Just a few weeks before the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, the New Yorker published a profile by Jon Lee Anderson (“Letter from Caracas: Slumlord”). The subject of the profile was less Chavez and more a Chavez-era phenomenon, the so-called Tower of David in downtown Caracas. “It embodies the urban policy of this regime, which can be defined by confiscation, expropriation, governmental incapacity, and the use of violence,” Guillermo Barrios, dean of architecture at the Universidad Central in Caracas, told Anderson.
Torre David is a 45-story vertical slum that blossomed in an unfinished 1990s office tower developed by banker David Brillembourg. The mini-city of 750 souls that took root in the building’s remnants is notable for its self-made eco-system—there’s a butcher, bodegas, jerry-rigged plumbing, and electricity. Torre David, in the form of a pop-up arepa restaurant, was the subject of an entry at 2012 Venice Biennale by the Zurich-based firm Urban Think Tank (one of whose principals is Alfredo Brillembourg, cousin of the late David) with photographer Iwan Baan and writer Justin McGuirk. The installation won the Biennale’s highest honor, the Golden Lion, and the project is now the subject of a book and film.
Despite picking up the Lion d’Or, critiques of the project were immediate and continue to grow. Monica Ponce de Leon, a Caracas native and dean of architecture at University of Michigan, wrote to AN: “What has been left out of the conversation is the really deplorable living conditions of those who inhabit the towers, the socioeconomic forces giving them no choice but to live there, without basic sanitation services, security, or basic rights. Ignored in the debates is the arrogance of a discipline that reconstructs a vernacular cantina for their leisurely enjoyment.”