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Mike Davis on spying for LA's poor Latino tenants

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Mike Davis, speaking at the RIBA on 'the struggle for space' by ethnic minority groups in Los Angeles, emphatically rejected the high-density approach as a solution to housing needs, except 'maybe for yuppies around mass transportation nodes'. He insists that 'in terms of safety and health. . . six-storey tenements are crisis issues'.His 1996 investigation of the Witmer Street neighbourhood, which provides a home of sorts for a dense migrant Latino population west of corporate downtown LA, revealed that the most successful housing form was that of the 1920s 'bungalow courts', which provide medium-density accommodation, combine forms of public and private space, and 'always score highly'. Indeed, he suggests that 'the housing form which works best' is that which has the capacity to sustain some form of communal organisation.

Davis' study was carried out with a group of SCI-Arc students, half of whom were Spanishspeaking Latin Americans, and, as he says, they 'began less as designers than as spies'. The point of the exercise, commissioned by the Central America Refugee Centre, was to explore the possibilities for tenant self-organisation, understood within a larger model of social reform, and at the same time to focus on 'how architects should engage the social problems and cultural energies of ethnic groups'. The group set out not only to map the buildings and building types on the site, but also to talk to and visit the people in the community.

They even drove out to Beverly Hills to take photographs of the houses of the landlords, which they could bring back to show to the tenants.

Davis has always been involved in political activism, though he claims he is a terrible organiser. Naturally, then, he rejects the principles of 'messianic modernism' in architecture in favour of an approach 'closer to Patrick Geddes and traditional anarchists like Kropotkin'; yet, at the same, time it is slightly odd to hear the ethnographic methodology which provides the foundation of classic anthropology, and which he and his students were essentially employing at Witmer Street ('we began to work in the somewhat uncomfortable mode of anthropologists'), described in terms of 'notions of an anarchist architecture'.

Davis suggested that the work carried out 'doesn't sound like architecture' to most architects - even though the group put forward various spatial design propositions, including a children's play centre, a 'ceremonial location' for the Eighteenth Street gang, and a neighbourhood design surgery.

He voiced concern that such 'piecemeal solutions' might be used by SCI-Arc simply to 'show off ' a level of social responsibility amongst its students.

For Davis, the work can only really be meaningful in 'the larger context of the struggle over tenants' rights and the labour movement', and the enduring possibility of a recurrence of the 1992 riots, 'driven by the acuity of the subsistence crisis'.

Mike Davis was speaking at the first in the RIBA's lecture series on masterplanning, 'City Constructs'.

He is profiled on pages 26-27

vital statistics

In England 58,000ha of brownfield land, an area the size of the West Midlands, is vacant, derelict or available for redevelopment. On top of this, 700,000 homes are empty and 225,000 have been empty for a year.

1.9 million people work in the UK construction industry, according to government figures.

Eleven per cent of practising architects are women and one fifth of those work part time. A higher representation of females in the profession is expected in coming years since 35 per cent of students entering Part 1 courses are women.

In rural areas, 77 per cent of people are very satisfied with their local area, compared with just 35 per cent in urban areas, government figures show.

The UK currently recycles and composts 9 per cent of its domestic waste compared with a figure of more than 30 per cent in some areas of Europe.

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