TROPICAL BABEL: Failed Architecture
I grew up in Venezuela; a country once known for its natural beauty and diversity. Now, sadly, it is known for its political, socio, and economic upheaval. The capital, where I am from, is Caracas. It is basically a city in a mountain.
Many things have changed over the past twenty years due to poor government management. The city’s general infrastructure has deteriorated and poverty has forced families to come up with new solutions for self-built homes. Buildings once occupied by companies, now out of business, sit abandoned. There is no desire for new construction or renovation; it’s almost as if the city were frozen in time.
Many ambitious projects were not completed, but also not fully canceled, due to lack of funding and management. A perfect example of this is “the Helicoide,” a project started in 1955 by the most innovative architects at the time (Pedro Neuberger, Dirk Bornhorst, and Jorge Romero Gutiérrez). The building was intended to be a shopping mall with over 300 stores. The project was designed with a twist: shoppers would drive, not walk, from store to store on double-helix ramps. The Helicoide would include a showroom to sell cars and spare parts, a gas station, a repair shop, and a car wash. The project was supposed to pioneer the use of elevators that moved at an angle through its telescopic levels. It would also offer exhibition halls, a gym, a pool, a bowling alley, a nursery, and a movie theater with seven screens. It was a truly innovative concept at the time.
The project failed under the dictatorship and a lack of funds. What could’ve been an architectural marvel ended up being taken over by the government and turned into a prison.
“It’s a symbol of what Venezuela could have been, and was not.”
Throughout the years, there has been some initiative to repurpose the building and create awareness around what it represents: the global complexities and failures of modernity. For me, the Helicoide was a symbol of progress and innovation; for most Caraqueños, El Helicoide is simply a part of the landscape, one of the many unfinished or abandoned buildings that add to the city’s irregular topography and unusual urbanism.
I still hope that one day the building will be repurposed and transformed into what it was meant to be, a tropical babel.