Caracas’ Tower of David – the next Chapter

I have written about the Tower of David (Torre de David in Spanish) before, most recently in Invasions and Expropriations, The Squatters Win a Prize for Architecture (12-31-2012).

View of the Tower of David

View of the Tower of David

A View of the Torre from Inside Out

Another view from inside out

Additional images are at the link below:

http://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/2011/04/28/the-tower-of-david.html

My introduction to the Torre was through a family friend who worked on one of the top floors of the neighboring Banco Mercantil, where you have a view of the whole Torre property.  I had seen this view several times in the past, but in 2008, I heard about odd patterns of truck traffic coming and going.  There were public rumors of arms caches, drug deals, the government holding prisoners. But at street level, it seemed pretty clear that whatever else was going on, there were satellite dishes and drying laundry, telltale signs that the Torre had become a squatter settlement.  The first piece I saw in the media was this BBC video in Spanish:

http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2010/11/101109_video_caracas_ocupas_re.shtml

The Torre was originally conceived by financier David Brillembourg as the “Torre de Confianzas”, anchor to a new financial district in Caracas.  Construction began in 1990.  But as a financial crisis deepened and then, in 1993, Brillembourg died, construction stopped and the government took over the unfinished building.  It had no water, sewer, or electricity, only a few exterior walls or windows, and no elevators.  It became known as the Torre de David. It sat idle for over a decade, steadily being stripped of anything of value thieves could take away, until the squatter invasion began in 2007.  Eventually, as many as 2,500 people lived in this hollow shell of a skyscraper.

In 2012, an exhibit of the Torre was shown at the Venice Biennial Architectural Exhibition as an example of innovative architecture.  Improbably, it won the prize as 2012’s best exhibit, “demonstrating how an unplanned piece of city can work as well as one made by architects”.

Suddenly, news of the Torre was everywhere.  Reporters from around the world were coming to try and get the story.  It had become the archetypal urban nightmare.  In early 2013, journalist Jon Lee Anderson published an article in the New Yorker called Slumlord, where the Torre was the centerpiece.  Later that year, Fox’s popular cable television series “Homeland” chose the Torre for a scene in two 3rd season episodes.  The interior scenes were filmed in an abandoned building in Puerto Rico, but the production identifies the location as Caracas.  A short report from the Telegraph entitled “Homeland – Inside the Real Tower of David in Venezuela”, explains:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9110j78lyM

A much more complete reportage is done here:

“The world’s tallest slum: Caracas’ Notorious Tower of David”

What was often overlooked is that the Torre was only the most visible of many urban invasions all over Caracas.  There is an extreme housing shortage, which the government has failed to solve, but people also feel empowered to invade because Venezuela’s laws favor renters over owners, and because when President Chavez was alive, he famously encouraged the poor to take over vacant and abandoned property.

The government never officially approved of the Torre invasion, but made no attempt to shut it down.  No reporter who was able to get inside ever noted the presence of any government officials or police, just the private, heavily armed security of former imprisoned felon El Niño Daza, who, it was said, ran the property like his personal fiefdom.  

And yet … people who got into the Torre and talked to residents found that even in such a forbidding setting, people collaborated to build essential services, make homes, and live with some order to their lives.  Photographer Alejandro Zegarra made frequent visits for six months, taking pictures and talking to residents.  This black and white image he took of a girl riding her bike – while he talked to her mother, somehow captured a little of the humanity of this place.

Inside view of several floors of homes and girl riding her bike

Inside view of several floors of homes and girl riding her bike

After the wave of international publicity, the Venezuelan government knew they had to do something, as former Vice-President Jorge Rodriguez acknowledged to reporter Jon Lee Anderson in 2013.

Finally on July 23, 2014, 2,469 days after the first squatters arrived, the government announced they would relocate all 1,207 squatter families from the Torre to a new government housing development outside Caracas.  They were careful to call this a relocation, not an eviction, and reported that it followed lengthy negotiations to convince families to go, and that the government would help move people’s possessions.  As of July 2015, Venezuelan media have reported that all the squatters have now been moved out.

And so finally, this long strange chapter has come to an end.  What will become of the building?  The government has only promised to have an open debate on the matter.  So, we won’t call it the final Chapter – yet.

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