The planned city
Caracas, the capital of Venezuela with over three million inhabitants, grew rapidly in the 1970s. During that time the country experienced a huge economic growth thanks to its oil profits. The government’s agenda was dominated by ‘centralization’ and ‘nationalization’. The first, stimulated the fast development of Caracas in both a formal and informal way. The formal city was expanded - on the principles of centralized grand-scale planning - with new working-class and middle-class residential districts in the valley of Caracas. Extending the urban area towards the (south)east. These economic and political developments made Caracas also a magnet for people from rural communities searching for greater economic opportunities. Making Caracas one of the most fragmented cities in the world. A big informal economy arose and self-made houses were build. Nearly forty percent of the people now live in self-built informal settlements. Mostly on the high-risk hillsides where heavy rain causes flooding and landslides.
The Tower arises
Despite of economic problems in the 1980s (inflation, unemployment) a developer was set out to build a massive office and commercial complex (‘centro financiero confinazas’) in the financial center. The complex consist of five concrete structures. It’s main building, called Torre David, was to top out at 45 stories with a helipad, a hotel and 30.000 m2 of office space. The scheduled completion was July 1994, but it was never finished. In 1993 the developer died and in January 1994 Venezuela was hit by a series of bank closures. Without the leadership and financial resources the building stopped after 90% was completed.
Torre David sat vacant for over 12 years. A lot of things changed during that time. With the ongoing inflation economic problems grew. Food shortages and high criminality became structural urban issues. Due to the ongoing immigration from the countryside and devastating floods on the hillsides the housing shortage for lower incomes grew.
There was also a massive political change. Hugo Chávez from ‘The Fifth Republic Movement’ (a left-wing, Socialist political party) was elected as president. He wrote a new constitution and a series of laws that gave the state control over decisions regarding land distribution and property. One stated: ‘unused urban land is at service of the public’. In other words, a government that encourages invasions and illegal takeovers.
The lived city
In 2007 a group of people was evicted from a squat. The group searching for shelter turned their eyes on Torre David and entered the building. That same day people in the outskirts of Caracas received messages urging them to join and occupy the tower. The Urban-Think Tank: “Those who entered the complex on the fist evening of the invasion and in the days following quickly staked out space in the ground floor lobby, establishing communal kitchens, setting up tents and other makeshift shelters, and delimiting their territory. Many people came from other invasions, flooded out by tropical rain and driven by the promise of better housing closer to jobs in the city.”
The most interesting thing of Torre David is the adaptive reuse of an existing building. And especially the way it’s done. Soon after the first occupation people were cleaning the floors together and security guards were stationed at the three actively used entrances. The pioneers organized a fair distribution of the spaces, the construction of balustrades and painted the communal spaces (entrance and stairwell). Two water pumps were installed to connect the tower to the city’s water system. People managed to erect basic walls that separate them from neighbors and to fence off balconies. Later some people put in bathrooms and small kitchens. Residents also broke through existing walls to create new pathways for movement.
It is surprisingly, at least for me, how the Tower is organized and regulated. Some say that there is a negative leadership system that is copied from the illegal inmates’ organizations of Venezuelan jails. The Urban-Think Tank formulates it as follows: “It’s not a pure democracy, but its leadership structure with circles of influence seems to function”. In the innermost circle stands the president of the so called Cooperative: the pastor of the church (who went to prison for five years before he became an evangelical preacher). Together with his closest associates (the board) he makes the ultimate decisions. In the second circle are the people who work as intermediaries between the board and the coordinators. There are coordinators of functions, such as water distribution, the electrical system and cleaning, but there are also floor coordinators. Together they made different rules and procedures. For example, each household is given a magnetic key fob to enter or exit the property. They pay a monthly fee of $ 15 to the Cooperative for water, electricity, cleaning of the public spaces, and security. But there is also a scheduled community cleanup. And here is my favorite: “If the occupants receive more than three citations for infractions of the general code of conduct (noisy parties, littering, domestic violence), they are asked to leave.”
Through group organization and hard work the empty building is transformed into a home for more than 3.000 people. They are occupying the high-rise up through the 28th floor. Without a working elevator and for reasons of safety the community’s leadership decided to limit access to the upper floors. No new residents are admitted until there is vacancy. No families owns their space. They only own the investments they make in their respective apartments. When a family leaves, incoming tenants often buy the modifications.
In addition to the houses there are also a number of shops and common spaces. There is a barbershop, cybercafé, beauty salon, small factories, a auto workshop and some floors have their own grocery. In an adjacent building a church is build. On the ground level is a large basketball-court. The court is well regulated. It’s forbidden to swear or to play without sportswear. On the 28th floor there is a small gym. “That same floor has an extended balcony […] where some of the woman often bring couches and chairs to socialize.” But the biggest informal place are the stairs. “Since the one accessible stairway in the highrise is the only means of vertical circulation within that structure, sooner or later everyone passes everyone else.” There is one alternative to travel. Soon after the occupation a motor taxi service arose that uses the connected parking garage to takes residents up to the 10th floor. In the book you will find a lot of beautiful photographs from the Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan that gives a great insight in these living conditions.
At present there are more then 750 families. The book indicates that the unfinished high-rise is especially advantageous for informal vendors, thanks to its location. More information about its inhabitants we do not get. And that is a shortcoming, because after the description about the physical structure and the social organization you expect more about its people. What kind of households are there? What is the average age? What do they do all day? How many have work in the formal or informal economy? Etcetera. Some portraits would make the book complete. And it can be done. Read for example the article in The Guardian about a policeman/taxi driver, his wife (hairdresser) and their five children. Its shows more in detail the motivation of people to come to Torre David and their daily struggle in Caracas.
Jean Caldieron, assistant Professor at the Florida Atlantic University, studied the residential satisfaction among the households. He asked 60 people (from different floors) a few questions. According to them the most serious challenges of living in the Tower are: lack of elevators, criminality, water service and electricity. The first doesn’t need any explanation. The second is not a big surprise in a city with the highest homicide rate in the world. The last two are not uncommon in informal cities. The biggest problem is that the water and electricity services cannot meet the needs of its inhabitants. There is simply not enough and the installations are fragile.
The most important advantages of living in the tower, besides a free solid shelter with panoramic views, is its location near the city center (86%) and the proximity to urban transportation (53%). Nevertheless, about 50% of the households is unsatisfied with living in the complex. “Many of the dwellings do not have sanitary services and some do not even have natural light. These issues together with the community issues are very troublesome”, says Caldieron. For an outsider like myself, it’s difficult to reconcile these conclusions with the descriptions of the Urban-Think Tank. They write for example: “the average apartment now includes a toilet, a sink, dishwasher and washing machine.”
After their observations in the Tower the Urban-Think Tank also made some organic recommendations that can enhance the standard of living. Such a wind energy for the supply of adequate power, the storage of electricity and reducing demand by using highly efficient bulbs. The most obvious solution, installing an elevator is too expensive, complex and requires too much power. That’s way the Urban-Think Tank recommended a balancing system that use the same counterweight principle as elevators. A system that would operate by balancing the incoming load with the outgoing load, both with passengers, goods, materials or waste. Instead of being continually available and constantly functioning, they suggest it is scheduled on an as-needed basis. Just like a bus line.
Perspective and expectation
How to judge this interesting story? Should we for example talk about squatters, inhabitants or invaders? Are the people really dissatisfied with their living conditions? Or is it a big step forward if you compare it with the living conditions in the slums on the high-risk hills? It’s hard to judge from a distant, but I think that there is a good reason why some of the interviewees from Caldieron’s research say that “they are better here than living in places with unaffordable costs or crammed into the houses of family and friends.”
To a western point of view, it is still a rough place to live and a strange situation. But that’s not a fair comparison. You should compare it with the housing conditions in the slums or the rural villages as Edward Glaeser, professor of Economics at Harvard University, point out in his book ‘Triumph of the City’.
Guillermo Barrios, the dean of architecture at Caracas University, however calls it a ‘bad practice’: “Every regime has its architectural imprimatur, its icon, and I have no doubt that the architectural icon of this regime is the Tower of David. It embodies the urban policy of this regime, which can be defined by confiscation, expropriation, governmental incapacity, and the use of violence." To some people in the government the situation is unacceptable: “For me, it’s a symbol of anarchy, a symbol of a lack of government and of public inefficiency,” says Sulemar Bolivar, the head of urban planning in Caracas. Others see the tower as a metaphor for the state’s failure to provide its citizens with housing, public facilities and safety. According to Jean Caldieron, the researcher who interviewed 60 inhabitants, it is “a monument of misery and an inadequate use of an expensive urban facility”. In other words: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
What becomes clear is that its nickname, ‘vertical slum’, is far from right. A slum exists mostly of poor housing, overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and public services, lack of hygiene, safety and no access to water, sanitary facilities and public transport. The Tower doesn’t fit to (all of) these criteria. The Urban-Think Tank prefer the term ‘informal vertical community’. But they don’t romanticize the live of the urban poor. It doesn’t fit in what has been called ‘Slum voyeurism’ or ‘Poverty porn’. It is true that we can see an increasing interest in the living conditions of the urban poor around the world by architects, sociologists, musicians, film makers and even tourists. But this research by the Urban Think Tank has nothing to do with voyeurism or exploitation. It gives insights in the adaption of an unfinished office building into more than hundred homes by private contractors and a remarkable self-organization. The only thing that is lacking, besides the family portraits, are some remarks on the state’s role and its possible negligence. In the chapters about the past and present, but certainly in the chapters about the future of this building.
Torre David is just one of the estimated 400 buildings that are now occupied by squatters in Caracas. What to do? Tolerate it for the time being? Legalizing or prohibit the use of these buildings? A struggle that the Urban-Think Tank express as follows: “The […] residents’ ongoing struggle for official recognition and rights make abundantly evident the precariousness of their circumstances. While the residents freely acknowledge that they occupied the Tower without official approval of from the landowner, the pattern of legislative initiatives, judicial decisions, and presidential decrees – not to mention Chávez’s public declarations – would have emboldened them to believe they had a degree of entitlement.” […] “The large number of residents and the growing sense of community, together with the length of time that the authorities have tolerated the occupation, will make it increasingly difficult for the government to find socially acceptable grounds for resettlement.” On the other hand, crazier things has happened in Venezuela. When the economy rises and a new political situation will emerge, there is the possibility that the planned city will retake over the lived city.
Source photos: Urban Geographies on Tumblr. Photos by Iwan Baan.
De Dépendance and Studio Ossidiana present ‘Torre David – Informal Vertical Communities’, the award-winning exhibition on Torre David. Multidisciplinary design practice Urban-Think Tank made an exhibition on the tower and its inhabitants. Where some only see a failed development project, they have conceived it as a laboratory for the study of the informal. From 4 – 21 November 2015, the exhibition is coming to the Netherlands. With a spectacular photo series of life in the tower by architectural photographer Iwan Baan, the exhibition will occupy the 20th floor of the Hofpoort tower in the centre of Rotterdam.
There is also a Dutch version of this article on Stadslente.
References and notes for further reading
Alfredo Brillembourg & Hubert Klumpner; the Urban-Think Tank (2013) Torre David; informal vertical communities. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers.
Mark Byrnes (2014) A Day in the Life of the Most Unusual Building in Caracas. The Atlantic Cities.
Jean M. Caldieron (2013) From a skyscraper to a Slumcraper: Residential Satisfaction in “Torre de David” Caracas, Venezuela. In: The Macrotheme Review 2(5), pp. 138-152.
Virginia López (2014) Unaffordable cities: squatting in Caracas's tower of broken dreams. The Guardian, 12 February 2014.
TED (2013) Iwan Baan: Ingenious homes in unexpected places. Ted-talk from a Dutch architectural photographer. YouTube.
Wikipedia (2014) Caracas