- Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture by Justin McGuirk
There is a great deal to be gained from looking at the relationship between geography and architecture whether in terms of an individual building, at the metropolitan scale, or anywhere in between. How space is constructed in urban landscapes has been a key site of enquiry for geographers and with exciting recent work on verticality and volume in cities this interdisciplinary relationship is likely to become even richer. From various intersections, as political, urban, or cultural geographers (to name just three) we can look to architecture to stimulate our research on the built environment and how we inhabit it. While the right to the city isn’t new in geography, the need to consider housing and social justice within cities is an ever more pertinent issue and the housing crisis in Latin American cities exemplifies the importance of these concerns.
Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities is a superbly written excursion across Latin America examining the wealth of activist and innovative architecture that has burgeoned across the continent. The book takes an immensely readable, journalistic style which is no surprise given the author’s experience in newspaper and magazine writing. This background, along with his work in Urban-Think Tank, who also appear in the book, gives his prose the creative, innovative, and interdisciplinary inflection that makes Radical Cities so enjoyable. It almost has the air of an intelligent documentary, so accessible and engaging is the content.
Traveling northwards across eight chapters, the book covers Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico. Given that the book comes in at under 300 pages, McGuirk therefore leaves each country soon after arrival, glancing in to showcase various ways that activists, politicians, and architects have rethought how we live in cities. This light-touch approach comes at the expense of in-depth country analysis but not to the detriment of the book; conversely, it is the jumping between cities, focusing on one housing project or architect, that gives Radical Cities a precise motivation: to examine radical, activist architecture. Yet in spite of this I was still left questioning “what is radical here?” What does McGuirk really mean by “activist architects”? Perhaps this terminology could have been more carefully explained, but it must be remembered that this is a book aimed at a readership far beyond the academy.
Radical Cities shines in the more detailed case studies and when the author seems to be more embedded in the subject matter. The introductory chapter feels somewhat labored, although it does benefit from a revisit after reading the body chapters, but the later chapters more than make up for this. A case in point, Chapter 5, “Torre David: A Pirate Utopia” details the tale of the world’s highest squat in Caracas, a partially built office tower that became a home for thousands. This enthralling example deftly evokes the inanity of not making use of a 47-story abandoned office block when so many Venezuelans lack adequate housing. It is nearer the end of the book that the most captivating characters appear: Antanas Mockus, former Mayor of Bogotá, a self-styled “super citizen” who implemented a range of avant-garde, progressive policies that transformed the city, and Teddy Cruz, an architect and urbanist whose artistic interventions on the US–Mexico border have redefined the notion of informal housing on both sides of the border. Both [End Page 210] Mockus and Cruz take academic notions and execute them in powerful and meaningful ways. These later chapters are the most likely to convince the reader of the radical possibilities of architecture on the continent and beyond.
At its core this is a hopeful book. McGuirk highlights the resilience of cities and their inhabitants, the innovation that drives people to create homes on hillsides, to squat office blocks, or imagine new urban futures. Latin America is the most urbanized region...