistence type of economy’.7 Many failed, as single-use Modernist apartment blocks did not work well within an informal economy where the dwelling is envisioned not only as a home, but as a site of production;8 where the built form is capable of offering multiple opportunities for the user and for its use.

Subsequent exhibitions and international publications, including ‘Architecture Without Architects’ (1964), tackled a new set of concerns relating to Latin America’s rapid urban expansion. During this time, Peter Land, on behalf of the Peruvian government and the United Nations, conceived the Experimental Housing Project, an ambitious social housing project that drew in international fi gures including, among others, James Stirling, Aldo van Eyck and Christopher Alexander. The aim of the project was to develop methodologies for producing ‘low-rise high-density housing with limited funds.

This issue of 2 does not stand alone, but revisits an older story, following on from John Turner’s often-quoted article from 1963 entitled ‘Dwelling Resources in South America, which marked a moment in time in the representation of the region, leaving us in suspense – until now.

Since then, much has changed. Hernando de Soto, who published The Other Path in 1986, made a case supporting informality, showing that people living in informal areas were in fact entrepreneurs who contributed to the economy and who wanted to integrate, but were excluded by innumerable barriers. In 1996, Alan Gilbert, the first to coin the term ‘mega-city’, published The Mega-City in Latin America,13 seeing informal settlements as a potential solution to the rapid growth in Latin America’s cities, and making a clear argument for their consolidation.

Once a blind spot in cities’ representation, informality is now considered an asset to be understood and incorporated. This paradigm shift towards viewing informality as a positive generator for the city rather than as a blight has created the opportunity for architects to develop new methods of research and responses to work within this challenging context. Additionally, as sustainability becomes an increasingly important issue, informal settlements offer a number of innovative sustainable solutions embedded in a culture in which resourcefulness and recycling are necessities rather than trends.

I learned about these processes and the richness of the informal parts of Tijuana in comparison with the sterile planned areas of San Diego while working in collaboration with Teddy Cruz and experiencing the border region between Mexico and the US in 2002. It became clear that the same phenomenon was repeated in my home city, Lima, and in many other Latin American cities. The wall that divides San Diego from Tijuana is similar to the countless walls in Latin American cities that separate wealthy planned neighbourhoods from informal, no-go areas, or the 3-metre (9.98-foot) security walls that separate middle- and upper-class homes from the street.

Evidenced by the adoption of the bus rapid transit (BRT) model (first developed in Curitiba in 1974) in a number of cities across North America, Europe and Asia, the world now looks to Latin America for inspiration. These progressive policies by city mayors have provided fertile ground for new methodologies developed by Latin American architects, which are showing great potential to alleviate social segregation and spatial injustice, widening the discourse in so many ways. These alternative practices are increasingly gaining attention in international publications and exhibitions. Comparing these exhibitions to the historic ones of the 1940s and 1950s demonstrates a profound re-evaluation of the role of architects in Latin American society – as agents of social change.

This issue on Latin America comes at a critical moment in time, when the image of the region’s nation-states is in fl ux as stable governments, economic growth and globalisation are reshaping its cities and societies. The issue illustrates the current processes of urban expansion in Latin America and the corresponding alternative home-grown methodologies. As Rio prepares to host the 2016 Olympics,17 Latin America will likely receive more international attention than at any time in history. Both the World Cup (2014) and Olympics (2016) in Rio de Janeiro have started to produce positive urban results due to new initiatives for the regeneration of formerly paralysed, no-go areas of th city. The Morar Carioca project will deal with this complex task over the coming years and will be undertaken by 40 architects recently selected in a competition organised by the Institute of Architects of Brazil (IAB).

In parallel, its wealth and diversity of resources has drawn increased foreign investment into new territories; the Amazon region, at the heart of the continent, is considered the lungs of Earth, but also a site of confl ict between those who wish to preserve it, and others who hope to exploit its vast resources. Latin America at the Crossroads exposes these new strategies and social roles, informed by the informal and the solutions practitioners have developed to stitch together polarised areas of the region’s cities. Such solutions to urban problems represent the vanguard in mitigating strong social and spatial divisions in cities across the globe. Rather than constructing major projects in search of an El Dorado, like Voltaire’s protagonist Candide, Latin America is learning from the benefi ts of tending its own garden.

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