Rapid population growth combined with sclerotic and under-financed city planning blights many cities in the developing world. Rob Wilson looks at two exhibitions that highlight fresh-thinking on sorting these social and infrastructural issues in two South American cities.
Two parallel exhibitions at Aedes am Pfefferberg in Berlin make for a fascinating juxtaposition, as each deal with projects that focus on informal and bottom-up urban intervention, development and planning in the cities of Bogotá and Caracas. Both projects are innovative and ambitious and through their exhibition these positive aspects, as well as the cracks in their logic, become clear.
In the first gallery, Torre David – Informal Vertical Communities, presents an update of Urban-Think Tank’s Golden Lion-winning installation from the 2012 Venice Biennale. The project focuses on the unfinished carcass of a 45-storey high-rise in the Venezuelan capital city, which has been squatted and settled by around 750 families in a vertical neighbourhood. But here, expanding on their biennale presentation, Urban-Think Tank not only provides fascinating documentation and analysis of this unique eco-system but go on to outline ideas for the further adaptation of the building to improve and ease the lives of its residents. The group also explores how this might provide a more general model for urban reuse and revitalisation in the face of widespread pressures of massive urban immigration and population growth in many cities worldwide.
In the second gallery, Downtown Bogotá // My Ideal City, focusses on potential development in the Colombian capital through so-called “bottom-up” strategies, in particular utilising the organising potential of social media. Initiated by Rodrigo Nino of Prodigy Network and developed by New-York based architecture and research team Archi-Tectonics, a website platform was established to crowd-source ideas for the development of Bogotá. Subsequently several of these ideas were worked up as proposals and projects to receive crowd-funding. The most spectacular example of a soon-to-be-realized project is a new downtown tower, BD Bacatá, crowd-funded to the tune of 200 million dollars by 3,500 investors.
Interestingly, the projects in both exhibitions focus specifically on the rich terrain of the relatively dead central core of these two South American cities, each originally founded in the European colonial era. This is in contrast to the more common focus on the improvement of the conditions in the peripheral sprawl of slums and informal settlements that ring so many developing cities, morphing them into mega-cities. However from this particular focus, both projects draw more general lessons on urban development for application throughout the developing world.
But the process and social focus of action in each project is very different: exemplified through the tale of the two towers, Torre David itself in Caracas and BD Bacatá in Bogotá. The former is the result of informal, direct action of the relatively dispossessed, enabled only by their cutting through the laws of capital and property ownership. The latter meanwhile, is the planned outcome of a highly organized development and finance model – even if crowd-sourced in specifics – and one that is still fully to be tested in action. The latter's focus is also, as the exhibition clearly states, on how to harness the power, and finance, of the emerging and newly confident middle class. So whilst it may reimagine and refresh the game of development through new technology, it still essentially plays within the capitalist rules: the tower will contain the usual “luxury” hotel, offices and shops, as well as apartments.
While both installations depicting and documenting the projects use primarily 2D graphic means to tell their parallel tales, the presentation of the Torre David is more successful, using the height of the gallery space with a scaffold structure covered in banners printed with photographs of the building's façade, to give some idea of the diversity and scale of the huge community it houses. Alongside this, the powerful images of Iwan Baan focus the viewer in on the detail of people's lives within the building, and around the space, the story of the tower and its appropriation is told clearly and economically in a graphic novel style cartoon strip. Meanwhile, the Bogotá exhibition suffers from those common architecture exhibition issues of slightly muddily-printed banner graphics, which here wrap around and through the space – necessitating a sort of shuffle around to read the text up close – although the history and context of Bogotá and Colombia presented is fascinating.
But for all the positive energy here – evidencing stuff that is actually happening, and the real potential for change and development in these cities – one could (perhaps cynically) question how realistic a model, or how newly-invented a wheel the ideas being shown are.
With this further exhibition of their project, Urban-Think Tank are in slight danger of presenting the Torre David as a prototype for their own-brand development tool, taking ownership of a specific process created by others. It is also questionable how the very particular vacuum of ownership that the families inhabiting the tower took advantage of – the bursting of a property bubble coinciding with the death of the developer – could be replicated satisfactorily for this to be unlocked as a more general model of development.
And in Bogotá, some of the crowd-sourced ideas are not rocket science: having a large park in the centre of the city is clearly a good thing, but is not a new thing; the same could be said for the provision of micro-flats for students in the city centre to help revitalize it (though where this has happened in London, the profusion of student flats has seemed more in danger of blighting areas rather than revitalising them). Crowd-funded development still needs a core organization to enact any plans, so in the long-term it remains to be seen quite how much a variation on the shareholder-financed company structure of old it really represents.
Promotional video for BD Bacatá (BD Promotores Colombia)
The empowerment of urban populations in the development and planning process of the cities in which they live was traditionally what the process of democratically electing city governments was there to provide and facilitate. So whatever level of innovation in people-power these projects represent, if they are not just to be one-offs or pie-in-the-sky ideas, their actions and models need ultimately to be harnessed back into the democratically elected processes. So the creation or reform of the latter remains the underlying factor in getting these cities right.
– Rob Wilson, Berlin
Aedes am Pfefferberg