Radical Urbanism


Justin McGuirk



The last movement to call itself “radical” left no trace on the city. Superstudio, Archizoom and the other members of Radical Design loom large in the history of 1970s Italy, but they traded in ideas and images, not buildings. Since not building was the whole point, they were doomed to success. Their position was articulated by Germano Celant, in an essay of 1972[1], as one of refusal – the refusal to be commercialised, to become a tool of the client. A radical architecture, in Celant’s view, “offers nothing but its ideological and behavioural attitudes”.

This was certainly neither the first nor the last time that architecture had sought refuge in images. But when the avant-garde confines itself to paper it is normally because there is no alternative: during recession, under ideological oppression or because its visions are unbuildable. What is interesting about Celant’s argument is that it is a response to architecture’s very success – a response to too much building, too many “finished objects”. His proposed solution is to opt out of the system and adopt a McLuhanite stance in which architecture is an expanded medium of thought.

This is a luxurious position. Those who argue for the autonomy of architecture are probably not as interested in society as they pretend. This is not to dismiss architects as cultural producers – Superstudio’s collages were in many ways prophetic, as resonant of our networked present as they were of the gridded midcentury. Indeed, there is a shortage of radical image-making today (who are the Superstudios or the Hans Holleins of the 2010s, wielding the pure, propositional image as a tool to assert that Alles ist Architektur?). However, should we not liberate the notion of the radical from the avant-garde? Most often the radical has been the preserve of a cultural elite, of “high” architecture. In the early 20th century, from Constructivism to Corbu, the avant-garde was still coupled to a progressive socialist vision, but that has long since ceased to be the case. Today’s self-professed avant-garde of digital form-makers and parametricists could not be more irrelevant to the urban challenges we face. So perhaps we need a new definition. Is it possible to be radical and to effect actual urban and social change?

The only way to begin answering that question is by asking what we mean by “radical”. We associate it with sudden change, and in particular with a modernist doctrine that wilfully broke with the past. And because mankind is hardwired to fear such change, we read into it a form of extremism – the “radical Left” or “radical Islam”. However, returning to the word’s Latin origins – root – we might see it not just as root-and-branch change but as root-and-branch growth. In other words, a radical city is one that has been built up from the roots, or by what we loosely term the “grass roots” – by the underprivileged many. There is an opportunity to divorce the radical in architecture from its traditional connotations of cultural elitism.

Given that informal cities represent the prevailing form of urban growth across the Global South, one might argue that radical urbanism is not so much a practice but a context. It is the ability to operate in a self-built urban environment generated with such speed and on such a scale that it has rendered the formal provision of architecture and urban planning impotent. In all of these senses, the favelas, comunas and townships are the radical city. Indeed, this is consistent with Celant’s argument that Radical Design was radical because it operated outside the architectural system. The informal city does just that. And it is because of these communities’ self-reliance, during decades of disenfranchisement, that they also embody a political radicalism – one thinks of how the barrios of Caracas were a stronghold of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

The radical always exists at the margins. But it can be brought closer to the centre, gradually accepted within institutional norms. In Radical Cities (2014), I argued that just such a process has been underway in Latin America over the past 20 years. The book studies an archipelago of projects across the region that have attempted to address the extreme urban inequality created by mass migration and political neglect. Taken collectively, what they represent is the acceptance of the informal city and the return of political responsibility for what were once considered outlaw zones. These improvements to infrastructure, housing and transport in self-built communities amount to an attempt to re-institutionalise areas that had long existed outside of institutional responsibility.

This process of gradual slum-upgrading is far more sensitive and pragmatic than the so-called radicalism of Corbusian mass housing systems from the mid-century, which erased the informal to create a tabula rasa. Starting from scratch is so much more radical, in theory, than incremental change. So why call Latin America’s recent interventions “radical”? Again, it is the context more than the practice. Slum builders have far superseded what could ever have been achieved by paternalistic governments when it comes to incorporating millions of people into the city – in that sense alone, the slum, for all its privations, has been the more effective tool.

One could easily argue, and some have, that Radical Cities is not radical enough. My contention was that “activist architects” such as Urban Think-Tank, Alejandro Aravena and Teddy Cruz were radical not just in operating in the margins but in not waiting for the system to invite them in. By goading politicians into action and self-initiating projects on behalf of the poorest – incidentally, Celant also saw self-initiation as a condition of Radical Design – they were challenging the traditional role of the architect as at the service of a patron. But perhaps, instead of acting as these benign mediators between poverty and power, true radicalism would involve letting the people look after their own interests. Relying so heavily on architects seems to ignore the revolutionary potential of the user-generated community. Perhaps radical urbanism is no urbanism, at least of the professional variety.

Certainly that position has had its moments. In the 1960s, Cedric Price, Reyner Banham and others published Non-Plan, a call to abandon sclerotic regulations and return the city to citizens and their natural self-organising talents. John Turner took a similar position in arguing that the slum-dweller’s shack was more empowering than a flat in a peripheral tower block. But neither Price nor Turner quite anticipated the scale of informal settlement in the developing world. And, more importantly, while spontaneous communities are perfectly capable of building themselves homes, they cannot build themselves, say, a piece of transport infrastructure. Or, at least, they should not have to. One notable exception was a community in Cairo, which, in the chaos following the Arab Spring, built itself four access ramps to the elevated highway that had long overshot it. I’ve heard this phenomenon heralded as the “wikicity”. But this approach seems far from wise.

Extreme self-reliance and adhocism are not conducive to effective infrastructure projects. Ultimately, supporting participative city-making does not have to result in nostalgie de la boue – it doesn’t mean condoning the jerry-rigged city. If the “activist architect” can achieve anything, it is to connect these popular impulses to the public resources and strategic planning required to deliver them. The radical city requires new systems that support and liberate its citizens, especially those currently disenfranchised by them. That means intervening in the “dark matter” of legislation and zoning laws but also creating new construction systems.

To return to Cedric Price, his notion of the “anticipatory architect”, one who provides open structures that citizens can inhabit and adapt as they see fit, seems purpose-built for the radical city. Even in Price’s day this was not a new idea: Le Corbusier’s Domino House of 1914 was just that. In theory, open systems offer both framework and freedom – forms that can accommodate the informal. The challenge of the radical city today is that so much of it is a fait accompli, a fact on the ground. How much harder it is to adapt and retrofit dense hillside communities after the fact. Architecture needs to anticipate and facilitate spontaneous urban growth. What was lacking in the late 20th century, apart from political will, was anticipation – and that is precisely what has to change in the 21st century.



This text was written for the catalogue of the 2015 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

With thanks to Justin McGuirk.

[1] Germano Celant, “Radical Architecture,” in Italy: The New Domestic Landscape: Achievements and Problems of Italian Design, ed. Emilio Ambasz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1972), 380-387.