Regimes of slowness: operational landscapes. A project part of the Caracas Case, sponsored by the federal cultural foundation of Germany and curated by the Caracas Urban Think Tank.
Extract from the essay Regimes of Slowness by Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto.
Venezuela has developed a pathological dependency on the oil economy. What could be logically seen as an immense richness has in fact turned out to be its ruin. During the oil boom thousands of people moved to Caracas hoping to join the new wave of prosperity; they left their houses and “ecosystems” to become “parasites” of the new global city. The country abandoned its productive activities and started to import even the most basic goods from abroad. The complex net of consequences of this processes are visible everywhere; in the incredible socio-political contrasts as well as in the environmental threats (landslides, lack of water, land contamination, etc.).
Parasitism in architecture
The term parasites is a recurrent expression when describing the nature of Caracas’ growth; we believe this is an effect of the visual impression that the “barrioscapes” (Caracas huge shanty towns) convey when looked from a certain distance; an unstoppable fluid made up of micro-units seems to digests hills and plains and like a lava flow it seems to fill the gaps dividing modernist towers and unfinished urban complexes. Beyond the metaphoric meaning of the word however it can be useful to comprehend if the properties of real parasites are in any way connected with the one of this informal practice of urbanisation.
The first interesting notion connected to parasitism is the one of relationship: every description of parasitism involves the definition of a host and a guest. A second important consideration is about the nature of this relationship; in this respect there are two categories of parasites: a first group is constituted by a relationship of exploitation; the guest uses the host resources until its death and then it migrates to colonize another host. A second group instead creates a symbiotic relationship with or within its guest and the coexistence last the entire lifetime. This second case is particularly interesting because it involves the co-presence of actions of transformation and of maintenance. The addition made by the new guest’s presence is a first transformation; this is immediately followed by a second transformation done with the aim to ensure the host’s maintenance. Such a relationship can be only imagined in cybernetic terms of action/reaction; that involves the consideration of the combined effect of space and time and the resulting dynamic. Moreover these actions cannot be conceived in isolation but a feedback loop between guest and host actions has to be imagined; molecular biologists have in fact devised a series of techniques based on the analysis of the guest – host dynamic system, on the definition of parameters called descriptors, and on the use of computer modelling techniques to simulate possible dynamic scenarios for different values of the descriptors.
The buoneros case
Going back to the use of the word “parasites” to define Caracas’ urban dynamic the phenomenon of the buoneros (street vendors) deserves attention. Street vendors proliferate along infrastructures like highways. They constantly negotiate their position with the car’s one, inducing controlled modifications on the environment in which they operate; they construct their own edge conditions which are the spatio-temporal result of their feedback relation with the site. They don’t distribute evenly along the highway because in certain sectors of it the speed of the cars is too elevate to make any interaction possible. They occupy a limited amount of space and carry a limited amount of material to avoid obstructing the flow of cars upon which their activity is based. They interact with each car for a limited amount of time depending on the driver reaction (insistent behaviour can irritate the driver thus reducing their future possibility to accomplish their selling task) and on the number of slow car in the queue. They drift along their high probability trajectory for a distance dependent on the timing of the eventual traffic light and on the number of cars involved in its oscillation. Other descriptors may be identified for specific locations but what it is important to notice is that the relationship involved in the street vendors’ dynamic exhibits all the characteristics of symbiotic parasitism, which means that street vendors are actually capable to insert symbiotically a new urban programme into a public infrastructure. At the same time it is evident how a figurative analysis would be totally incapable to capture the nature of the phenomenon and to represent its constitutional links.
The barrio case
If we consider the reality of the barrios from which our discussion of parasitism started, we immediately recognize that some of the characteristics described above are missing. The new guests plug themselves in the existing infrastructure but they don’t actually create any sort of feedback interaction with it. Their edges conditions might be internally negotiated (mainly to guarantee access to each property) but the relationship with the site of insertion it totally unidirectional and their external boundaries are defined by physical impossibility (gravity or space saturation). It is interesting to notice that while this analysis applies to the architecture of the barrios units a very different story should be told about the social dynamics related to the barrios development which are on the contrary exhibiting traits of symbiotic interaction. The little barrio units are often discharging waste water in the ground creating the condition for self-destruction or neighbours’ damage (land collapse and erosion). The waste is thrown down the slope producing soil and water contamination with the potential for epidemic outbreaks. Water and electricity are stolen from the grid with the consequence of an irregular service and with the further side effect of producing social friction with the rest of the population which has duty to maintain an overloaded system.
An interesting question emerges: why the same guests have created such a different kind of relationship with their hosts in the case of the flows of car and people in the street infrastructures (or with the flow of information in the radio and TV infrastructures) than with the flow of water, waste and electricity within the potable water, waste disposal and electric infrastructures? Why traditional techniques related to the transformation of locally available renewable resources (palms leaves transformed into screens or hats for instance) and able to incorporate difference and instability within their structure are not entering the realm of architecture and landscaping?
Building techniques and the culture of formality
The question could have multiple answers for different domains of investigation but here we concentrate on what we believe is one of the main reasons for this double behaviour: housing and water, waste and electricity infrastructures strictly belong to the domain of architecture and building engineering. If we extend our analysis to building units located in the centre of Caracas we will soon realize that their unilateral relationship of exploitation of the site takes even bigger proportions. The consumption of water of a tower block per surface unit of plot is one order of magnitude bigger than in the barrio unit; the same happens for its waste production. Small attention is paid to the use of natural renewable sources; solar energy, wind energy and cooling effect, rain water are very rarely exploited even if so generously present in the Caracas’ microclimate. The architectural culture of the formal city, developed mainly during the oil boom, is one of unilateral exploitation of the surrounding environment as a condition to implement audacious master plans and to erect iconic architectures and urban environments. The UCV campus is a wonderful exception, where agile concrete structure joke with gravity and play with light and wind to create sensible and ever-changing spaces. In too many other cases the emptiness of huge concrete cathedrals just reminds us the excitement of a period in which everything seemed possible and that the subsequent economic crisis has erased most probably forever. The people from the barrios joined the emerging urban environment leaving their life behind initially to join that urban excitement; working as builders they poured that concrete; they like to say that they built the formal City from which they are now systematically excluded; they in fact master the building technique to such an extent that they were able to build their own barrio units in the same way and without the need of architectural and engineering support. Their houses are irregular because no big excavation where made to found them and their arrangement is the product of a slow process of growth constrained by a series of local negotiations within neighbours; but the technique is the same: concrete frame and red terracotta blokes for the walls. Only the ranchos, the first and temporary stage of construction, are different but they are considered a provisional situation to be totally rebuilt as soon as possible.
Our research hypothesis has been that this building technique and the cultural background within which it evolved in Caracas have constrained the potential for creative solutions to emerge from the dynamic of such an unplanned system; they have almost prevented the possibility for the formation of the previously described symbiotic guest-host relationship. A natural ambition to be included in the formal city, to become real citizen, has pushed most of the barrio dwellers to reject their old rural habits of cultivation of the landscape and of symbiotic growth to replicate within their small plots what they see as the real urban model of living. The result has been the progressive failure of the informal city system leading to an uncontrolled modification of the guest/host equilibrium (being the host in this case the landscape that feeds Caracas).
Considering the state of environmental emergency (as the piece was originally written in 2003 the dryness of the Camatagua Lake was keeping almost half of the city without water while a single storm was able to destroyed 100 cars by transforming one of the highways of Caracas into a wild river) we all agreed on the need for alternative solutions. Moreover those solutions had to be effective at the large scale (to cope with the size of the problems), adaptable in time and space (to be long lasting in such an unstable environment) and with low starting investments (to have any chance of implementation). In other words the need is for solutions able to grow symbiotic relationships between the city and its artificial and the natural structures, such that from the proliferation of starting seeds new large scale organizations can emerge and the self repairing mechanisms of the biosphere can be enhanced to promote a sustainable equilibrium.
Since the so called informal structures of the city are the only ones showing such properties and since the scientific-systemic approach is the only one able to describe their behaviour we will combine a further description of the barrio’s social reality with an operational approach to architecture and engineering to seek for new design possibilities.
Social dynamics in the informal city
Concentrating on the issues that are relevant for the current discussion leads us to investigate the link between social practices and the processes of production, within which we can include also the one of construction.
The barrios of Caracas are currently undergoing a process of stratification which has its practical implementation in the assignment of land titles to the families occupying the lots. Beside the socio-economic relevance of the transition it is interesting to notice that the process is involving the formation of the so called comities de tierra, which are the formal expression of a movement of communitarian organizations. Within these organizations a number of thematic are under discussion and education is one of the most deeply challenged. On the one end they are formulating new strategies for the first level schools: here the aim is to be able to teach kids the culture of the barrio with all its practical rules which are the result of years of sedimentation of daily life experiences. On another level the discussion touches the access to higher education and together with it to high level expertise and, as a consequence, to institutional roles. The impossibility for the barrio people to access universities (mainly due to the costs related to a full educational carrier) means a further level of dependency on institutions and on the technical experts related to them. For instance, when a problem of soil stability threaten the safety of a barrio’s slope, its solution fully depends on the action of an engineer of the relative Alcadia’s office who has to visit the site, understand the problem, formulate a solution able to solve the problem within ranges of safety (which are totally open to discussion) and within ranges of economic feasibility. This process forces the barrio people to inactivity and dependency and put the solutions of the problems in the hands of the totally inefficient (not to touch the thematic of corruption) institutional system.
Social empowerment as design tool
In this respect there is a word that seems to unify opposed parties and this is empowerment. Everyone agrees on the positive effect of empowering people’s ability to better shape their own reality and the reality of the society in which they live. In systemic terms it is about increasing the diversity of solutions and therefore the heterogeneity and ultimately the robustness of the system by reducing its dependency from a centralized source of decision making. But if we consider the instruments of empowerments in the architectural and engineering domains we have to face again the question of the nature of expertise. The figurative approach still dominant in architecture and the relative independence of building engineering are not creating the possibility for processes of empowerment to take place; this project in this respect promotes a non-figurative approach to architectural design base on the construction of a meta-plane of intervention whereby expertise from different field and bottom up individual action can be coordinated and co-evolved. We understand the conservative position of ruling lobbies, used to treat expertise as an instrument of power and control, but in front of the crisis situation affecting Caracas the introduction of a calculated dose of “out of control” seems to be the only responsible position for everyone seriously interested in the improvement of living conditions and human rights. The development of such instruments of planning and design able to administer such a dose in a systemic way is the only alternative to the populism expressed by the new governmental class.
Testing bed: la fila case
As a testing bed for this approach we chose to look at the revitalisation of La Vega, one of the biggest, oldest and possibly the most socially active barrio in Caracas. While the bottom part of the barrio has evolved into a consolidated high density urban village, the top part is still constituted by shacks precariously hanged to the unstable hill side; rainwater, sewage and litter flows down the mountain virtually uncontrolled provoking slides and soil contamination that is endangering the life not only of the residents of the high barrio but also the ones living in the lower part.
So far the situation has been addressed formally; community form the bottom side of the barrio have asked the intervention of the municipal experts to solve the problem; their intervention, based on the introduction of traditional retention walls and drainage systems in the areas of major land collapse, has failed to address both the complexity of the social system of the barrio and of the dynamics of the its landscape; finally it has stopped due to the lack of economic resources.