An overview of the quinta monroy housing project in ‘small scale, big change’ – moma
Written by Ali Derya Dostoglu
The government of Chile has been carrying out a program called Chile-Barrio aiming to interfere in the illegal settlements spread throughout the country for several years. In 2002, the program’s administration decided to change their housing policy and set up a new regulation, which was based on the idea of decreasing the amount of help per family living in the squatters, while increasing the number of beneficiaries. Previously, each family was given a total amount of $10,000 including subsidies and loans. With the new policy called as “Dynamic Social Housing without Debt”, that amount was held at $7,500; nevertheless, it consisted only of subsidies, aiming to avoid potential financial problems for the families in the future.
Being one of the squatter developments within urban areas, Quinta Monroy, a housing district in central Iquique which is a city in the Chilean desert, was defined by the Chilean government as a pilot area for the experimentation of the new housing policy and has been subject to a comprehensive redevelopment project. Because of the new budget limitations and the constraint of realizing the construction on the site of the old settlement, the project became a challenging process. The difficulty of keeping the settlement on the same spot was the relatively high land value of the area, because of its central location within the city, which is almost three times more than an “appropriate” low-cost housing project site, according to the design team. In addition to that, the density of the settlement had to be maintained, in such a way to place the existing 93 families in the same area, while creating voids within the fabric.
In order to realize the project within these constraints, the Chilean government asked Elemental, a collaboration of COPEC (Chilean Oil Company) and Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile, consisting of an interdisciplinary team, to design the new settlement. Before setting up the new rules for the redevelopment process, the team conducted a variety of workshops with the inhabitants of the settlement and tried to create a participatory design approach, reflections of which will be also analyzed later on. After studying different typologies of collective housings, the construction began on 2002, in a short while after the change in the housing policy of the Chilean government and ended three years later, in 2005.
Realized in a relatively short time during which all the inhabitants were placed in temporary housings, the project has been considered by the government as a big success and became a low-cost housing prototype for the other following attempts of “legalization” of the urban squatter developments. Therefore, it is not surprising to see similar operations in Chile (Lo Bernechea, Renca 3, etc.) and also in other countries in South America (Monterrey in Mexico and Brasil). Nevertheless, even if it is possible to appreciate the participatory process and the pragmatic approach of the redevelopment effort exemplified in Quinta Monroy by a collaboration of a variety of institutions and consider it as an effort to “overcome poverty” as claims the design team in their project description, there is also the other side of the coin to be looked at and further discussed.
As mentioned before, the objective of that redevelopment effort and the Chile-Barrio program in general, is to deal with the “illegality” of the squatter developments within the urban fabric. For instance, Quinta Monroy -which is the neighborhood in question- has been populated illegally by the families inhabiting the squatter settlement in the area for 30 years. During that relatively long period of time, the “squatter families” formed a highly densified neighborhood consisting of an organic agglomeration of low quality houses. Organized in a way to form a labyrinthic urban fabric, the neighborhood remained as an “unsafe” and overlooked area within the city, since its foundation. Consequently, it is possible to consider the redevelopment project as a process of ordering that over-complex piece of the urban fabric. Nevertheless, even if it looks like an optimization of the usage of that city space from a pragmatic point of view, it is possible to interpret the operation as a political maneuver to destroy the uncontrollable nature of the squatter agglomeration and replace it by a “safe” and manageable housing development. The same process could be explained using a Deleuzian terminology, by comparing the destruction of the existing squatters and the replacement of that labyrinthic and bottom-up organization by an ordered and top-down housing typology with the domination of Logos over Nomos, or in other words, striated space over smooth space.
Nonetheless, it could seem a bit “malicious” to compare that comprehensive redevelopment effort resulted in a noticeable increase in the life standards of the inhabitants with merely a political maneuver aiming to add the district of Quinta Monroy into the controllable rest of the city and keep it under the mechanisms of surveillance. As a matter of fact, the change in the housing policy adopted by the Chile-Barrio program consisting of the abolition of the loan system which limits the governmental support with subsidies can be considered as an opportunity to avoid the dependence of the inhabitants to the governmental institutions. Even so, the other side of the coin that was mentioned before doesn’t have to be explained necessarily within a Deleuzian terminology illustrating the domination of the striated space, since the focal point which has to be further discussed is the issue of property and mostly, private property.
In fact, based on the idea of redeveloping a piece of urban fabric such as Quinta Monroy which has an “illegal” past starting from its foundation 30 years ago, the project conducted by the collaboration of private and public institutions inevitably brings into question, the issue of ownership and private property. The controversial side of the Quinta Monroy case is that even if they have inhabited the area for a relatively long period of time compared to the rapid transformations within the city, the approximately 93 families don’t have the right to appropriate officially, the house and the land they occupy. It is also necessary to mention that these “squatter families” did not only inhabit that territory within the city, but also maintained and regulated it because of its illegitimate status, since illegitimacy can also lead to negligence by municipalities and public administrations. Therefore, questioning the reasons of that problem of appropriation is almost unavoidable.
At this point, it is important to refer to John Locke and especially to his work “Of Property”, since the main point of discussion in that essay, is the issue of private property. According to Locke, property, as a natural right given to all humankind by the divine power, is directly related to a sort of appropriation, which is based on the idea of “isolating” a piece of substance, from the rest of the substances found in nature. In his words: “He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his.” As illustrated here, the appropriation is related to a kind of action, like “picking up” or “gathering”, which brings into question the notion of labor, an important part of Locke’s argument that he uses in order to legitimate the property: “So that God, by commanding to subdue, gave authority so far to appropriate: and the condition of human life, which requires labour and materials to work on, necessarily introduces private possessions.”
Then, turning back to the Quinta Monroy case, it is possible to argue that the 93 families who have been living and working there as long as 30 years, have the right to “own” that territory within the city that they occupy and maintain. Similar to the appropriation process illustrated by Locke with the example of gathering apples based on the idea of isolating and laboring, inhabitants of these squatters are isolating a small piece of the city which was a waste land previously, and make use of it for their own needs (and for the rest of the community, as underlines Locke in the following part of his argument, claiming that a waste land is much less productive for a community than a private property, appropriated and isolated by a member of that community). That process of appropriation is furthermore justified by Locke who argues that there are enough territories in the world that can be isolated and owned by others as well, therefore, complaining about one’s appropriation becomes pointless.
Nevertheless, even if it is possible to argue that inhabitants occupying and maintaining the district of Quinta Monroy have to be considered its legitimate owners (basing on the idea of rightful private property justified by a process of isolation and labor as John Locke demonstrates), another condition of inequity problem appears. Because, from that point of view, while the inhabitants of the surrounding “legal” settlements continue to pay a certain amount of tax to the government periodically in order to maintain their rights of being legitimate proprietors, 93 families living in the squatters of the district of Quinta Monroy, begin to be considered as rightful owners of that piece of land and buildings on it, without making an equivalent contribution to the community. Even if their existing disadvantageous conditions can be taken into account to argue about the necessity of a positive discrimination, it would be a superficial and incomplete argument to insist on the righteousness of that ownership.
Considering the fact that while justifying the rightfulness of private property, Locke founds his argument on a kind of usefulness and equitable contribution to the common good, privileging the inhabitants of the district of Quinta Monroy by making them legitimate owners of the land and the built space above it just because they occupy and maintain it, becomes furthermore discussable. In order to illustrate that new condition of inequity, it is possible to refer to Locke who underlines the importance of owning equivalent territories in order to avoid quarrels between different proprietors, by claiming: “ The measure of property nature has well set by the extent of men’s labour and the conveniencies of life: no man’s labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man, this way, to intrench upon the right of another, or acquire to himself a property, to the prejudice of his neighbor.”
Therefore, after mentioning the importance of providing people with “equitable” properties in such a way to promote a rightful distribution of assets which will satisfy each and every individual in a society, it is possible to strengthen that argument by referring to Morris Cohen, who (in his lecture published in Cornell Law Quarterly’s Volume XIII and taking place in “Property: Mainstream and Critical Positions”, edited by C.B. Macpherson), while talking about the limitations of property rights, criticizes the unquestionable character of the natural right of having a private property, underscoring the necessity of government’s intervention to individual rights, in order to preserve the “common good”. That point of view not only questions the hypothetically legitimated property of the squatters, but can also be considered as a justification of Elemental’s redevelopment project in the district of Quinta Monroy, since the project’s main objective is to deal with the illegality of that area, which, in fact, creates a kind of equivalence between the squatter settlement and the neighboring area. It is therefore possible to mention that, by addressing the supposedly unhealthy and unsafe conditions of the existing squatter settlement, the operation carried out by Elemental under the authority of Chilean government, gains a sort of rightfulness, not necessarily related with the problem of inequity, but as an effort serving to the public interest. In order to support that point of view, it is again possible to refer to Cohen, who claims that “There must be restrictions on the use of property not only in the interests of other property owners but also in the interests of health, sanity, religion, morals, and general welfare of the whole community.”
Another aspect of the redevelopment project consisting of the temporary displacement of the 93 “squatter families” from the district of Quinta Monroy during the three years construction process, is also controversial. As a matter of fact, that displacement can be considered as a transient confiscation of the land which resulted in the destruction of the whole neighborhood built vernacularly on top of it. Even if it is possible to criticize that top-down and authoritarian approach, claiming that it didn’t avoid erasing the traces of memory belonging to the inhabitants of the neighborhood who have been living there for 30 years, the issue of public interest could be used to justify the validity of that destructive operation.
Nevertheless, it is indispensable to remind that justifications based on the terms like “common good” or “public interest” will always be challenged in terms of validity, due to the vagueness of these notions in most of the cases. In order to clarify that issue of vagueness, it is possible to refer back to the previously developed arguments on the inequity problem that the theoretical legitimacy of the ownership of the squatters creates, or on the rightfulness of the destruction of the existing district of Quinta Monroy under the authority of the Chilean government aiming to deal with the issues like health, security and legality. These two previous arguments which were found on the idea of being common-er -a term that John Locke employs in several occasions while developing his demonstration on the legitimacy of private property dispersed within all humankind- can be challenged from their very basis, in such a way to question the simplistic generalization implied with the usage of a terminology like “common” or “public”, and even “good” or “interest”.
But besides pointing out that already banalized critique towards the generalizing terminology of the precedent two arguments, it is important to gather the discussion around the issue of the term “commoner” mentioned by Locke. As a matter of fact, it is possible to claim that in “Of Property”, this term evoking notions of unity, collectivity and even balance, includes every human being, without being necessarily affiliated with a certain citizenship, even if Locke mentions the “common consents” between “several communities [who] settled the bounds of their distinct territories, and by laws within themselves regulated the properties of the private men of their society.” Nevertheless, in opposition to Locke who insists on this issue of commoner-ship until the end of his argument even when he discusses about the intervention of money as a tool of exchange which caused a disproportionate distribution of properties, it is also valid to say that commoner-ship was destroyed from the point when the inequality between people appeared.
That argument on the disappearance of a certain commoner-ship can be developed furthermore by referring to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, in his famous text “The Origin of Inequality”, approaches the issue of property from a completely different point of view. Basing his theory on the natural diversity between people, Rousseau claims that because of that essential difference, inequality’s intervention within the human relations is inevitable, so that in the end, it is not possible to talk about a state of nature where everybody possess an equivalent property. That natural process results in the destruction of the commoner-ship by breaking the existing balance between people, and that difference becomes even more disproportionate with the introduction of money which opened the doors of the unlimited property.
In fact, that imbalance is also exemplified in the district of Quinta Monroy, in such a way to confront the relatively wealthy city center with the squatter settlement. Inevitably disadvantageous, generations of these squatters, without having the opportunities of having higher life standards, had to make a choice between remaining as an “illegal” piece of the urban fabric, but still being integrated to it; and having a better environment to live, but far from the urban center, within the periphery of the city. It is possible to argue that if these squatter families left that central location in order to move to the periphery, they would not be able to maintain the opportunities the city offers and the “value” of their property would be condemned to decrease in time. In other words, having a relatively disadvantageous location in exchange for “gaining” their legality would increase the poverty of these families, since location is a crucial factor at defining the value of a property, even if it is not mentioned within that context in Locke’s argument while he evaluates different pieces of land.
That being said, it is now understandable that land value depending on the location was a critical issue during the redevelopment process of the squatter settlement in the district of Quinta Monroy and location is an indispensable parameter while evaluating a territory. Nevertheless, it is important to deepen this argument, by underlining the fact that the value is not a static data, but an excitable medium. As a matter of fact, the value of any land, and consequently, of any architecture situated on that land, depends on the time factor; therefore, gains a transient and unstable nature. Because of that instability, a city which can be described as a collection of pieces of land within a variety of urban and peri-urban conditions, begins to act like a mobile patchwork, where at different moments, different colors begin to represent different values. It is also possible to claim that the fluctuation related to the value is a consequence of property speculation, but instead of founding the argument around the issue of free-market economy’s manipulative character (even if it is an important subject of discussion within the lecture given by Morris Cohen, who mentions that the landlords of the feudal system are replaced in our age by “the captains of finance”), it would be more appropriate to concentrate on the value and location relationship while studying the Quinta Monroy case.
In fact, that tensioned duality was one of the fundamental constraints for Elemental while designing the new settlement, due to the fact that the existing squatter neighborhood was situated in a central location within the city, as explained previously. Resulting in a relatively high land value that will become an important obstacle to realize the project within the budget, the location of the district became a challenge in the short-term, even if it is one of the most advantageous characteristics of the settlement in the long-term. It can be suggested that the idea of keeping the inhabitants of the district of Quinta Monroy at the same site they have been occupying for 30 years, is based on the desire for maintaining the spatial memory of that specific area, but also for preserving the opportunities that the city offers the inhabitants because of that integrated status. Also, from a more pragmatic point of view, that advantageous location was considered by the developers as a guarantee of value at least for a long period of time, so that the land and the settlement above wouldn’t suffer from a gradual decrease in cost, a problem that would probably occur in a peripheral site condemned to be overlooked.
Nonetheless, maintaining the site was bringing into question another problematic aspect of many of the squatter neighborhoods: the issue of density, as mentioned in the beginning of the study. For settling all the 93 families within the same area while creating a more porous development, the design team studied several configurations. According to their project description, they first began to analyze one storey conditions, which consist of different typologies like isolated houses and row houses. However, it was impossible to fit in all the inhabitants using that kind of horizontal strategies, even if they had some advantages like promoting a more direct relationship with the street and creating equivalent housing conditions for all the families. On the other hand, growing vertically seemed really advantageous, considering the fact that it saves a proper amount of space on the ground level, but at the same time, obstructs the interactivity between the inhabitants of the neighborhood and the city space, which can be considered as an important characteristic of the existing neighborhood. As a matter of fact, the squatter settlement at the district of Quinta Monroy had on its basis a symbiotic relationship between low-rise housings and a very dynamic street life, invading each other within a kind of labyrinthic organization of masses and voids. Therefore, the design team came up with an intermediate solution, which consisted of a combination of the two previous configurations, in such a way to use the advantages of the verticality, while keeping the indispensable relationship of the house and the street. The housing typology they defined was a three storey condition which would accommodate one house on the ground floor and another duplex house occupying the second and the third floors, both having individual entrances connected to the street. That way, the designers not only prevented a loss of space which would be caused by intermediate spaces between units, but also promoted a more direct relationship with the ground level activity.
Besides mentioning these investigations carried out by the design team trying to deal with the issue of land value and density, it is also important to touch on another aspect of the redevelopment effort, which played a critical role in the project’s renowned success as a low-cost housing prototype. What is being referred here, is the ability of the final configuration to distinguish between different types of property, which makes the inhabitants of the squatter settlement not only the owner of the land they occupy and the buildings they live in, but also of the potential expansions that they are supposed to build by themselves, within the limits defined by the structural restrictions and the architecture itself. Moreover, depending on the floor that the housing unit was placed on, expansion types were changing, in such a way that while the houses on the ground floor had the ability to grow horizontally by filling the empty structural frame built by the developers, the duplex houses occupying the second and the third floors were able to realize a growth both horizontally and vertically. It is possible to suggest that these two different types of expansions gave the project a certain kind of versatility, not to mention the advantage of having a flexible typology in order to reply to changing needs.
The idea behind these expansions was to trigger a participatory process which would result in an incremental housing development, while also decreasing the construction expenses in order to remain within the budget defined by the government. Dividing the construction process into two phases, the developers undertake the construction of all the load-bearing pieces and complete approximately one half of the final result, including the bathrooms and the toilets dimensioned specifically as if they were belonging to the bigger house which will be obtained in the end, while leaving the expansions to the inhabitants, who will have to adapt their interventions into the provided areas. That way, the totality of the building, while being characterized by the variations of these individual additions reflecting the communal work of the inhabitants, gains a coherent appearance becomes structurally sound.
Another important aspect of this participatory process promoted by the potential expansions is that it reminds the justification of the private property by labor and occupancy, that has been discussed previously referring to John Locke and his work “Of Property”. Occupancy, already included in the very nature of any sort of housing, is supported in the case of Quinta Monroy with that process of self-construction, which furthermore increases the legitimacy of the newly obtained property. What is evoked here with the usage of the term legitimacy is not a juridical legality –even if it is also achieved- but the hypothetical rightfulness of the ownership, based on the idea of appropriation and exclusion of the others. That rightfulness, which was previously questioned with an argument based on the potential inequity caused by the lack of an equivalent contribution to the society, is thereby justified, due to the new status of the squatters. Included in the system of taxation and being officially renowned, it is right now possible to claim that the 93 families of Quinta Monroy belong to the “class” of commoners, as was defined by Locke. It is possible to criticize this approach by considering it as the domination of the striated space over the labyrinthic nature of the squatter settlement using a Deleuzian terminology like in the beginning of the study, or by accusing it for assigning “real” values to the houses within the site in order to open them to the market. Nevertheless, the higher standards that it brought to the lives of the inhabitants, the effort to challenge the socio-economical constraints in such a way to transform them into design parameters and the architectural success of the redevelopment process merging the professional with the vernacular which gained an exemplary character and began to be applied in other parts of South America, are definitely not negligible.