Exemplifying Common Ground, the theme of the 2012 Venice Biennale for Architecture, Torre David/Gran Horizonte was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Project of the Exhibition. Led by Urban-Think Tank’s Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, curator Justin McGuirk, and photographer Iwan Baan, the Torre David/Gran Horizonte team converted the Arsenale exhibition space into a Venezuelan canteen with video and photo exhibition.
British architect David Chipperfield, director of Common Ground, challenged designers to consider broadly the public realm. Chipperfield stated, “Our cities can be interpreted as the physical form of a dynamic struggle between the individual and the collective.” The award jury included Benedetta Tagliabue (GSD design critic, spring 2012).
Torre David, located in Caracas, Venezuela, is often called the world’s tallest vertical slum. Intended as the headquarters of a bank, then abandoned during the financial meltdown in the 1990s, Torre David soon became home to squatters who made their homes by infilling the reinforced concrete structure. Today over 750 families live in the 45-story structure. The units range from temporary walls covered in newspaper to immaculate interiors of matching tiles and wallpaper. With no elevators within the torre, people use stairs, or hire motorbike taxis to shuttle them within the attached parking garage to the upper reaches.
The dream of vertical social housing seems all but lost in the American context. Urban designers and architects have the indelible image of the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, the housing project in St. Louis that failed due to social problems and insurmountable crime. However Torre David is a self-regulating system delivering homes and a public realm. The system resembles an informal “Site and Services” approach, designed to bring land, services and shelter within the economic reach of the poor.
Iwan Baan presented his portraits of Torre David in a Loeb-sponsored lecture in April 2012. Basketball courts, impromptu gyms and pocket gardens dot atriums in what Baan calls a “human beehive.” Prices in the pop-up stores increase the higher the floor level since everything must be imported. Without formal design intervention, there is deep placemaking within the public spaces.
In Venice, Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner granted Caroline James an “interview on the move” as they navigated the narrow alleyways behind the Arsenale to their next press conference.
CJ: How did you come up with Torre David/Gran Horizonte?
AB: Gran Horizonte is the restaurant in Caracas where Hubert and I have been eating arepas (a Venezuelan stuffed cornmeal patty) our whole life. But also our “grand horizon” is the horizon of architecture now, and where cities in the global South will go.
CJ: What design principles did you learn from Torre David?
AB: Torre David is an incredible laboratory of human ingenuity. We don’t endorse squatting, but we think that to build cheaper housing in the city, we have to go vertical, and maybe it has to be built by the people themselves. So we can lay out a simple infrastructure and the apartment units can be built out individually.
HK: It’s also much more than just social housing. Frank Lloyd Wright said that the new city will appear haphazardly. There’s no “architecture” that has to do anything to it. Torre David exists within the network of a 500-year old colonial city in South America. There is this overlay of the modern and the ancient, the formal and the informal. Mobility and people are replacing centralized infrastructures—all this you can see in Torre David.
CJ: How does the Torre fit within your thoughts about the contemporary or future city?
AB: Cities that were relevant in the 20th Century, such as Manhattan, will not be the reference point for the 21st Century. Instead, we look at cities like Lagos, Mumbai, Caracas and Sao Paolo for the hybrid between formal and informal practices. Cities cannot keep on eating agricultural land. Instead we must go vertical. Torre David is an investigation on how to go vertical with social housing that has all sorts of productive functions inside.
CJ: And what projects are on the horizon, the grand horizon?
AB: We’re now building our music theater in Sao Paolo, which won the Holcim Silver Global award. We have to figure out how to work with the industry, and how to do top-down and bottom-up approaches, where the architect is the glue between the two.
Hubert Klumpner and Alfredo Brillembourg lectured at Harvard GSD in September 2010 about their recent work with Urban-Think Tank.
Photos of Torre David courtesy of Iwan Baan
Photos of Torre David/Gran Horizonte: Caroline James