Sometimes buildings are not enough. That was the point I tried to make with the Venice Architecture Biennale I directed in 2008, and which David Chipperfield, who curated this year’s edition, has set out denying. In the middle of his collection of boxes, grids, and details (about I will post later), one failed building stood out: the Gran Horizonte Torre David.
A 45-story building in the middle of Caracas, Venezuela, that was abandoned before it was finished, the structure has been invaded and taken over by people who display more inventiveness than most architects. In the middle of the Arsenale, the Biennale’s main exhibition space, Urban-Think Tank set up a café to show and discuss this example of un- or re-building.
I had followed Alfredo Brillembourg, Hubert Klumpner, and their team from São Paolo, Brazil, where I was part of the ceremony giving them the Holcim Silver Award for the firm's Music Factory project. In Venice, they presented not a building, but a form of documentation. They have spent more than a year researching the Torre David phenomenon with the help of photographer Iwan Baan. The images and research, which will be published by Lars Müller Publishers shortly, are astonishing. To make use of this building, the new inhabitants are willing to walk up and down 30 stories every day—the reward being a free apartment with a great view. They have built structures out of plywood, cardboard, and scrap that demarcates public and private spaces. They have cut holes into the concrete to create better access and connect spaces.
Some of the apartments exude a cozy banality, while others seem ramshackle. Most exhilarating to architects are the images of spatial daring-do, whether it is the use of the parking ramps, the buildings-within-buildings, or the weight lifter who trains his muscle with car rims at the very edge of a 20-story drop. What is most astonishing, though, is that the tower seems to work as a community.
It would be easy to idealize what is still an instant slum that has emerged in an ugly building that is not very safe in any dimension, and will probably disappear sooner or later. It is also obvious, as Urban-Think Tank has done, to theorize it and make proposals to make it work or be more permanent. What is more interesting is to present the Torre David as a phenomenon, as the architects did here. Following Chipperfield’s call for a “common ground,” they made a place where people could eat Venezuelan food, drink coffee or beer, and discuss what we can learn from such an urban phenomenon. This, it seems to me, is the right way to use the Venice Biennale: to build off its ability to bring people together around the notion of architecture to think about what architecture can be and do.
The limitation remains that almost everybody there is involved, in one way or the other, with architecture. Brillembourg and Klumpner have shown that they can be effective in communities, creating some of the most effective urban infrastructure improvements of recent years. (And others agree: their installation just won the Golden Lion for best installation at the Biennale.) They have done so by looking, listening, and proposing concrete solutions. I look forward to seeing what they do with the Torre David.