The eviction of residents from the unfinished Torre de David is emblematic of the deteriorating relationship between design and unconventional forms of dwelling
Venezuela has turned its back on the residents of Torre de David. Two years after the self-governing community within a half-built Caracas skyscraper was praised by the global architecture community as a beacon for grass-roots regeneration, its unauthorised occupiers are being relocated. Despite longstanding endorsement from Venezuela’s late socialist president Hugo Chávez, the world’s tallest squat - which offered shelter in a capital city where 70 per cent live in slums - is now being systematically cleared of its residents floor-by-floor.
Soldiers and officials began emptying the uncompleted 45-storey office complex in late July. The surprise move was expected to take less than a week and came just days after Venezuela announced it was in negotiations with Chinese banks interested in purchasing the stalled site at the heart of Caracas’s financial district. According to Venezuela’s minister for the transformation of greater Caracas, Ernesto Villegas, the move was ‘not an eviction’ but was a coordinated effort supported by residents who would be relocated to new housing. The autonomous occupation of some 2,000 families had to end, Villegas explained, ‘before a final decision’ about its future could be made with the Chinese.
In four short days, seven years of resident-led renewal were to be destroyed. The ad hoc administration which pooled together resident contributions for water, electricity and security and published its own rules and rotas would end. Press were forbidden to film the clearance as families and business owners were escorted from the communal building known affectionately as Torre de David - the Tower of David - after its developer David Brillembourg, whose death amid a financial crisis saw construction grind to a halt 20 years ago.
When squatters entered the vacant structure in 2007 they began a coordinated process of urban renewal which was soon recognised as an enviable alternative for empty buildings the world over. Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan thrust the community onto the world stage with a pop-up restaurant installation which won the Venice Biennale’s prestigious Golden Lion award in 2012. The captivating images they produced caught the attention of a world tentatively recovering from the worst financial crisis in living history and turned on by the escapist possibilities held in such ruins. Nevertheless, despite its acclaim and mystique, the multi-storey township remained firmly subject to a global reading of Modernism which elevates property development above existing communities’ needs.
Real estate is after all the ground on which most architecture is built on. As Reinhold Martin of Columbia University argues, without it there would be no elements of architecture such as the doors, windows, stairs, lifts and ceilings so exhaustively categorised by Rem Koolhaas in the central exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale. The rationalisation, regulation and growth of the real-estate development industry, Martin explains, first started in the United States in the early 20th century and was quickly adopted in the same way as other Modernist innovations which sought to optimise our journey to the future. At its best the industry has injected life into our decaying cities, and at its worst, when aided by fraudulent financiers, it crashed the entire global economy. The full impact of the greatest property investment bubble on earth - poised to burst in China right now - has furthermore yet to play out.
This is why no measure of political endorsement or international attention in its current form could have saved Torre de David from decline. It also explains why the community itself was so visually compelling. A gleaming monolith transformed into a colourful ruin before ever opening would seem impossible within standard Modernist narratives of space and time. Therefore, despite its socialism and tense relations with the United States, the Venezuelan government has failed to step outside the developmental ideology which sees land as something to be parcelled, built on and monetised to reach its full potential. Its multi-billion- dollar trade relationship with the Chinese government, predominantly rooted in oil exports, has merely leapfrogged Western globalism for another affiliation with an even more insatiable appetite for property investment abroad.
With governments increasingly keen to engage communities in built environment decision-making, why should Torre de David’s contribution to the debate have to end here? Squatting was after all a driving force behind the regeneration of entire swathes of post-war London and post-communist East Berlin. Despite being recently criminalised in Britain, prior to the 20th century squatter settlements were widely permitted throughout Europe and played a key role in providing service labour for industrialising societies. Perhaps the best way to involve Torre de David’s residents in the bigger story about global urbanism would have been to sanction their community to exist in perpetuity. Successful examples of land ownership transferring to squatter communities include Bonnington Square in London while Paris has legalised a raft of art squats such as Les Frigos. The Venezuelan government owned the building so it was entirely within its powers to perpetuate this global experiment in counter-Modernism on its own turf. Harnessing the residents’ efforts in this way would have been more efficient than evacuating the entire site just so it can be legally sold as a ‘vacant possession’.
The failure of the architectural profession to predict or prevent Torre de David’s demise is doubly embarrassing. First, because it was venerated at Venice two years ago and the collective genius of architects the world over failed to replicate its success anywhere or counter the core threat to its survival. Second, because this year’s Biennale set out to document Modernism’s global impact, but even within Koolhaas’s central exhibition on the elements of architecture there was no discussion on the commodification of land. Modern property development with its all-encompassing finality has blunted the debate over renewal and prohibited alternative perspectives. The profession must therefore abandon its lofty isolation and shake-up the political consensus supporting this global industry if it is to do justice to the pioneering innovation it celebrates.