Born in New York in 1961, a life of travel between studios in Caracas and New York and the headquarters in São Paulo, a teaching post at Columbia University and lectures at the Zurich Polytechnic: quite an effort (but with many rewards), simultaneously concentrating on two fronts: architectural practice and teaching at the university level.
We spoke with Alfredo Brillembourg, the founder – together with his Austrian partner Hubert Klumper – of the multidisciplinary Urban-Think Tank: a team of architects but also engineers, planners, sociologists and communications experts, that since 1993 has worked on revitalizing the poorest zones of big international cities.
THE INNOVATIVE CONTRIBUTIONS OF YOUR ‘SOCIAL DESIGN’ IN PROBLEMATIC URBAN CONTEXTS BROUGHT YOU A LEONE D’ORO AT THE LAST VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE. DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE SOCIAL AND CIVIL ROLE OF THE ARCHITECT?
Of course. The future of architecture lies precisely there, in the will to get involved, to participate in an active way in the life of the city, to know it by physically entering inside it. Projects have no value if they are not sensitive, involving participation, conscious of the social and political context in which they are inserted…
THE NAME-SLOGAN OF YOUR STUDIO SUMS THIS UP.
We called it Urban-Think Tank because we want to concentrate on the urban context to develop new habitation strategies. The goal is to approach the problem of ‘slums’ in a concrete way, thinking pragmatically, without demagogy, about the outskirts of the international megalopolis, left in poverty and chaos, abandoned to spontaneous, uncontrolled growth. Not everyone is aware of the fact that shantytowns account for half the urban areas in the world.
SO THE CITY IS YOUR PLACE OF INTERVENTION?
Yes, always. Because constructing a different city is possible: we have to regenerate it, and architecture can help.
Through new thinking. The city is a complex, layered, all-encompassing reality, hard to control. All the efforts we have made in the past have failed, and have not improved the living conditions of the biggest urban realities. Why? Because they have been guided by a ‘monothought’: the error of the 20th century has been precisely that of working on defined compartments, super-specialized disciplines. In short, we separated things too much.
Today, instead, the key word is ‘sharing.’ The architect has to reinvent the profession based on a new collective way of working, involving different disciplines: sociologists, artists, physicians, philosophers, landscape designers. They all have to join forces, in the common interest of finding and developing a new dimension of the city. This is why our studio is multidisciplinary: we want to approach the problem from 360 degrees, to identify innovative and effective solutions for serious social problems.
SO YOU DESIGN FOR EMERGENCY SITUATIONS?
We have to cope with emergency every day, living and working above all in Caracas, where many people have the dramatic experience of being without a home and without a dignified existence. Over the last 15 years I have worked on projects for the poorest districts. To make schools, community centers, places for music, sports, public transport systems…
In 2008 we designed the ‘Metro Cable,’ a sort of cableway with 50 cabins, each for eight people, to connect the very poor ‘barrio’ on the hill to the city center: today you can make the trip in just 20 minutes, as opposed to the two and a half hours needed to go on foot. Also in Caracas, we are getting the population directly involved in new sustainable growth initiatives. This has happened with the Torre David/Gran Horizonte project (which brought the Venezuelan studio a Leone d’Oro at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, ed.), which has transformed an abandoned 45-story building in the heart of Caracas into a new home for 750 families, thanks to a successful operation of urban ‘squatting.’
FROM CARACAS TO CAPE TOWN: WHAT ABOUT YOUR LATEST PROJECT?
Empower Shack is happening in the district of Khayelitsha (on the outskirts of Cape Town), one of the urban settlements with the highest rate of demographic growth: the population of very poor people amounts to 400,000 inhabitants. Here we want to build 100 ‘shacks’ by 2016: economical residential units (each one costs about 6000 euros), innovative in terms of construction, sustainable in terms of the choice of materials, prefabrication and energy consumption (there are built-in solar panels).
We want to prove that ‘slums’ can become a resource to export a virtuous model of urban development, capable of countering the disastrous process with which big South African are growing: according to UN forecasts, by 2020 almost 1.4 billion people will live in shantytowns. So there is an urgent need to find alternative solutions: luckily we have found precious collaborators – like the non-profit organization Ikhayalami – and visionary supporters, first of all Carlo Traglio (president of the Vhernier jewelry brand, ed.), who has believed in the project from the start, offering economic and organizational resources, a sincere passion.
Created as a prototype in the workshops of the Swiss Institute of Architecture and Design in Zurich (under the direction of Brillembourg together with Klumper, ed.), the first Shack has already been built just outside Cape Town and the first, very happy family has moved in. Now it is time to share that happiness with the whole community. That’s our challenge.
by Laura Ragazzola – photos by Daniel Schwartz/U-TT at ETH