- Viewpoint: Self-Construction, Vernacular Materials, and Democracy BuildingLos Bestias, Lima, 1984–1987
A stark, dark form intrudes upon the blank, almost white background of the sky (Figure 1). Out of the solid blackness that occupies the entire lower quarter of the image, four upright torsos emerge, melded with their support, looking almost like sculptural busts. The two on the right are frozen in seemingly pensive poses, as their arms appear to be tightly clasped around their chests. The two on the left become nearly indistinguishable from the vertical poles surrounding them. A piece of flapping, torn cloth is stretched between the four forms that extend upward, cutting the picture plane. The image evokes a flattened silhouette of a makeshift, storm-battered sailship, captured cruising against the bright sun. One thing is certain: even if the figures look stoic, the material forms within which they are embedded manifest signs of fatigue, wear, or incompleteness—ripped, twisted, flawed geometries tied with a string. Whether these are pirates or survivors, their destination remains unknown. Perhaps because of the association with
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the ship and the precariousness of the construction, for me this image points to the quality of a “pirate urbanization,” typical of the exploding metropolises of the so-called Third World.1
These “pirates,” imbricated with the imperfect construction, are not urban squatters, who have constituted the major challenge to urban policies all over the planet, but a bunch of young architects who studied at the Lima-based Universidad Ricardo Palma in the early 1980s.2 Between 1984 and 1987, an amorphous, fluctuating group of students at the university, calling themselves Los Bestias (The Beasts), realized a number of anarchist, informal architectural interventions on campus and in various sites of the Peruvian capital (Figure 2). Because they built them with their own hands, using industrial discards, recycled junk, and cheap, traditional construction materials (such as bamboo cane and reed mats), they earned the nicknames “architects-masons,” “architects with dirty faces,” and “kings of trash.”3
The group’s activities occurred during the bloodiest period of the Peruvian Internal Conflict (1980–2000), when the very concept of democracy was under assault as a result of extreme violence unleashed by all sides involved.4 The armed conflict between the Maoist rebel groups, led by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), on the one hand, and the military forces of the state, on the other, caused irreversible changes in the material and social fabric of Lima. It profoundly affected the lives of ordinary people and the options of young architects alike. Taking the phrase “democracy building” as an architectural metaphor, I trace how the interventions of Los Bestias rearticulated the meaning of the term “democracy.” Through their projects Los Bestias responded to the dwindling possibility of making even a modest [End Page 2] life happen amid the escalating war between the Shining Path and the government.5 Aligning their tactics with the evanescent nature of ordinary, everyday practice and asserting the value of self-construction, the group engaged in a productive effort to generate alternatives or antidotes to the unfolding social disintegration.
The ephemeral experiments and constructions of Los Bestias wedged themselves in between the eclipsing modernism promoted by the state and the rising Limeñan critical regionalism sponsored by a handful of upper-class private investors. On the one hand, the radical affirmation of the grassroots—expressed through actions of self-construction and land invasion—worked against the modernist obsession with centralized planning by experts that drove the career of the president-architect Fernando Belaúnde Terry and the...