Interstitial EP030

Improvised Cities
by Helen Gyger

Tracing the evolution of aided self-help housing in Peru over three decades beginning in the 1950s, Helen Gyger contemplates how this hands-on model for improving squatter settlements persisted under different political regimes, competing ideological agendas, and strained expert-resident relations.


Helen Gyger is a historian of the built environment whose work employs an interdisciplinary perspective, encompassing the formal—visual, material and spatial—qualities of construction, as well as its social, cultural and political dimensions. Her research focuses on three areas: the architecture and urbanism of Latin America; debates framing the conception, design and construction of mass housing projects, as well as residents’ lived experiences of such projects; and contemporary patterns of urban informality, considered as a global phenomenon. Gyger is the author of Improvised Cities: Architecture, Urbanization, and Innovation in Peru (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019) and the co-editor of Latin American Modern Architectures: Ambiguous Territories (Routledge, 2013). She has degrees in studio art from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, a Master’s in Liberal Studies from the New School for Social Research, New York, and a PhD in the History and Theory of Architecture from Columbia University.


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Improvised Cities: Architecture, Urbanization, and Innovation in Peru
Helen Gyger
University of Pittsburgh Press
March 2019


Estudio de las barriadas limeñas

José Matos Mar

A pioneering work of urban anthropology from 1966 engaging with the formation and development of squatter settlements (known in Peru as barriadas), this research was first presented to the United Nations in late 1955, although it wasn’t published until a decade later. Significantly, Matos Mar worked within an interdisciplinary intellectual milieu, and his research strongly resonated with colleagues such as architects Adolfo Córdova and Eduardo Neira, who were also concerned with the issue of self-built housing in squatter neighbourhoods. This book remains remarkable for its first-hand account of the foundation of the Ciudad de Dios barriada, sparked by a mass land invasion in late 1954, but for me, the moments where Matos Mar reflects on how his informants—the barriada residents—viewed his research project, and what they hoped to gain by participating in it, perhaps best reveal the sensitivity of his observations and the sharpness of his analysis.

Matos Mar would revisit this material in Las barriadas de Lima, 1957 (published in 1977), adding case histories and detailed maps of individual barriadas, as well as biographies of residents to complement the demographic data that he had compiled years earlier. In the later book, Matos Mar approaches the subject from a very different analytical perspective, no longer viewing barriadas as an aberrant phenomenon that needed to be solved by planners and policymakers, but rather framing them as the all-but-inevitable expression of structural inequality in Peruvian society, while attributing greater agency to the residents themselves in devising solutions to the challenges that they faced.

¿Que vivienda han construido? Nuevos problemas en viejas barriadas

Gustavo Riofrío and Jean-Claude Driant

Riofrío has been an astute observer of housing and urban development policies in Peru—and their consequences, both intended and unintended—since the late 1960s. My own work on aided self-help housing in Peru would have been impossible without Riofrío’s deep knowledge and insights, in particular in books such as Habilitación urbana con participación popular: Tres casos en Lima, Perú (1986) and Producir la ciudad (popular) de los ’90: Entre el mercado y el Estado (1991). This book, co-written with Jean-Claude Driant in 1987, was the outcome of detailed fieldwork to evaluate dwellings that had been progressively self-built by barriada (squatter settlement) households over the course of two decades. An invaluable resource for architecture historians concerned with issues of urban informality, the book includes twenty-three detailed drawings published as loose-leaf sheets, showing street views of housing groups, indicating the progress of construction and the materials used, as well as plans and elevations of individual dwellings, again documenting the progress and materiality of the construction, along with the internal layouts and patterns of occupancy. The authors acknowledge that self-built housing has played an essential part in the urban development of Lima, but they also demonstrate the limitations of this mode of housing production, pointing out that much of the city’s self-built housing stock is marred by substandard construction, severe overcrowding, and inadequate sanitary and cooking amenities. Finally, they convincingly argue that while self-builders have taken on the primary responsibility for the construction of their own dwellings, the state still has a role to play in establishing guidelines and conducting oversight to ensure that minimum standards are met.

The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History

Paul Carter

Published shortly before the bicentenary of the British colonization of Australia in 1988, Carter’s book aimed to unravel the “mythic imaginings” of imperial history, with its heroic scenes of planting the flag to claim a new land. His concept of “spatial history” proposed a very different view of the foundational moments of exploration, discovery, and settlement, showing these processes to be contingent and tentative rather than triumphant, as the explorer-settler only gradually comes to terms with an unfamiliar place, by learning to read (and write) its “horizons, possible tracks, bounding spaces.” For me, this book is still striking in its ambition to rethink established historical narratives radically, from the ground up, as well as in its intense imaginative engagement with archival materials, both visual and textual. The book’s structure, with each chapter focused on a particular set of artifacts—whether journals of exploration, navigation charts, or place-naming practices—gives it a collage-like quality, and foregrounds Carter’s illuminating, nuanced readings of the historical materials. While historical archives can be frustratingly unpredictable and uneven in their holdings, this book is a reminder of how rich layers of interpretation can be drawn from even the most unpromising sources, with careful and persistent reading and re-reading.

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