Radical Shifts for our Urbanised Planet

15.11.227 min read

What does the future hold for cities? We discuss slow cities, the language we use to describe them, and the architect as a mediator with Urban-Think Tank co-founder Alfredo Brillembourg.

Cities are not meeting the essential needs of a large portion of the people living there. Yet urban populations will continue to swell — perhaps despite reaching their limits of economic growth — and three billion people will live in informal settlements by 2030. As capitals grow beyond their boundaries and smaller cities expand rapidly, how might we evolve cities in an equitable way? And how can design shift to tackle critical urban and social issues?

In this conversation, we speak with Alfredo Brillembourg, who co-founded Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), a multidisciplinary research group in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1998. Its mission is to confront inequality and injustice through design — from building social infrastructures like Escuela Distrital de Arte in Barranquilla, Colombia and transport solutions for steep favelas that minimise demolition, to producing books, films, and exhibitions. In Alfredo’s view, architects have the potential to ‘bridge the gap between top-down and bottom-up’ and work collectively with cities and residents towards alternative urbanisms.

As part of our research exploring innovative approaches to habitat solutions in informal settlements, we invited Alfredo to chat collective placemaking and people on the move.

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Escuela Distrital de Arte in Barranquilla, Colombia.

What does radical urbanism look like today? And how can we practice it?

Radical urbanism is about a shift. It’s about leaving things the way they are. It’s a mix of idealism and criticality — moving towards utopian dreams, while engaging with social reality. The changes should be pragmatic. A radical project does not necessarily view design as a solution, but as a fundamental restructuring of assumptions in the way we live, and the environments that are necessary to support that life. The radicality is in shifting the perspective. Like slow food — slow city. And then we can come up with new ways to experiment.

So the radicality is in moving more slowly, and more contemplatively.

Which is the way cities were made in the past.

I think the city of the future is the city we already have.

The future is the past and the present, right? If we are conscious of the past, if we know the models of the past, and we understand where they failed — the car, the highway, you know, which systems failed — and we can see some positivity in re-evaluating them, then we can think about the future by doing those small shifts now. So we will transform highways, we will grow more trees, we will have urban farm-to-table, right? Those things are already happening, they have been happening, we just need to build them up much more radically, with bigger momentum.

It’s funny, I say that cities should be slow-moving. In other words, they should build themselves over time. Yet, we are in such a moment of crisis that we need the momentum to increase. But we need that momentum to increase with freedom and liberty. This is not another hippie rehash. We really believe that innovation will come within freedom.

Remember, to create innovation and innovative spaces, you need to allow freedom.

Attention to words and language is evident in your work. In this time of intersecting crises, it’s important to question what we actually mean when we say something.

We don’t have the lexicon today to describe the cities that we have all over the world. It might be easy to describe New York City as a grid. But Lagos? Hong Kong? Cities are complex spaces where divergent ways of living urban life collide and transform. Let’s move out of our western view and you will see, we don’t know what it is that’s going on, and we can’t describe it.

Perhaps it’s also the limitation of the English language? Locals might have that lexicon.

Yes, so slang is getting more important. Why don’t we combine words? Why don’t we invent new words? Why don’t we invent a toolbox that will better describe what is happening in cities? Can we view the role of the architect as extending beyond ‘pure’ design, to support the agency of the individuals and communities whose everyday life shapes the evolving built environment?

We noticed in your writing, you use the term thinking-doing, which is something Andres Colmenares from IAM also talks about. Perhaps that is something that we don’t have in English in terms of putting those together. The closest is ‘praxis’, where you have theory and practice together, but it’s a complicated word in English.

There are probably very few important designers or architects in the world that were not doing both — writing books or creating theory and building at the same time. From Alvar Aalto to Arne Jacobsen, they were writing and doing, thinking and doing. And their products were a clear reflection of what they were writing about and vice versa. If one accepts the foundational modernist belief that addressing the realities of contemporary life means working in and through the city, then architecture and urbanism can operate beyond questions of form and aesthetics, to subvert social structures.

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The design builds on vernacular patterns and behaviors, utilising local materials and fabrication.

You’re interested in reconstruction not deconstruction, and reconciling history and future. Could you speak to these notions?

This idea of thinking and doing is part of a larger concept, which we call Parangolé: people in movement, cities in movement.

Can we make a beautiful, fun, layered city? Can we build the new city on top of the old city? This is Parangolé.

[At Urban-Think Tank], we never demolish today. So basically, can we imagine a layered city where we put acupuncture on top of the old city, where we connect with bridges, and we spiral them down with ramps for accessibility. And then we have this dialogue between new and old. And those spaces between the new and old are the really creative spaces where all the life of the city happens.

As designers and architects, we are cultural agents. We’re very good at interdisciplinary thinking. We know a little about a lot of things. So if we can bring different cultural actors together in the city, and create a more powerful statement of culture, then we can create beacons with our work — places where people can identify and rebuild better.

Can you share with us your concept of preferential city making and the digital tools that you’re developing?

We understood that informal settlements needed to be upgraded. For this, we needed to understand how to move people, how to engage them in a process of renegotiation on the common land that they own.

Think of it as a land trust. We visualise the whole existing land trust, and we present it like a game. Where do you want to move to? Would you like a new house? Can it be two floors? Can we make it a little thinner? Can you pay for any of that? We put [this information] into our preferential city maker. The purpose of this data collection is to reach an agreement. At the end of the day, the preferential city making digital tool gives you a spreadsheet with all the terms of the negotiation: who can pay for what, which topology of the house do people want, two floors, one floor. The result is not a design — it’s a tool for design. It’s an agreement about what we’re going to do. And then we begin — who wants to go first? And we do one house at a time.

I have been doing that for the last eight years in Khayelitsha in South Africa and it’s an incredible process. The result is peaceful neighbourhoods because the people, together, understood what they were making — the kind of place they were making. It is knowledge transfer.

Really the whole process is: how do we jointly find ways to live in the city again?

How does preferential city making overlap with your urban acupuncture methodology?

We cannot remodel the whole city. The cities are too big. So what do we do? We can go to very specific points on the map that we know are active zones that need something. Health, mobility, parks, education, and culture — these are social impact infrastructures. They are acupunctural. But the fabric, which is housing, is preferential. So, the new fabric binds together with the new acupuncture of cultural impact, then we have the new city.

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The rooms and spaces are designed to be modified and reprogrammed as needed over time.

How can we better care for and include displaced communities in cities? Many cities are needing to be reactive to this need, but is there a way to be proactive as well?

We need to create a global passport. We need to find ways to allow people to move freely, because how can cities and big metropolises be exclusive for certain kinds of individuals and not others? We all have the right to the city. We have never been in more conflict. At the same time, we have a movement towards autocracy. Why do we have this fear of immigration? People are on the move; there will be more on the move. We cannot build a wall around Europe. My country, Venezuela, has one of the largest displaced populations. With Ukraine now, there’s another huge flight of people. Walls are not the solution. It’s something else that we need. More humanity and more empathy.

What is the role of the designer today?

I believe there has to be a shift where the designer and the architect become moderators. They become the interlocutor. They become more subtle, more in the background, more as the glue between the pieces. The architect has the ability to see what others don’t see. Because their eye is trained in understanding space.

The architect should start to listen more to the desires and needs of others.

How would you define this new design paradigm we are shifting into now?

We don’t understand who is building the city today. Most of the world is being built informally, without any rules or regulations. With no architects involved. So what design movement are we talking about? We need to think about where we place our values. We need to come back to terms with: what are the principal things that we believe are important? And how do we make sure that the people who have the power to decide things — whether it be in a boardroom or at the head of politics — have really done their due diligence of assembling an interdisciplinary team of thinkers?

We need to move forward with more reflection and knowledge sharing. And develop new tactics to intervene in the gaps that power structures ignore. This will reaffirm the capacity of architects and designers to articulate empowering, transformative, confronting, and realisable visions of our collective urban future.