JAE Reviews

Exhibit Review: Politics, Architecture and the Informal City

JAE Review

Figure 1. Visitor at the entrance of the Venice Biennale exhibition, 2012. Photo by Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH.



Sabini is Professor and Director of the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University. + More

  • Exhibition “Torre David / Gran Horizonte”, 13th International Architecture Exhibition “Common Ground”, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy (August 29 – November 25, 2012) by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan
  • Urban-Think Tank, Torre David. Informal Vertical Communities, Zurich, Switzerland:Lars Müller Publishers 2013, 416 pages, $ 60.00.
  • Exhibitions, with new materials, at Aedes Gallery, Berlin (July 12 – August 29, 2013) and at CoalMine Gallery, Winterthur, Switzerland (September 6 – December 20, 2013), by ETH Department of Architecture and Urban Design / Zurich , Alfredo Brillembourg & Hubert Klumpner, Urban-Think Tank / Caracas


The exhibition/installation/project “Gran Horizonte,” awarded the Golden Lion for Best Project at the 13th International Architecture Biennale di Venezia 2012, curated by David Chipperfield and organized around the theme of “Common Ground”, was just the first episode in a series of documentation and elaboration efforts developed by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpert of Urban-Think Tank on the on-going story of Torre David, in Caracas. A vertical informal settlement of about 3,000 people, who squatted in the last few years an abandoned high-rise building and adjacent structures, initially envisioned in the mid-1990s as yet another mixed-use speculative development in the very heart of the Venezuelan capital, Torre David has been identified by U-TT as a fertile ground to test theoretical assumptions, as well as research and design strategies, on how to intervene in contemporary metropolises. The following episodes of this series of studies on Torre David, which eventually coalesced into a platform for discussion, included a book, published early this year, and more recent exhibitions at the Aedes Gallery in Berlin and at the CoalMine Gallery in Winterthur (Switzerland).

Figure 2. View of the Biennale exhibition inside the Corderie building at the Arsenale of Venice. Photo by Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH.

Both the book and the exhibitions leveraged on Iwan Baan’s  stunning photography, which provided a very effective commentary, through a keen visual analysis, to U-TT’s investigations and elaborations. The book Torre David is much more about fundamental questions on architecture and its profession than about the story of such a rather unique case of informal settlement. The questions spice up the whole narrative of the book, but some are also well formulated in the introduction by Andres Lepik (architectural history professor in Munich who curated the 2010 seminal MoMA exhibition “Small Scale Big Change” ), and in the afterword by Chrstian Schmid (who teaches sociology at the ETH Zürich, where Brillembourg and Klumpner hold the Chair for Architecture and Urban Design). 

Figure 3. Detailed view of the Biennale exhibition - statement by U-TT. Photo by Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH.

There are also other important questions raised by U-TT throughout the book, but also some interesting, though still tentative, answers and thought provocations. One of these thought provocations, for example, revolves around the question of what kind of architect is required to guide any intervention in a situation like Torre David - “we need a new kind of architect” has been advocating Teddy Cruz in recent years. Also because situations of informal development like Torre David, of nature and characters that now we cannot even predict, will continue to arise in the urban world of the 21st century. U-TT rightly observes that “far from being irrelevant from the development of the informal city, architects are much needed. But they will have to be a different kind of architect, open to different ways of thinking both about design and about the role and responsibilities of the profession in the social, economic, and political arenas.” (374) 

Figure 4. Detailed view of the Biennale exhibition – excerpts of the debate in Venezuela about the same installation. Photo by Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH.

Social impact oriented design is also another idea that permeates U-TT’s work and clearly emerges from the book and the story of intervening in Torre David. Of course, this is implemented through tactics of participation, thus engaging people in educational processes – because, as Giancarlo De Carlo passionately advocated and widely demonstrated, when communities are engaged in design and planning they begin also to learn the value of design and planning. In so doing, also sustainability evolves from an abstract, technical concept to widespread virtuous practices and is assimilated by people as “operations and behaviors.” (336) Sustaining such participatory processes is also a way, for the architect and the urbanist of the “urban century”, of fostering a movement for the (re)appropriation of the city that has had and is having many manifestations across the world and throughout cultures, of which Torre David is only one extreme example. It is a way for the new kind of architect advocated by U-TT to contribute in that broader movement of “the right to the city” that Henri Lefebvre, with great lucidity, already identified in the 1980s as the (though not easy or without conflicts) path forward for a more meaningful and equitable urban life. 

Figure 5. Neon sign of the “Gran Horizonte” restaurant, part of the Biennale exhibition.

A re-appraisal of the political dimension of architecture and the city has been substantiated in recent years by several lines of inquiry, such as those pursued by Saskia Sassen, Teddy Cruz and the research team at the Berlage Institute led by Pier Vittorio Aureli (“the city as a political form”). U-TT though shows us here, with clarity and evidence, not only an analytical approach, but also a possible strategy and tactics to navigate such new dimension in contemporary cities. In fact, the design for Torre David by U-TT and its collaborators at the ETH (Arno Schlueter and Jimeno Fonseca), unfolds in the pages of the book through clear and elegant diagrams, with visionary pragmatism, political savviness, and precise technical detailing. Yet, U-TT’s pragmatism does not lack idealist tension. This is clearly shown in their notion of “utopia.” “From our point of view, utopia is not a place, specific and fixed in time and space; it is a methodology and a way of thinking and being. … Thus, we see Torre David as an arrival city, a laboratory for exploring and testing a utopian potential.” (364) Daring to propose a new approach to Manfredo Tafuri’s lacerating dichotomy between “project” and “utopia”, U-TT broadens and strengthen the former with the creative thrust of the latter. 

More than the actual story of Torre David, which in itself is an intriguing, almost surreal, trajectory of a capitalist venture gone wrong, political involution, economic resilience, and human ingenuity, what emerges from this research is U-TT’s cultural sensitivity, political commitment and brilliant, pro-active design thinking, able to uncover and seize a new potential for the architecture and the urbanism of the next decades.

Figure 6. “Gran Horizonte” restaurant at the Corderie, Arsenale, Venice. Photo by Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH.