Torre David: vertical slum?

The fascinating story of the Centro Financiero Confinanzas is the subject of Adam Fry’s exploration into the interaction between urban space and the residents of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

To those unaware of its history, the Centro Financiero Confinanzas looks like any other unfinished skyscraper. It is the eighth tallest building in Latin America, 45 stories high and located in the financial district of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. Its glass façade glimmers in the sun, a projection of wealth and economic prowess that was intended to house national and international businesses. Inside, however, hides a rather different reality. Because whilst the ‘Torre David’, so named after its main investor David Brillembourg, may look like the newest high rise addition to the Caracas skyline, it is actually home to over 700 families, a ‘vertical slum’ that is a truly fascinating example of reapproprioation of space in an urban environment. And whilst the tower is a clear example of the dogged human desire to exist, it also raises questions about how urban space is partitioned, how private and public space interact, and ultimately, how people with next to nothing have taken control of somewhere they were never intended to set foot in.

Construction started on the tower in 1990, yet the death of Brillembourg in 1993 and the Venezuelan banking crisis one year later meant that construction ground to a halt. It lay unoccupied and unfinished, an ironic symbol of financial failure that was intended to represent the unstoppable march of Venezuela’s petro fuelled booming economy.  To this day, it is a shell, a skeletal construction whose bare structural bones became, in October of 2007, a remarkable opportunity for an intrepid group of squatters, families whose economic and social situation led them to seek a new life in a space intended for stockbrokers and bankers, their potential interaction with the grinding poverty at ground level negated by the presence of a helipad. Families whose search for a decent home had led them to risk forging a new life 30 floors up, reminded constantly of their precarious position by the wind that whipped through their sparse living quarters. The views were incredible but deadly, a god like view of a city that had failed to accommodate its newest inhabitants.

They made use of cheap building materials, breeze blocks and tarpaulin, cardboard and corrugated iron, to construct their homes. It is a formula that has been endlessly repeated and replicated around the world, from the favelas of Rio to the shanty towns of India, hastily arranged dwellings that initially provide temporary shelter. The construction of homes, the imposition of a personal space in which to live, was illegal, a form of trespassing in a building that belonged to a government supposedly tasked with providing a decent living space for its citizens. Yet the difference with Torre David is that there was only one way to keep building. Up. Yet with all temporary dwellings, bits and pieces are added, living space expanded as and when the money to construct them becomes available. Materials were precariously carried up bare concrete staircases as homes began to take shape. Basic necessities such as electricity and toilets were rigged up rudimentarily. The tower began to become more than a shell, its residents had illegally and crudely started to finish the job that had started some 17 years before, a potent emblem of a resourceful population becoming self-sufficient in the face of government ineptitude.

 The occupation of the tower, however, is more than just a search for living space. A flourishing economy has built up inside its concrete walls, hairdressers, grocery stores and workshops serve the burgeoning community of increasingly settled occupants. The towers fundamentally isolated nature– bear in mind it was originally intended as a sanctuary for the city’s gilded workforce amongst the noise and chaos of urban Caracas– have fomented a strong sense of community, utopic even. Community leaders have been designed to try and begin a process of legalization, of official recognition. Roots have been set down and the flowering buds of a society emerge, anchoring the tower with more than its massive foundations.  Yet it is not without its dangers. Stories of children playing dangerously close to the edges, falling to their death even, are a constant worry. Whilst it may represent a maverick intention to forge a life, the tower is still a long way off becoming a settled, comfortable place to live.

However, the Torre David is a fascinating example of urban life played out in a particularly peculiar setting. Residents talk of protecting themselves against crime by simply pulling away the ladders that permit access to their homes. It is an occupation that has not gone unnoticed amongst the wider community. Alfredo Brillembourg, a relative of the man whose vision gave birth to the tower, and founder of the firm Urban Think Tank said of the tower “It doesn’t look good, but it has the seed of a very interesting dream of how to organize life”. Indeed the firm has created a web page with the sole intention of exploring how the tower both represents and explores the notion of urban space and living.

Yet maybe in its very precariousness as a dwelling lies its power as a symbol of urban failure. It attracted those whose search for that basic human right, somewhere to live, had been a desperate failure. People  who, in their desperation, became mavericks. Yet I doubt they would ever have wanted to have that label attached to them. Because whilst the tower is, more than anything, a symbol of how humanity can adapt to circumstances and situations that negate its very right to exist, it is also a symbol of failure. Space is commoditized and monetized in urban environments till it becomes exclusive, out of bounds for those who do not have the resources to access it. That was the intention of the Centro Financiero Confinanzas. Yet what happens when those rules are broken? What happens when people who make a private space public through the act of trespass, embed themselves? Because in my opinion the Torre David raises more questions than it answers. Its questions our relationship with urban space. How a group of families looking for a home came to resemble the collective failure of a society , publicly turning the spotlight back on the shortcomings  of a government whose raison d’etre is improving their plight.