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Welcome to the Country Club

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In the settlement built by the Tupac Amaru movement, a model for a possible alternative to gated communities and social housing.
Architecture / Justin McGuirk

Welcome to the Country Club

Author Justin McGuirk Photography Toms Garca Puente Published 24 November 2011 Location San Salvador de Jujuy

Sections Architecture Keywords Alto Comedero, DOMUS 951, Milagro Sala, Organizacin Barrial Tupac Amaru

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This article was originally published in Domus 951, October 2011 At the entrance to Alto Comedero is a sign that reads "Bienvenida al Cantri". That "cantri" is a phonetic misspelling of "country", but the joke is no worse for it. "Welcome to the Country Club." Driving in, you'll encounter a vast swimming pool, a Jurassicthemed playground and a replica of the Incan temple of Tiwanaku. These extravagant amenities nestle among row upon row of singlestorey houses. From a distance the terraces resemble a piece of working-class Liverpool, except here, in northwest Argentina, what appear to be chimneys are rainwater tanks branded with the face of Che Guevara. This is not really a country club; this is social housingsocial housing as you've never seen it. Alto Comedero is the largest of the communities built by a social movement called Tupac Amaru. Based in the city of San Salvador de Jujuy, where Argentina approaches the border of Bolivia, Tupac Amaru claims to represent the neediest in society, providing housing, education, medical care or whatever else they requireit might be a meal or a pair of shoes. As well as its own housing system, it has its own factories, schools and hospitalsa degree of self-sufficiency that has led some to conclude that Tupac Amaru is effectively a state within a state. It has more than 70,000 membersor followers, depending on how one defines themmade up mostly of indigenous Kolla Indians. A revolutionary movement with quasisocialist ideals, Tupac Amaru is known for its radical politics and for the efficacy of its direct actionwhen the movement decides to demonstrate, it can paralyse the streets of Jujuy, a fact that has turned many of the local middle class against them.

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Alto Comedero is the model housing quarter built in several stages since 2003 by the Tupac Amaru cooperatives.

"Be careful of these people. They're dangerous," said the taxi driver as he dropped me off at the Tupac Amaru headquarters in Jujuy. Such are the rumours that circulate around this movement. Some of the animosity stems from its leader, a diminutive Kolla woman named Milagro Sala, who has a reputation as both saint (Milagro means "miracle" in Spanish) and sinner. It is difficult to understand the particular urbanism that Tupac Amaru has createdthat combination of exurbia, Disneyesque theme park and radical socialismwithout understanding something of Milagro Sala. The Milagro legend holds that as a baby she was abandoned in a box outside a hospital. She ran away from her adoptive home at 14 to become a street hawker, but fell into petty crime and eventually wound up in prison. There, she emerged as a natural leader, organising a hunger strike over the quality of the food and helping to teach inmates to read. Having risen up through the Peronist Youth Movement and the unions, her subsequent political image is part
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revolutionary leader and part Mother Theresa. And yet local scuttlebutt insinuates she'd been a prostitute and a drug addict. The rightwing media has portrayed her as presiding over a mob, while somelike that taxi driver no doubtsee it more as a cult.
A recent demonstration in Ledesma. Housing is one of the social struggles pursued by the Tupac Amaru movement, led by Milagro Sala. The movement wins the consensus of descendants of the original populations.

Despite her unpromising beginnings, Milagro is one of the most powerful women in Argentina. In her headquarters there are pictures of her with the Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner and Bolivia's Evo Morales, whom she calls "comrade
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Evo". Perhaps, rather than an extraordinary anomaly, she is best understood in the context of a new breed of socialist-style South American leader wielding genuine grass-roots power. Morales and Hugo Chavez, together with first Lula and then Rousseff in Brazil, and the late Nstor Kirchner in Argentina, have brought a socialist dynamic back into the mainstream of the continent's politics. "We are and we aren't a revolutionary organisation," Milagro told me. "We are not revolutionary in the sense that we don't carry weapons and we don't believe in violencewe understand the value of human life. But we are revolutionaries in that we understand that we can change how people think. Through dignified work and a change of consciousness, people can become better." Tupac Amaru has built thousands of houses for the poorest people in this region. It began with a mere 148, when Milagro took a punt that even she, with no construction experience, could make better use of government housing subsidies than the corrupt local politicians. Today she controls government funding worth 1,000 houses per year. But her real genius is in how she spends that money. Tupac Amaru created its own brick and steelwork factories, making the construction process that much more efficient. Receiving 93,000 pesos (23,000 dollars) per housea third less than volume housing companiesit builds those houses four times faster than the private sector. One reason is that it employs the poor as a labour force, which must make this one of the few schemes in the world where you can be paid to build your own houseand then be given it for free.

It is difficult to understand the particular urbanism that Tupac Amaru has created that combination of exurbia, Disneyesque theme park and radical socialism.

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The movements political ideology is represented not only by Jos Gabriel Condorcanki Tupac Amaru (a mythical figure, victim of Spanish repression in the 18th century), but also by Che Guevara and Evita Peron. Their images decorate the water tanks on the roofs of the houses.

There are 2,700 houses in Alto Comedero, home to 7,000 people. The buildings themselves are unremarkable. This is a standard-issue pitched-roof design handed out by the ministry of housing. Each single-storey unit consists of 50 square metres with two bedrooms, a garden in front and a small courtyard out back. There were no architects involved herethe local architects' association demanded too hefty a fee. But what makes Alto Comedero truly unique is not the architecture so much as the luxurious amenities and the surreal place-making. Everywhere you look, Tupac Amaru's revolutionary cosmology has been turned into a didactic branding concept. Each of the houses is stamped with a face. It might be Tupac Amaru himself, the 18th-century Incan leader who rebelled against the Spanish, after whom the movement takes its name; or Eva ("Evita") Peron, that talismanic Argentine heroine; or Che Guevara, the socialist revolutionary (Che's face is also written large on the walls of the community factories). This is the holy trinity of the organisation's iconographya blend of T-shirt radicalism, Argentine populism, and local ethnic folklore. The theme-park urbanism of Alto Comedero is equally sui generis. What Tupac Amaru saves by creating its own factories and by cutting out all the middlementhe developers, construction companies and architectsit can reinvest into the community as grand social gestures. It was news of the
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swimming pools that first brought me to Jujuythe idea that with a simple gesture you could make the poor feel rich. And yet I'd expected some standard rectangular affair, not the amoeboid aquatic park that awaited me in Alto Comedero, with its giant penguin figures and walruses. Seeing the glee with which a boy dive-bombed that water was enough to validate the entire concept.

The Tupac Amaru neighbourhood association is responsible for the self-construction of more than 3,400 homes in the Jujuy region alone, using funds allocated to government-subsidised public housing.

And it's not just the pool: I passed a basketball court, a football pitch andalmost bizarrely, considering it is the sport of the middle class a rugby pitch. But these were only too prosaic compared to the sight of the Jurassic theme park. In this vast playground roamed by dinosaurs, children shrieked as they spilled down slides attached to woolly mammoths and triceratops. Granted, the production values aren't quite Industrial Light & Magicthese creatures are handmade by craftsmen in the local steelwork factorybut the effect is no less surprising. Teenagers, meanwhile, hung out under palm-frond
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pavilions fitted with barbecue grills. What kind of childhood heaven was this? That sign at the entrance was ironic and utopian at the same time: Welcome to the Country Club. Yet that leisure-zone concept is not sufficient. The strangest feature of Alto Comedero is the replica of the ancient temple at Tiwanaku in Bolivia. This sacred Incan site has been reconstructed out of breezeblocks, like something on a Hollywood set. Ersatz, yes, but authentic enough to attract Mapuche Indians from Patagonia, who come here to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Incan festival of the sun. Milagro had pointed out to me that one of the differences between Tupac Amaru and a Marxist movement was its spiritual dimension. She is not religious, but she understands that keeping alive Kolla traditions is one way of bonding a community together.

Promotion of the model housing quarter is accompanied by the slogan, A dream in progress, synonymous with determination and power.

Set aside the economic efficiency at work here and there is an innocence to all of this. Alto Comedero personifies a kind of Christmas-list urbanism, perhaps even a nave whimsy that rules
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nothing off the menu: a theme park, a templewhy not? It is hard to over-estimate what a far cry Alto Comedero is from the shanty-style settlements around it, where people have built their own homes with whatever they could muster. Ordinarily, the only way people can acquire a house of the quality of those in Alto Comedero is on a state programme. But you need to prove that you earn 2,500 pesos (600 dollars) a month to get yourself on a waiting list that may be eight years long, and precedes the coughing up of a 12,000-peso (2,900-dollar) down payment. In other words, the genuinely poor can't even reach the first rung of that ladder. In contrast with nearby villa miserias, Alto Comedero has the sense of exclusivity of a gated communitywithout the gate.

of the Tupac Amaru struggle against marginalisation. According to Sala, Poverty is a circumstance that can be changed only if the poor do not identify with it.

Social housing is ordinarily a matter of achieving the minimum, of ruling out the inessential so that state expenditure can be minimised or private profits maximised. But how do you define "essential"? A swimming pool is an inexpensive way of
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giving the poor a taste of civic pride, of creating a community that can bond through leisure and not merely through agglomeration. Milagro would scarcely phrase it in such terms, but Alto Comedero is a giant middle digit held up at the politicians and the private house builders. But perhaps most importantly, what Alto Comedero represents is a zone of exception. With centralised social housing out of political fashion all over the world, it is increasingly rare to find a form of place-making that is not in thrall to a market that depends on privatised services, rising property values and speculation. What may be Tupac Amaru's most remarkable achievement is in carving out a few squares of independent territory on the capitalist gameboard. Justin McGuirk, Journalist and critic

Incan temple of Tiwanaku in Bolivia is so authentic that Mapuche Indians come here to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Incan festival of the sun.

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The districts public park covers an area of 40,000 m2. The figures that populate it are inspired by characters from the film Ice Age.

Author Justin McGuirk Photography Toms Garca Puente

Sections Architecture Keywords Alto Comedero, DOMUS 951, Milagro Sala, Organizacin Barrial Tupac Amaru Location San Salvador de Jujuy

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