[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Caracas: The City that Built Itself

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
Mon May 18 18:20:33 EDT 2009

Caracas, The City that Built Itself
May 14, 2009 -- Triple Canopy
by Joshua Bauchner


Utopian modernism turned on its head in Caracas, where residents have made 
fifty-year-old superblock housing projects into the locus of sprawling 
improvised settlements.

ON MANY MAPS OF CARACAS, the parroquia of 23 de Enero appears as empty 
space. A few roads are shown traversing the northwest corner of the city's 
central valley, spreading like ivy tendrils as they join together the 
jumbled street grids to the west, north, and east. But the space where the 
parish should be is blank. As you enter Caracas on the new, elevated highway 
that channels traffic into the city through the northernmost tail of the 
Andes, it is these unmarked areas of the map that you first encounter. 
Beneath the highway, red cinder-block houses with corrugated tin roofs 
cascade down the hillsides. The ranchos closest to the highway are painted 
in the stereotypical bright colors and pastels of the tropics. Those that 
sit farther away were spared the old, cheap trick of rehabilitation and 
retain the rusty hue of dust and aged cinder block.

In the city's San Francisco Valley, these slums, where nearly half of 
Caraqueños live, dramatically run up against a series of gargantuan 
buildings with punchy red, yellow, blue, and white facades cut out from the 
hillside-superbloques. Each of these housing projects is forty meters tall 
and over eighty meters long. Nearly swallowed by ranchos, they are vestiges 
of modernist urbanism long since colonized by the realities of 
twentieth-century Caracas.

The last Venezuelan dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, oversaw the 
construction of the superblocks. The project was the concrete centerpiece of 
the New National Ideal, an ambitious renewal program intended to foment "the 
rational transformation of the physical environment." In the capital, this 
entailed a massive endeavor to rid the city of its metastasizing slums. 
Between Pérez Jiménez's fraudulent election in 1952 and downfall in 1958, 
the state built 28,763 housing units, many of them contained in Caracas' 
eighty-seven superblocks. The jewel was 23 de Enero, host to thirty-eight of 
them. Inaugurated in 1955 with the moniker 2 de Diciembre, in celebration of 
the dictator's assumption of power, the parroquia was rechristened 23 de 
Enero in 1958, to commemorate his flight from the country. It now stands as 
an ironic monument to the dictator and a continuing refutation of his 

Because of Pérez Jiménez's tendency toward self-glorification, two-thirds of 
the blocks in 23 de Enero were still empty as of January 1958, years after 
their completion, waiting to be dedicated on the next anniversary of the 
dictator's ascension. But on the twenty-third of the month, as Pérez Jiménez 
was overthrown, rumors spread through the subsequent citywide celebration 
that plentiful, free apartments were available in the partially uninhabited 
project. The rush on apartments carried over from the superblocks to the 
open land surrounding them, where Caraqueños began building houses out of 
urban refuse, establishing clusters of makeshift ranchos that would soon 
become full-fledged barrios. The dictatorship's greatest symbol of regimen 
and progress was taken over and folded back into the Caracas it was to have 

This admixture of Latin America's two most prevalent forms of shelter, 
modernist housing blocks and improvised slum dwellings, is not unique, but 
the scale, site, history, and density of 23 de Enero-over eighty thousand 
residents live in the parroquia's superblocks and ranchos-make it 

IT IS DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE Olga Marí Lugo building anything. She is around 
five feet tall and eighty years old, with a compact, weathered face and a 
frail body tented by a knit sweater. When she picks up her cup and saucer, 
they rattle softly in her hands. We are sitting in her living room, the 
center of the house she has been building in 23 de Enero for nearly fifty 
years. In 1961, when she arrived in barrio Brisas de Primavera with her 
grandmother and three sons, a friend gave her a small parcel of land on a 
hillside, which had been neatly sculpted into a green incline by government 
planners. The house, one of the first to be built in the barrio, started 
like all ranchos: cinder blocks and tin planted precariously on the incline. 
"I had to leave my children here alone to go work," she remembers. "We lived 
in a marginal situation. But I continued working, working, working; I made 
the walls of the house little by little, little by little. This lasted 
twenty-two years."

Originally, "rancho" denoted a rural farmer's house, a basic structure 
contiguous with the land itself and constructed out of necessity. In the 
early twentieth century, legions of rural migrants transported the rancho 
with them to the city. But unlike their rural counterparts, urban ranchos 
are constructed from the detritus of the city's growth: zinc, iron lattice, 
cardboard, rusted tin, cinder block, and cement. The ranchos in the newest, 
poorest barrios at the city's edges still exhibit these elements, with 
packed-earth floors and steps, tin roofs resting on risers, and basic square 
openings in the walls for windows. In older barrios, including those of 23 
de Enero, such basic structures are rarer, while more "finished" ranchos 

Though Olga has long since retired from construction work, her sons have 
continued to build, and the family's three-story home is now one such 
"finished" rancho. A covered entryway leads to a naturally cooled, 
high-ceilinged living room, which is flooded with light entering from the 
nearby kitchen windows. The house is spacious, with a great sense of scale. 
On a clear and temperate morning, Olga and I look out from the balcony at a 
layer of red cinder-block additions crowning the houses of surrounding 
barrio Sierra Maestra. As she tells the history of her house and family, 
there is a subtle transition in pronouns, from the masculine lo, referring 
to rancho, to the feminine la, referring to casa. Though Venezuelan housing 
statistics locate the distinction between rancho and casa in the type and 
finish of the walls, the transition from the former to the latter is neither 
linear nor teleological. The architect Teolinda Bolívar describes the rancho 
as "never finished, simply stopped." With births and marriages come new 
rooms and floors. The latest addition to Olga's house is a third-floor shop 
for her youngest son's carpentry business.

As the barrio is constructed rancho by rancho, individual housing needs are 
satisfied and replaced by collective needs: roads, water, schools, stores. 
Individual building efforts are subsumed by collective ones, which not only 
determine the physical shape of the neighborhood but define daily life in 
the community. Bolívar describes the resident of the barrio as neither homo 
economicus (economic man) nor homo faber (working man), but rather homo 
convivalis, a being constituted by human relationships that persist 
irrespective of the government in power.

During the few months I spent in Caracas last year researching and exploring 
parroquia 23 de Enero and talking with its residents, I often passed Friday 
evenings in a parking lot overlooking the barrios with my friend Maricarmen. 
We ate fat slices of dense pound cake and drank bottles of the ubiquitous 
Polar beer as twilight settled over the hills. The massive polychromatic 
boxes hovered before us, engulfed at their bases by a hive of burnt-red 
ranchos, each buzzing with laundry lines and water tanks, linked by tangles 
of black cable that arced through the sky from one row of ranchos to the 
next. The thump of reggaeton and the slap of dominoes on nearby tables 
filled the air, puncturing the city's dull rumble. As darkness arrived, the 
blocks and ranchos melted into the far-off handmade street lamps flickering 
from barrios across the ravine, weaving a pattern of faint lights mirroring 
the dim stars above.

ON THE EDGES of Spain's Nueva Granada viceroyalty, Caracas grew in the mold 
of most European colonial cities, with preordained norms instilled in its 
gridded street plan and central plaza. The tranquil weather and slow pace of 
life gave "the city of red roofs," as it was commonly known among its upper 
class, an abiding gentility.

By the mid-twentieth century, the sleepy capital city had become a 
burgeoning metropolis rapidly outgrowing its old colonial infrastructure. In 
his 1966 history of Caraqueño architecture, Caracas in Three Periods, Carlos 
Raúl Villanueva, the primary architect of 23 de Enero, declared Caracas "no 
longer properly a city, but a formation of different molecules." Between 
1935 and 1961, with the country's agricultural sector moribund and 
ever-increasing oil profits flowing into the capital, the population of 
Caracas quintupled, while Venezuela's as a whole merely doubled. Nearly a 
million rural migrants and southern European immigrants flocked to the city, 
transforming it into a sprawl of tin- and zinc-roofed ranchos. By 1948, when 
Pérez Jiménez took power as part of a military junta, the barrios had become 
so widespread in Caracas that the rural rancho had become an official 
designation in federal urban-housing statistics. Within three years, it 
became the name of the enemy. The government issued a study condemning the 
barrios as "a threat against the morals, health, and security" of the 
nation, and its 1951 housing plan declared "war against the rancho."

Tasked with prosecuting this war and solving the so-called housing problem, 
the public-housing bureau hired Villanueva to lead TABO, its new 
architecture studio. TABO's cheap, long-lasting housing was to be the 
central front in the New Pérez Jiménez and his architects adopted much of 
Corbusier's utopian vision and rhetoric. The superblocks were designed to 
synthesize different classes, values, and lives into "an organic community." 
They were to be part of a radical master plan to reconstruct all Caracas 
with the balance and order craved by modernist architects and dictators 
alike. Villanueva adapted Corbusier's design for the Venezuelan climate by 
including open-air passages; he accommodated the country's population 
explosion by expanding the proportions of each superblock to include 160 
apartments on sixteen floors and by building double and triple superblocks.

Ultimately, though, the superblock lost much of its utopian character in the 
construction process. As the Caraqueño population grew, so did its 
discontent with the dictatorship, which was manifest in the growing number 
of fractured oppositional organizations. Pérez Jiménez redirected this 
pressure into his already intense public-works projects, rushing 23 de Enero 
from early sketches to breaking ground. His demands halved the total 
footprint of the project and brought the superblocks to construction without 
many of the features originally proposed by Villaneuva, including pilotis 
and loggia, north-south orientation, duplex apartments, interior trash 
chutes, and large common spaces on every fourth floor.

In the transition away from dictatorial whim after January 23, 1958, 
disarray presided in the city and the government. Student volunteers 
haphazardly began adjudicating disputes between new residents of 23 de Enero 
regarding their apartments and land. Delivering services and collecting rent 
became increasingly difficult as the population skyrocketed. Amid all this, 
construction by Banco Obrero was halted. Burdened with the debt left over 
from the dictator's many public-works projects, the government steered its 
public-housing resources toward smaller-scale projects. Three years after 
Pérez Jiménez fled, an in-depth state study of 23 de Enero called for the 
cessation of "all types of construction of superblocks."

ALTHOUGH THE SUPERBLOCKS failed to transform urban life in the ways 
predicted by modernist planners, they have fostered community. At one point, 
Olga spoke of El Caracazo, a violent upheaval in Caracas surrounding 
government incompetence, failures, and anti-dissident crackdowns in February 
1989, during which one of her sons died. The violence in the parroquia was 
particularly acute, but she recalls a "sentimiento de pertenencia" ("feeling 
of belonging") persisting throughout the chaos.

This feeling extends to the heights of the superblocks as well. Deprived of 
necessary funding and functional administration by a succession of 
governments, the superblocks are sustained both apartment by apartment and 
in small, ad hoc organizations. Impromptu organizing has been the hallmark 
of 23 de Enero, with committees tackling problems from physical 
infrastructure to gun violence and drug use. While the collapse of the 
modernist promise of cheap, dense housing for the poor has followed a 
similar course in decrepit clusters of towers everywhere from St. Louis to 
the former Soviet republics, here the community has managed to stanch social 

When I first arrived in Caracas and met with a group of community organizers 
who lived in 23 de Enero, I asked them how residents see the distinctions 
between different superblocks and barrios. Like the ranchos that surround 
them, the superblocks are always being renovated, and they are in vastly 
different states of repair. Some have peeling facades and trash-strewn front 
yards. Their elevators require full-time operators, and the exterior trash 
chutes disintegrate as they descend from the top floor. Others have luscious 
gardens and functional chutes. Their elevators run smoothly on their own, 
and the paint is brilliant. I heard rumors that a few large families had 
even connected vertically aligned apartments into duplexes. The physical 
conditions of the structures seemed to me to reflect distinct traditions of 
collective maintenance or neglect. But everyone I asked evaded my questions 
with a quizzical look and told me I was missing the point. They felt at home 
throughout La Veinte Tres, not only in particular barrios or blocks.

"Twenty-three de Enero is, and always has been, revolutionary," 
ninety-two-year-old Francisco Egañez told me when I visited his home in 
Bloque 50. For Francisco, who wore a red flannel shirt and a red hat bearing 
the logo of his union, the parroquia was always a site of resistance, an 
oppositional stronghold within the city of the government. Even today it 
maintains its reputation as both a bastion of Chavismo and the home of a 
handful of remaining radicals independent of the president. But in a city 
supersaturated with the word revolution-Ipostel, the dysfunctional postal 
service, is, by its own account, "revolutionizing the mail"-it's nearly 
impossible to parse such pronouncements. Nevertheless, the interdependence 
of life in 23 de Enero does seem to represent a more enduring, more 
difficult form of collective politics than that offered up on President 
Chávez's weekly Aló Presidente talk show.

Birthed and orphaned by the state, 23 de Enero is now home to residents who 
have spent years struggling to preserve the lives they have created for 
themselves. Ligia Martínez de Elías, one of the first residents of Bloque 
20-21, said to me, "I lived through Pérez Jiménez, I lived through Caldera, 
and now I live under Chávez. Regardless of the government, if you don't 
work, you can't eat. One doesn't live by the government."

OFFICIALLY, JANUARY 23, 1958, marked the Venezuelan democratic revolution. 
But the actual role of the state changed very little. The 1958 Punto Fijo 
Pact led to a political system dominated by two centrist parties dedicated 
to taming the dual exigencies of oil wealth and population growth, as the 
state had done since the emergence of a worldwide market for petroleum in 
World War I.

Like the dictator, the parties facilitated the extraction of crude oil from 
the country's subsoil; but after 1958 the people were allowed to cast 
ballots affirming the legitimacy of the system every five years. This 
arrangement endured until Hugo Chávez's 1998 campaign, which promised and 
delivered a break with partidocracia. It is less clear whether Chávez has 
altered the state's essential character. In Venezuela, "the state has 
nothing to do with reality," asserted the playwright José Ignacio Cabrujas 
in a mid-1980s lecture sponsored by the Presidential Commission for State 
Reform. "The state is a magnanimous sorcerer" buoyed by oil, which "is 
fantastic and induces fantasies"-first among them the fantasy of progress.

Historian Fernando Coronil terms Cabrujas's conception of Venezuela "the 
magical state" in his book of the same title. Under Pérez Jiménez, who was 
convinced Venezuela could will itself to modernity, the state produced a 
series of ostentatious performances that promised miracles but delivered 
little more than sparks from a wand. The repudiation of the state's ultimate 
magic act, the eradication of the city's slums, was not confined to January 
23 or its immediate aftermath, but has been lived out over and over in the 
construction of the parroquia by its own residents.

On one of my first visits to the parroquia, a friend of a friend asked 
whether I had been to Monte Piedad, a barrio on the parroquia's eastern tip. 
I had. "Did you notice that there is no Bloque 8?" he inquired. I shook my 
head, and he proceeded to tell me a story I would hear many times during my 
stay in Caracas, though I could never confirm it: In an act of immense 
generosity that Latin American dictators tend to perform only for one 
another, Pérez Jiménez gifted an entire superblock to Colombia's dictator, 
General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla-Bloque 8. The polychromatic facade, exterior 
elevator column, endless square cutouts in the concrete balusters, and huge 
rooftop water tanks were all replicated thirteen hundred kilometers 
southwest of Caracas in Cali, Colombia. He smiled wryly and said, "The 
Colombians call it 'El Venezolano.'"

Today, the parroquia encompassing the superblocks is, to its neighbors, as 
prominent a symbol of Venezuela as the buildings themselves. Chávez has 
clearly learned something from 23 de Enero: The federal government now funds 
community councils directly, empowering them to make decisions about 
infrastructure improvements and social programs. These community councils 
are buttressed by misiones, federal programs to increase access to 
healthcare and education in the barrios, and they have begun to foster 
"sentimientos de pertenencia" in other parts of the city. Yet in Caracas, as 
in so many global megacities, the question of housing remains essentially 
unanswered, and the high rhetoric of modernism has yet to find a successor.

The physical lessons of the barrio can and must be learned by architects and 
planners in Caracas and beyond, where slums and superblocks are now integral 
parts of the built environment. The recent incredible barrio-rehabilitation 
projects in Medellín, Colombia, demonstrate progress in this vein. Chávez, 
however, may not have fully processed the lessons of 23 de Enero. Separate 
from his progressive and successful community councils and misiones, he has 
begun construction on an entirely new city called Caribia for the residents 
of the capital's poorest barrios just outside Caracas-a project squarely in 
the tradition of the magical state.

In a 1955 issue of Integral, Venezuela's leading architecture and urbanism 
review, Jorge Romero Gutierrez proposed a modified superblock that "would 
incline along the plane of the hill." In the accompanying sketches, each 
apartment has a garden covering its roof and a room built into the hill in 
back. They resemble a mass-produced barrio, but with additional niceties. 
The article only mentions the real architects of this modified block, barrio 
residents, to criticize their way of life as being incompatible with 
"well-planned housing."

Ironically, the same demographic and political pressures that inspired 
Gutierrez's design eventually led to the dissolution of the state agencies 
that would have funded its realization, and the plans never left the page. 
Nevertheless, the homemade model has thrived. Just several hundred meters 
from the presidential palace, 23 de Enero sits on its hill, baldly exposed 
to all those entering the city from the sea and the air, a living testament 
to Venezuela's legacy of housing built well, if not planned. 

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