Vertical and Informal Cities


Sometime today inside Torre David, the notorious unfinished skyscraper in Caracas, a family will be taking a trip to the dentist, picking up laundry, perhaps doing some shopping and maybe getting a haircut; and they will be using semi-legal electricity and water supplies. To do all this, they will not need to leave the building, as these functions occupy spaces in the once empty concrete territory of speculative office development.

This continuum of a type of normality, a community life in the density of humanity, is at the centre of an anthropological, sociological analysis of Torre David by Venezuelan practice Urban-Think Tank. Although their installation at the Venice Biennale won them the Golden Lion, there was consternation among the praise when, together with photographer Iwan Baan and critic Justin McGuirk, they recreated a restaurant from Torre David in the Arsenale as a living exhibit. Some accused the team of dabbling in misery tourism by showcasing a slice of vivid charisma found in the most desperate of circumstances. While others were incredulous about the sheer existence of the building and its informal community, in Venezuela the project sparked a wave of political embarrassment and fury.

Urban-Think Tank's book Torre David. Informal Vertical Communities consciously attempts to navigate this uncertain and delicate terrain, refusing to romanticise and extracting facts, lives and ultimately lessons from an ecosystem of people who effectively exist as an exceptional yet inevitable community of the dispossessed.The book is a product of rigorous, obsessive observation and is richer and more poignant as a result. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, MVRDV and The Why Factory have presented their vision for a new housing model in Asian cities, curiously proposing the creation of intimate communities within otherwise isolated towers.

Despairing at the systematic destruction of the historically low-rise, dense and informal urban fabric of Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul in favour of less effective and arguably less humane skyscrapers, the architects conceived the Vertical Village. Their solution is still a tower, but one in which a community is intended to thrive, and formulated with their idea to bring back "personal autonomy, diversity, flexibility and neighbourhood life to cities in Asia".

On the one hand, we have a skyscraper—Torre David—that has seen the creation of an informal community through economics, poverty and opportunity. On the other, we find architects who are proposing a carefully formulated vertical village as the next great urban solution.Somewhat irksomely, Urban-Think Tank makes a cameo appearance in The Vertical Village, unveiling a thread of shared thoughts between the two quite opposing sets of research. The ambition to reintroduce village life into Asian cities is a farsighted, even urgent task while cities are being built and designed by developers with no significant architectural input and residents are fighting to stay in their communities.

In tracking the development of nine very distinct Asian cities, The Vertical Village presents a thorough study, but the techniques used by MVRDV to communicate their ideas do not appear to have evolved beyond their great back catalogue of critical volumes dating from the 1990s.

Both books add something to the existing piles of stories and narratives about the informal city and sprawling future cities. They are both wary of a future city in which architects have no authority, no expertise and barely any positive function.

In MVRDV's vision, the village is something that can be imbedded in the structure of a building at the design stage, but this is still an expensive, developer-led and niche ideal left to the discretion of developers. In Urban-Think Tank's research, the application of architectural thinking is a reaction to existing human conditions. The life of the city, no matter how complex and compromised, subsumes design. It seems that the reality of exponential population growth is reflected more compellingly in the latter.