José Castillo by Carlos Brillembourg

BOMB 94 Winter 2006
094 Winter 2006 1024X1024

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.

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The historic center of Mexico City. Photo: FDU. Courtesy of José Castillo.

The cities of the new world established an urban culture that is still growing today. This heritage of governance reinforced by a clear urban infrastructure is threatened by the emergence of a rural culture immersed within and surrounding these cities. A new slum urbanism creates a parallel city that cannot participate and does not share the same values. This marginal condition has now become the central condition of the city and cannot be ignored any longer. Some architects and artists have chosen to propagandize these phenomena with a kind of slum tourism that attempts to sanitize the social conditions into an exclusively aesthetic problem. Jose Castillo is not one of these architects.

When I first met Castillo at the AIA auditorium on La Guardia Place in New York, he had just curated a symposium and an exhibition on contemporary architectural practice in Mexico: Mexico City Dialogues , at the Center for Architecture. This all-day conference began with a fascinating panel discussing methodologies of education for schools of architecture in Mexico and the U.S. Later, via email, we discussed our common interest in the changing ecology of the city and its architecture. Castillo believes very strongly in the social foundation of all architecture and is very interested in the how this new slum urbanism changes our conceptions of urban planning.

Carlos Brillembourg In your Praxis Journal article “Urbanism of the Informal,” you discuss the contemporary history of Lima and Mexico City, pointing to what you call the globalized situation of settlements where 60 percent of the inhabitants live in “favelas, barriadas, kampong slums, villas miseria, bidonvilles or asentamientos irregulars.” Is this “urbanism of the informal” a new urban condition?

José Castillo Informality is not an exclusive phenomenon of the twentieth century (nor of underdeveloped countries, for that matter); there has been ex-urbis housing, “outside” the legal, planning and professional realms of city making, for centuries. What is remarkable is that informality became the dominant mode of city making in the twentieth century. The high point of informal urbanization was probably during the late ’60s and early ’70s, when large demographic growth, high migration, an economic boom and misguided urban and housing policies formed a scenario in which housing provision and land appropriation could not take place through traditional means. This meant that over half of all urban housing stock had to be provided through non-traditional channels such as squats, illegal land subdivisions, land invasions and other schemes of appropriation.

Now, even 40 years after the zenith of informal urbanization, we still face the same issues. We have not modified urban and housing policies that have proved—if not outright failures, at least limited in their impacts.

CB Would self-built settlements be a better term than informality? What exactly is informalabout these settlements?

JC Informal is a deliberately ambiguous term. In my description of the phenomenon of urbanization as it relates to Mexico City, I address a three-tiered definition of the word: First, it incorporates the notion of the casual; second, it refers to the condition of lacking precise form; and finally, it relates to the realm outside what is prescribed. I use the term urbanisms of the informal to explain the practices (social, economic, architectural and urban) and the forms (physical and spatial) that a group of stake holders (dwellers, developers, planners, landowners and the state) undertake not only to obtain access to land and housing, but also to satisfy their need to engage in urban life. These practices are characterized by tactical and incremental decisions, by a complex interaction among players and a distinct set of spatial strategies that produce a progressive urban space and reconfigured hierarchies.

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Open-air markets in Mexico City, 1996. Photo: Carlos Brillembourg.

CB The term informal is associated with the work of the economist Hernan de Soto in Peru and his ideas about how to harness the informal economies of Lima to a productive system, the state economy, by simply legalizing the land tenancy. But the nature of urbanism depends, just as you point out, on a mix of regulated and unregulated activities that has been present from the beginning. When the King of Spain issued the celebrated edits of the Laws of the Indies in the sixteenth century, the urban development of the gridded cities of the Americas had already begun, and in many ways these edicts served as a regulation of urban strategies already in practice. This dialectic of regulated and unregulated urban land use is not specific to the particular nature of the new slum urbanism in Lima, Mexico or Caracas today.

What I find very interesting in Mexico City is the uniformity of urban growth. The density of construction (three- to four-story reinforced concrete frame) is very even throughout the different neighborhoods, from the richest to the poorest! This might have something to do with the nature of the subsoil and the threat of earthquakes, but I suspect that there are other reasons as well.

JC Informal is certainly not a perfect term, but it actually assumes its own contingencies. Not only de Soto, but also Manuel Castells and Alejandro Portes have developed key work on informal economies.

What my research has attempted to debunk is that informality is only about legal, judicial or red tape issues (de Soto) or about means of production and distribution (Castells and Portes). I am convinced that the way in which one describes a phenomenon immediately implies the kinds of solutions one sees to its problems. In the ’50s, the fact that professionals—architects, sociologists, planners like Oscar Lewis—described informal urbanization as “cancer,” as “slums,” as “paracaidistas” implied such solutions as clearance, bulldozing and eviction. It wasn’t until the mid-’60s that the conceptualization of this form of urbanization started to change, first with John Turner and later with many others, including the World Bank.

From the 1970s on, the prevailing definition of informality has been related to legal status. When President Salinas decided in 1992 to grant deeds to hundreds of thousands of informal dwellers, he had clearly identified de Soto’s power of policy, but it was not complemented by solutions having to do with infrastructure, job opportunities, transportation. I think my definition, by focusing both on the practices and the forms generated and used by informality, can achieve a different (if still incomplete) understanding of this particular urbanity.

I agree with you that urbanism is always a mix of the regulated and the unregulated. Let’s face it: urbanism as a body of knowledge and a profession has been with us for less than 150 years. What I am particularly interested in is how shifts between what is regulated and what is not, or as the philosopher Georges Canguilhem would put it, between the normal and thepathological, modify our categories and therefore transform our own techniques of making and understanding cities.

Certainly there could be a perception of uniformity of urban growth in Mexico City. It’s actually quite paradoxical that even though each neighborhood develops according to its own procedures of land acquisition, its own conflicts and its own schedule, at the end the city looks similar all over. (To be fair, this critique was made of modern cities in the beginning of the twentieth century as well.) The techniques of construction are not in themselves earthquake-motivated, although there is a practicality to the traditional cinderblock and concrete-frame construction: it allows you to keep growing over time, it is probably the least expensive material and construction technique, and it relies on unqualified, low-technology labor.

It’s actually funny you should mention it, because the largest home builder in Mexico, Casas Geo, developed a colored and textured cinderblock that in the mind of the potential buyer represented an alternative to the grayness of the traditional concrete block. Thus one of the variables that are constant to both the formal and informal housing markets is changing a tiny bit.

This continuum between formal and informal is also shared among classes, and not only with regard to construction techniques, but also with aesthetics. The informal peripheral communities have the same proclivity to excesses (balustrades, decorative motifs, cornices) you find in very affluent areas like Bosques de las Lomas and Pedregal. And of course the satellite TV dish and the garage play similar roles regardless of social group.

CB Regarding the uniformity of the urban topology, unplanned communities rely on a completely different relationship of public/private spaces. Why do you think these communities are so successful?

JC To paraphrase Carlos Monsiváis, public space has been a “conquest” of civil society, rather than a “right” conferred by the state or developers. Decades ago, in the development of certain traditional neighborhoods in Mexico City, such as La Condesa, Polanco and Colonia Roma, public parks and plazas were provisions given by developers (in order to make their property more attractive) or regulated by the local authorities as a requisite for livability. By contrast, public space comes low in the list of priorities at the early stages of informal urbanization. Ultimately open spaces tend to be reclaimed anyway: streets are used in more than one way, as plazas, markets, political arenas, etc. In Chimalhuacan, the right-of-way of power lines allows for a five-kilometer street-plaza-temporal market-civic space to exist at different times. In Ciudad Neza, illegal developers at one point had imagined a number of housing blocks surrounding a central open space with public amenities. These central areas were later occupied and in some cases no open space has been left. This meant that the fight for open public space had to be developed elsewhere. Informal urbanism thus includes a dynamic and temporal use of the street as a space that defies the categorization as private or public.

Nowadays, what defines publicness includes notions of civicness, identity and accessibility as much as commercialism, pluralism and dynamism, regardless of whether the space is privately or state owned.

The success of these housing typologies is related as much to the structure of formal housing and finance provision in Mexico today as to consumer choice and economic possibilities. What makes one choose informal housing at one moment has to do first of all with the mechanisms of housing finance. But also the way in which current typologies address issues such as the extended family, the live/work space, the dwelling/rental unit and the upgradeable house is very limited. No wonder the urban life and economic dynamics one finds in informal settlements is more interesting than the ones in planned communities.

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A dwelling in Ciudad Neza showing the vertical layering of construction over time. Photo: José Castillo.

CB Five years ago I was able to fly in a helicopter over the planned communities built by Geo in Mexico City. The plaza and street spaces of these red communities differ notably from the multicolored housing that gathers around the grid system, where the street is converted into a market by the use of colored awnings spanning its width. Obviously, Geo speculates with the value of the land on the peripheries and is able to sell the idea of an isolated, almost gated community within the urban fabric. Why do you think Geo has been so successful?

JC Along with a handful of other home building companies, such as Ara and Urbi, Geo is completely changing the urban landscape of the peripheries of Mexican cities. I think Carlos Garcia-Velez, the chief architect at Geo, is a brilliant professional, if not necessarily for the architecture that Geo produces.

The success of these companies can be traced to a three-tiered strategy. The first, which is financial, is rooted in the changes in low-income housing finance in the past 10 years. The official lending institutions, such as Infonavit (the equivalent of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac), were completely overhauled since the early ’90s in order to be more efficient, minimize defaults and facilitate the connections between private developers and buyers. The number of credits that Infonavit has given in the past four years is equivalent in number to the ones given in the thirty years before that! These changes were based on the recognition that home buying is a requisite for economic development and the betterment of people’s lives, and that finance should facilitate the process, not hinder it.

Some of the other changes in housing finance are related to the macroeconomic changes of the past 20 years. After the hyperinflations of the 1980s, devaluation of the peso and the boom and bust cycles, the past eight years have been relatively stable. For the first time in 30 years, mortgages are back under 10 percent interest rates. A decade or two ago, this was unthinkable. Nevertheless, the credits given by Infonavit have a ceiling of US$25,000.

The second issue is technological. Geo’s so-called geo-block has an aesthetic closer to adobe, with integrated color, and is much cheaper than traditional cinderblock. As successful as it is, I’ve always found it puzzling that the modern mantra of industrialization, mass production and prefabrication, takes place in the case of Geo almost at the skin level or dermis, in other words, at an aesthetic level, rather than at an economic, construction or procedural level. Geo’s housing units are far from contemporary in their aesthetics.

The third tier relates to the urban typologies. Geo decided to develop a model of clusters of housing, with plazas whose infrastructure (an elevated water tank, for instance, or a solar clock) can play a role in the community-making process of the development, as identifiers of the particular clusters.

As successful as this has been in some respect, I think there are many shortcomings, both in the urban typologies themselves and in the collapse of urban design to color choice and urban markers. For example, there are seldom any additional programs or uses within these very large housing tracts, so you might have 1,000 units of housing and yet no corner shop, no dry cleaner, no restaurant, kindergarten or supermarket, no live-work space, no rental units. To be fair to the developers, current urban legislation, not to mention economic agendas, makes it extremely difficult to have mixed-use communities.

When compared to the vitality that the street and other open spaces in informal urbanization have, and the diversity and even the social and economic mobility, Geo’s housing falls short. If we add the fact that within informal communities you have a myriad of patterns, typologies and social and economic arrangements, it is obvious to see why people, even if given the mortgage to buy a finished home, would prefer the model of informality.

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Casas Geo, Mexico City, 1999. Photo: Carlos Brillembourg.

CB The concept of civil society and public space seems essential to this discussion. Perhaps we can clarify exactly what we mean by these broad and sometimes ambiguous terms. Civilsociety refers to the expressions of a society organized in a private manner, i.e., not by the state; and public space has been seen as something provided by the state. Particularly in the nineteenth century, public space became a reflection of the state’s benevolence and magnificence. In order to understand the contemporary city in the twenty-first century, we need to find new terms that define the mix of public and private as found in the new slum urbanism of Mexico City, Caracas, Rio, etc. To paraphrase Leon Battista Alberti: it’s the city inside the house and the house inside the city that counts. We also need to find new terms that express the political control of societies that seem to ignore the physical realities of the new urban conditions. The catastrophic flooding of New Orleans has made us aware of the need to think of cities as vulnerable entities that are made up not of abstract buildings but of people living within a complex ecology that is partially man-made. Do you think that huge natural catastrophes in cities can point to a new way of thinking about the urban ecology, and might this new reading be therapeutic in its application for the rebuilding of the city? After the bombing of the European cities by the Allied forces during World War II, Alvar Aalto is said to have commented that the rebuilding should begin with the chimneys that are still left standing.

JC You touch on two topics that really interest me as they relate to urbanization: civility and its relationship to what is public, and the phenomenon of catastrophes. In the case of Mexico City, and as you point out in New Orleans too, they are absolutely intertwined.

The recent experience of New Orleans brings to mind the history of Mexico City in more than one respect. When the city was founded in 1326 by the Aztecs, at the mythical site where an eagle was eating a snake, nobody quite grasped that to build a city in the middle of a large wetland, in an area prone to earthquakes and at 2,400 meters above sea level, was, to put it mildly, not the best idea.

Whereas the Aztecs had developed an infrastructural-environmental attitude toward the basin that achieved a delicate balance, with the conquest by the Spanish, the relationship was unlearned, and for centuries there were continuous floods. During the great flood of 1629, the city remained underwater for more than three years and more than 30,000 people lost their lives.

The reaction to that event was to systematically drain the area of lakes, which generated a myriad of other problems, including subsidence of the soil (making it more susceptible to cracks, pollution of the acquifer and earthquakes) and an absolute dependence on an infrastructure at odds with the environment. The current water and sewage infrastructure is so fragile that if it collapsed, it would be as catastrophic to the city as Katrina was to New Orleans. The irony is that the rainfall in the basin of Mexico brings enough water to supply the whole city if used properly, and the sewage, if treated locally rather than sent through a deep canal and open-air canals hundreds of kilometers away, would result in a whole different environmental attitude. Alberto Kalach’s Lakes Project taps into that “utopian pragmatic” attitude toward urbanization. Kalach has always been keen on understanding the city as an arena for urban interventions, looking to make virtues out of necessities. His research into the issues of water developed into the Lakes Project, which by small changes in the management of water, a barren landscape on the eastern section of the city could be transformed into a new urban and natural landscape through the creation of a new system of artificial lakes and the creation of 80 kilometers of waterfront.

There is a saying that goes, “It never happens, until it happens.” Our approaches to urbanization, catastrophes and the environment seem to operate under that rule.

I’ve felt for some time now that a new understanding of civility and publicness will have to deeply engage a notion of the environment.

Two recent books by Carlos Monsiváis (No sin nosotros) and Elena Poniatowska (Nada, nadie) touch upon the earthquakes of 1985 as a socio-political watershed. Monsiváis had already written Entrada Libre: Cronica de una sociedad que se organiza, in which through urban chronicles, he traces the origins of the notion of civil society as a concept that arises out of the state’s absolute ineptitude.

After the 1985 earthquakes, a social conscience emerged in the absence of the state’s capacity to fulfill its duties and obligations. Without the organization of a social network after the quakes, Mexico could have not achieved the end of the one-party rule and developed a more democratic life.

Actually, President Bush’s attitude toward New Orleans reminded many of us here in Mexico of Miguel de la Madrid, Mexico’s president at the time of the earthquakes, whose tardiness to respond, patriotic arrogance and blunt incapacity to deal with the crisis as it unfolded is now legendary.

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Alberto Kalach/FDU, The Lakes Project. The new levee with services and infrastructure in Ecatepec. Courtesy of José Castillo.

CB The terrain that this slum urbanism colonizes is a big factor in the evolution of the city. In most cases it is “extreme” because of the topography or the proximity to disturbed areas, such as the abandoned spaces next to highways or natural reserves around flood plains, rivers or creeks. Is there a relationship between this new typology of housing and the natural landscape in Mexico City?

JC It would be a truism to say that slum urbanism colonizes areas that are less attractive to market or traditional urbanism. As you point out, slum urbanism occupies the marginal spaces of the city, and not only peripheries, but also interior marginalities. Former lakebeds, steep topographies, riverbeds, geologically unsafe places and areas next to landfills and open-air sewages are just some of the conditions taken on by slum urbanism.

But there are also strange cohabitations of slums and high-end communities. Some upscale neighborhoods still contain ciudades perdidas, or lost cities that started out as slums but that over the years have been formalized, even gentrified. For example, in the ravines in the western part of Mexico City, the high-end developments directly face the low-end slums.

I think the fragility of conditions certainly leads to typological variations: in areas prone to flooding, slums develop a deep foundation that raises the ground floor two feet, just enough to avoid being flooded; in less secure areas, “bunker housing” includes a cinderblock wall all around the lot. Such iconography of permanence challenges the feeling of temporality or “shantyness” associated with slums.

CB The great fire of Chicago in 1871 and the city’s rebuilding gave rise to a modern architecture that was the result of the new technologies of the elevator and refrigeration in combination with the widespread rail network being built at the same time. What new technologies will affect the rebuilding of cities with large urban slum populations?

JC Just this past Monday (September 19) was the twentieth anniversary of the catastrophic Mexico earthquakes. Reflection on such a traumatic event, not unlike the Chicago Fire, embraces a wide range of issues that deal with the urban phenomena. On a very simplistic level, the code that arose after the quakes represented a huge transformation in terms of the structural security of buildings. It was quite strange to see, even within intelligent discussions, a perception that mid-rise and high-rise buildings were absolutely impossible in Mexico City. Of course in retrospect, it’s obvious that technology is always capable of imagining alternative scenarios within the limitations that nature (and code) present.

Regarding the slum populations, the big discussion after the earthquakes had to do with the strategies for relocation and rebuilding, most notably in the central parts of the city. To give you an idea, some of the vecindades or tenement housing that had been subjected to a regime of frozen rents since the 1950s had become so unsafe that the earthquakes damaged many of them considerably. After the quakes, authorities originally proposed to relocate the populations of this housing elsewhere in the peripheries. This measure sparked a number of grassroots resistance movements that forced the government to rebuild within these torn areas. The grassroots groups were later instrumental in the foundation of the left-wing political party, which has ruled Mexico City for the past eight years.

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Mauricio Rocha Inturbide/Taller de Arquitectura, San Pablo Market, San Pablo, Oztotepec, Mexico.

CB One of the great monuments of Mexico City is its central food market, which occupies several city blocks. The distribution of food within the city becomes more critical as the marginal populations grow. To what extent is the rethinking of transportation system and food distribution an opportunity for the integration of the marginal urban slums into the heart of the city?

JC I am glad you ask such a question. The wholesale market is the largest structure ever built in the city. To give you an idea, during construction the army was in charge of serving meals to the huge number of construction workers, because they were the only ones trained to approach such a complex logistical problem.

While the notion of Central Market is rooted in a centralized way of government (inherited from the Spanish), even to this day the market operates as an incredible economic material entity. It is obvious that infrastructure is critical to the effective operation of the system. Ever since the 1960s the large-scale road infrastructure projects have remained unfinished in Mexico City. The periferico or ring road never became a true ring and remained open and incomplete for many years. The same goes for the Circuito Interior, or inner loop. Nevertheless, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Carlos Hank, then the city’s mayor, developed a system of ejes viales or high-speed one-way roads that crisscrossed the city. As polemical as the project became—think Jane Jacobs protesting the highway cutting through the Village in New York—it truly served to alleviate traffic for many years.

A few years ago, in one of our academic studios at the university, we developed a workshop called “Supermarket/Superurbanism” and focused our research on how the forms of production, distribution, sale, consumption and recycling in Mexico City create a particular urban landscape of infrastructures, wastelands, sites of exchange and new centralities. We mapped every market and supermarket in the urban area to discover how the different strategies of distinct chains operated with regard to communities and consumer choices, in some cases generating areas of blight or black holes within the city. (The sad irony is that similar to infrastructure, the dwellers of slums end up paying a substantial overprice by buying in their corner store instead of the Wal-Mart that has not yet “colonized” their settlement.)

Our conclusions pointed to the fact that supermarkets were actually involved in typological invention in finding ways to transform specific parts of the city, including the slums. For instance, there is a Wal-Mart in Neza, and next to it a Burger King and a McDonald’s, and Vip’s, a popular cafeteria chain there, has menus in English. It is obvious how these communities can manage to change over time, demolishing planners’ preconceptions.

CB In Caracas a strong earthquake would destroy a large area of the ranchos that house 60 percent of the city’s population, and there are water reserves for only one and a half days. Now that meta-cities and related phenomena have been meditated by different groups, do you agree that there is a worrisome tendency to aestheticize the physical reality of these slums, and also to ignore the living conditions there in an attempt to come up with a novel way of looking at urban phenomena?

JC I do agree. I think there is an enormous distinction between procedural aspects of informality and aesthetic issues, and I think it is crucial to understand when they are working together and when they are working independently. To “freeze” slums as an issue of aesthetics is dangerous not only because of its ethical dimension, but also because it serves to perpetuate problematic practices and forms, as you rightly mention.

At the same time, to recognize this alternative form of creating urbanity is relevant. It is a “hidden assignment,” as some theorists have called it, and it is not recent but continues from groundbreaking ideas since the 1960s. In the mid-’60s, John Turner was already saying that “slums are not the problem but rather the solution” (with regard to housing policies). The condescending yet authoritarian way of seeing the phenomenon of slums as an issue of aesthetics or taste, or a problem that needs to be solved, has to be inverted to acknowledge that it is a two-way street, where architects have as much to say in order to make slums “better” as slums have the possibility to open up discussions through their resiliency and the simple fact of their existence. Issues of reclaiming public space, of temporality and flexibility, of participation and stakeholders, of infrastructure and of the environment are just some of the topics that informal urbanisms are addressing in creative ways.

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Dellekamp Arquitectos, Alfonso Reyes Building, multi-unit housing in Condesa, Mexico.

CB John Turner’s “slums are not the problem, but rather the solution” is a double-edged sword. In the case of Caracas, the regime in place since 1999 has been notoriously deficient in providing housing for the poor. The number of units built each year is ridiculously low, and of course this means that the government is actively pursuing a housing policy based on new slum production.

In some cases the military does the earthwork, with tractors making terraces that are then populated overnight. Many of these terraces are destroyed by heavy rains and these people are once again homeless.

Even in cities where the slums are not as “formal” as these, complicity with the local authorities is always present. As architects, we are sometimes called to plan the insertion of public amenities such as marketplaces or schools within the slum fabric, and, when built, these constructions do not have much impact on the restricted freedoms of the slum dwellers, who usually have to limit their travel to and from work to specific hours before the criminals control the access points and demand payment for passage.

There is no doubt that these new cities will continue to grow and will increase in density over time. Do you think the government should privatize these dwellings by issuing titles?

JC Turner’s assertion is problematic nowadays. At the time he made that statement, the approach to dealing with slums was through razing, bulldozing or eminent domain—in other words, tabula rasa. It is quite interesting to see that this kind of critique of modern architecture and public policy coincides with other cultural critiques, such as those of Team X, Jane Jacobs, the Situationists and other postwar avant-garde movements. This sort of anti-modern manifiesto served the purpose of shifting attention to a phenomenon that was usually ignored, or seen as just an obstacle to architecture (think of the image of Le Corbusier’s handcutting off part of the Paris slums to propose his crisp and hygienic towers). Nevertheless, it is very problematic to assume that the replication of slums would be a more sound housing policy, that it could help overcome the problems of cities today.

The question of whether slums are a problem or a solution is kind of moot. What is more relevant is how to develop a housing policy with limited resources (in terms of budget, land and time). What is happening in Caracas is not new. As a matter of fact, it probably means that the city is mortgaging its future, since any investment in urbanization not done prior to occupation means that the cost will be much higher later on. For example, to bring in water and put in sewage lines after occupation has taken place costs between 4 and 5 more times than if it had been done previously. The costs of retrofitting are enormous, both social and economical. And if the work is done in a poor fashion, as you describe, the substitution of a housing policy for a de facto regime of illegality is a recipe for disaster.

The fascinating if perverse thing about informal urbanization is precisely the alternative social regimes that are constructed when the state turns a blind eye to the distinct forms of illegality as long as dwellers do not express their discontent in any subversive fashion. Yet, as you mention, a paralegal, sometimes rogue regime is implemented with all its effects: criminal activity, extortion, insecurity, etc.

On your question of issuing titles, it was a solution taken quite broadly during the 1990s, especially after Hernando de Soto argued that security of tenure would mean more and better investment and improvement of the dwellings by the owners. It seems to me that to focus exclusively on the issue of deeds and land tenure is to miss the larger issues making informal urbanization problematic.

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Frente Arquitectura/Juan Pablo Maza, low-income houses, Teoloyucan, Mexico.

CB After 30 years of “practicing” architecture, I am still fascinated by the possibility of each project engaging the city, as you put it. The social engagement of any built form with the city and the landscape is crucial to its success. In the exhibition you organized at the Center for Architecture in New York last spring, Mexico City Dialogues, the projects shared an attempt, as you say, to negotiate the city. The “Dutch” facade of the Residential Building by Dellekamp Arquitectos engages very well the social context of Condesa, which for Mexico City represents all that market globalism can provide for the upper middle class. The architecture of the San Pablo Market (Mauricio Rocha Inturbide/Taller de Arquitectura) is more complex and open-ended; it reminds me of Cedric Price’s technological proposals for London in the early ’60s. And the housing by Frente Arquitectura/Juan Pablo Maza is an elegant solution that works with existing typologies to provide a new public face to low-cost housing.

In terms of cultural renovation, contemporary Mexican architecture is uniquely poised as being part of the traditions of Latin America and also part of North America, both geographically and economically. How do you think this “border” condition can contribute to architecture culture?

JC This is a tough question, and I am sure you are well aware of that, due to your dual condition as both a practicing architect in the U.S. and a scholar of Latin American architecture. The Achilles heel of discussions about architecture and culture in general for the past 100 years has been the issue of identity, and though historically Mexico has been very much about hybrid (mestizaje) conditions, the question of permeability and impermeability to other cultures and traditions has been kept on the front burner by some cultural critics.

It seems to me that in the current context it is impossible to imagine fixed meanings for the terms that have shaped cultural production in the last century: independence, autonomy, identity, etc. What has most characterized this border condition is an intensified exchange of ideas, information, finance, etc. This has meant probably less critical examination of the ideas, but on the other hand one can easily ascertain that the flow is now more “democratic,” if we could call it that. In other words, ideas, interests and images are flowing south-north as much as north-south.

Returning from India a few days ago, we were asked a similar question about how the proximity to the U.S. had shaped attitudes in the current production of architecture. It’s hard to imagine that architects nowadays are interested in resistance as that term was probably used during the ’60s and ’70s in the context of Latin American architecture. I would say that negotiation is a better word to describe the flows in different directions, since it implies mutual agreements, even if those are agreements to disagree.

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Originally published in

BOMB 94, Winter 2006

Featuring interviews with Plastilina Mosh, Andy Palacio and Christopher Cozier, Pedro Reyes, Francisco Goldman, Pablo Vargas Lugo and Ruben Gallo, Carlos Brillembourg, Julieta Campos, Jose Castillo, Julieta Campos, Daniel Sada, Jose Luis Rivas, and Beto Gomez.

Read the issue
094 Winter 2006 1024X1024