The Tower of David

In the early '90s Caracas dreamed of a shimmering downtown financial centre—now it's the tallest squat in the world.

 

Architecture / Jesús Fuenmayor

Twenty years ago, Venezuelan financier David Brillembourg dreamed of a shimmering, glass-clad financial centre in downtown Caracas to symbolise the nation's economic prowess. The destiny of Torre Confinanzas was another—to become home to an informal community of 2,500 homeless people who are gradually colonising, and completing, the unfinished 45-storey building. Two Venezuelan artists, Ángela Bonadies and Juan José Olavarría, document the story of a contemporary heterotopia. Their research is outlined in this interview conducted by Jesús Fuenmayor, director of the Caracas Periférico art centre, who asks them about the resulting work, La Torre por dentro y por fuera

Jesús Fuenmayor: Did you approach this project as a way to criticise modernity via the language of art? How important was the crisis of modernity in determining your choice of subject and the project's development?
Ángela Bonadies/Juan José Olavarría:
There's definitely an implicit critique of modernity at work in the project, as it's at the heart of a promise that wasn't kept, a truncated project. As such, the crisis of modernity is the basis of a new state of affairs. However, it is also important to point out that many artists and curators criticise the dominant and currently obsessive strain of thought regarding modernity itself. It's as if modernity were the place where "all was lost", where a continual focus is placed on art and architecture, which subsequently makes it an insular look at modernity that omits, in Venezuela's case, the surrounding historic and sociopolitical framework. In a sense, the modernity that is re-read and re-interpreted was not elaborated nor did it lay deep enough foundations to become a "culture" as such. Instead, it remained a set of isolated cases and exceptions.

Choosing the tower as our object of study led us towards different eras and other pre- and postmodern situations—and that's what interested us. The building is not considered heritage because it doesn't fit into the modern parameters of beauty. This modern building was the product of a banking boom that occurred in the late 1980s, as part of a project to transform this area of Caracas into a financial district. The tower was going to be one of the buildings lining a boulevard of banks. In a sense, it is the result of a philosophy of modernity based on the stock exchange, closer to the ideology of Wall Street's towering silhouette than perfect humanist Corbusian forms.

Señora María and family in her apartment on the 6th floor, where she lives and sells chucherías (home-made sweets).

The tower is filled with economic and political history that predates its appropriation by squatters: the image of the emergence of powerful groups who were not part of the amos del valle (or rather "lords of the valley" with old money). It reflects new fortunes, a bonanza that was vulnerable to risks, surplus value, speculation, the lack of controls, and a rupture of the hegemony wielded by the few local families who had dwelled in an archipelago of modernity. The crisis of modernity is the crisis of utopia. The tower is a heterotopia, which makes it an "ambiguous space".

When you choose a topic to research from a certain type of artistic practice such as yours, which is constantly calling its own point of view into question, and when you choose a topic as unique as David's Tower, is there not a risk that you lose some critical edge? What I mean is, the topic is so "spectacular", so unique, that it could go beyond any personal vision and thus annul the idea that we are first and foremost dealing an artwork, an artistic investigation. Does it not instead suggest that we are in the presence of a freak phenomenon rather than an artwork?
On the contrary. Firstly, we approached the object from an ethical distance and we didn't regard it as a "freak" phenomenon to be exploited. If we didn't achieve that, then the work is at a loss from the very outset. The tower is not "a topic", nor a theme park, but a space-object where situations converge that enable us to observe, research and develop a project from different disciplines we are interested in. We want to deal with a general problem that has specific historical, economic, political, and demographic implications. The tower is an object, among many others, that represents the lack of synchrony between deeds and words; it is a symptomatic space, not a spectacle. The people who live there are not acting out a play or performing, they are finding a solution to an issue affecting their lives.

What's more, the tower is not unique or isolated, but is part of a permanent absence and presence: the absence of decisions to confront a problem and the presence of a group of people trying to survive. In this case, there's a contrast because instead of being on a piece of wasteland, on the peripheries, or up on a hill, this situation is occurring in an abandoned building, an aspirational skyscraper, that is really a container that molds itself and assimilates what's outside it for a common cause: survival. And this in turn represents another void: that of financial controls and another struggle between political and economic power. Ultimately, all we are doing is focusing on the imprint that power leaves in its wake: a void in solving problems and the massive amount of bureaucracy concentrated in the offices where decisions are made. That is the real theme park. The tower is a reality that is as human as geometry.

There are other cities, like Johannesburg, that have similar cases.

The “Tower of David” is currently home to 2,500 people. Over time it has become a city within a city: 800 homes, shops, beauty salons, Internet cafes, a football pitch, a basketball court and an evangelical church. Those who live in the building must comply with a set of written rules established by the community.

There are two elements that play a very special role in the way the problem (the object of study) is dealt with: firstly, you decided to "attack it" together and, secondly, you have presented this work in parts. On what basis did you make these decisions? Were there any preliminary decisions preceding them? Is it part of a carefully calculated plan, or is it the tower itself that imposes this approach? Why?
The tower imposes its own rhythm. We can try to work out what route to take to approach it and try to "know everything" about it. But then, when you get closer, the decisions are not yours to make because you have to depend on the people who are not involved in production deadlines, so you have to be there, watch and wait. That's fine. You have to respect the way time works. Preconceived ideas adapt and change. The work is flexible and it consolidates as you do it. Sometimes it's good that there are two of us because whilst one of us works, the other rests, and when we are both there, one complements the other.

You must have a very ambiguous relationship with this "object of study". How many skyscrapers on the planet have been transformed into squats? Probably none, but this building is not at the centre of media attention either here or abroad (imagine for a minute that squatters took over the Statue of Liberty—it would probably make us forget all about the twin towers). In the face of the ambiguity surrounding how the public would assimilate an event of these dimensions, what do you think is happening: a) that this is the greatest example of the scam of modernist progress, b) that it leaves us so perplexed that we can't even react, or c) that this is the best way to shake off modernist complexes?
There are several cases like this in the world. Everywhere there are economic problems linked to housing crises, new ways of inhabiting buildings are created. As we mentioned before, there are similar cases in South Africa. There is also a lot of work regarding politics, housing and the economy carried out by socially committed artists such as Martha Rosler, in the United States.

But if we have to choose from your three options, we'd pick the last one: to shake off modernist complexes. The art of the present, as Serge Daney rightly points out, cannot be full of regrets. We need to look back and see what elements in the past mapped out our current situation, but not to take a blinkered look at a particular period, with tear-filled eyes, "in search of lost time".

 
The tower is not 'a topic', nor a theme park, but a space-object where situations converge that enable us to observe, research and develop a project from different disciplines we are interested in.
 

Section of Torre Confinanzas.

In Israel, architects work according to military strategies to design whole housing estates. In Venezuela, architects have to cede their ideas to the most precarious needs. How can a profession be so successful in one place (determining even the height of windows on the basis of bombs) and be so unsuccessful in another (making a skyscraper that ends up as a place where bags of excrements are thrown from the fiftieth floor)? What determining cultural factors make contrasts like this possible? What is the point of continuing in a profession that is dedicated to such nonsense? What criticism of architecture as a design problem did you have to take on board in order to understand this phenomenon from a cultural viewpoint?
This is not an architectural or design-related problem. The architect of the tower planned to make a skyscraper to house a company, a hotel and a mall. Nobody planned for this building to be taken over by squatters. Basically, as the State did not respond to the housing deficit, people transform every space they find "idle" into a place to live. When people take over a building, they don't see a construction loaded with cultural or formal implications, but a piece of wasteland with a roof and stairs, and ample space to set up home in. The building was left half-built because of a political and economic problem. Architecture here is nothing more than a vehicle to talk about things. The content moves around this vehicle, which might just as well have been a bridge, a hill, a plot of land or a warehouse.

It's true that architecture and urban planning are matters for the State, in terms of what you mentioned about Israel. It's also true that totalitarian regimes benefit from a particular type of architecture, which ends up being part of its discourse of power, as in the emblematic case of Albert Speer or many monumental constructions in communist countries. Liberal governments are driven by something different; they work to maintain public works, to foster spaces of consumption and pleasure, and grant architects creative freedom. In a sense, every State "constructs" its image through different decisions: what it demolishes, what it builds, what it forgets, what it does and doesn't do. It would be interesting to do an analysis of our government in terms of its urban strategies, or lack of them.

Left: An elevator shaft perforates the floor slabs of the parking lot. Looking downwards, one can see the kindergarten in barrio Sarría; upwards, a view of the tower’s evangelical wing. Right: The stairs leading to the tower’s parking lot. Despite the absence of handrails, they are regularly used by the building’s inhabitants.

Obviously the above comment is made by somebody who hasn't spent time, like you have, with the people who took over the skyscraper. So, how important are the experiences you have with these people? How has the research you're both doing determined what the squatters think of the building?
This project underwent a rupture. At the start we approached what for us was an idea of the tower, what it represented for the city, in Venezuelan art, as a form, grid, icon, metaphor. We made a series of works that reproduced what it looks like on the outside in terms of form and also in terms of its symbolism, the grid as a structure and history. It was important to adopt that distance from it. Then, when we entered the tower there was a shift. We might say that the language used on the inside is much more complex than we first thought and not because it is spectacular, but because it is organic. Everyone wants to live in the best possible conditions. When you are inside, you're not in the tower, you are in shared corridors, on the stairs or in a person or a family's home. The tower disappears when you are on the inside and it becomes a compendium of atomized languages that live together within the overall layout.

Roinner Hernández (aka Ronny), 20, works in a prestigious hair salon in the southeast of Caracas but also receives clients in his apartment on the 4th floor of the tower. As a mirror, he uses a sheet of glass taken from the facade of the tower.

In earlier works, you have both addressed the problem of representation by adopting very different approaches. Ángela approaches the problem as somebody who criticizes it through the way it is classified. Juan José seeks to create an iconography of forgetfulness. What was it about David's Tower that led you to work together?
We started to work together in a different way, placing each of our works about the representation of memory and possible memories into dialogue. After this preliminary exercise, we decided to deal with making joint works and we focused on the tower, which allowed us to approach it from different places and disciplines. And it has worked. There is no overarching reason for this, except the possibility it offers us to bring together different references and trains of thought.

Southeast view of Caracas from the 26th floor. In the distance, one can make out the minaret of the Quebrada Honda mosque.

Bulletin board with rules and regulations for the 23rd floor, including information on payments and a list of people responsible for maintenance.

Welcome to the Country Club
 

Welcome to the Country Club

In the settlement built by the Tupac Amaru movement, a model for a possible alternative to gated communities and social housing.

 

Architecture / Justin McGuirk