An abandoned office tower in the middle of Caracas – that deeply troubled and dangerous city – has been squatted by more than 700 families. An exhibition and installation by architecture critic Justin McGuirk, Caracas-based Urban-Think Tank and Dutch photographer Iwan Baan which documents the ingenuity and will to survive in the Torre David skyscraper has received the top prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. I’ve toured parts of Caracas with members of Urban-Think Tank. Their work is gutsy and visionary. A huge congratulations to them for winning the Golden Lion for best project.
A small city exists within the 45-storey tower, including hair salons, mini convenience stores, a church and restaurants.
No need to romanticize this as a desirable kind of urban utopia. Having seen the sprawling slums in Caracas that house an estimated one million people on the edge of the city, my take on the Torre David squat is that it exemplifies a desperation to improvise a sense of normalcy – and safety. And it’s not architecture without architects…the concrete frame structure was originally designed by Venezuelan architect Enrique Gomez, but the project was abandoned following the death of its developer David Brillembourg in 1993. Venezuela was once an oil-rich, sophisticated country but, since its economy imploded in 1994 and President Chavez came onto the scene, that reality has become a faraway memory. (Above photos by Iwan Baan.)
Next to an inner city slum in Caracas, Urban-Think Tank designed the hugely popular Bello Campo Vertical Gym. When I visited it was packed with children learning ribbon gymnastics, runners on an elevated catwalk track and young soccer players training on a rooftop field. Crime is estimated to have decreased by 30 per cent in the neighbourhood because of the gym’s activating presence. That’s architecture with a social conscience and it looks good in bright colours and high-tech exposed structural frame.