When I call him, Alfredo Brillembourg is eating lunch in Zurich, on a terrace beside the lake, the Swiss Alps on the horizon. He describes the scene to me in detail and with evident delight. Maybe he’s trying to stress how different Zurich is from Caracas, Venezuela, where he lived for many years. Or maybe he’s just being charming—an essential quality if you want to build what and where he does.
Brillembourg, who is Venezuelan-American, and his partner Hubert Klumpner, from Austria, founded Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) as an architecture firm in 1998 to empower the poor through design. It was before the architecture world at large showed any interest in slums or informal urban settlements. For years, amid rising poverty, crime, and corruption, they fought to build social projects in Caracas’s barrios—home to about 60 percent of the city’s population. Today they are professors of architecture and urban design at ETH Zurich. Both appreciate how ironic it is that their current city is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable, while Caracas, their former home, languishes near the bottom of the same rankings.
Improbably, Zurich has become the incubator for their activism, which has moved into a new phase. Tired of chasing after funds and frustrated by the one-off nature of their interventions, they have switched their focus from building good projects to building a pipeline that can deliver them at scale. “We went from bottom-up, street-vendor architecture … to the highest level” of decision-maker, Brillembourg says, whose firm has partnered with national governments and organizations like the World Bank. The question that U-TT is trying to answer, Klumpner tells me, is “how can we [connect] academia, industry, governments, and banks on a larger model, to get projects done?”
In other words, having reached the limit of their bottom-up approach, they decided to give top-down a try. In fact, the impulse to scale up their work is at least a decade old, going back to their first vertical gym in Caracas’s Barrio La Cruz. The consummate U-TT idea, the gym is tactical, replicable, and programmed to the max—to make the most of scarce land in a dense city, and to justify the considerable effort required to build anything in what Brillembourg calls “a completely crazy place.” (For instance: the client of that first gym, former district mayor Leopoldo López, is currently being held in a military jail.)
Several more vertical gyms were planned in Caracas, but they got mired in local politics and contractor graft. After years of fitful building, two more finally opened in the Sucre and Baruta barrios. Like the one in La Cruz, these gyms stack layers of amenities—a running track, ball court, weight-lifting zone—onto small, hemmed-in sites. The structures are based on a simple prefabricated system. U-TT would rather provide a flexible kit of parts than give form to a polished object (an approach that would fail, anyway).
“You have to understand you may not realize your project in its entirety,” Brillembourg says. He’s talking about working in the slums of the Global South, but he’s also offering a manifesto for the role of the architect in the 21st century. “You have to give the framework, and help a building to happen. It’s only putting it on the ground that matters.”
In the early 2000s, the Caracas government planned to build a new road connecting the hillside barrio of San Agustín to the city center. The road would have displaced 30 percent of the barrio’s residents, many of whom had sunk capital into their homes by adding an extra floor. U-TT suggested a far less invasive measure: inserting a cable-car line into the existing fabric of San Agustín. Luckily, Hugo Chávez, then the Venezuelan president, liked the idea, and the Metro Cable opened in 2010. Its gondolas can move 1,200 people per hour. Though that’s a fraction of what a bus line might have carried, the trip to downtown Caracas, which used to take two hours, now only takes 15 minutes. The benefit to local residents is enormous.
Most of the $300 million spent on the 2-kilometer system actually went to the stations, which were supposed to have different community functions: a medical clinic, a supermarket, a vertical gym. But while that vision of “a string of pearls filled with social content at each station” didn’t entirely pan out, Brillembourg says that he is still satisfied. “It’s working fine,” he says. “People are very happy.”
Like all U-TT’s projects, the Metro Cable was self-initiated. Relationships were what got it built. As the architects won over residents and workshopped ideas with them, they curried favor with officials—and were helped by some lucky connections, as the design writer Justin McGuirk recounts in his forthcoming book Radical Cities. McGuirk writes about the first time he saw Brillembourg and Klumpner “in action” in a Caracas barrio, striking up conversations, playing a game of basketball with some kids. It is not a job for the shy or ill-at-ease. “The activist architect is an extrovert or he is nothing,” McGuirk writes.
Only an extrovert could talk his way past the security force at Torre David, the unfinished Caracas skyscraper that’s now home to some 3,000 squatters. U-TT spent a year studying how they had formed their own self-regulating community in the husk of the 45-story tower, furnishing their apartments and setting up convenience stores and hair salons, despite the lack of elevators and other basic services.
McGuirk, in the role of curator, invited the studio and its collaborator, photographer Iwan Baan, to create an exhibition on Torre David at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. In Venice, the team set up a restaurant similar to one in the tower, called Gran Horizonte. Members of the design-world elite snacked on arepas while looking at Baan’s photos of life inside the tower. The piece won the Golden Lion and helped make the Torre David famous.
It was canny of U-TT to engage Baan, a brilliant photographer. Klumpner and Brillembourg use as many platforms as they can to influence the public and decision-makers: Photographs, lectures, articles, books, films. Daniel Schwartz, a U-TT researcher, has a background in journalism and photography. His colleague Alexis Kalagas also worked as a journalist before joining the office. “We both chose to work at U-TT because we believe in the importance of bridging the divide between the built environment and social issues,” Schwartz writes of himself and Kalagas in an email.
Last summer, Klumpner and Brillembourg led a design/build workshop in the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, South Africa, where ETH Zurich students developed a modular prototype for a two-story shack. The emphasis was on economy and replicability, a toolkit rather than an ideal form. U-TT wants to “massify” such solutions, Klumpner says, through partnerships. Of course, so does every social-impact architect. It’s getting beyond the demonstration phase that is the movement’s next frontier.
Someone will cross that frontier, and why not U-TT? The firm is working with the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative, which advises second-tier cities in Latin America and the Caribbean on development. The initiative is led by the Inter-American Development Bank and receives funding from the Swiss government. U-TT detailed one of its architects, Lea Ruefenacht, to work at the bank’s Washington, D.C., office for a year, coordinating an urban renewal project in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Embedding a designer in a development bank won’t awe the jury at Venice, but it may be the most progressive thing U-TT has done yet.