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Should architecture be slumming it?

Last Sunday, Rowan Moore wrote a review in the Observer of Radical Cities – Latin America’s revolutionary housing solutions by Justin McGuirk. At the heart of his review – and it seems of the book – is the Torre de David, the squatted tower in Venezuela that McGuirk made the centrepiece of an award-winning exhibition at the Venice Biennale two years ago.

Today, The Architects’ Journal reports that the squatters in the tower are being evicted. How should we feel about this? McGuirk is treading a difficult line. He is lauding the enterprise of people who make their own places in cities, in the most difficult of circumstances. As Rowan Moore writes, ‘Once international architectural interest in the continent focused on the slick modernist trophies of Oscar Niemeyer. Now the outside world looks at its informal, unofficial and amateur constructions. If the favelas of Rio, once seen as impossible-to-enter warzones, have now become tourist attractions, architects and planners study them for the lessons they can offer for the building of cities.’

One has to admire the spirit of those people who, from very little, have created an informal and successful social network in the most surprising of places. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is not an ideal way to live. As another critic pointed out, having to walk up 20 flights of stairs to a family home is not what any of us would choose. We can admire, but we mustn’t, from our much more privileged circumstances, romanticise.

I was guilty of this once, writing a feature about the slums of Kibera and describing the appealing textures of the frankly beautiful photographs that accompanied it. Somebody apparently submitted the piece to Pseuds’ Corner at Private Eye. I have learnt my lesson. We know by now to resist the ‘ruin porn’ of Detroit. We shouldn’t succumb to poverty porn either.

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