Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The real Instant City

Archigram's Instant City. (
Instant City, from Archigram's web page

With regard to urban morphology, the origins of "estrangement" get to Julio Verne (his name in Spanish version), who is considered the father of science-fiction. In the late nineteenth century, he imagined and predicted absurd situations for the time, as an island with propeller and also the huge "floating city", the ship Great Eastern.

In the activist tradition of the 60s, Charles Jencks, stated that society had a very complex form, composed of many layered levels, each one with its own identity. The corresponding projects for this society, where those with continuing relationships between the parts (form and function), intuitively defined as dynamical systems with multiple meanings.
In this historical context, Archigram, a group of young architects, (Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron y Michael Webb) dominated the avant garde of Architecture in the 60´s and early ´70s, their visions were inspired on comics and a technocratic future. David Greene wrote in a poem for the first issue of Archigram magazine:
“A new generation of architecture must arise with forms and spaces which seems to reject the precepts of ‘Modern’ yet in fact retains those precepts. We have chosen to by pass the decaying Bauhaus image which is an insult to functionalism. You can roll out steel – any length. You can blow up a balloon – any size. You can mould plastic – any shape. Blokes that built the Forth Bridge .”
The approach to architecture was fun, and illustrated with cartoons by Ron Herron. From Archigram´s production, the project that interest me in this text is the Instant City (Ciudad Instantánea) of 1968.
It consisted on a mobile technological event with advertising aesthetics, that proposed the total transportation of entertainment and education -on a basis of mass culture- of a metropolis in an air ship (balloons) with provisional structures that temporarily would land in small communities to allow its inhabitants to enjoy the noise of city life.
But today, the socioeconomic reality, generates another type of ¨instant cities¨ that are pretty far from the technological Archigram´s creation and are consequences of poverty.
Poverty afflicts under developed nations in Africa and Asia, but now it has become a serious problem in America, including the United States. I suggest a few examples:
Temporary settlements of parishioners in San Cayetano (Liniers, Buenos Aires).
Each year, over three hundred people spread over some 140 tents remaining in a long line in front of the church of San Cayetano, waiting for August 7th, the day of Saint´s feast, to whom people visit to ask for food and work, (pan y trabajo), some of them desperately. As time approaches 0 hour, more parishioners approach carrying their respective tents. Usually, there are 3 to 4 families per tent, receiving visitors (!), cooking with propane tanks, and even salted pies with coal.

A parishioner waiting inside her tent. Notice that the tent is being treated as a house. Picture by Fernando Massobrio.

Tents around San Cayetano's church, Liniers, Buenos Aires. Picture by Miguel Acevedo Riu

Homeless or indigents without a house.
No explanation is needed for this term. It is enough to look at the precarious constructions of cardboard, cloth, and even boxes that are houses in themselves, -of questionable temporary character- in the sidewalks of large cities. Let us illustrate with these two excerpts:
¨On any given night in America, anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless, according to estimates of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
According to a December, 2000 report of the US Conference of Mayors:
single men comprise 44 percent of the homeless, single women 13 percent, families with children 36 percent, and unaccompanied minors seven percent.
The homeless population is about 50 percent African-American, 35 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native American and 1 percent Asian. ¨ (

¨Over the past 45 years, the United States has experienced an ever-growing standard of living, with real GDP per capita more than doubling between 1959 and 2004. In contrast, living standards among some populations in the United States seem to have stagnated. Between 1970 and 2003 the non-elderly poverty rate rose from 10.7 to 12.8 percent. This is in spite of dramatic increases in female labor force participation and overall education levels, and an almost 50 percent increase in cash and in-kind welfare spending per capita. All of these factors should have put substantial downward pressure on poverty rates in the United States, yet they have remained relatively stable.¨ (Linda Gorman. Why Poverty Persists)

Homeless in Los Angeles. Internet download.

A group of homeless in Fresno, California. Personal archives

Village of hope. Temporary rooms and bathrooms in the corner of the homeless settlement in Fresno,  California. Personal archives.

The Peruvian Barriadas
Charles Jencks, in his book "Modern Movements in Architecture" tells how the "slums" are originated in Peru, where in early 1980 lived approximately 700,000 inhabitants. During the night, a group of workmen defines the layout of streets and parcels; at dawn, a crowd of about a thousand people, comes in different vehicles, accompanied by lawyers, -who have selected the site-, and a woman whose role is "minister of defense." The "minister" is a good typist in charge of mitigating the encounter with the police, which is produced by midmorning. At noon, when the police is losing the battle, a settlement of boxes, mats, stands anticipating future growth areas for churches, clinics, etc.

Peruvian barriada. Internet download.

Aerial view of a Peruvian barriada in Lima. Internet download.

None of these examples has the spectacularity of the utopian projects mentioned at the beginning. But they are part of our experiences and we owe them as much interest as the study of large cities. Because they are an inseparable part of them. What Archigram perhaps did not imagine is that in an emergent atypical situation, people would seek their own solutions without waiting for cities to be built. We find here the advantages of self-organization of a community, through its direct and spontaneous action, it carries out an "Instant City" within hours with the support of their own appropriate technologies.

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