Bring In Knowledge From The South To The North!

“Bring in knowledge from the south to the north,” Alfredo Brillembourg shouts on stage, while he presents his Urban Think Tank and several projects on the first day of the International Social Housing Festival in Amsterdam. In line with the topic of diversification, the US-Venezualan, Swiss-based architect delivers a keynote speech on how to achieve diversification and incremental compliance in city-building.

Article by Lea Hümbs, ISHF team

The current problem of housing scarcity does not originate from a lack of materials or space, but from not attending to the markets and not putting the money in the right places. “Everyone has a  right to the city, infrastructure, housing, and safe and democratic cities,” Alfredo says, while pointing out that the 2 billion people that will make out part of the world’s population in about 30 years will mostly be born in slums. The market is there, but it is not being attended to in the right manner.

“We’re in the last round of ecology”, and while this may sound like dooms-day is upon us, Brillembourg instead wants us to redefine our understanding of urbanization. The wish for more flexibility and less undemocratic zoning laws can be seen in his preferred way of developing social housing. Growing buildings, houses that grow by having parts of it changed or added, is the most self-regulative and easy way to adapt a city to people’s needs. People have a better understanding of city-building than architects or planners do – and the more people that are included in the design process, the better the end product usually is.

Alfredo illustrates among many examples how urban dwellings can spread and grow solely by the hand of the users themselves. The Torre David, an improvised home to more than 750 families in Caracas, is one of those examples. The building, originally planned to be a skyscraper and now sometimes called a vertical slum, was never finished since the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. Brillembourg helped in making it an informal home to many people and also proposed to add an outside lift to the building – a typical example where the formal and informal meet. This is where all future urban development will be taking place, he reassures us on stage.

Alfredo Brillembourg leaves us with two important lessons: Firstly, incremental compliance, the capacity of a home to grow and to be adapted to different needs, is a key feature of the future of global housing. Secondly, we need to let go of our housing policies and zoning laws from the former century. They are outdated and only magnify the inequality manifested in the islands of wealth and ghettos of poverty in some cities. Power should be transferred to the people, as they are the best urbanists themselves. And with that statement, Brillembourg leaves us curious for more.

Feature image: © Elodie Burrillon |

This article is part of a special series in which Pop-Up City reflects on the first edition of the International Social Housing Festival taking place in Amsterdam between 13 June and 21 June 2017 in Amsterdam.

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