Build Simply: South of the Border

June 6, 2011

The interdisciplinary design practice Urban-Think Tank shares their approach to working in complex environments that call for simple solutions. Their Caracas Metro Cable and other interventions in the slums of Caracas and other cities are opportunities to redefine design their socio-economic system in a more integrated way.


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Aerial view of slums in Caracas, Venezuela. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

More than half the world population today lives in cities. In India alone, it is estimated that, within the next two decades, 380 million people will migrate from rural areas into metropolises. That’s equal to twenty new cities the size of Mumbai or São Paulo. In this context, it is somewhat ironic that Western real-estate firms are promoting sprawl in Indian cities as the norm. As demographic and geographic developments in Asia, Africa and South America will inevitably lead to increased urbanization, one might think that cities in these regions should prepare for the numerous “consequences” that come with dramatic population shifts to urban zones. Surprisingly few politicians, bankers and urban planners, though, have thought it necessary to take action.

After founding the Urban-Think Tank more than ten years ago, we began to explore the conditions that often correlate with a city’s successful shift to a mega-city. Cities are not only adapting to population increases, but also to the attendant increase in environmental pollution, traffic congestion, crime and poverty. Of the 3.45 billion people who live in cities today, 29 percent—a billion people worldwide—live in slums.

Can we, as architects, propagate the city as a model, when the scale and dimensions are so new to us (even if we ourselves live in cities)? Our early work grew into a fundamental research project, pondering this central question. Today, U-TT sees itself as agency for research and development and an instrument for social change.

It became clear to us that greater simplicity of both architectural concepts and construction details can improve the design of our planet. Phrased another way, we became pungently aware that to operate in poor, urban zones, we would have to overcome real limits in regard to land, money and time.

Given this dilemma, we decided as a design firm to implement realizable micro-projects, rather than proposing grand master plans that would end up in the dark recesses of a bureaucrat’s drawer. Indeed, we decided that we can change market interests and institutional priorities within cities and slums through organic and rhizomatic development. Our project is not philanthropy. It is an opportunity to redefine design and our socio-economic system in a more integrated way. Socially responsible urban planning begins with an exchange between local conditions, populations and multi-disciplinary experts. For the ever-growing city, we need a form of architecture that both targets the lower strata of society and receives their support. In this vein, we seek to implement a democratization of the planning process. Our office’s design process favours seeking alternatives to the existing planning culture — away from a maximization of consumption towards a maximization of production. We believe in cities as centers for learning, creativity, recycling and distribution, though this vision has not yet firmly rooted within the public’s imagination.

Our first task as designers is to catalyze the process of turning the growing metropolises in the southern hemisphere into a network of innovative nodes. Caracas, the city where we live and work, is a huge and ideal testing ground. In the metropolitan region, two million social housing units are needed, but only 50,000 to 80,000 are built annually, despite continuing growth. The slums of Caracas are the result of three decades of politicians ignoring the reality outside of their offices. Population increases between 1958 and 1989 brought roughly 4 million new inhabitants to the city, 60% of whom now live in slums. The political system in Venezuela confirms the rule that the problems of city growth must not be delegated to an ambiguous later date. Such political negligence in Venezuela is illustrated by the Caraqueño, who pays more for a liter of drinking water than a gallon of petrol. Crime is another frightening aspect of this situation. The murder rate in the city is the highest in the whole of Latin America. Within this reality, one must address the lack of alternatives facing residents—particularly the youth—through the development of new building type and spatial program.

The house is often cited as a metaphor for the city and the city as a metaphor for the entire planet. We believe that the identification of simplicity within complex urban form has led us, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to develop the concept of an “urban planet”. The idea embodied in this concept is of a modern “macropolis,” or one globally connected city. If we accept the idea that we are in a unified, urban planet, then we can reassess development on the basis of our built city ecology. The project for an ongoing process of urbanization can be seen in two ways: on the one hand, the model of the global city for metropolises like London, New York and Tokyo; and on the other, the global slum for cities like Caracas, Sao Paulo, Lagos, etc. Today, we know that these two are intimately linked, like two sides of the same coin.

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Neighborhood meeting. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

What is lacking, in our opinion, is a joint effort to link “top-down” and “bottom-up” initiatives. In other words, municipal administration and the general public must sit down together to draw up an agenda for the planning of our environment. Only then can we meet the basic needs of the population in terms of energy, transport, infrastructure, construction, waste disposal, food, water and social relationships. The cities on our planet need more than office tower blocks, museums, opera houses, airports, outstanding sporting events, etc. The Guatemalan architect Teddy Cruz put this concept of meaningless development in a nutshell, when he remarked: “It’s time to put Marcel Duchamp’s urinal back on the wall.” We know that urbanization in the form of prestigious and signature buildings attracts investment and creates wealth. However, this story, too, often seems like an American or European fairytale, imposed upon other regions of the world where wealth does not flow, but rather accumulates in bubbles. Cities in these “developing” regions witness a marked increase in the income of a small segment of the population as the majority remains or sinks lower into poverty. The consequences of this global trend are evident even within the wealthier geographies, such as the banlieus of Paris or the shrinking cities of the American Midwest.

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San Agustin neighborhood with Caracas Metro Cable. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

What we witness in contemporary slums is the result of decades of neglect. In South America and recently the Middle East, we have learned that delaying action in this state of urban crisis leads to revolution. As Joseph Schumpeter predicted at the beginning of the 20th century, creative destruction will lead to greater problems for all of us. A base of the population pyramid living in slums gives hope for a new dialogue in architecture through reforms on a small, yet comprehensible, scale. This is the line of thought and action we are pursuing at U-TT. All of our prototypes, from dry toilets to inner-city cable cars, are assembled in our “urban toolbox“. Simplified forms of construction are the only realistic design position possible for architects operating in slums. The cities we imagine will not be new, but rather retrofitted. Novel urbanisms will emerge on top of existing models. The concept of planning an ideal city or new town for the vast majority of people is unrealistic. It is a concept grounded in the modernist denial of limits and diversity. It is a mode of design that claims omniscience without proof.

The lack of institutional structures, such as schools, hospitals, post offices, and police stations, along with the absence of public buildings and traffic infrastructure, has led to a void of responsibility in cities of the South. With spaces, programs, and typologies, we are trying to fill this void by inventing a city that is in the process of acquiring a form. We seek to foster a city that exists in a state of constant self-recognition.

In the Caracas San Agustin slum, which extends over a steep, 200-meter high hill, some 40,000 local residents protested against a planned network of roads that would have required the clearance of significant housing and communally-valued spaces. At the time, we urged the government to build on the specific qualities of the barrio, arguing that this was not a hill covered with houses, but a house the size of a hill. Vertical lift, we identified, was missing. In order to avoid the road-centric proposal, which would have been a typical slum eradication project based on the car city, we conceived of a cable-car line. The outcome was a minimal intervention transport system, with a maximum capacity of 3,000 persons per hour who could be conveyed in both directions. With the collaboration of the local authorities and other organizations, we looked for suitable locations for the masts and stations so as to integrate the system as delicately as possible. Inaugurated in 2010, the system has been built by the Doppelmayr-Garaventa ropeway company with five cable car stations. Two of the stations rest at the foot of the hill and are situated directly above existing underground stations. The three other stations are laid out over the long slope and are combined with recreation facilities for education, sport and music. In this way, the connection points of the system have multi-use functionality and strengthen each element of the programming. The Caracas Metro Cable, just as those in Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, show how hillside communities can be integrated into a metropolitan transport system that serves all citizens, regardless of their income and the local topography. This concept of a city without car traffic can be adopted as a model for other metropolises. While technological innovations are certainly crucial for such development, we see the design process, in these contexts, as a matter of creativity and social organizing. This is the turf of twenty-first century urban design.

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Residents of San Agustin neighborhood with Caracas Metro Cable in the background. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

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Residents of San Agustin neighborhood with Caracas Metro Cable in the background. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

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Night view of San Agustin and the Caracas Metro Cable. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

Sports grounds are usually the only remaining street-level spaces in cities left unbuilt or structure-free. But these spaces are too often insufficient—they can only fit one football field or a miniature baseball diamond. Thus, the sole direction in which sports facilities can be extended is vertically—with layers comes increased surface area. The vertical gymnasium (GV) is a typology for a sports complex comprised of vertically stacked basketball courts, weightlifting areas, a running track, football pitch on the roof, climbing wall and relevant athletic facilities. In this way, a ground area of 1,000 square meters can be built up to provide facilities covering 3,800 square meters on four floors. To meet the needs for sports and recreation in the barrios of the city, more than 100 of these vertical gymnasiums would be needed. Therefore, in 2006, U-TT proposed a plan for “100 Gimnasio-Verticales para Caracas“. The project is based on a feasibility study that would closely link the barrios to form a more cohesive city-wide network. The first model built in Santa Cruz is active day and night and is used on average by some 15,000 visitors each month. Since its opening, the crime rate in the area has decreased by 30%, and the building type has now become part of a nationwide anti-crime program bearing the name “180 Degrees.” We may not be able to stop drug usage and violent crimes, but we can offer alternative activities, such as football leagues organized in an environment where the concepts of fair play and tolerance are communicated.

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Grotao Community Center and Park in Sao Paulo. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

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Grotao Community Center and Park in Sao Paulo. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

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Grotao Community Center and Park in Sao Paulo. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

We developed the prototype of the vertical gym from the YMCA sports centers in New York City. But in translating it to the Caracas context, we determined that it must be a flexible design, adaptable to a variety of urban spaces and needs. Now, in Caracas, one of the new vertical gyms adjoins a cable car station and is specifically tailored to the recreational activities of the San Agustin community. From simplicity, one can add necessary complexity and specificity. For example, different spatial programs for the ground floor zone necessitate individual planning. Shops may be incorporated for local vendors, a swimming pool can be added with seating for 500 spectators, or educational facilities may be inserted for younger visitors. All these variations are based on standardized, simple plans, which U-TT makes available free of charge as a download. The prototype is in the creative commons, as we believe that for this tool to be successful, it must be replicated and reinterpretated whether we are directly involved or not.

Urban-Think Tank is also creating its first structures outside of Caracas. On a steep 6,000 square meter landslide site in the second largest favela of Sao Paulo, a music centre is taking shape. The Centro Comunitario de Acción Social por la Música Paraisóplis (CCASM) has existed as an institution for more than 36 years. The building we have designed for it is the first of its kind and profits from the experience we gained in developing the vertical gyms. It fits precisely in its unique urban situation and contains a variety of spaces for musical education. Tangentially, it offers a wide range of cultural activities created for the masses, by the masses. Here, we proposed a new vertical organization. The actual “building” is a space set between the terraced landscape and the stacked, specialized rehearsal and performance areas for music and dance. The CCASM is not based on any model, but it can serve as a model for other communities. The scheme attracted the attention of the acoustic specialist Karl-Heinz Müller, who is now a member of our planning team.

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Caracas and the Caracas Metro Cable. © Courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.

Driven by the need to create an appropriate environment in our cities for large sections of the population, we have also studied the situation of children and senior citizens more closely. In the favelas, the bulk of the population is disadvantaged in one way or another. Worst of all are the conditions for children suffering from autism and Down Syndrome. In locating the school for autistic children, known as FAVA, on a sloping site, it was important for us to leave open as large an area as possible for a park, which is something rare in the centre of the city. We designed the building as a compact volume, therefore, and set it in one corner of the site. As a result, the spatial program extended to a five-story structure.

In Caracas, however, lifts are service-intensive installations and would make a building of this kind unsuitable for disabled children. Our solution was to build a long ramp around the outside. Access to the first two floors is via the ramped topography. The development was financed from a new tax conceived to flow into structures with a social role. Companies can donate up to 100 per cent of their annual tax to finance such schemes.

We work in a complex environment that calls for simple solutions. That means using available, local materials and labor. Most people believe that low-cost construction must be inferior to expensive forms of building. We wish to overcome prejudice of this kind as well as outdated ideas of how a project should be developed. Only if we shift our expectations away from a product to a process and reconsider traditional development strategies will we be able to find economically feasible solutions for the masses of people in the slums. And only if we do that will we have vibrant cities for every strata of society that lives in them.