This commentary may deviate from the expected blurb on historic preservation and adaptive reuse strategies of individual buildings, however I wanted to bump up the scale a bit and broaden our focus to include ideas of urban infill and regenerative architecture on a broader metropolitan scale, and more specifically, an international scale. The idea of preservation of the urban grain in burgeoning megacities was brought up ever-so-briefly in the final paragraph of the article about Liz Dunn and the Preservation Green Lab:
“To address your question about the developing world, many experts have also contested the tear-it-down and rebuild approach when it comes to addressing urban slums, for many of the same reasons. The role of the informal economy and the density of human activity in those places is enormous, and much more is lost than gained by displacing it. Again, this is where measures of raw square footage are not very useful. Although conditions in these places are far less than ideal, they function extremely well in many ways. What is needed is a more incremental approach to, and insertion of, transportation and other essential services into such places.”
Caracas (Venezuela) is, like many growing urban cities across the globe, plagued with a network of informal dwellings, known as barrios, which surround the city. The population in Caracas has quintupled over the past fifty years, and an astounding 2/3 of the population live in the informal barrios within the metro area. While the residents of the barrios face many inequalities, they also have been instrumental in implementing innovative projects and developments that not only improve their quality of life, but also unite their sense of community.
The Urban Think Tank (U-TT) is an organization that has worked to integrate projects into the existing urban fabric of Caracas. These projects improve the quality of life for residents by investing in the needs of the community itself while maintaining the sense of identity unique to the neighborhood. In the city of Caracas, developers and designers such as U-TT have taken on the approach of balancing urban grain with new development. Cities value their organic urban fabric and their incremental pattern of growth because these areas often create value through social and economic activity. The U-TT has inserted into Caracas architectural solutions with needlepoint precision that are “intricately developed, sustainable, progressive and completely community driven.” U-TT operates under the mentality of introducing Urban Acupuncture, a term which was first defined by Spanish architect Ignasi de Sola-Morales as small-scale, highly localized urban interventions. Sola-Morales describes Urban Acupuncture as a bottom-up strategy that first emerges within the local community and then reuses, adapts and modifies a city’s existing infrastructure. Some of U-TT’s projects, such as the vertical gymnasium in Barrio La Cruz in Chacao, exemplify the idea of “inserting” architecture into communities while keeping the strength and character of the community and urban fabric intact.
When translating to North American cities, U-TT’s projects may seem a bit extreme to some readers, especially design-wise. However, it is the underlying strategy that should be considered valuable in preserving and enhancing the character of our urban environments. The idea of small-scale, community-enhancing urban infill projects designed as needlepoint insertions, as opposed to suburban-style developments in urban sites, might prove to be valuable investments that strengthen and encourage the inherent social and economic activity in established neighborhoods and communities.