Winter 2013-2014

Tropical Babel

Picking through the ruins of Caracas’s El Helicoide

Celeste Olalquiaga

The Tower of Babel exists, not in Babylon but in South America, in a country of endless oil towers and surgery-happy Miss Universes (seven so far, a world record): Venezuela, or Little Venice, as the conquistadors called this land where indigenous huts built on wooden stakes recalled the fabled city surrounded by its lagoon. Venezuela’s architectural etymology seems to have anticipated its urban exuberance, a dynamism notable even for a continent in which architectural feats are hardly exceptional.

Beached cruise ship, fallen flying saucer, futuristic ruin; sitting amid the slums of San Agustín, in south-central Caracas, El Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya looks different from every angle. So too do the many stories that haunt this construction, all as convoluted as its magnificent, double-spiral coils. Like its Babylonian inspiration, El Helicoide too was an ambitious project stopped short, in its case by the less-than-divine designs of politics. Like its famous predecessor, this concrete building—constructed in 1960 as a drive-in mall, the only one of its kind, where drivers could spiral up and down, parking right in front of the business of their choice—was halted shortly before completion. It was then abandoned to a fate that included oblivion and decay; multiple failed governmental projects; occupation by squatters and intelligence police; and episodes of drugs, sex, and torture; all sources for an endless number of legends, each more fascinating than the last.

In the 1950s, the combination of thirty years of oil revenues and a dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, bent on modernizing Caracas, made Venezuela into a haven for foreign architects. Some, like Graziano Gasparini or Federico Beckhoff, came looking for new opportunities and adopted the city as their permanent home. Others, including Gio Ponti and Oscar Niemeyer, visited briefly and were taken by the city’s modern orientation. The former contributed the famous “Villa Planchart,” kept intact as a 1950s icon to this day; the latter proposed a huge inverted triangle for the city’s museum of modern art, a project that was never executed. A few collaborated with local counterparts to design one-of-a-kind buildings. This was the case with Marcel Breuer and Herbert Berckhard, who partnered with Ernesto Fuenmayor and Manuel Sayago on “El Recreo,” a business and commercial complex that was also never realized, and with Dirk Bornhorst and Pedro Neuberger, two young German-born Venezuelan architects who were taken under the wing of Jorge (“Yoyo”) Romero Gutiérrez to help build modern Caracas. “There is so much to do,” Romero Gutiérrez would say. “Everything is possible.”

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