By Alexis Kalagas | July 10, 2012 - 15:00 GMT
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.”
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(Photo © Urban Think-Tank)
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