Torre David: Informal Urban Communities offers a glimpse of life in an uncompleted 45-storey tower that’s home to thousands of squatters.
The unusual story of the Torre David skyscraper, which sits at the edge of Caracas’ banking district, began in the 1990s, when investor David Brillembourg set out to build the third-tallest structure in Venezuela. After Brillembourg died in 1993, and the banking crisis rippled through the country in 1994, any hope of further construction collapsed. It sat empty and unfinished for years, until a housing shortage in 2007 prompted squatters to move in and make the tower a home. Today it’s estimated that roughly 2,500 people representing 750 families live “extra-legally” in the tower.
The site naturally drew the attention of Urban-Think Tank, the architecture firm run by Alfredo Brillembourg – a distant cousin of the investor – and Hubert Klumpner. U-TT is focused on informal urban communities, the development of marginalized and impoverished areas, and the role of architecture and urbanism at the crossroads of developed and developing economies.
“Lots of people were slowly creeping into Torre David when we lived in Caracas,” Brillembourg told Azure, “But it wasn’t until we went inside that we discovered that what they had done was kind of amazing.” The discovery prompted the duo to look more closely at Torre David’s history and the makeshift society it now shelters. “In the 1960s, Dutch architect John Habraken wrote about the idea of the open building – how office structures are just frameworks to be changed over time. We should dedicate the aesthetics and intelligence as architects to designing great frameworks, and then leave the rest to be finished by whatever medium or economy is available.” This philosophy was evident in U-TT’s Golden Lion-winning exhibit at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture that paired the firm’s research into Torre David with striking images by renowned photographer Iwan Baan.
Now, a 416-page book published by Lars Müller Publishers presents a detailed project history, diagrams of the structure, and even a graphic novella by Andre Kitagawa that traces the history of the tower over the years. Most impressive are Baan’s images depicting the building and its residents. Some live in stark conditions, in tents pitched on the bare concrete floors, while others have decorated their homes with furnishings, tiled and painted surfaces and working lights. As the tower’s population grew, entrepreneurial souls responded to all the demands of a small city, installing plumbing, grocery stores, chapels, barbershops and tailor shops. Images like these question whether Torre David should rightly be called a “slum,” given that many of its residents are there by choice, not mere necessity, eking out a respectable middle-class existence.
The book closes with a look at the structure’s potential, including some schemes for retrofitting the tower into an officially used structure. For the residents, unfortunately, there will be little say in the tower’s fate; in July, the city began the process of relocating them to a new housing complex an hour’s drive away.