Utopian modernism turned on its head in Caracas, where residents have made fifty-year-old superblock housing projects into the locus of sprawling improvised settlements.
ON MANY MAPS OF CARACAS,
of 23 de Enero appears as empty space. A few roads are shown traversing the northwest corner of the city’s central valley, spreading like ivy tendrils as they join together the jumbled street grids to the west, north, and east. But the space where the parish should be is blank. As you enter Caracas on the new elevated highway that channels traffic into the city through the northernmost tail of the Andes, it is these unmarked areas of the map that you first encounter. Beneath the highway, red cinder block houses
with corrugated tin roofs cascade down the hillsides. The ranchos
closest to the highway are painted in the stereotypical bright colors and pastels of the tropics. Those that sit farther away were spared the old cheap trick of rehabilitation and retain the rusty hue of dust and aged cinder block.
In the city’s San Francisco Valley, these slums, where nearly half of Caraqueños live, dramatically run up against a series of gargantuan buildings with punchy red, yellow, blue, and white facades cut out from the hillside—superbloques
. Each of these housing projects is forty meters tall and over eighty meters long. Nearly swallowed by ranchos, they are vestiges of modernist urbanism long since colonized by the realities of twentieth-century Caracas.
The last Venezuelan dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, oversaw the construction of the superblocks. The project was the concrete centerpiece of the New National Ideal, an ambitious renewal program intended to foment “the rational transformation of the physical environment.” In the capital, this entailed a massive endeavor to rid the city of its metastasizing slums. Between Pérez Jiménez’s fraudulent election in 1952 and downfall in 1958, the state built 28,763 housing units, many of them contained in Caracas’s eighty-seven superblocks. The jewel was 23 de Enero, host to thirty-eight of them. Inaugurated in 1955 with the moniker 2 de Diciembre, in celebration of the dictator’s assumption of power, the parroquia was rechristened 23 de Enero in 1958, to commemorate his flight from the country. It now stands as an ironic monument to the dictator and a continuing refutation of his legacy.
Because of Pérez Jiménez’s tendency toward self-glorification, two-thirds of the blocks in 23 de Enero were still empty as of January 1958, years after their completion, waiting to be dedicated on the next anniversary of the dictator’s ascension. But on the twenty-third of the month, as Pérez Jiménez was overthrown, rumors spread through the subsequent citywide celebration that plentiful, free apartments were available in the partially uninhabited project. The rush on apartments carried over from the superblocks to the open land surrounding them, where Caraqueños began building houses out of urban refuse, establishing clusters of makeshift ranchos that would soon become full-fledged barrios
. The dictatorship’s greatest symbol of regimen and progress was taken over and folded back into the Caracas it was to have replaced.
This admixture of Latin America’s two most prevalent forms of shelter, modernist housing blocks and improvised slum dwellings, is not unique, but the scale, site, history, and density of 23 de Enero—over eighty thousand residents live in the parroquia’s superblocks and ranchos—make it exceptional.
IT IS DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE
Olga Marí Lugo building anything. She is around five feet tall and eighty years old, with a compact, weathered face and a frail body tented by a knit sweater. When she picks up her cup and saucer, they rattle softly in her hands. We are sitting in her living room, the center of the house she has been building in 23 de Enero for nearly fifty years. In 1961, when she arrived in the Brisas de Primavera barrio with her grandmother and three sons, a friend gave her a small parcel of land on a hillside, which had been neatly sculpted into a green incline by government planners. The house, one of the first to be built in the barrio, started like all ranchos: cinder blocks and tin planted precariously on the incline. “I had to leave my children here alone to go work,” she remembers. “We lived in a marginal situation. But I continued working, working, working; I made the walls of the house little by little, little by little. This lasted twenty-two years.”
Originally, the word rancho
denoted a rural farmer’s house, a basic structure contiguous with the land itself and constructed out of necessity. In the early twentieth century, legions of rural migrants transported the rancho with them to the city. But unlike their rural counterparts, urban ranchos are constructed from the detritus of the city’s growth: zinc, iron lattice, cardboard, rusted tin, cinder block, and cement. The ranchos in the newest, poorest barrios at the city’s edges still exhibit these elements, with packed-earth floors and steps, tin roofs resting on risers, and basic square openings in the walls for windows. In older barrios, including those of 23 de Enero, such basic structures are rarer, while more “finished” ranchos prevail.
Though Olga has long since retired from construction work, her sons have continued to build, and the family’s three-story home is now one such “finished” rancho. A covered entryway leads to a naturally cooled high-ceilinged living room, which is flooded with light entering from the nearby kitchen windows. The house is spacious, with a great sense of scale. On a clear and temperate morning, Olga and I look out from the balcony at a layer of red cinder block additions crowning the houses of the surrounding barrio Sierra Maestra. As she tells the history of her house and family, there is a subtle transition in pronouns, from the masculine lo
, referring to rancho
, to the feminine la
, referring to casa
. Though Venezuelan housing statistics locate the distinction between a rancho and a casa in the type and finish of the walls, the transition from the former to the latter is neither linear nor teleological. The architect Teolinda Bolívar describes the rancho as “never finished, simply stopped.” With births and marriages come new rooms and floors. The latest addition to Olga’s house is a third-floor shop for her youngest son’s carpentry business.
As the barrio is constructed rancho by rancho, individual housing needs are satisfied and replaced by collective needs: roads, water, schools, stores. Individual building efforts are subsumed by collective ones, which not only determine the physical shape of the neighborhood but define daily life in the community. Bolívar describes the resident of the barrio as neither homo economicus
(economic man) nor homo faber
(working man), but rather homo convivalis
, a being constituted by human relationships that persist irrespective of the government in power.
During the few months I spent in Caracas last year researching and exploring parroquia 23 de Enero and talking with its residents, I often passed Friday evenings in a parking lot overlooking the barrios with my friend Maricarmen. We ate fat slices of dense pound cake and drank bottles of the ubiquitous Polar beer as twilight settled over the hills. The massive polychromatic boxes hovered before us, engulfed at their bases by a hive of burnt-red ranchos, each buzzing with laundry lines and water tanks, linked by tangles of black cable that arced through the sky from one row of ranchos to the next. The thump of reggaeton and the slap of dominoes on nearby tables filled the air, puncturing the city’s dull rumble. As darkness arrived, the blocks and ranchos melted into the far-off handmade street lamps flickering from barrios across the ravine, weaving a pattern of faint lights mirroring the dim stars above.
ON THE EDGES
of Spain’s Nueva Granada viceroyalty, Caracas grew in the mold of most European colonial cities, with preordained norms instilled in its gridded street plan and central plaza. The tranquil weather and slow pace of life gave “the city of red roofs,” as it was commonly known among its upper class, an abiding gentility.
By the mid-twentieth century, the sleepy capital city had become a burgeoning metropolis rapidly outgrowing its old colonial infrastructure. In his 1966 history of Caraqueño architecture, Caracas in Three Periods
, Carlos Raúl Villanueva, the primary architect of 23 de Enero, declared Caracas “no longer properly a city, but a formation of different molecules.” Between 1935 and 1961, with the country’s agricultural sector moribund and ever-increasing oil profits flowing into the capital, the population of Caracas quintupled, while Venezuela’s as a whole merely doubled. Nearly a million rural migrants and southern European immigrants flocked to the city, transforming it into a sprawl of tin- and zinc-roofed ranchos. By 1948, when Pérez Jiménez took power as part of a military junta, the barrios had become so widespread in Caracas that the formerly rural rancho
had become an official designation in federal urban-housing statistics. Within three years, it became the name of the enemy. The government issued a study condemning the barrios as “a threat against the morals, health, and security” of the nation, and its 1951 housing plan declared “war against the rancho.”
Tasked with prosecuting this war and solving the so-called housing problem, the public housing bureau hired Villanueva to lead TABO, its new architecture studio. TABO’s cheap, long-lasting housing was to be the central front in the New National Ideal’s fight to regenerate the nation’s moral and intellectual character by force of blueprints and poured concrete. Following the populist strains of modernist architecture dominant in postwar Europe, Villanueva designed a superblock modeled after Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (which was itself inspired by a Soviet communal-housing project).
Pérez Jiménez and his architects adopted much of Corbusier’s utopian vision and rhetoric. The superblocks were designed to synthesize different classes, values, and lives into “an organic community.” They were to be part of a radical master plan to reconstruct all Caracas with the balance and order craved by modernist architects and dictators alike. Villanueva adapted Corbusier’s design for the Venezuelan climate by including open-air passages; he accommodated the country’s population explosion by expanding the proportions of each superblock to include 160 apartments on sixteen floors and by building double and triple superblocks.
Ultimately, though, the superblock lost much of its utopian character in the construction process. As the Caraqueño population grew, so did its discontent with the dictatorship, which was manifest in the growing number of fractured oppositional organizations. Pérez Jiménez redirected this pressure into his already intense public works projects, rushing 23 de Enero from early sketches to breaking ground. His demands halved the total footprint of the project and brought the superblocks to construction without many of the features originally proposed by Villanueva, including pilotis and loggia, north-south orientation, duplex apartments, interior trash chutes, and large common spaces on every fourth floor.
In the transition away from dictatorial whim after January 23, 1958, disarray presided in the city and the government. Student volunteers haphazardly began adjudicating disputes between new residents of 23 de Enero regarding their apartments and land. Delivering services and collecting rent became increasingly difficult as the population skyrocketed. Amid all this, construction by the state’s housing bank was halted. Burdened with the debt left over from the dictator’s many public works projects, the government steered its public housing resources toward smaller-scale projects. Three years after Pérez Jiménez fled, an in-depth state study of 23 de Enero called for the cessation of “all types of construction of superblocks.”
ALTHOUGH THE SUPERBLOCKS
failed to transform urban life in the ways predicted by modernist planners, they have fostered community. At one point, Olga spoke of El Caracazo, a violent upheaval in Caracas surrounding government incompetence, failures, and antidissident crackdowns in February 1989, during which one of her sons died. The violence in the parroquia was particularly acute, but she recalls a “sentimiento de pertenencia” (feeling of belonging) persisting throughout the chaos.
This feeling extends to the heights of the superblocks as well. Deprived of necessary funding and functional administration by a succession of governments, the superblocks are sustained both apartment by apartment and in small, ad hoc organizations. Impromptu organizing has been the hallmark of 23 de Enero, with committees tackling problems from physical infrastructure to gun violence and drug use. While the collapse of the modernist promise of cheap, dense housing for the poor has followed a similar course in decrepit clusters of towers everywhere from Saint Louis to the former Soviet republics, here the community has managed to stanch social deterioration.
When I first arrived in Caracas and met with a group of community organizers who lived in 23 de Enero, I asked them how residents see the distinctions between different superblocks and barrios. Like the ranchos that surround them, the superblocks are always being renovated, and they are in vastly different states of repair. Some have peeling facades and trash-strewn front yards. Their elevators require full-time operators, and the exterior trash chutes disintegrate as they descend from the top floor. Others have luscious gardens and functional chutes. Their elevators run smoothly on their own, and the paint is brilliant. I heard rumors that a few large families had even connected vertically aligned apartments into duplexes. The physical conditions of the structures seemed to me to reflect distinct traditions of collective maintenance or neglect. But everyone I asked evaded my questions with a quizzical look and told me I was missing the point. They felt at home throughout La Veintitrés, not only in particular barrios or blocks.
“Veintitrés de Enero is, and always has been, revolutionary,” ninety-two-year-old Francisco Egañez told me when I visited his home in Bloque 50. For Francisco, who wore a red flannel shirt and a red hat bearing the logo of his union, the parroquia was always a site of resistance, an oppositional stronghold within the city of the government. Even today it maintains its reputation as both a bastion of Chavismo and the home of a handful of remaining radicals independent of the president. But in a city supersaturated with the word revolución
—Ipostel, the dysfunctional postal service, is, by its own account, “revolutionizing the mail”—it's nearly impossible to parse such pronouncements. Nevertheless, the interdependence of life in 23 de Enero does seem to represent a more enduring, more difficult form of collective politics than that offered up on President Chávez’s weekly Aló Presidente
Birthed and orphaned by the state, 23 de Enero is now home to residents who have spent years struggling to preserve the lives they have created for themselves. Ligia Martínez de Elías, one of the first residents of Bloque 20–21, said to me, “I lived through Pérez Jiménez, I lived through Caldera, and now I live under Chávez. Regardless of the government, if you don’t work, you can’t eat. One doesn’t live by the government.”
OFFICIALLY, JANUARY 23, 1958,
marked the Venezuelan democratic revolution. But the actual role of the state changed very little. The 1958 pact of Punto Fijo led to a political system dominated by two centrist parties dedicated to taming the dual exigencies of oil wealth and population growth, as the state had done since the emergence of a worldwide market for petroleum in World War I.
Like the dictator, the parties facilitated the extraction of crude oil from the country’s subsoil; but after 1958 the people were allowed to cast ballots affirming the legitimacy of the system every five years. This arrangement endured until Hugo Chávez’s 1998 campaign, which promised and delivered a break with partidocracia
. It is less clear whether Chávez has altered the state’s essential character. In Venezuela, “the state has nothing to do with reality,” asserted the playwright José Ignacio Cabrujas in a mid-1980s lecture sponsored by the Presidential Commission for State Reform. “The state is a magnanimous sorcerer” buoyed by oil, which “is fantastic and induces fantasies”—first among them the fantasy of progress.
Historian Fernando Coronil terms Cabrujas’s conception of Venezuela “the magical state” in his book of the same title. Under Pérez Jiménez, who was convinced Venezuela could will itself to modernity, the state produced a series of ostentatious performances that promised miracles but delivered little more than sparks from a wand. The repudiation of the state’s ultimate magic act, the eradication of the city’s slums, was not confined to January 23 or its immediate aftermath, but has been lived out over and over in the construction of the parroquia by its own residents.
On one of my first visits to the parroquia, a friend of a friend asked whether I had been to Monte Piedad, a barrio on the parroquia’s eastern tip. I had. “Did you notice that there is no Bloque 8?” he inquired. I shook my head, and he proceeded to tell me a story I would hear many times during my stay in Caracas, though I could never confirm it: In an act of immense generosity that Latin American dictators tend to perform only for one another, Pérez Jiménez gifted an entire superblock to Colombia’s dictator, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla—Bloque 8. The polychromatic facade, exterior elevator column, endless square cutouts in the concrete balusters, and huge rooftop water tanks were all replicated thirteen hundred kilometers southwest of Caracas in Cali, Colombia. He smiled wryly and said, “The Colombians call it ‘El Venezolano.’”
Today, the parroquia that encompasses the superblocks is, to the country’s neighbors, as prominent a symbol of Venezuela as the buildings themselves. Chávez has clearly learned something from 23 de Enero: The federal government now funds community councils directly, empowering them to make decisions about infrastructure improvements and social programs. These community councils are buttressed by misiones
, federal programs to increase access to healthcare and education in the barrios, and they have begun to foster “sentimientos de pertenencia” in other parts of the city. Yet in Caracas, as in so many global megacities, the question of housing remains essentially unanswered, and the high rhetoric of modernism has yet to find a successor.
The physical lessons of the barrio can and must be learned by architects and planners in Caracas and beyond, where slums and superblocks are now integral parts of the built environment. The recent incredible barrio-rehabilitation projects in Medellín, Colombia, demonstrate progress in this vein. Chávez, however, may not have fully processed the lessons of 23 de Enero. Separate from his progressive and successful community councils and misiones, he has begun construction on an entirely new city called Caribia for the residents of the capital’s poorest barrios just outside Caracas—a project squarely in the tradition of the magical state.
In a 1955 issue of Integral
, Venezuela’s leading architecture and urbanism review, Jorge Romero Gutierrez proposed a modified superblock that “would incline along the plane of the hill.” In the accompanying sketches, each apartment has a garden covering its roof and a room built into the hill in back. They resemble a mass-produced barrio, but with additional niceties. The article only mentions the real architects of this modified block, barrio residents, to criticize their way of life as being incompatible with “well-planned housing.”
Ironically, the same demographic and political pressures that inspired Gutierrez’s design eventually led to the dissolution of the state agencies that would have funded its realization, and the plans never left the page. Nevertheless, the homemade model has thrived. Just several hundred meters from the presidential palace, 23 de Enero sits on its hill, baldly exposed to all those entering the city from the sea and the air, a living testament to Venezuela’s legacy of housing built well, if not planned.
Sketch for a modified superblock by Jorge Romero Gutierrez, 1955.
All photographs by the author. Archival images courtesy of INFODOC and the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the Central University of Venezuela, Unidad de Documentación. Blueprints from Carlos Raúl Villanueva, by Paulina Villanueva and Maciá Pintó (2000). Jorge Romero Gutierrez sketch from Integral no. 7 (1955).