Just a few weeks before the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, the New Yorker published a profile by Jon Lee Anderson (“Letter from Caracas: Slumlord”). The subject of the profile was less Chavez and more a Chavez-era phenomenon, the so-called Tower of David in downtown Caracas. “It embodies the urban policy of this regime, which can be defined by confiscation, expropriation, governmental incapacity, and the use of violence,” Guillermo Barrios, dean of architecture at the Universidad Central in Caracas, told Anderson. Torre David is a 45-story vertical slum that blossomed in an unfinished 1990s office tower developed by banker David Brillembourg. The mini-city of 750 souls that took root in the building’s remnants is notable for its self-made eco-system—there’s a butcher, bodegas, jerry-rigged plumbing, and electricity. Torre David, in the form of a pop-up arepa restaurant, was the subject of an entry at 2012 Venice Biennale by the Zurich-based firm Urban Think Tank (one of whose principals is Alfredo Brillembourg, cousin of the late David) with photographer Iwan Baan and writer Justin McGuirk. The installation won the Biennale’s highest honor, the Golden Lion, and the project is now the subject of a book and film. Despite picking up the Lion d’Or, critiques of the project were immediate and continue to grow. Monica Ponce de Leon, a Caracas native and dean of architecture at University of Michigan, wrote to AN: “What has been left out of the conversation is the really deplorable living conditions of those who inhabit the towers, the socioeconomic forces giving them no choice but to live there, without basic sanitation services, security, or basic rights. Ignored in the debates is the arrogance of a discipline that reconstructs a vernacular cantina for their leisurely enjoyment.”
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Last week at Audi's HQ in Ingolstadt, Germany, architect Junya Ishigami of Tokyo succinctly summed up the problem the car company aims to tackle: there is "a gap between people's speed and the city's speed," Ishigami said. In other words, people's habits evolve quickly to suit a 21st-century lifestyle, but the infrastructure of the cities they live in is constantly playing catch up. And Audi, whose primary product is by nature infrastructure-bound, wants get ahead of the curve. Ishigami was one of six architects presenting research as part of the first phase of Audi's 2012 Urban Future Award, a bi-annual program first started in 2010. The 2012 firms were selected for their track records of researching the urban environment and their relationships to one of six metropolitan areas: CRIT (Mumbai); Höweler + Yoon Architecture (the Boston-Washington corridor); NODE Architecture & Urbanism (Pearl River Delta); Superpool (Istanbul) and Urban Think Tank (São Paulo); and Junya Ishigami + Associates (Tokyo). The brief: to "create visions for individual mobility in the future." Audi defined the future as ca. 2030, when it's predicted that 70 percent of the world population will live in cities with eight million or more inhabitants. Last week's event offered a preview of each firm's research thus far and some hints of the content of their final proposals, which will be presented in the form of an exhibition at the Istanbul Biennale in October (each firm is also working with a local curator). What became clear in the early presentations is that all the architects were looking for inspiration beyond infrastructure, particularly in cities' in-between spaces, gaps, and cracks, and that their proposals would be flexible enough to deal with rapidly evolving urban conditions. Some highlights: Urban Think Tank's presented a concept of the city as an "electric circus," a constant-motion carnival in which services, from libraries to clothing shops, are mobilized in electric vehicles to better meet the needs of populations and create a more democratic city. CRIT's embraced the city, in this case Mumbai, as "being nicely messy." Mega projects "ruffle the logic of the city" said Rupali Gupte of CRIT, about large-scale developments that wipe out informal but highly functional networks of activity. Gupte called instead for architects to intervene between the layers of informal and official to envision multiple futures for any given location. Although Tokyo is perceived as a mature city, Ishigami charted how it actually changes dramatically over the decades, much like a living organism (65 percent of the city's sites will be redeveloped within 40 years). Rather than a fixed condition, he proposed considering Tokyo as an evolving natural landscape that has the potential to be completely reborn. Any forms of future mobility will have to be nimble enough to follow. NODE considered how people are served in volatile cities like Shenzen in China's the Pearl River Delta. In a society where more is more, what makes a city livable rather than alienating? NODE's Doreen Heng Liu's message is that "balance is more" in the post-sweatshop era. Superpool from Istanbul presented research on the city's growth, both planned and unplanned, including how small-scale entrepreneurial enterprises have evolved to meet mobility demands that larger infrastructure cannot. Considering what similar systems might look like in the future and how they could incorporate emergent technologies is what Superpool thinks "is critical for the future of mobility in Istanbul," a city with an evolving identity. Höweler + Yoon Architecture's project proposes redefining the American Dream, because "the notions of progress that supported the continual sprawling American expansion no longer ring true." They're looking at the monotonous I-95 corridor between Boston and Washington (a.k.a. "Boswash") and repositioning the "infrastructural leftovers" of the post-war city into places that generate activities relevant to today. Thinking ahead to how such a concept might be marketed, the architects brought "I heart Boswash" t-shirts and bumper stickers to the event. The teams received feedback on their preliminary ideas at a workshop in Ingolstadt last week, and now they will have another few months to develop their concepts further. The first round selection of firms was made for Audi by the German online design magazine and publishing company Stylepark, but the final winner will be selected by jury that is yet to be announced. The grand prize: 100,000 euros—an amount that surpasses the award attached to one of architecture's highest honors, the Pritzker. At the end of the day, Audi will have hefty research dossiers on each of the six cities/regions and hopes to have some ideas that can be implemented in the future. But what if these visions don't happen to include cars? "If the solution is no cars, then we have to deal with it, " said Audi board member Peter Schwarzenbauer.
For a long time in the West there has been a common misgiving that aid is about patronage. The Cooper Hewitt's latest exhibition, Design with the Other 90% : Cities, which opened this weekend at the United Nations Visitor's Center, rebukes this notion by spotlighting communities in the southern hemisphere who are taking the initiative, harnessing local resources to solve their own problems. In the show, designers and architects are tapping into existing currents of change. The clue is in the title, which follows on from the 2007 show Design for the Other 90%, which charted products and work that has been imported into impoverished communities. This latest exhibition—focusing on cities—presents a broad spectrum of solutions to critical issues of sanitation, space, communications, and infrastructure. Sixty featured projects were divided into six sections—Exchange, Reveal, Adapt, Include, Prosper, and Access. The projects were selected primarily for their success, which curator Cynthia Smith puts down to qualities of scalability, transferability, applicability in other locations as well as their positive impact. "What's interesting about so many of these projects is there's real application to what's currently happening," said Smith. She cites Urban Think Tank's Vertical Gym as one example. Intended to mark out a safe public space in a dense urban location, the gym has been designed as a kit of parts so it can be programmed and adapted to the site. The Venezuela-based project has been transformed into proposals for New York City public schools, as well as areas in the Netherlands and the Middle East. While all the ideas are site-specific and responsive to local geography, culture, and scale among other factors, the exhibition also features organizations such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, which is practicing a horizontal exchange and offering a set of design tools that can be applied to problems in various countries, climates, and situations. "The scale of these problems is growing so rapidly that regional and local municipalities can't keep up with the growth, so you get cross-collaborations," said Smith. "The most interesting designs are the hybrid solutions, where the informal settlements and the formal city meet." Because there has been a dearth of information about this kind of design, Smith says that professors were using the last show's catalogue as a text book, so for this next installment, Cooper Hewitt has developed what they consider to be a tool for the next generation of designers. "We are looking at who is addressing these issues," she said. The Design for the Other 90% now has a social network where designers can upload projects and exchange ideas. The statistics are staggering: one billion people are living in informal settlements around the world, and it's projected that this number will increase to two billion by 2030. These facts are much more powerful when one is exposed to the physical artifacts that are the design solutions: bio-latrines that transform human waste into fertilizer and gas for cooking in Nairobi, floating schools and health clinics in flood-prone Bangladesh; favelas painted with women's faces in Rio, and plastic formwork systems that allow the unskilled to build houses in a day in South Africa. The innovations are astonishing. It is easy to produce a self-congratulatory exhibition about how design can help poorer communities around the world, but Cooper Hewitt's new exhibition demonstrates that approach is moot: these communities are already in the process of redesigning themselves.