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Torre de David Still a Work in Progress

Exterior rendering of the 45-story Torre de David building
The Torre de David was approximately 90 percent complete when work was abruptly halted amidst a deep financial crisis in Venezuela. © Daniel Schwartz/UTT Chair ETH Zurich

Nearly 20 years after construction stopped on a 45-story tower in Venezuela, an improvised community of 3,000 struggles to create a home there.  

January 15, 2013—In the business district of Caracas, Venezuela, there is a building like none other in the world. It is, paradoxically, a work in progress and a work hopelessly stalled. Once envisioned as a gleaming 45-story tower that would house financial institutions and a lavish luxury hotel, financial constraints forced construction to be halted abruptly in 1994, when the building was approximately 90 percent complete.

The building is known as Torre de David, which translates as the Tower of David, in reference to its developer, David Brillembourg, who died in 1993. Squatters and looters took aim at the structure in little time, removing anything of value. It developed a reputation as a center of crime. But in 2007, there was a curious development: a new group of squatters moved in, determined to drive out criminal elements and create a community in the building.

Today, depending on who you ask, it stands as either a symbol of Venezuela’s economic collapse and deep poverty, or as a fascinating example of an improvised community of 3,000, who have organized and worked to make the building a safer, more livable, functioning home for their families.

“The community coalesced in 2007, with representatives of about 200 families from several different barrios around the city,” said Alfredo Brillembourg, a relative of the developer who has researched the community for the book Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities. “They organized together through family connections and friends, all searching for somewhere better to live. Over the course of a few weeks, the amount of inhabitants grew rapidly, with social networks pulling in extended families and friends,” said Brillembourg in written comments to Civil Engineering online. 

 Interior rendering of unfinished, partially lite building

Residents have developed a rudimentary electrical system but
segments of the unfinished building remain dark.
© Daniel Schwartz/UTT Chair ETH Zurich

“As the occupation has grown over the past five years, the civic society within the Torre has grown, and despite their extralegal status, they have paradoxically managed to establish a government-registered collective in the building,” said Hubert Klumpner, a coauthor of the book, in written comments to Civil Engineering online. Brillembourg and Klumpner are the founding partners of Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), an interdisciplinary design practice in Zürich, Switzerland. Both are chairs of architecture and urban design at the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH), also in Zürich.

Brillembourg and Klumpner have been fascinated with Torre de David for years, but found residents there reluctant to allow them in for a closer look.

“It was not until early in 2011 that we began to establish a good relationship with some of the community leaders who live there,” Brillembourg said. “After many weeks of meeting with them and talking about our motivations for researching the structure and community, they began to grant us more and more access.”

“It requires extreme sensitivity and constant communication,” Klumpner said, because Torre de David exists in a politically and legally opaque environment. The team interviewed residents, attended community meetings, took measurements and documented the structure through photos and videos. The goal of the project was not just to understand what the residents had done to develop the community, however. The team also looked at ways to improve how the residents move through the building, use water, and produce and consume electricity. The tower is a prime candidate for a pumped-storage hydroelectricity system using wind turbines, given the building’s height and prevailing winds that blow about 70 percent of the time.

An array of wind turbines on the east facade would generate electricity that would be utilized to pump water up through the building to a series of reservoirs. That water could then be released to turn hydroturbines deep in the structure, generating electricity during times of peak demand. Such a system could produce about 24 percent of the building’s current electricity demands and help mitigate the unreliability in the Caracas power grid.

 Elaborate interior rendering

The elaborate interiors in the building were once envisioned for
financial institutions and a luxury hotel. © Iwan Baan

“As we began to develop possible retrofits and interventions, we would present them to residents to get their feedback and determine whether they were socially sensible and sustainable,” Klumpner said. “We also interviewed people involved in the Torre’s earlier history, such as the original architect, Enrique Gomez, and the developer’s brother, René Brillembourg, who served as the construction coordinator and helped us tell the story of the Torre’s genesis and intended future.”

The construction was halted at a fascinating stasis point. The robust structural concrete was largely completed before work stopped, leaving a building that can stand for many decades. The electrical system had yet to be installed, however, very little of the elevator system was in place, and some components of the façade were incomplete. Railings were missing from stairs and balconies, creating some extremely dangerous areas where a single misstep could easily lead to a deadly fall.

“There are safety concerns, and this category of spatial management is one of the most obvious reasons we at U-TT felt compelled to design architectural interventions for the structure,” Brillembourg said. “There are uneven floor slabs, no handrails on many stairs, and poor lighting in some parts of the complex at night.”

“The residents are poignantly aware of these shortcomings, and while they have continuously invested in devising solutions to all of these problems for the past five years, they are also working with us to see if the Torre can become an even more experimental zone for coming up with innovative solutions to the challenges of high-rise living and informal development,” Brillembourg said.

Although the structure had neither a working electrical nor plumbing system when they moved in, the residents have since improvised rudimentary versions of both. These systems are further hampered by deficiencies in the utility systems in Caracas, which result in unreliable water and power supplies during peak times.

“The residents have set up a plumbing system that is a hybrid on the partially built infrastructure they found upon arrival,” Klumpner said. “They pay to pump water from the city pipes up through a series of pumps, PVC piping, and home-made storage tanks.”

 Exterior rendering of building which displays a portion of the residents occupied lower 28 floors

The improvised community of 3,000 occupies the lower 28 floors of
the 45-story tower. © Daniel Schwartz/UTT Chair ETH Zurich

This system feeds the building’s sinks and toilets. The building’s larger sewerage pipes are connected to the city’s system, but because the system was incomplete, residents have experienced sewage spills in the building’s basement and underground garage.

“When this happens, the residents pay to have a sanitation company help clean it up,” Klumpner said. “Currently, they are petitioning the government to come and fix these pipes and help make the system more dependable.”

Residents occupy the first 28 floors of Torre de David. The floors above are beyond the reach of the improvised utility systems. Reaching the higher floors involves traversing a series of concrete stairs lacking railings or finished traffic surfaces. These stairs can be dark at night, heightening the danger.

The residents have installed railings made from a wide variety of materials throughout the building, and construction methods of the barrio have been transferred and then translated into the high-rise environment, Brillembourg said.

“With a lack of elevators, the residents primarily depend on their feet, although they have also turned the parking garage, which goes up just past the tenth floor, into an elevator shaft of sorts,” Klumpner added. “Residents ferry people and goods up with cars and motorcycles for small fees, creating an affordable vertical mobility system that cuts out some of the legwork for residents.”

Torre de David’s residents are a diverse mix of working families with blue collar jobs in Caracas. There are many children, and most of those old enough to attend school are enrolled. Younger children spend their days in the building’s common areas, in informal daycare.

“Despite there being some physically precarious aspects to the unfinished structure, we feel that Torre David is comparably as safe or safer than many of the slums in the city,” Brillembourg said. “There is very little crime in the building, and the community self-employs a team of about 20 inhabitants who provide security at the three entrances to the complex.

“Teams of residents manage the water, electricity, and sanitation systems,” Brillembourg said. “A church on the ground floor holds services most evenings, with many residents attending every Sunday morning. And on most floors, inhabitants have set up micro-entrepreneurial activities like bodegas, textile shops.”

The authors believe that the residents of Torre de David have naturally developed a system that facilitates social exchange and civic participation in the building, which is not common in more traditional vertical residential environments.

“Modernism compelled architects and urbanists to put people in the sky, but these planners forgot to bring the socializing life force of the street up with them,” Brillembourg said.

“The Torre was so fascinating to us because we saw residents organically making these ‘streets in the sky,’ creating spaces for community-making and collective empowerment,” Klumpner said. “They are not necessarily succeeding any more or less than other barrio communities around Caracas; but that they are doing this in the shell of a skyscraper captivated our attention and led to some inspiration and a desire to instigate a meaningful dialogue on this project and its larger symbolism in urban societies.

“We came of age as architects and urbanists in a climate where ornamentation and architecture-as-sculpture were held on pedestals while socially minded design was an afterthought at best,” Klumpner said. “The world is demanding something more complex from architects and designers, and we hope that our work—both our practice and research—is part of this necessary paradigm shift.”

To learn more about the book, click here.



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