Marginality, Urban Conflict and the Pursuit of Social Engagement in Latin American Cities

Authored by: Felipe Hernández

The Routledge Companion to Architecture and Social Engagement

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138889699
eBook ISBN: 9781315712697
Adobe ISBN:


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The last decade of the twentieth century marked an important shift in the study of Latin American architecture and urbanism. Previously, most attention had been given to mainstream practices, particularly to the way in which architects throughout the continent had appropriated and developed modern architecture, producing some of the most extraordinary buildings and urban assemblages of the century. The rapid growth of cities during the second half of the century, however, drew attention to the economic realities of a vast urban population. Tremendous disparities between the wealthier elites and the poor became apparent, as did the lack of infrastructure to accommodate a growing population of urban poor. Thus, since the late 1950s, there have been numerous and extensive studies looking into the causes of poverty and underdevelopment. Theories like ‘modernization’, ‘developmentalism’, ‘marginality’ and ‘dependency’ attempt to explain why Latin American nations remained poor while nations in the West/North became wealthier. Such theories inspired policies to alleviate poverty, mostly by attempting to generate employment with the aspiration that Latin America could play a more active role in the global economy. The lack of infrastructure was addressed through the construction of large-scale social housing schemes—which often implied relocating people from slums to peripheral, poorly serviced, areas. To support new social housing schemes governments also invested in public facilities like schools, universities and hospitals. It is not the purpose here to evaluate the success of twentieth-century urban policies and interventions, nor is my intention to criticize governments for past—even present—failures. Instead I want to draw attention to the fact that key social issues, such as race, gender and even the origin of urban populations, never received the necessary attention. ‘The poor’ were conceived as an undifferentiated mass of marginalized people who needed support to enter the economy. This resulted in policies which, in spite of their good intentions and legal sophistication, could simply not accomplish their goals because the subjects whose lives they intended to improve were Black, Indigenous, or female or simply because they were rural migrants. These conditions prevented ‘the poor’ from being employed, buying a house, starting a business and even from getting a place at university.

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