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RENÉE LOTH

Occupy Caracas

What cities can learn about housing from the ‘vertical slum’

The Torre David, an abandoned skyscraper in Caracas originally intended to be an office building, was vacated of squatters last week.

AFP/Getty Images

The Torre David, an abandoned skyscraper in Caracas originally intended to be an office building, was vacated of squatters last week.

High above the teeming streets of Caracas, a man lifts weights on his apartment balcony. Children run up and down crumbling stairways. A woman looks out a shop window. It might be any poor neighborhood in the developing world, except these neighbors are living in an unfinished skyscraper, abandoned by developers during a financial crash in the 1990s and adopted as home by more than 4,000 squatters.

Last week, soldiers arrived to begin evicting residents from Torre David, the derelict 45-story office tower that had become a symbol of the late president Hugo Chavez’s failure to provide decent housing for his people. But the evictions also mark the end of a seven-year experiment in “informal housing” that has fascinated urban planners looking for ways to mitigate conditions in the sprawling shantytowns of poor cities. “They took a dead skeleton of a building and brought it to life,” said Justin McGuirk, whose book “Radical Cities” examines so-called improvised communities across Latin America.

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Torre David is hardly the only informal settlement that has risen organically amid overcrowded slums while authorities look the other way. But it is especially compelling because of its size, its longevity, and because the building was intended to be a bank in a luxury complex, providing irresistible symbolism. The half-finished tower stood vacant for more than a decade after the 1993 death of its developer, financier David Brillembourg (after whom the tower is named). Then in 2007, amid catastrophic floods, a street preacher led a group of displaced families to take shelter there. Given a housing deficit that the Chavez government itself pegged at 400,000 units in Caracas alone — and a political philosophy that sometimes celebrated audacious demonstrations against the rich — authorities seemed to give tacit approval to the squatters.

In 2012 McGuirk curated an exhibition about Torre David that won a major award at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The exhibition, developed with the design firm Urban-Think Tank, depicted a thriving community living in the abandoned tower, albeit in a twilight of legality. Families fortified their units, first with newspaper, then with plaster and decorative tiles. Electricity was brought in; satellite dishes dot the building. Laundry hangs in the spaces for windows on half-finished floors, gaping like missing teeth.

As their status became less tenuous, the residents organized themselves into committees with systems for transportation, trash removal, and public safety, contributing financially and in other ways to maintaining the building. “They were very keen to be legal where possible,” said McGuirk in an interview. “They were trying to make their occupation legitimate.”

It’s important not to romanticize the Torre David experiment, which many see as little more than a vertical slum. Living conditions there are far from optimal. Sanitation and water are spotty; the open balconies are unsafe; the lack of elevators means residents on the upper floors are often badly isolated. But it is also foolish to ignore the reality of informal developments in impoverished cities around the world. In Cairo, thousands of poor families have taken up residence in a cemetery known as the City of the Dead, making homes out of tombs. In Pakistan in 2006, I saw a refugee camp dating from Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union; the tents had slowly been replaced by semi-permanent mud-and-brick housing.

Governments struggle with how to address the humanitarian crisis these informal communities represent. They don’t want to validate them as permanent, so they usually don’t provide public services such as water or transportation. But neither can they meet the overwhelming need for housing. Indeed, the squatters being removed from Torre David have been relocated some 50 kilometers from the center city, at least an hour’s commute from their social networks and, in many cases, their jobs.

But what if concentrations of poor people, even extra-legal ones, were not seen as squalid slums fit for a bulldozer, but as striving communities worth bringing in to the “formal” city? Governments, businesses, and nonprofits might look for ways to provide the necessary infrastructure. Cities desperate to house their populations might experiment with retrofitted parking garages, abandoned strip malls, or other structures. Places like Torre David are acts of desperate improvisation. But the creativity in their invention is worth tapping.

Renée Loth is editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine. Her column appears regularly in The Globe.
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