Day 6 :: The Informal City

Arts and Housing.

This morning I awoke to the cacophony of traffic outside my window on Avienda Libertador, quickly got ready and called for a taxi to meet up with the motley crew of Urban Think Tank Caracas, a transnational architecture office (led by Hubert Klumpner and Alfredo Brillembourg) that has done several projects internationally and who focus on issues of social housing, community planning, etc. Though I am generally put off by such architectural humanism, I found their philosophy more in touch with reality than with the usual cadre.

Hubert and Alfredo were ironically in New York but I was met most graciously by a group of young architects (Iris, Lindsey, Michael, Willem) whom sat down with me and showed me their projects, elaborated on the socioeconomic matrix that is Caracas, and gave me brief overview of the crisis that they are dealing with in terms of housing and neighborhoods. It turns out three of my new contemporaries are from the states (two Columbia grads and one Princeton grad); the way they feverishly argued about the nuances of the growth, development, and demise of urbanization here made me wonder: what about fixing the American city? The American ghetto and the heavy gentrification it underwent through the 80’s to present day is a site in need of serious intervention, and yet these bright young minds moved to a place that isn’t there home to fix the problems of those who aren’t their people – in the very least they are still attributing the to betterment of the human condition and not sitting at home reading Harry Potter books like god knows how many uninspired and under-motivated people.

They made an itinerary of things for me to see (of which I will be lucky to see half of) and after a couple of hours of witty banter I said my goodbyes and went with Willem to an incredible underground bookstore. Deep in the labyrinth of dusty books we came to a seemingly endless shelf of architectural publications – an incredible find. Back issues of dozens of publications impossible to find elsewhere. I sifted for what seemed to be hours and bought a stack of books and magazines, for which I will need to discard some of my belongings to make room. At this rate I will be wearing the only clothes I own on the trip and my luggage will be filled with books.

After a quick lunch I headed towards the Bella Artes area of Caracas, taking in the concrete cityscape and photographing random projects along the way. Carlos Raul Villanueva – a student of French architect Gabriel Héraud –  had a strong hand in orchestrating the modernization of Caracas and trope of the international style are evident everywhere you look. In his aftermath, post modern architects and waning influences from America and Europe have rendered the architecture of the city as something between Michael Graves and Raimund Abraham. Some hours later I arrived at Plaza el Venezolano; nothing formally worth mentioning, however, tattooed on one of the stark walls facing the square, the timeless and unsettling words of Simon Bolivar stood:

“si se opone la naturaleza lucharemos contra ella y la haremos que nos obedezca” (“If nature opposes us, we’ll struggle against her and make her obey us”)

I fully plan to misappropriate this quote and twist it into the architectural prelude to SCARCity.

Eventually I arrived to the arts area and was immediately confronted with the monster that is the Teresa Carreno Cultural Complex (designed by architects Tomás Lugo, Jesus Sandoval, and Dietrich Kunckel). I walked around it several times trying to understand its logic and figure out why no one in Caracas was hanging out in one of its many, exaggerated forecourts. It’s form needs no explanation, however, it does recall reference to Gunter Domenig’s project for his own house/gallery. Afterwords I found the Museum of Contemporary Art – a terrible malaise of concrete – that I think contains the largest collection of Picasso’s drawings/sketches in South America, if not the world.

Later in the evening the gang at UTT invited me out to drinks in the ritzy Alta Mira area; the cab driver that picked me up was a younger guy who seemed more talkative than the rest; when he realized that I didn’t speak Spanish so well he followed with a curt, ‘what? So I guess you’re American?” to which I replied, “No, I’m from Iran.” At which point he give a big thumbs up and yelped, ‘Me hombre!” Caracas is, after all the sister city of Tehran and (with regards to the lower class and socialists here) an ally of that donkey we have as president. He went on to explain how good Iran is and asked if I too supported Ahmadinejad and I regretfully said yes; part of me died but it made for a more pleasant ride and avoided any possible anti-American sentiments.

Alas I arrived at this place called 360, on top of a tower in the middle of Caracas that offered a fully unobstructed view of the city beyond – from this vantage point the barrios engulfed us as we sat in our bourgeois lounge and enjoyed drinks half of the price of rent of our distant neighbors. We talked about Caracas, America, and architecture; I then returned ‘home’.

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