The theme at this year’s 13th Architectural Biennale in Venice is Common Ground. Although at times it felt as if some of the contributors were struggling with this particular concept. The least successful being the Russian Pavilion, where once you’d pushed your way through the Free Pussy Riot protesters outside you were handed a PC tablet and proceeded into what felt like the interior of a glossy box of sci-fi bonbons – consisting of three rooms with a grid of QR codes wrapping the walls, floors and ceilings. By honing in on any code you could bring the relevant piece of architecture up on your tablet and read about it, something that felt so alienating and pointless that it was impossible to engage. It was supposed to turn us into scientists and explorers to discover information about the Skolkovo Project, a new city, which promotes architectural and technological innovations 
in Russian urbanism. The Pavilion looked impressive and slick, like the boutique section in a very upscale department store, but failed miserably to my mind, achieving the very opposite of Common Ground. And not because I’m a technophobe – I love my laptop and we engage far more hours every day than what can be deemed healthy. Looking at tiny images and very dry text on a tablet while standing in a windowless room surrounded by other people doing the same just made it very hard to motivate any kind of interest.

Someone who really hit the mark, however, was Torre David | Gran Horizonte, curated by Justin McGuirk with participants Urban-Think Tank (Alfredo Brillembourg & Hubert Klumpner – ETH Zürich) and Iwan Baan. I am pleased to see they were awarded the Golden Lion for the Best Project of the Common Ground Exhibition. Very deservedly so. In contrast to some of the exhibits, which seemed to almost push you away, this one drew you in, with its mock-up interpretation of a floor in the real Torre David, complete with realistically half-finished walls, a colourful bodega serving delicious arepas and beer with music blasting out as a background track to the amazing images on display.

The exhibit is based on what happened to Torre David, a 45-storey office tower designed by the Venezuelan architect Enrique Gomez, which was almost completed when it was abandoned following the death of its developer, David Brillembourg, in 1993.

Originally named the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, it was conceived in 1990 as a gleaming hub for Venezuela’s spoiled financial class, so they should one day be able to simply vault over the street-level misery and land on the rooftop helipad, 600 feet in the air. Alas, things didn’t work out quite that way. The following year, Venezuela’s banks collapsed, leaving the half-built skyscraper standing as an accidental monument to financial disaster and hubris rather than to self-indulgent and obscene luxury.

Photo by Iwan Baan

The complex stood vacant until 2007, when a group of families from the barrios led by a convict turned preacher staged an orderly move-in and founded an instant vertical community. Initially they just squatted the ground floor, but soon the residents policed themselves, assigned the elderly and disabled to the lower floors, and formed a cooperative to collect dues and manage the space. Today, about 625 families inhabit 28 of the tower’s 45 stories, trudging up unfinished staircases and hoping children stay away from empty elevator shafts and balconies that lack walls.

Despite the dangers, the building provides a relatively safe haven in a city where (according to the U.S. State Department) travellers risk being kidnapped as soon as they leave the airport. There’s internal security and a guard stationed by the front door 24 hours a day. The co-op makes the big decisions and it really functions as a mini society. Some people look upon it as just another barrio; to others, however, it’s a big step up. The tower’s residents managed to obtain electricity legally and rig up toilets to a rudimentary plumbing system. Motorbikes ply the parking structure’s spiral ramps, ferrying supplies up to a distribution center on the tenth floor. Urban Sherpas carry goods from there, hauling them up to tiny bodegas, where prices rise with altitude. Residents have gradually marked off their quarters with finished walls, some in a quite basic fashion, others have created a more sophisticated finish.

‘Compared to housing in many other neighborhoods, we have a pretty good quality of life,’ says Gladys Flores, the secretary of the residents’ cooperative. ‘But we still need elevators.’

‘It doesn’t look good, but it has the seed of a very interesting dream of how to organize life,’ says Alfredo Brillembourg, an architect and relative of David Brillembourg, the developer of the construction. A co-founder of the firm Urban–Think Tank, Brillembourg sees the settlement as a font of lessons on how to adapt broken cities to the millions who flock to them. They argue that the future of urban development lies in collaboration among architects, private enterprise and the global population of slum-dwellers. Brillembourg and Klumpner suggest that their fellow achitects see the potential for innovation and experimentation in these informal settlements. The goal should be (besides making sure that everyone has a safe roof over their heads) to put design to use for a more sustainable and just future for all.

For all its improvisatory resourcefulness, the settlement does represent a massive failure of civic society. After all, the government could choose at any time to make the building habitable and safe. All the same, the skyscraper is a modern ruin buzzing with life, making a mockery of an oil-rich nation’s aspirations while being a testament to human pluck and inventiveness despite circumstances.

The 13th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, directed by David Chipperfield and titled Common Ground, is open to 25th November 2012

All images by U-TT Archives | Daniel Schwartz unless otherwise credited
Words by Anna Bang

Tags

Alfredo Brillembourg, anna bang, Hubert Klumpner, Justin McGuirk, Torre David, Torre David | Gran Horizonte, Urban-Think Tank, Venice Biennale 2012,