Alfredo Brillembourg in Conversation with Bart Lootsma

07 21st, 2016

Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner have been the forerunners of an increasing group of architects who are actively interested in working for the 50% of city dwellers in the world who are living in informal settlements. Working as architects in Caracas, Venezuela, they originally founded the Urban Think Tank to improve the living conditions in the favelas of the city they lived in. Now they research and teach at the ETH Zürich and Columbia University and work worldwide on projects in informal settlements. In the Utrecht Manifest Biennale for Social design of 2009 they did a project in Hoograven. In this interview we investigate the different guises Social Design may have, from the importance of research to hands-on work, and from creating awareness to connecting with similar practices around the world in the forthcoming Shenzhen Biennale.


When we met at the ARCHISYMP international architecture symposium in Pontresina in 2001, your presentation was a breakthrough in the architectural discourse, which was then probably at the peak of a cult of individual authorship – and thereby individual stardom. But when architects like Thom Mayne, Wolf Prix and Hani Rashid could not fly in on September 11th because of the grounding of all flights, you two presented us an alternative program that became the highlight of the event. Alternative not just because you filled the void the absent architects left behind, but particularly because you presented a radically alternative program for architecture, based on inclusivity not exclusivity and on collaboration instead of individualism. As far as I remember it, you did not even present us with any architectural design in the classical sense, as something done by architects. Instead, you presented us with Caracas and in particular its barrios: informal settlements built by the people themselves that, at the time, made up already more than 60% of the city. You presented this as a reality that is to stay, but in which improvements in the social and public domain are necessary. So on the day the Third World attacked the First World for the first time, you presented the way the largest part of the Third World lives. It was a very symbolic moment. All journalists, and it must have been at least 50, who came to interview the known absent stars not came to see you. How important was that event really for you?


Well, I think that was a real turning point. It was really the first time that we had been invited to an international conference in Europe. In the US it was a little bit easier, we could always get to New York, to my old alma mater Columbia University. But to be invited to an international, big symposium in Pontresina, Switzerland, in this super exclusive hideaway in the Alps, was something else. When we researched online, we had seen in the previous one, Rem Koolhaas had been a big star, so it was quite an honor to get invited. We got invited because they needed someone to represent this topic on poverty and developing world architecture.

It was really like a last minute invitation. They had trouble even sending us the ticket. Because, 2001, Chávez had already been taking control of Venezuela. You could not send foreign currency, or buy plane tickets or have them sent from outside the country. It was almost impossible to invite us directly from Venezuela to Switzerland. So they said, “Can you get yourself to New York, and we buy you a New York – Switzerland ticket”. So, we actually had to go out of our limits, our boundaries, our frontiers, our national borders in order to talk about our own problems.

Years later, Saskia Sassen wrote a book called TAR, which is Territory, Authority and Rights. In this book she explains how people going outside to come back in as activists blur the boundaries between nation states. So the conference in Pontresina really reminds me that we had to go outside of Venezuela to make a name for ourselves, for then to come back and have an influence on real policy change.


At the time, you were still largely based in Caracas, where you had a practice doing regular buildings. Some of them one can still find on your website. But you already had this desire to make a contribution to your city beyond that after you had been in exile and studied in New York. You went back to make a difference. Did you already, at that moment, have any idea what this difference could be?


Hubert and I met at Columbia University in 1996/97. After that, I went down to Caracas and started an office. Hubert landed in Caracas in ’98, when my practice was getting increasingly unsatisfactory, because I found my developers in Venezuelan high society, which was completely isolated. But there was political change as Chávez came out of prison and won the election. There was poverty everywhere, riots in the streets and Hubert and I decided we had to do something.

Very few of our colleagues were looking at the poverty that was all around the city of Caracas. It was not an abject poverty as you might find in Africa. It was social housing, built by immigrants coming to Caracas with a great knowledge of how to build. Caracas had been booming since the 1960s, 70s, with the oil boom so, these peripheral cities in the valleys were built out of concrete and brick. They may not look so good on the outside, but they housed a new middle class.

Our colleagues weren’t looking at it but they increasingly fascinated Hubert and me. In the beginning we were not fascinated by them from a social point of view, but from an aesthetic point of view. We loved the rough aesthetics. We came out of a high-level training. At Columbia University, had a thousand hours with Ken Frampton and all the other theoreticians. So we first identified with these megastructures, all united like one mountain of houses or a house the size of a mountain. We went in, and we saw these spaces were fantastic. You could go underneath them, through them, around them. It was rhizomatic, like a real Kasbah.

But then, when we started talking to the people, and began to see that they built their own social spaces, their own little kindergartens, their soup kitchens and little hotels because they didn’t have them, our attention shifted.

We wondered how we could put urban furniture and planting, agriculture on the top of all the houses? They left the reed bars growing because the top roof would always be for the next floor, so we came up with the theorem of ‘The Growing House’. So slowly, we began to get engaged with these cities. We just had to.

It became increasingly clear to how Lefebvre’s ideas of building the city by the people themselves, bottom up, was physically realized. That’s when we made the connection to medieval cities, which were also built by approximation. And people organize and push back, push forward, let’s open a square. This was still a classic, morphological point of view. But then we started to see the lack of infrastructure. So, we said, “How do people move through it? Where do they get their health from?” There was a lot of criminality. We saw shootings at night. Friends of ours died. It came as a shock to us, that we really had to do something, as civil society.


In the beginning, you hardly showed any projects. The most important aspect of the morphological and aesthetical studies seemed to be to convince the world that this reality is here to stay. An important part of your message was also the insistence on the legalization of the barrios and the individual buildings in them. Why did you want them to be realized? Was that in the first place to generate the awareness that they are here to stay anyway? Or was the legalization already part of the strategy to improve the conditions in the barrios? I have the feeling that in the course of time, your strategy changed and that you are more interested in punctual interventions.


We had been brought up in the upper-middle class in Venezuela, so we were privileged. From the economic point of view, we first thought what we had to do was incorporate the people living in the barrios, who were clearly outside of legality, into some kind of market. In 2002, we had the opportunity to confront ourselves with Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist specialized in the informal economy, who always insisted on the importance of property rights, titling and moving business from the black market to the legal system when reforming the Peruvian economic system.

You’re right that in those early days, we thought about more. For example we thought about what kind of formats of legality we could we give, because they built on municipal land. It’s very hard to discern one property line from another. We found an urbanism that was not apparent from photographs, but very apparent once you walked in. In fact, topography lines subdivide the urbanization of these mountains full of houses. So, the settlers were very intelligent: every five or ten topographical meters, they would create a street. And then off of that street, perpendicular, a stair. They would leave gaps in the developments. This was not done by individuals but by groups. These, let’s say, informal developers or pirate developers, led by headmen were often functioning for families. They were digging, cutting the earth, banking the earth, and creating lots. And those lots would be for family members, cousins, etcetera, who were quickly arriving at the city in incredible rates. We’ve documented how fast a hillside can grow and how the houses change from wooden shacks into permanent three-storey housing.

We initially thought that if we would give them land title, they would take more pride in their house and in their city, that they would clean them up and maybe enter the legal system. But then we realized a land title on a mountain, thirty floors up in the air, when there’s no real access, does not make any sense. It takes people two hours to walk up. So we realized we had to work on infrastructure first.

When we would give them infrastructure –proper access, transportation, water, sewage, health care-, the land becomes valuable. And we didn’t want to break the land up into individual lots, but we proposed to take more lots together, and make a collective, cooperative block.

Hernando de Soto continued to argue with us that that mortgaging the house is the very essence of capital that people would invest. By giving people the land title, banks would take that on. Even infrastructure would come later when the settlement was legalized.

But time proved us right that the mortgage system, in which all of this land would be held in collateral, by individual titles, with banks and mortgages, is a very dangerous tool. Therefore, in the end, today I can say, it was probably very good that the people in the barrios were not given proper titles. The barrios still remain as an incredible experiment in collective housing.


In 2003, you organized a year long workshop in Caracas, funded by the German Kultur Stiftung des Bundes, dedicated to do research on the city, inviting ten teams of artists, architects and theoreticians to live in Caracas for a year and work on the barrios with you. The results were published in the book Informal City, Caracas Case in 2005. Some projects were more artistic and theoretical, emphasizing the creation of awareness, while others, like the Baño Ecologico, were extremely hands-on and realized in situ. How important is research or the creation of awareness in your work in relation to being hands-on? You call yourself an Urban Think Tank.


We realized early on that we couldn’t run a normal office. There was no one willing to pay for it. I couldn’t even get my own mayors and Venezuelan institutions to pay for what was very clearly and obviously a need in the city. We were only able to find European institutions that understood the value of research. The Kulturstiftung des Bundes opened up a fund to examine the world post-9/11 and it just happened that Philipp Oswalt with Shrinking Cities, and us with growing cities in Latin America, representing the two most extreme poles, became the two most interesting projects for this fund.

We used this research money to then figure out what is possible to do. The Baño Ecologico, a dry toilet, was developed with a Slovenian artist, Marjetica Potrč, and an architect we brought in, Liyat Esakov. I saw Marjetica speaking in a lecture in the Architectural League of New York, and she had just had a show in a gallery where she put a toilet up. I said “ Marjetica, you know what, your stuff is beautiful, it’s fantastic, you’re talking about composting toilets and things, right. Come build the thing, but not in a gallery, make it work!” There’s an old running joke between Teddy Cruz and us, where Teddy Cruz says “Yeah! Let’s take the toilet, Duchamp’s toilet, off the wall of the art gallery, and let’s really put it in the city to work, right. We need the toilet!” So it was through these quasi research projects that we started transforming them into, if you want, “design-build” research projects.

But there were also film projects and photographic projects that had more to do with creating awareness, like a wonderful one by Bitter/Weber, two Austrian artists. They took the little blue book with the new Bolivarian Constitution Chávez had written in 1999 and wrote the whole text on a billboard in the Metro Station of a social housing quarter called 23rd of January. The name commemorates a date important in the fall of the dictatorship. The letters of the text were used as pixels forming an aerial photograph of this quarter. Chávez used to live there and he votes there for every election.

All in all, as young architects, coming from Columbia University, originally Venezuelan, but not understanding what had happened to our country, we tried to build a kind of retroactive manifesto for Caracas. We were certainly influenced by Rem Koolhaas’ Lagos project. We used this time to build up an arsenal of research, which I’m still banking on to this day.


But can we see this research, when you refer to Marcel Duchamp, also as a readymade? Is this research already a form of design? And if yes, is research an important element in Social Design?


Yes. Architecture has shifted. The classic design of a building was somehow supposed to be emblematic of a universe that you can experience when you arrive to it and from which you can leave with a new experience. That was how the building distinguished itself. In the fabric of the suburb it was a kind of totem of reference. It reassured you that man can continue to control his environment, right. Well, my generation lost faith in that.

We grew up more in an Eisenman-esque discourse in which the building, the object to be experienced, or to be used, cannot be comprehended by just the simple experience of that object. You would have to understand the processes in which that object came to be, the layers of archaeology that determined it. And because it has those layers of archaeology built into it, it somehow fits to its context.

Peter Eisenman plays a very aesthetic game. The generations he influenced are encapsulated in form, form making and form generating, whereas my generation tried to pick up more on what Team 10 was talking about, but not quite actively doing. They did talk about more politics; they did talk about more social engagement, but they still remained stuck in the traditional ways of producing architecture. Later on in the nineteen sixties the Berkeley School came up with more participation and of course, this was what we wanted to latch onto. But we want to go much further in saying that maybe the building is not so important. Maybe we don’t have to build any more; maybe we just have to figure out how to reprogram existing buildings and reprogram the existing city. How can we have user-generated spaces and how can we design the process of participation? Of course, at some point there’s a materialization of that participation process; but whether that ends up in an ephemeral or in a more permanent materiality, is not so important to us. The idea that architecture would last one hundred years, and the traditional principles of materiality and poetry as exalted by Louis Kahn for example are no longer important. Because we know that it was more about the NOW [drums fingers on table].


In a text in Kunstforum International in 2011 in the context of a presentation of the project Urban Migration you did for the Utrecht Manifesto on Social Design in 2009-2010, you say it was important for you to change the process of design. I suppose that you were referring there to the processes that lead to designs like those of Peter Eisenman, which in the end lead to objects. You say you can’t control the city and architecture in a traditional way and that similarly the people who live in this architecture and these cities can’t control the world any longer. That would mean we would have to change the process leading to architecture in order to give architecture meaning again.


Yes! And boy, did I have a tough time in Holland. There was a wonderful team of curators, supported by an alderman from the Green Party that was in for new developments. We would concentrate on Hoograven, a quarter partly designed by Gerrit Rietveld and with a population largely consisting of immigrants, notably Moroccans. A housing corporation owned the housing blocks, which were not winterized. The density is low and could be increased but the flats themselves are overpopulated.

The question was whether to remodel the blocks, to tear them down or to build a new block somewhere else, move the Moroccans out and turn the existing blocks into upscale social housing?

When you walked around this neighborhood, you saw the most incredible integration of all the ethnicities. We wanted to keep that. So, we started to talk with all the residents. They told us that the housing companies wanted to kick them out and move them to another part of the city where they had cheaper housing. The land in Hoograven, because of the location near the station and the highway and with great views over the canal, was too valuable for these subsidized, social, low-rise four-storey houses.

Our solution was to build new social housing blocks with legs over the existing low-rises, creating anew system on top of it, with new elevator towers etcetera. We came up with a plan in which you could have new housing for the market and keep the social housing. There was a lot of enthusiasm for all of this to happen. But the Polder system of Dutch politics, with its endless negotiations, is so complicated that we lost our Green Party support and the whole process was stopped and is dead in the ground now.

What was interesting was that we were adding new density to the old Rietveld blocks by putting more little villages inside of them. This was exactly what has been done in Caracas. The quarter of the 23rd of January was built by one architect under dictatorship and then, over time, the blocks were filled-in with a village of do-it-yourself housing. Many of the structures we were proposing for Hoograven could have been filled in with do-it-yourself housing.


In a text on Hoograven in Kunstforum International you also refer to the medina’s of Fez and Casablanca as references for the project. I suppose that was also partly a provocation about the way Moroccans are looked at in Dutch society since Pim Fortuyn.




The medina’s of Fez and Casablanca also played a role in the last decade of CIAM and in Team X. Through architects like Candilis and Woods, who as modernist architects tried to design a kind of improved medina’s in Morocco, they played an important role in the discovery of the importance of cultural specificity in CIAM.

By taking these models you densify this quarter where a lot of immigrants live. So apart from the provocation and the economical aspect, what did you expect from this? You write that you think density is in favor of social development.

On one hand, there is the reference within the discipline, which is the fact how you relate to architectural history –the medina, the Kasbah, Team X, Structuralism and Van Eyck- and –on the other -even if also for Team X and Van Eyck social relationships were of crucial importance- an idea about density that goes beyond that and comes closer to Rem Koolhaas’ ideas about the social productivity of a culture of congestion.

How did these things come together?


Density is a very misused word. Because all we really know is density as expressed in the Floor Area Ratio and population density. But what we really have to start to work on is social density. How do we bring more social life to the city? That is why we are experimenting how the formal and informal can come together. Because we believe that the informal qualities of cities can improve the social density.

We actually learned a lot of from Berlin. All interesting things that happened in Berlin in the nineteen nineties after the fall of the Wall happened in an informal context. Now Berlin wants to kill those off, and formalize them – so it’s cleansing the city again.

Cities go through ups and downs. It seems that when they go down, they allow for informal activities and loosen regulations. But when cities are rising, they start to formalize and regulate and loose these social qualities. I would like to achieve a fusion of the two, in which we create enough, or at least a minimum amount of structure and relax on other aspects. We can even look at a city in strata, in which the street and the square are not necessarily on the ground floor but could be on the tenth. If I have a plaza on the tenth floor, buildings will be accessible from there. We would be looking for an Archigram kind of multi-culti-multiplicity to keep the cohesion of society.

The Torre David was going to be the largest financial tower in Caracas, in the very centre of the city, but it remained abandoned for 18 years until it was squatted. It looked like a slum from the outside, but when you went into the apartments, many of them were finished in a high quality, with tiled bathrooms and kitchens. There are some photographs of those in the book we did with Iwan Baan.

I found the process of transforming this building into a social housing block fascinating. I was heavily criticized for wanting to bring a social housing experiment to the most luxurious tower of Caracas.

So it looks like we can’t get away from these ghettos and islands. It is just like those old modernist plans that have led to categorization and subdivision. It is a kind of Apartheid: “We live here, we work here, we put poor people here.” Whereas, what I’ve learned, about all places I’ve gone in my Grande Horizonte Tour, is that the cities I like all have an absolute mix. That’s why we returned to Kasbah and North Africa and the influence it had on Team X. The Moroccan architectural scene was very sophisticated.


What they did was published in Europe, in l’Architecture d’aujourd’hui first and then through CIAM and Team 10 the African medina’s and Kasbahs became a model for Western architecture. That poses the question whether you treat Caracas like a prototype. Do you see yourself as developers of prototypes? You do a lot of research and teach, at the ETH Zürich as well as at Columbia University in New York, you publish and you have your punctual projects like the cable car, the vertical gym, the vertical art school for children and currently the shacks that you develop for South Africa.


We’ve come to the realization, Hubert and I, that maybe we’re really not so good at developing a whole and consistent line of work but rather develop a kind of crude prototypes that maybe get appropriated and successfully copied. By now we know of many copies of our things. Maybe we’re just good at making the first walkie-talkie or the first iteration of a rough iPhone. You know? When it is still is a wooden block.

In that sense we may have been lucky to live through an early moment of crisis. Caracas went through hyperinflation, socialism, hypersocialism and an autocratic system under Chávez. We went through a kind of politbureau situation; we went into a food crisis; through in-term government, etcetera. What does training in parametric design, computer modeling and sophisticated materials like titanium at Columbia University bring you when you want to implement that in a scenario of crisis?

Before crisis started to hit in other areas of the world we were kind of fortunate to have lived it very early on. So we had to invent a new practice of architecture and a new practice of art that was not limiting ourselves in what we thought we could really do.

The one thing we figured out really quickly was: no one respects architects in the developing world. You can go to Africa, to South America, to India or anywhere else and you will see architects are in a very low register of the scale. If at all. It’s engineers that are running the show, engineers doing the planning, engineers doing the construction bids, the documents, the firms, the real estate, everything. Engineers are very respectful of the structure. So we had to build all of our knowledge, all of our intelligence in design, anything we had learned at Columbia University, into the structure. Once the engineers stamped the structure drawings no one messes with them. They build it. What happens later with the walls and the infill and how they subdivide it can go through depending on the economic cycle. We started to see how could we make designs that were extremely basic. We just determined access, the connection to street, ramp systems, the flexibility of the floor plan, ventilation, etcetera. That’s how we began to develop ideas like a prefabricated kit of parts.

We began to analyze topography and use it as infrastructure to connect two stair systems. So the stair became an infrastructural unit and once that was the case the engineers would not touch it. We followed similar strategies to collect rainwater, to deal with compost to enable gardens on the roofs. In the end, whole buildings could become infrastructure. We investigated if the cable car stations could also function as social centers.

So we used the pretext of infrastructure to create spin-offs, side effects that could have some architectural and social spaces. Now whether those social spaces where finished with plastic, or wood, or brick didn’t matter. It was secondary, because we knew that the city would upgrade itself, over time.

We realized soon however, that you can no longer change a big urban area like Caracas, a 6 million city, as a whole, so we started to work on these more concentrated, acupunctural effects. We planned them along the river that goes through Caracas, which is a sewer now along which most of the favelas are built. This way we could create a new municipality, a new state within the state, or a city within the city that we called the Sixth Municipality.

We had 17 projects (housing, schools, centers for old people, police stations) under construction when the most difficult moment of the Bolivarian Revolution happened. Everyone who was working for any municipal government or construction company that was affiliated with the government in any way had to be aligned with the Socialist party of Caracas. But we are not ideologically tied. We don’t want to work with the Left or the Right or the Middle: we work for the city. That meant they did not allow us to come back to our sites.

That’s when Hubert and I took the decision that Caracas had been our laboratory where we had tested out thousands of things, ideas and theorems and that it would be better to go and see if the rest of the world was like Caracas. Fortunately for us, a lot of the rest of the world actually started to look like Caracas. Athens started to look like Caracas, Lagos was certainly looking like Caracas, Capetown looked like Caracas with the growing slums and two million housing units missing.


So there is the laboratory, there is the research, there are the prototypes and now you’re going more or less global. It’s also interesting to see your lecture program here, which is really a cross section through all cities in the world that go through these developments.

You have also worked a lot on the dissemination of your ideas through films, exhibitions, books and teaching. It seems a logical next step now that you do the Shenzhen Biennale because you’re not on your own anymore, like you were in 2001. In the meantime there’s almost an international movement of people that do similar work as you do. They suddenly got interested in shantytowns, banlieues, bidonvilles, favelas, barrios or whatever they may be called. More than 50% of the world lives in cites and already 50% of those people lives in informal settlements, a percentage that is increasing. Is it your goal with the Shenzhen Biennial to bring these other architects working on similar themes as yours together?


Yes, absolutely. Because in these times of economic turmoil in which growth is stagnating even in Europe and China we’re not living in such happy times any more. Things will be getting really tough on cities that were building on branding and on high-luxury apartments. A core section of the Biennial will be on what we call Tactical-Radical Urbanism, in which we will try to redefine what a radical architectural practice today could be.

We have always been fascinated to tie up with radical movements in architecture like the Russian Constructivists, Superstudio, Archigram and maybe even with Peter Eisenman and his followers and with Rem Koolhaas and his group. Those have been very important moments of the history of the 20th century, but the radical architects of yesterday have become star architects today and they’re certainly not practicing in a radical way any more. So we need to discover now, in the 21st century who this group of radicalism is again? Radical means an architect who’s constantly confronting himself with his practice, who is constantly asking himself questions, who is not conforming, who is not content, who is critical and contesting the world out there. In this Tactical-Radical Urbanism group will be the architects who are responding to the very social concerns of today.


So, what do you see as a social movement today? Can it be found in those billions that build their own house today? How can you mobilize that? Because if it is a movement, it’s maybe not a movement that has already been ideologically defined. It is more like people voting with their feet, right?

You have been very clear that you do not want to belong to this or that ideology. At the same time, the phenomena and strategies you have been describing have precedents, for example in the Settler’s Movement in Vienna or the Activists in the Weimar Republic. Both were influenced by anarchism and anarchism, be it not as an ideology but as the phenomenon of people taking things in their own hand, you often speak very positively about. Is there a new potential in anarchism, in the sense of an ideology and a form of organization, when we think of the concept of mutual help of Kropotkin or the ideas about land ownership of Gustav Landauer?


Yeah!…..Kropotkin is obviously very important to us, and Landauer as well. This really ties back very well to Switzerland because if you realize, we are here in Zurich, the town where anarchists came for refuge. I never thought of Hubert and myself as anarchists, but if you know us, and you’ve seen our track record, we seem to be fighting every institution that we engage in, because we don’t believe they’re either transparent enough, open enough or free enough. I’m quoted in Justin McGuirk’s book of radical urbanism called Radical Cities saying “This is a fake revolution” – in Caracas. Because Caracas never had the chance to make an experiment, to invent another way, a new way, to embrace the Torre David, to reinvent the Socialist party. They fell back on Stalinist ideals of ‘they don’t like the city’. They want to move people to the countryside and make these suburban communities of worker settlements. They don’t want dense conglomerations of inner city living, because they’re scared of a counter-revolution. It’s in entropy that freedom happens, and then it starts to get systematized again.

We know there is something going on. We can smell it. It’s not 1914 or 1917 but we know there are things going on. You have Occupy Wallstreet and maybe we can use the Internet to create new systems of governance, because too many people are not happy with the current electoral systems.

If in our earlier life, you saw us walking the streets in the favelas of Caracas, photographing, filming, theorizing and then making a few prototypes, trying to work from bottom up, and then engaging with the government in somewhat larger projects. Then our government threw us out and now we live in Switzerland as a kind of political refugees. We found Switzerland very accepting to let us incubate here. We’ve gone to the top at institutional levels. Working for the ETH Zürich, I’m a federal employee of the highest federal institution of science, going on trips with the ministers of Switzerland. We are working with a ministry here, with the Swiss Finance Institute, ESECO and the World Bank.

Rousseau was here, just like Lenin, James Joyce and many others. Somehow, people are flocking to this neutral Switzerland, which smiling-faced allows people in to incubate ideas that they hope they can capitalize on. So I guess that’s why we’re here.

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