“It’s huge,”says Alfredo Brillembourg, of Venezuela-based practice Urban Think Tank. “The disparity between the developed and the developing world and the sprawl of poverty is so large. The question of how to solve the slum conditions of cities is no longer a subtle one.” Ninety-eight per cent of the world’s housing is built without the direct involvement of an architect and many of these homes are being precariously built by hand using plundered local resources.
Urban Think Tank’s 2005 book Informal City: Caracas Case was the result of close observation of the heart of Caracas’ slums and concluded with tactical infrastructure solutions. It is a manifesto on how architects could work in developing countries. With an unstoppable round of biennales, triennales and lectures, Urban Think Tank was determined to make the issue of housing in poverty-stricken, overpopulated cities one of global architecture’s main concerns. It remains one of the most influential offices working in these regions.
Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner both studied at New York’s Columbia University and began working in Venezuela in the mid 1990s. Their early projects were NGO-style proposals for markets, looking for solutions to the problems of food distribution and infrastructure in the barrios. But they soon began to intervene with their own design solutions for chemical toilets, even bespoke stairs and bridges that could solve basic problems during rainy seasons when the favelas frequently flood.
Although much of Urban Think Tank’s work is made up of small tactical interventions, when the practice builds, it tends to count. In 2002 it constructed the Vertical Gym for kids living in the middle of a dense barrio. Its presence was attributed to a 35 per cent drop in crime in the area and propelled its work into the public eye. The Magic Mountain project is a cable-car system for one part of Caracas that will take people from the bottom to the top of the slums. Each station is intended to have its own function, including a primary school, a medical centre and sports and cultural venues. Urban Think Tank believes it will entirely transform this part of the city.