Slum Porn: Urban Misery as Catchy Imagery

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A neighborhood of the Zabaleen in Cairo. Censored.
A neighborhood of the Zabaleen in Cairo. Censored.
A neighborhood of the Zabaleen in Cairo. Censored.
A neighborhood of the Zabaleen in Cairo. Censored.

How the aestheticisation of iconic slums limits people’s understanding of informal urbanism

At the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, Urban Think Tank presented Gran Horizonte, a ‘pop-up restaurant’ mimicking life in the infamous squatted Torre de David-skyscraper in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. This skyscraper was abandoned halfway through construction and subsequently occupied by thousands of ordinary Venezuelans who transformed it into a ‘vertical barrio’.

Urban Think Tank has conducted extensive research on the building and has called it ‘a laboratory for the study of the informal’. To present their findings, they made an installation-slash-restaurant that looked like it was directly transferred from the tower, using similar building materials and aesthetics as the informal interventions.

Since the Venice show, this remarkable story of an outright architectural failure and a people’s struggle for their ‘right to the city’ has gained a serious amount of attention, to the point that it has become somewhat of an architectural cliché. Despite winning a Golden Lion and the project’s apparent success, it has also been severely criticised, among others by Dan Hancox in The Architectural Review, for being a blatant example of ‘slum porn’.

He might well be right. The Torre de David is not your average ‘barrio’, but thanks to its scale and unusual shape quite an extreme and photogenic one. And indeed, the mesmerizing photography by Iwan Baan results in strong, unique imagery that immediately aestheticises the tower and its self-built interiors, detaches itself from the local situation, and compresses this complex and layered local situation into easily consumable visuals.

While Urban Think Tank’s in-depth research remains hidden in an expensive publication, it is Iwan Baan’s photography that stood out from the installation and has filled blogs, news websites and social media for years after the actual biennale.

A global and well-educated audience of urban and architecture enthusiasts has probably enjoyed the almost ‘pornographic’ sensationalism of peeping into the intimate but wildly creative, self-built interiors, reflecting serious levels of poverty. Like ‘ruin porn’, the photos induce a certain feeling of uneasiness, as they allow you to briefly experience a dark, problematic side of humanity from the passive comfort of your daily social media routine. No happy ending, and no strings attached. […]

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