This exhibition features projects produced by graduate architecture students for the fall 2012 international semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For this studio, titled "Reality Bites," students were asked to design a school plus an additional element—whether a facility or infrastructure—for one of the city's informal settlements, called Villa 31, in the Retiro Area.
Broadly speaking, the gridiron pattern of blocks and streets in Buenos Aires holds the city's "formal” residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. Within this fabric, there is a rich variety of densities and building types. This pattern is interrupted by large urban pieces, which in most cases are public property and contain major transportation infrastructure or public facilities and parks. Often vacant land exists on the margins of these urban pieces. Most often undefined in terms of property or administrative status, these marginal pieces of land have been subject to "spontaneous" settlements. Impoverished populations migrating from less developed regions of Argentina, and more recently, from neighboring countries, have found a way to enter the urban realm by claiming these lands for dwelling.
In most cases, the acquisition of land and permanence of these settlements exists outside a formal market economy and is subject to many sorts of "political exchange." Many of these settlements, usually called "villas de emergencia," are at least three decades old and have grown in size and density as they have progressively become fixed features in the urban and social structure of the city.
The population of these villas within the federal district is 163,000 people, representing more than 5 percent of the total population of almost 2.9 million. One of the most relevant statistical features is that they account for 50 percent of the city's population growth in the last 10 years, meaning that in these settlements, the population grew at a rate three to five times higher than in the rest of the federal district. This, in turn, translates into an escalation in the demand for services and infrastructure.
Located on vacant railroad and port authority land, Villa 31 has some very particular characteristics. Placed on the margins of the central district of the city, its population has better and cheaper access to transport, public spaces, and public services. These factors have clearly fostered its growth and densification in recent years. It became a preferred destination for marginalized populations seeking work because it provides service and informal craft labor jobs in the big market that the city offers.
At the same time, Villa 31 stands in stark contrast to some very wealthy areas of the city that are located nearby, drawing greater media and political attention to the consequences of social marginalization.
This studio proposes the site and its features as a clear example and opportunity to address in the most creative and innovative way one of the most common and at the same time challenging urban issues in developing countries.