Urban-Think Tank

Going Top Down

Urban-Think Tank, best known for its vertical gyms in the Caracas barrios, has a new strategy for building in Third World slums.

Architect, May 2014

When I call him, Alfredo Brillembourg is eating lunch in Zurich, on a terrace beside the lake, the Swiss Alps on the horizon. He describes the scene to me in detail and with evident delight. Maybe he’s trying to stress how different Zurich is from Caracas, Venezuela, where he lived for many years. Or maybe he’s just being charming—an essential quality if you want to build what and where he does.

Brillembourg, who is Venezuelan-American, and his partner Hubert Klumpner, from Austria, founded Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) as an architecture firm in 1998 to empower the poor through design. It was before the architecture world at large showed any interest in slums or informal urban settlements. For years, amid rising poverty, crime, and corruption, they fought to build social projects in Caracas’s barrios—home to about 60 percent of the city’s population. Today they are professors of architecture and urban design at ETH Zurich. Both appreciate how ironic it is that their current city is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable, while Caracas, their former home, languishes near the bottom of the same rankings.

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Photograph by Stefan Jermann