Just a few weeks after winning the Golden Lion at the XIII Venice Architecture Biennale, Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), spoke September 19 at the Rice Design Alliance Fall 2012 Lecture Series addressing the future of architectural education. (Watch the lecture on YouTube.) With offices in Caracas, São Paulo, New York, and Zürich, Urban-Think Tank is an interdisciplinary design practice dedicated to high-level research and design.

At the 2012 Venice Biennale, U–TT, along with Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan, presented Torre David: Gran Horizonte, an installation documenting an unfinished 45-story office tower in the center of Caracas designed by the distinguished Venezuelan architect Enrique Gòmez. Centro Financiero Confinanzas (as it was originally known) was almost complete when it was abandoned following the death of its developer in 1993 and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. Today, it is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extralegal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum.

Prior to the lecture, Scott Cartwright and Jenny Lynn Weitz Amaré-Cartwright of Studio WAC, sat down with Alfredo Brillembourg and asked him questions about Torre David and squatting in Venezuela. Below is an except of the interview, to read the full article visit

Jenny Lynn Weitz-Amare Cartwright (JL): You have done extensive research in the slums of Latin America, Asia, the Middle East. What are some of the trends that lead to the formation of the informal city?

Alfredo Brillembourg (AB): As you probably know we started early as an informal group in 1993, we called it the Caracas Think Tank. It was a walking and talking group of architects and non–architects interested in coming together collectively to talk about the city.

So we began walking the city. We began thinking about it. We began questioning ourselves within the social and financial crisis that Venezuela was going through. What could be done?

Our first extended office partners were actually our gardeners, our drivers; the people who lived in the informal city. They took us in, we went undercover and we began to discover the world that was on the hillsides of Caracas; a world that no one had ever mapped. This eventually turned into a project that became known as the Caracas Case.

The Caracas Case ended in a book called Informal City. And basically it relates the whole story that we could understand of how it was formed, what the growth rates are, what the methods of building this informal city were, and we actually proposed and poked at some solutions on how to retrofit.

JL: What were some of the solutions?

AB: Some of the solutions were built later and over time. One was adding more sports fields (we call that a vertical gymnasium) that we did collectively together with the team. And now not only have we proposed it for Caracas, we have proposed it for Brazil, Jordan, India, and New York, in fact in Harlem. Right now, only three of them are built in Caracas; two of them are under construction, one is finished.

The next thing was transport. How do you get people up these hills when they have to walk on average thirty–nine floors to get home every day? Because Caracas is a city of valleys, rivers, and highways, the cable car seemed like the perfect solution. Not to be used as a touristic element but actually using it as a transport system. We went to the Austrian company Doppelmayr and they financed a study.

That study became a proposal that later reached the governments’ hands, the metro company of Caracas took it on and [President Hugo] Chavez signed the funding and the commitment to it in Austria in a bilateral treaty agreement between Austria and Venezuela.

JL: Now that the Metro Cable is built, how is the city responding to it?

AB: You can see it on the videos that we’ve posted. The one we showed at the MoMa is maybe the most significant one, where people say “now as an old man I can go down to the hospital in 10 minutes.” The woman who’s pregnant walking on the hill on that video says “now I have accessibility immediately to any medical attention and I don’t have to be walking up and down.” You have the children (many of them didn’t even go to school before), now they can go down to the formal city in 10 minutes, something that used to take them 2 hours.

JL: Do you have any plans to build more of these systems of transportation in Caracas, or elsewhere?

AB: Sure. There are plans to build more of them. We’re now looking at a project in Kohima in northern India, which also has a hilly terrain, bordering China. Over there we proposed a huge system of networks because in Kohima monsoons come in terribly and it only has one dirt road. When that road floods, no one can move.

Scott Cartwright (SC): Is it safe and economically suitable to retrofit such areas? Hillside houses continue to spring up in favelas of Caracas. Is the terrain suitable to build?

AB: Yes. Well, Kenneth Frampton, the great modern architectural critic said that the favelas are “Italian hill towns.” So basically like most settlements, cities began as slums whether it is the old sectors of Paris or London. In fact one of the few areas in Montmartre where the houses were not touched is actually one of the richest and most expensive areas. Why? Because people are looking for that fabric of the city where the city has a kind of pedestrian fabric.

So I think spatially from an architectural point of view the favelas are fascinating. They are more uniform than the formal city. They are built to the same heights. You see them uniformly. They are all these red houses. They use the same unit of construction. So therefore, they know how to build so it’s like Heidegger says, you should build your own house effectively. They build their own house because then you are in touch very much better with your social spatial environment. And that’s what makes favelas so interesting, that they are complex social spatial environments.

Rio has 1,200 favelas, Sao Paulo has 1,100 favelas and Caracas has 60 percent of favelas, or squatted terrain. I have offices in both, Rio and Caracas, and there’s no way that any government can try to erase them or bulldoze them like some clearances of the past. We know the results when that happens, we know the results if you put them on ghetto blocks like in India because that will create more social problems, so the best thing we could do is retrofit.

But within that retrofit, of course, there are areas of mudslides, there are areas of instability, and those risk areas must be cleaned and retrofit. So not all of it can stay, but not all of it has to go. So when we did the cable car we had to clear some sites for the stations. But the illusion that any government has the power to build–in Venezuela for instance, 9,000 housing units [are built] a year we’re missing two million!

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