Driven by the potential for urban design to empower and integrate communities, Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner aim to bring ‘game changing’ modern architecture to the dynamic informal cities of the developing world. Urban-Think Tank, their interdisciplinary design studio, encourages innovative projects with ‘transformative potential’, and is redefining the traditional tools of urbanism for a new urban age.
At a Pratt Institute symposium in Brooklyn late last year, Alfredo Brillembourg revealed one of Urban-Think Tank’s (U-TT) favorite slogans: “Viva la revolución de diseño” (Long live the design revolution). Adhering to the geography of the event, he acknowledged his interdisciplinary practice hailed “from a Latin American tradition of subversiveness.” A tradition borne out most famously in the heated passion of radical politics and the experimental richness of avant-garde cultural forms. But then Brillembourg restated his point, with increased emphasis in case the message had been obscured – “the fields of architecture and design demand a revolution.” In Zurich a month later to inaugurate their new Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), fellow founding partner, Austrian Hubert Klumpner, echoed the sentiment. “Critical of [the field’s] own conventions,” he noted, the duo were seeking nothing less than an “alternative expression of urbanity.”
These are forthright words, and lofty aspirations. But then, we are living in an unprecedented age when it comes to the urban realm. The passing parade of statistics and demographic milestones can be dizzying. For the first time in human history, cities are home to the majority of the world’s population. Over the next 25 years, UN-HABITAT expects cities will absorb almost all new population growth. It is not just where people live that has changed, but also how. More than 30 percent of the global urban population now resides in slums or ‘informal’ settlements – a mass of humanity equal to all of the inhabitants of China. In the developing world, where rates of urbanization are highest, that percentage can more than double. Over lunch in Geneva, Brillembourg began to explain the implications of this seismic shift for architects, planners and policy makers. “We have to forget this rationalization, this enlightenment ideal, and start to embrace hybridity, vagueness and ambiguity in cities. The rest of the world should start to look a lot more like Caracas, or Mumbai, or Calcutta. The idea that mayors can control rationally every aspect of a city like in Switzerland is not the reality of the rest of the world. You can do it here because you only have 300,000 people living in this city.”
U-TT’s coming design ‘revolution’ exists on two levels. For the first, Brillembourg and Klumpner see themselves not so much as the vanguard, but instead the willing heirs to a dormant Modernist tradition emphasizing a progressive ethos of social responsibility and community empowerment. Brillembourg explains: “For a long time our profession had avoided political issues. But we realized we had to bring politics back into architecture. The problem with the discourse of the 60s and 70s was that the recession killed it, and then the bonanza of the 80s and 90s killed it again. Architects ended up selling perfume. So we were incredibly bored by architecture as object – we had ‘object fatigue’.” He continues, “U-TT was started up in Caracas – where I come from, and where my family goes back a few generations – when Hubert and I saw a deficiency in our profession’s capacity to tackle the really tough urban issues that were assaulting the city at the time.”
Brillembourg and Klumpner decamped to Caracas from New York (the former in 1993, the latter five years later), where both had completed graduate studies in architecture at Columbia University and eventually returned to co-found the Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory (SLUM Lab). Fresh from the gridded streetscape of Manhattan, the duo began walking the city and its barrios, delivering lectures, conducting forums and engaging community members. Hesitant to dive immediately into architectural practice, they instead used a grant from the Federal Culture Foundation in Berlin to launch an in-depth urban research project, inviting artists, anthropologists, planners, historians and sociologists from 15 countries to the Venezuelan capital over a two-year period from 2002. The resulting book – Informal City: Caracas Case – served not only as a collective clarion call to influence emergent policy and planning debates around the ‘informal’ city, but also as an incubator for new project ideas aligned with Brillembourg and Klumpner’s developing ‘urban acupuncture’ approach. In contrast to traditional perspectives viewing slums as failures in housing policy and city governance, fit only for demolition or self-contained, ad hoc ‘upgrading’, the U-TT founders saw in these areas exciting new laboratories for ‘game-changing’ modern architecture and infrastructure. As Klumpner emphasizes, “where nothing exists, everything is possible.”
In the period since, U-TT has developed into a cutting-edge interdisciplinary design firm, balancing its partners’ teaching and research commitments with targeted, practical architectural and planning interventions in an increasingly global range of urban environments – from Venezuela and Brazil, to India, Jordan and the Netherlands. At the recent ETH Design Studio Final Review in Zurich, I had the opportunity to witness Brillembourg and Klumpner in their guise as educators and torchbearers for a new generation of young architects, trained to bridge the high and low cultures, to conceive of everyday urban strategies connecting the formal and informal. Working with a site adjacent to the famous Maracanã football stadium in the zona norte of Rio de Janeiro, the predominantly Swiss student group was asked to devise new systems of mobility that would have “transformative potential” for segregated local communities and their integration into the wider metropolis. This focus on mobility was no accident. The intervention that ultimately put U-TT on the map – and remains its global calling card – was the Metro Cable project of San Agustin, completed in Caracas in 2010. In a perfect example of an idea that seems intuitive in hindsight, but was revolutionary in conception, U-TT devised an out-of-the-box solution to the mobility challenges faced by thousands of working class residents dispersed across the plunging valleys and ridges of one of the city’s largest and least accessible barrios. Foregoing the municipality’s preferred plan of an extended road network – with its attendant high cost and inevitable spate of forced evictions – U-TT, in collaboration with local partners, designed a new cable car infrastructure that was able to fully integrate with the Metro System of Caracas serving the city as a whole. Employing gondolas to transport up to 1,200 people per hour between five station hubs over a span of two kilometers that double as full-service community centers, the Metro Cable has both transformed the way in which barrio residents can interact with the ‘formal’ city, as well as having a palpable impact on the development of the barrio itself. “What’s happening on that hill of San Agustin is unbelievable. People are upgrading houses, houses for sale, rooftops rented for advertising to cell phone companies, restaurants opening up, everything!”
Brillembourg’s infectious enthusiasm is more than the effusive outpouring of a proud parent. In part it’s a sense of validation after years of struggling to convince institutional investors enamored instead with expensive projects embodying a symbolic notion of ‘progress’. In part it’s a reflection of a discernible ripple effect. After being approached by the state government of Nagaland, U-TT is now working with local engineers and NGOs in Kohima, India, on another Metro Cable project. The challenge is perhaps even more daunting. The city lies in a “contested area” near India’s northeastern border with China. According to Brillembourg, “they have hill towns like you wouldn’t believe. It’s a mess for accessibility. Roads clog up, with rain it becomes a mud bath.” And yet, the Kohima project is in many ways a perfect expression of the second level of U-TT’s design ‘revolution’.
Forgetting his salad, Brillembourg has hit his stride. “We’ve got about three or four success stories, [but] social investors do not want to finance prototypes. Enough custom architecture. There are moments for everything, [but] this is the last round. This is the last round where my generation [of architects] can really have an effect on the world, and we have to change the mindset. Let’s start to create a toolbox, a prototype; let’s have people test things out, let’s go for experimentation. Every city in the world should have its zone of experimentation.” This belief in an ‘open-source’, democratic urban design, and architecture as a collective and collaborative act, is fundamental to the philosophy of U-TT. As a counterpoint to the emergence of a globetrotting elite of ‘starchitects’ mining a branded personal aesthetic across a series of commissions, Brillembourg and Klumpner repeatedly invoke the production language of prototypes and toolboxes. “We figured out that’s where we’re best. We’ll come up with a prototype, we’ll come up with a conceptual design, and then we’ll hand it over to a local team. It’s the architect understanding he has limits, the architect understanding he’s not good at designing everything. We might take one prototype to its finish, and then after that, history. How you adapt that, where it goes, will be a local architect’s need. We don’t care how it ends up in façade, we don’t care what materials you use, as long as you respect the initial concept of the prototype.”
While U-TT’s toolbox is still in its nascent phase, the prototypes are beginning to multiply. Linking each is the idea of architecture as infrastructure, with the projects intended to constitute a set of practical, tested, universal designs that respond flexibly to the urban reality of population density and informality as both physical conditions and social phenomena. Hot on the heels of the Metro Cable is the Vertical Gymnasium – a multi-storey sports complex envisioned as a piece of modular social infrastructure. The first prototype was constructed in Barrio La Cruz in Caracas in 2004, transforming the dilapidated site of a makeshift soccer field into a fitness hub with basketball courts, weight training facilities, a dance studio, a running track, rock-climbing wall and rooftop football field. Limited by a surrounding sea of self-built homes, the design was an attempt to create a common civic space that mimicked the vertical expansion of residential and commercial buildings. And the impact? As Brillembourg explains, “in a peak month that gym saw 15,000 returning users.” More than this, it is claimed that the facility has helped reduce crime in the barrio by over 30 percent. The Vertical Gymnasium prototype has since been replicated locally in Santa Cruz del Este, Los Teques and Miranda, as well as further afield in Rusaifah (Jordan) and New York. Consistent with Brillembourg and Klumpner’s vision, each iteration has come with its own individual tweaks while remaining faithful to the original concept.
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(Photo © Urban-Think Tank)