Saturday, October 15, 2005

A New Book on Caracas

It's rare to find architects who are willing to listen to and learn from squatter communities. Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, two of the driving forces behind the Caracas Think Tank in Caracas, Venezuela, have spent the past six months working with squatters in the Venezuelan capital. Now they have joined with German journalist Kristin Feireiss to bring out informal city: caracas case (Prestel Art Books.)

For planners this is an important text. As Brillembourg and Klumpner write: "If one looks at the barrios at a distance--in person or in an aerial photograph--one sees sprawling, rhizome-like shapes; one searches in vain for an ordering principle." But, they assert, we can learn from the informal city. "Informal does not mean 'lacking form'. It implies, for us, something that arises from within itself and its makers, whose form has not yet been recognized, or is unfinished, but which is subject to rules and procedures potentially as specific and necessary as those that have governed official, formal city-making."

It's expensive ($60) and largely academic in tone, but informal city is enlivened with lots of photos and it makes the right argument: that squatters have made a valuable contribution to urbanism in the 21st century.


Bryan Finoki said...

This book might also be of interest.

Barrio Urbanism By David R. Diaz

Chicanos, Planning, and American Cities.

New York, 2004. Focuses on Latinos in America from an urban planning perspective, covering the last century and tracing the movement of Latinos from Mexico into American cities, describing the problems facing them there.

Sorry, I have read this yet myself nor have I managed to dig up any exstensive reviews. But in this vein it is also on my list.

Bryan Finoki said...

Also, for more on Caracas, take a look at Worldview's examination here from a couple years back:

last month CSM wrote this piece on a controversial worker cooperative/government assited program aimed at helping barrio residents to identify and repair their own neighborhoods. even so, most wonder why one of the world's most rich oil producing countries has left most people in total poverty.

and, recently the BBC reported on Chavez' vow to accelerate his controversial programme of land redistribution. Under President Chavez's administration, new laws have been passed to allow the state to seize underused ranches without compensation. there are also lots of good related news articles within this one.

rn said...

Thanks, bfunk, for the intriguing additions.

In browsing some of the links and thinging about things further, I must admit I have some misgivings.

For professionals who know nothing about barrios or squatter communities, these efforts are revelatory. But there's always an intermediary: the professional who is representing the barrio to the outside world. 'Caracas case,' for instance, offers many professional takes on the barrios of Venezuela's capital: planners, architects, photographers, sociologists are all involved.

I'm more interested in immediacy, in the people who live in the barrios choosing how they want to be represented (or, indeed, whether they want to be represented) or representing themselves. These kinds of efforts are more empowering and effective when the intention is bottom-up rather than top down.

The question is how to empower and amplify voices from below.

Bryan Finoki said...

yes, i agree, i too am always skeptical of professionals who think their involvement by right of their profession is crucial or somehow more important than the efforts made by the communities themselves. arrogance and professional elitism generally tries to dictate solutions for the poor rather than assist them, is suppose. and more often, the top-down approach lacks a fundamental understanding of the identity, culture, and power of the squatter communities themselves, whom often have the solutions, just lesser means for realizing them. nevertheless, i do feel it is important that professionals (like architects, planners, etc) take more than an interest in these communities and do something to try and help by utilizing their skills. if architects take an interest that experience will also translate from the bottom up into other spheres and perhaps influence change on other levels where change in perception is needed. but, how and what approach exactly should be taken? what role does the architect have in engaging this type of problem? the relationship between architects and these communities is something i would like to see develop over the years for numerous reasons. architect as activist less architect as master planner. but in what capacity? regardless, i believe that role must further enable the squatters to define their own identity, as you say, help express their own self-representation.

rn said...

Absolutely, b. And I am keenly aware that I am not immune from the problem either. After all, I am representing squatters in my work, too.

There's nothing wrong with professionals being involved in these communities as long as the communities call the shots. That's why I liked the group in Pune, India I blogged about (and you provided a link to) in the prior post. An architect was willing to accept that some people were more interested in getting water piped to their homes than in getting new homes. Others thought garbage collection and sewer pipes were more important than renovated houses. These choices need to be up to the communities themselves.