Efforts to address the growth of slums tend to focus on their eradication. But Urban-Think Tank conceives of them as vital, vibrant laboratories to learn from. Its investigation into Torre David, a unique informal community in Caracas, is now compiled into a book.
In one way or another, the third tallest building in Venezuela has been under construction for more than 21 years. While Torre David (formerly known as the Centro Financiero Confinanzas) stands at an impressive 45 floors in the heart of Caracas’ former central business district, it is unlikely that the building will ever be finished – at least not in the conventional sense. After the developer, David Brillembourg, passed away in 1993 and the financial group supporting the construction collapsed in the wake of the 1994 Venezuelan banking crisis, the tower was abandoned and became a magnet for squatters.
Today, it is the improvised, continually revised home for more than 750 families living as a self-organised community in what some have called a vertical slum. That this community has not been riven by the contradictory and potent forces that surround and impinge upon it – that its members have, with great ingenuity and determination, turned a ruin into a home, albeit a precarious and marginal one – is nothing short of astonishing.
It is 11:30 on a Thursday night, and some 40 men and women are gathering in the unfinished lobby of the equally unfinished skyscraper in the neighbourhood of La Candelaria/San Bernardino, in the Libertador Municipality of Caracas. The space, originally intended as a soaring atrium topped by a glass cupola, is open to the night sky and barely lit by fluorescent lights wired into corners and hanging from wall hooks. A recent storm has left puddles of water on the floor, and parked motorcycles tick quietly as they cool down.
The men and women are representatives of the residents of the skyscraper – “squatters” to some, “invaders” to others. They themselves prefer “neighbours”. Some of the attendees are floor managers, others simply civic-minded.
The tower’s secretary and deputy manager of social services and finances is Gladys Flores, a petite 47-year-old woman with an air of authority. She calls the meeting to order; everyone stands, clasping hands for the customary opening prayer. Many of the residents are Evangelical Pentecostal Christians, their flock led by Alexander “el Niño” Daza, who is also president of the tower’s cooperative.
He delivers a passionate 20-minute sermon in which he asserts his conviction that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez will, upon his inevitable reelection in October 2012, bless the residents with property rights. Other speakers, too, have politics on their minds: two floor managers explain how fellow residents can register as official members of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV); Fernando, a former resident and a long-time supporter of the tower’s occupation, is fed up with the government and expounds on the merits of anarchism.
Finally, under the wary gaze of the residents, a representative of an architecture and urban design firm rises to speak. He tells the group that his practice would like to work with the residents and to enlist the participation of the private sector, to help conceive, construct, and test various physical interventions and experimental prototypes, while documenting the ways in which the community has already transformed the tower into their home.
How did the ruins of a postmodern skyscraper, conceived and launched with the corporate- capitalist optimism of the late 1980s and early 1990s, come to be home to a 3,000-person squatter community whose operating framework is social and its inclinations anarchist?
In January 1990, ground was broken in the Libertador Municipality of downtown Caracas for the Centro Financiero Confinanzas. Its location could not have been more advantageous. Libertador lies in the western portion of Caracas, in the heart of the valley that holds the city. A concentration of political and financial power, literal and symbolic, distinguishes the district: the presidential palace, federal legislative palace, public ministry, headquarters of the Central Bank of Venezuela, and some of the tallest of the city’s skyscrapers. The area had become Caracas’ Wall Street, the centre of finance and the prime location for building the global city.
Even amid such wealth, the Centro Financiero Confinanzas was intended to stand out as the epitome of luxury and prosperity. The man behind this vision was developer Jorge David Brillembourg Ortega, a primary investor in the construction of the Centro Confinanzas, conceiving it as the largest private skyscraper complex in South America.
Brillembourg had built another tower in the neighborhood in 1983; 10 years later he decided to purchase the site upon which he built Torre David – what he hoped would become the “financial nerve of the city”. Brillembourg expected that, within four or five years, there would be a dearth of office space in Caracas and, anticipating high demand, planned to offer luxury offices and hotel space on prime real estate at the heart of Caracas’ banking district.
At any time, and in any place, the five concrete structures that comprised the Centro Confinanzas would have been ambitious. The total cost of the complex was expected to reach 5,700 million bolivarés – the equivalent, at the time, of approximately US$82 million. Edificio A (Torre David), the main building, was to top out at 45 storeys, surmounted by a helipad. The first six floors were to house hotel support services; floors seven to 16 were intended for the hotel; floors 18 to 45 were planned for 30,000 sq/m of office space for the Confinanzas Group and the Banco Metropolitano de Crédito Urbano.
The 17th floor was designed as a pressurised, hermetically sealed shelter for office workers, able to withstand four hours of intense heat from a possible fire. If the office floors were distinctly high-end, the hotel was grande luxe: its design called for no less that 21,000 sq/m of Italian marble. For almost four years, the complex gradually emerged from the ground, Edificio A rising to meet its skyscraper neighbours. The scheduled completion was July 1994, with the grand opening of the hotel planned for December of that year.
Then things went terribly wrong, beginning with the death from natural causes, in April 1993, of David Brillembourg at just 55 years old. Perhaps Brillembourg’s brother René, could have picked up the reins, aided by the design and construction team, had it not been for a far greater crisis: in January 1994, Venezuela was hit by a series of bank closures that brought the financial sector to its knees. Brillembourg’s financial arm, Grupo Confinanzas, had been supported by a number of banks and it, too, failed.
Without leadership or funds to continue construction, the project was almost immediately abandoned, leaving Edificio A 90 per cent complete. Within months, a government financial agency, Fondo de Garantía de Depósitos y Protección Bancaria (FOGADE), seized the assets of Brillembourg’s financial group, including the nearly completed complex. In 2001 FOGADE unsuccessfully attempted to auction the complex, but has otherwise largely ignored the project for the past 18 years, leaving the tower to sit vacant. As of September 2012, the complex has yet to be sold.
Periodic invasions of squatters and looters picked over abandoned machinery, construction materials and large glass windows in Torre David, selling off whatever they could salvage. In the heart of a struggling financial district, the tower stood dark and silent – a sad relic of the hopes and ambitions harboured by Venezuelans in the 1970s and early 1980s, and an inescapable reminder of the economic upheavals that followed those boom years.
With the economy truly disabled, it was the turn of the body politic to run amok. At the epicentre of a decade’s-worth of convulsions was Hugo Chávez Frías, the beginning of whose ascent to power coincided with the construction of Torre David.
Chávez was elected president in 1998. With just two months in office behind him, Chávez proposed a new Venezuelan constitution to replace that which had been in effect since 1961. In record time, the new National Constituent Assembly drafted that document and, following a popular referendum, the constitution took effect in December 1999. Between 1999 and 2012, a series of laws and presidential decrees were passed that granted the government increasing control over public and private land, undermining existing Venezuelan property law. Coupled with a growing housing crisis and the precarious condition of houses in the city’s many barrios, these changes created an environment in which the squatting of public and private land has become a common practice.
As of April 2011, an estimated 155 office, apartment and government buildings in Caracas were occupied by squatters, Torre David among them.
On 17 September 2007, a group of caraqueños was evicted from a squat in La Candelaria; searching for shelter, they turned their gaze towards Torre David. That same day people in the barrios of Caracas began receiving phone calls and text messages from “professional” squatters, urging them to converge on and occupy Torre David. Word spread rapidly until that evening when, in heavy rain, a large number of families appeared at the entrance to the complex. The two guards on duty took one look at the mass of drenched humanity, turned over their arms, and opened the gates. Thus began the current occupation of Torre David, which has become one of the world’s largest vertical squats.
Those who entered the complex on the first 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 and barrios in the surrounding area, flooded out by tropical rain and driven by the promise of better housing closer to jobs in the city. Some families, wary of the unknown conditions inside the tower, sent one representative to investigate before shuttling the entire clan through the city and out of the rain. Word of this gargantuan, empty, open space spread rapidly, and soon friends and family members of the original occupiers gathered.
Three days later, their numbers had grown exponentially. There was little privacy, but a great deal of space available to each family, as well as the hope that the authorities might turn a blind eye. During the first few weeks, as the new arrivals waited to see if they’d be evicted, leaving the space amounted to risking forfeiture of one’s stake. Family members guarded their space in shifts – a relay-style, endurance occupation.
As the immediate threat of eviction began to subside, the new inhabitants, urged by the original initiators of the invasion to occupy the rest of the tower, began to explore the whole complex, evaluating the potential for habitation of various spaces. Together they cleaned Torre David, floor by floor, removing the rubble and trash that had accumulated since the tower’s abandonment, and allocated spaces for each family. Gradually, they organised the construction of balustrades and painted communal spaces and private apartments.
Through group organisation and hard work, each floor soon had 15 families. Initially only Edificio A was occupied, and by 2009 it was estimated to house 200 families. The location was especially advantageous for informal vendors, greatly reducing the distance and time from home to work and providing storage space for their carts. The population of Torre David has continued to grow, and the residents have made extensive modifications to the complex.
It is impossible to live in Caracas and not know Torre David. It made news when the development was announced. It made news when it was under construction. And it made news again when the financing collapsed and all work ceased. More recently, it has made local and international news for its occupation and “re-purposing”. It is also a distinct physical and symbolic presence, and an unmistakable and inescapable feature of Caracas’ cityscape.
As architects, urban designers, and caraqueños ourselves, we established Caracas Think Tank in 1993 as a way to bring together architects and urbanists to consider how we might create a new strategic urban plan for the city. Even as we explored, worked in, and wrote about various barrios, we had Torre David in mind as a laboratory for a different kind of informal settlement. As early as 2003, we contacted FOGADE, which had taken possession of the complex, to find out what their intentions might be and whether we could assist in whatever efforts they might be planning. Unfortunately, the issues surrounding Torre David became highly politicised in the context of Chávez’s election, and we were compelled to retreat to the sidelines.
Nevertheless, we kept a watchful eye on Torre David as, in 2007, the current population moved in and began to modify and adapt the structure to their needs. Finally, in 2008, we decided to try once more to become involved and to learn just how Torre David was being used. This was no simple task: over the course of three years, we made routine – and routinely unsuccessful – efforts to reach the community leaders by any means possible, including frequent visits to the gates of the complex. It wasn’t until 2011, with our proposal to help redesign the facade for safety and aesthetics, that we were able to begin our year-and-a-half of investigations.
Having examined Torre David closely and intensively, in this snapshot in time, we began to look for answers to some of the questions it raises. It does not truly meet the conventional criteria for a slum, vertical or otherwise. Neither does it meet the equally conventional standards for a residential high-rise. It would seem to partake of both, as well as its own, singular category of urban development.
We know of no other example of the informalisation of the formal, quite so singular or so capable of exciting the architectural imagination, as Torre David. As a laboratory, or zone of experimentation, Torre David challenged us to conceive new technical retrofits and structural solutions that can enhance the safety, functionality, and social vibrancy of the space.
Our vision arises from the premise of sustainability as the only practical and ethical basis on which to build and grow. Conventional concepts of sustainable architecture, of course, do not readily apply to the circumstances of Torre David. Even in the context of the retrofitting or adaptive reuse of existing buildings, and certainly in regard to new structures, we typically design for a reduction of energy consumption, a smaller carbon footprint, self-sufficiency of the structure itself – anything, in other words, that will mitigate the impact of our designs on the environment, as well as improve the health and well-being of the users. This last is of vital importance in our approach to sustainability for Torre David.
The interventions we explored during this project and present as possible approaches are aimed at raising the standard of living for the residents of Torre David. They were also aimed at minimising the demands on Caracas’ already overtaxed power grid by capitalising on renewable resources, while taking into account the social and economic issues that are inextricable from any notion of “sustainability” in the context of Torre David. Any intervention we considered also had to be organic, in the sense of enabling and requiring the direct participation of the residents. Sustainability, in any context, is not merely an issue of architectural and engineering design and of technology, but of operations and behaviours.
Our proposed interventions, developed with collaborators in the Assistant Professorship of Architecture and Sustainable Building Technologies (SuAT) at the ETH Zürich, focused on three categories prioritised by both residents and our research team – vertical mobility, energy consumption and production, and facade safety and aesthetics.
The first of our designs addresses the pressing need for better vertical mobility within the high-rise. Currently, there are no elevators, effectively making the building a walk-up. Some residents, particularly the young, elderly, and infirm, spend considerable amounts of time and effort each day accomplishing the simple task of moving themselves and their belongings up and down the stairs. Unfortunately, the residents cannot afford to purchase, install, or operate a traditional elevator system. Thus, we have proposed an alternative elevator prototype – one that would operate more like a city bus, running on a set schedule throughout the day transporting people, goods and waste. It would employ counter-weights, stopping on select floors that service wider sectors of the Torre through a new network of ramps. This is a significantly more affordable and energy-efficient elevator system that could be upgraded over time.
Our second intervention addresses the fact that currently, the tower’s energy demands surpass the electrical supply of the city’s grid, which they now pay to tap into. We have proposed a new system of electricity production and storage that would sustainably supply Torre David with some of the energy it needs. In the simplest terms, arrays of wind turbines placed on the upper portions of Torre David’s east facade would generate electricity during the day. The turbines would be structured as racks of eight small pinion-shaped horizontal axis wind propellers, with a 25cm diameter, interlocked horizontally. Located on the facade, they would only reduce air circulation into the tower by 30 per cent, pose no safety threat to residents using internal spaces, and generate only a slight increase in noise pollution compared to the existing levels of sound produced by home appliances and street traffic.
The electricity produced by these turbines, available at times of high wind energy and low demand, would primarily be used to pump water up to a series of reservoirs located at different levels within Edificio K (one of the complex's adjoining buildings). This water, meant for distribution and consumption, would also be instrumental in the pumped pico hydro system, which uses the potential energy of the stored water to generate electricity.
In releasing the stored water during times of high electricity demand, the falling water’s gravitational force drives a series of pico hydro turbines located below occupied levels, thus generating electricity. This combination of technologies, implemented in a vertical manner to serve the needs of a large population, is without precedent. It is a system that is capable of producing approximately 24 per cent of Torre David’s electricity, though it would likely require experimentation and monitoring to derive and sustain efficient usage. With a computerised control station, and initial expert monitoring and training, we believe that residents would be able to operate and improve upon the system over time as electricity demand rises.
We also considered ways to alter the physical appearance of the building, both because the residents have indicated its importance to them, and because an improved outward aspect would help integrate the community into the social and economic fabric of the city – by compelling outsiders to reconsider their perceptions and preconceptions of the residents.
Squatter settlements are not new, nor are they unique to Latin America. Nearly every mega-city in the world has its version: Caracas, Mexico City, Mumbai, Lagos, Johannesburg, Jakarta, Abuja and Beijing. They differ in cultural conditions and expectations, in the geography that dictates their form and building materials, in the abundance or scarcity of basic resources such as water, and in the factors that drive people from rural areas to cities: poverty, famine, natural disaster, war. What they share is a population that grows with every driving impulse and that continues to grow exponentially.
To date, efforts to “deal with” slums, wherever they appear, have focused on their eradication, with the objective of creating a slum-free world. Rather than seeing slums as tumours on the civic body, we conceive them as potentially vital, vibrant laboratories, from whose successes we can learn and whose failures we can seek to mitigate. They hold the potential for extraordinary design innovation and exceptional architectural achievement. The informal expands, reproduces, and generates new structures and new alternatives to the traditional urban grid, in a process of incremental development.
It is the way of the urban future, one that is antithetical to notions of completeness and finality. It is what we found in Torre David. It is time for professionals – urban planners, social activists, engineers and most especially architects – to confront the realities of the future by helping to develop the urban fabric from the ground up; to interact forcefully but productively with politicians, policy-makers and community groups; to enlist the private sector in developing and deploying innovations; collectively in the creation of more equitable, workable and sustainable cities.