Soon after architect Elisa Silva moved to Caracas, Venezuela, in 2007, she found herself in La Morán, one of the city’s many barrios. Erected in the mid-twentieth century during the country’s economic expansion, these self-built, spontaneous settlements have since grown to house almost half the capital’s population. However, such unplanned sectors, which also include La Palomera and Chapellin, suffer from unequal access to resources, and are both stigmatized and under-recognized as part of the official city. It’s this fragmentation that Silva is interested in reconciling.
Almost 15 years on, Silva — who grew up between St. Louis and Venezuela — has created a multidisciplinary design practice, Enlace Arquitectura. Part of its focus is on community initiatives, civic activations, architectural interventions and exhibitions that address the public domain of the barrios — attempting to bridge the formal and informal urban fabrics through their interstitial spaces. From pavement to planters and publications to parties, Silva and her team design in a decidedly open-ended, bottom-up fashion that prioritizes consultation and engagement and results in an egalitarian process of city-making.
“You’re asking people to think about something in their city that they’ve never much questioned,” she says of these largely ignored neighbourhoods, “even though it’s incredibly visible.” In 2011, she received the prestigious Wheelwright Prize from Harvard University, her alma mater, which allowed her to explore similar places throughout Latin America. This eventually led to her exhibition and book Pure Space: Expanding the Public Sphere through Public Space Transformations in Latin American Spontaneous Settlements, which followed 2015’s CABA: Cartography of the Caracas Barrios 1966–2014 in tracing the evolution and issues endemic in these territories.
Yet 2017 brought with it another challenge: Venezuela’s political turmoil and economic spiral meant that much of the funding for the studio’s interventions was no longer available. That same year, to access additional support and to “organize our two paths of action,” Silva established a parallel practice: Enlace Foundation, which has been supported by several foreign embassies in Venezuela and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, among other organizations. It also continues to shape how both arms operate, including the ongoing transformation of a cultural centre in La Palomera. Azure recently caught up with the architect to discuss her work — from the potential of public spaces to her unique approach to the malleable, unfinished project of building.
Since founding your practice, you’ve focused extensively on self-built neighbourhoods, or barrios, in cities like Caracas. What initially drew you to them?
- Elisa Silva
What struck me most about them was the sense of uncertainty and the open question of “What could our profession, as architects who look at the built environment, do here?” It’s always been a trope that the Global South is a place where there is a lot to do, and it’s not so simple as that in the end.
Over the years and across many different projects, we’ve learned a great deal and come to the point of understanding that public space provides the community with the amazing opportunity not only for recreation but for seeing themselves. But it’s still not enough to serve as a point to integrate the whole city. That’s something we’re really keen on: How does one integrate a fragmented city? How do you break stigmas? It’s not just about the public space or the accessibility of a barrio; it’s about the desire of people to go and learn about these other parts of the city — falsely understood to be solely violent, illegal and fraught with all sorts of deficiencies — and to see them differently. This ultimately opens up all sorts of opportunities for city-making that are not hierarchical and pejorative.
What can public spaces do to mitigate certain forms of urban inequality?
In places like Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Medellín and many other Latin American cities, the houses that are self-built, in many cases, have been there for nearly 80 years. They’ve been through earthquakes already. What is tough to consider in a barrio is what’s outside of the home. These communities have a rich sense of collectivity that’s incredible, even enviable, yet it largely hasn’t manifested itself in how they care for what is beyond the limits of their houses. So you’ll find clandestine dumps accumulating in places that lack a serious waste collection system. We’ve been working to change the whole way this happens; in La Palomera, we were able to get rid of a container that sits at the bottom of the hill and, with the neighbours, make a garden on a sloping street.
Recently, I’ve become more aware or have acknowledged that it is about a different kind of public space. But it is public space nonetheless. And it’s not just for the people who live there, but should be understood as belonging to the entire city. Where the streets end into the staircases of the barrios shouldn’t be a drastic frontier between one and the other. If we want to really integrate, it’s by physically taking ourselves to go see other parts of our city. Every area in the barrio — all of the walkways, the small openings produced by forks in the road — are public spaces. It’s really about changing the narrative.
One of your earliest projects was the massive re-paving of the 1.5-kilometre-long Boulevard of Sabana Grande. But your recent work — staircases, planters and playgrounds in the city’s barrios — is far more intimately involved and connected to end-users. What informed this shift?
The boulevard pavement was a competition, and a much more conventional project in that sense. However, the strategy with the community was fairly basic: Only a small segment of the local community was considered, and they were talked at instead of creating a conversation. The project is maintained by the city with public funds, meaning that you can be there and you can use it but there’s a whole apparatus of financing and power that allows that space to function. It’s always going to be a top-down place. I would never approach a project that way again. The work we’ve been doing with communities is at a completely different scale with far fewer resources. The ideas don’t come in a top-down way — they emerge, allowing for a relationship to be forged. You are always asking questions and you are curious to see where the residents have been and what their ideas are. Then there’s a moment where it all makes sense to everyone. It’s a different kind of origin. It doesn’t feel imposed. It feels very honest.
Often, the consultations you engage in leverage games and outdoor activities to bring people together. Even the materials you use in your projects are indicative of this community-minded spirit. How do you cultivate that engagement?
You don’t need to do too much — just offer fun opportunities and good conversation. For the first project in La Palomera, which was an invitation from a local NGO whose forte is social engagement, we worked with the community, including the children of a nearby school, to reimagine what was then a waste site. One year, we hosted lectures. The next year we forgot about that entirely — it was boring and not effective at all. Instead, we came up with activities like throwing Frisbees or passing water along to nurture a certain plant or playing a game called Memory. That was ultimately the first step in changing the space. To talk about public space, we were doing things in some form of space, and to imagine what they could be, we were already outside.
Another project we completed in the barrio was transforming a parking lot into a playground with a hexagonal swing set. In the sector of Las Brisas, there wasn’t really any available space aside from a parking lot. But it has this huge beautiful tree, amazing shade and a spectacular view over the city. We asked: “What do you think about this? What about a place for kids to play?” There were lots of consultations with the community and with the car owners — what colour to paint it, how many swings to have, where to find other opportunities to park. And we made changes in the design approach when people in the neighbourhood came to us with concerns. The whole process is completely different than the methods they are accustomed to, where the municipality comes in and does whatever it wants without them having a say. On their part, with all of this disbelief that was so systemic after so many years of people promising things and never delivering, they were overjoyed to participate and see something become real.
You’ve also programmed more temporary activations, such as Nothing Out of the Ordinary, which has directly impacted the ongoing renovation of a dilapidated structure into a new cultural centre in La Palomera. Are these community events considered a rehearsal for architecture?
In a sense, the event was and wasn’t a rehearsal. Earlier on, as part of the Integration Process Caracas (IPC) program, we invited everyone in the city to get to know La Palomera through walks, dancing, music, celebrations and exhibitions. This existing structure was one site that we talked about: an abandoned space so strategically located between the historic town of Baruta and La Palomera that it could be a catalyst for integration. Two years later, one of those community members said to us, “What do we do here?” It was an invitation for us. It was obvious to all that a celebration and festivity could be a very powerful beginning, so we thought, “Let’s have a big party.”
People from the community and our team had the opportunity to open an existing and abandoned structure and clean it up. In a way, the process of preparing the building for the party was also the process of preparing it for further activation. We then projected information about La Palomera and art videos on the walls and invited the community in for beers, dancing and sancocho, a soup made collectively where some contribute vegetables and broth while someone else brings the big pot. That day was so beautiful. It represented the beginning of a collective effort that would progressively transform the space into a centre for art and culture. The party was infused with so many things that had to do with culture, and its participants validated that the space should become a permanent venue.
The whole process of fixing up the building involves many people, and ideas are always coming in. A theatre group is now using the space to rehearse and they’ve already had one performance inside. So I think it’s been a rehearsal for everybody. It’s even been a rehearsal for us in learning how to be architects or where the architect can be of use in this process — letting go of control and, instead, orchestrating a much larger concert.
In 2011, you received the Wheelwright Prize from your alma mater, Harvard University, to conduct research across Latin America on similar barrios. This eventually became an exhibition and book Pure Space: Expanding the Public Sphere through Public Space Transformations in Latin American Spontaneous Settlements, which followed 2015’s CABA: Cartography of the Caracas Barrios 1966–2014. How does research, publishing and exhibition-making figure into your practice?
The fellowship came right at the end of a huge exploration in La Moran where I got a bunch of “no’s,” which was incredibly frustrating. I think it has to be said: Being young and a woman does not help anywhere in the world. And it doesn’t help in Latin America either. The weight that the prize has, that kind of backing and what it enabled me to see allowed me to shift gears and think differently about the importance of public spaces. I thought an exhibition would be a good way to push me to synthesize all of this information into something. I also wanted to make all of these amazing things I had seen in my travels accessible to people here in Caracas and start a conversation about what is possible. I basically went over to an art centre in the city and said, “I have an exhibition that’s on this topic, are you interested and is there a date available?” And they gave me a date. Obviously, the main public of an exhibition tends to be a middle class/upper-class elite, but we opened it up to children in schools and tried to connect with certain institutions to bring kids on field trips to talk with them about the fragmented city.
The Pure Space exhibition had four iterations, one of them in Toronto actually, and the ensuing Graham Foundation grant was a way to push that material into a publication format, which became the book Pure Space: Expanding the Public Sphere through Public Space Transformations in Latin American Spontaneous Settlements. You hear a lot about housing, you hear a lot about accessibility and about transportation in terms of that being a need for barrios, but I hadn’t really seen much about public space. I understood this was content that needed to be shared
Both exhibitions and publications are fundamental to get the ball rolling in a very pragmatic way. But there is also a dissemination factor that an exhibition or book can give to a topic like the barrios, which can be so difficult for people. You’re asking them to think about something in their city that they’ve never much questioned, even though it’s incredibly visible.
A decade after you founded Enlace Arquitectura, you established the NGO Enlace Foundation. What spurred the decision — or need — to operate these parallel practices?
2017 was an interesting year here in Venezuela. We had massive political demonstrations and, from that point on, the economic situation in this country catapulted into the downward spiral it has been in for a while. This economic shift put an end to the more profit-driven investments because they were all coming from private funds. We also felt the need to go deeper and wanted to commit to working with one community. The only way to move forward with that idea, we understood, would be with our own resources and projects. So, to be able to formulate and compete for funds and grants, from a legal standpoint, having a non-for-profit was necessary. We have since formulated our own projects, presented them and fortunately got approval for many. And, have been able to move forward with programs that are more cultural and educational. The NGO allowed us to shift into something that could work financially and it ultimately helped us better organize our two paths of action.
Over the years, you’ve sketched out a mode of practice that attempts to work outside capital. Part of this is questioning the position of the architect. How do you see your role now?
There are alternative modes of spatial production. We all know the capitalist one and understand it really well. But cities have other ways of producing space. As architects, perhaps we need to tune into them and understand how we can contribute to their dynamics. We can insert ourselves into already-existing processes and help make other narratives more legible. We can also help others appreciate these spaces by opening the conversation and engaging new people as part of the projects. As these sites become physical and more and more concrete, it is fascinating and so exciting because you don’t know exactly where things are going to go. When you hear people’s ideas and think, “Damn, that’s a great idea, I can’t believe I didn’t come up with that one!” you always have the time to bring it into the project. I think that’s the message: In these alternative spaces, architecture is always a process, and is never complete.
In Venezuela’s capital, Elisa Silva and her practice Enlace Arquitectura leverage public space to connect a fragmented city.