"Why should the poor live in slums if there are
empty offices in the city?" - Justin McGuirk

| 20 comments

Curator Justin McGuirk tells us why his Golden Lion-winning installation about a community living in a vertical slum in Caracas could set an example for new forms of urban housing, in this movie we filmed at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

"Why should the majority of the poor in countries like Venezuela be forced to live in the slums around the edge of cities if there are empty office towers in the city centres?," he says.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

McGuirk teamed up with architects Urban-Think Tank and photographer Iwan Baan to create the Torre David/Gran Horizonte exhibition and restaurant, which presents the findings of a year-long research project.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

The 45-storey Torre David skyscraper was designed for a financial organisation in the 1990s, but construction was abandoned following the the death of the developer and squatters began moving in. The building is now home to around 3000 residents, who have adapted the concrete shell by partitioning off rooms to suit their needs.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

"When you look inside you will find that the apartments are actually like any middle class apartments in the world," said Urban-Think Tank founder Alfredo Brillembourg at the preview on Monday. "So this is not a slum; the slum is in your head."

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Photographs by Iwan Bann displayed in the Arsenale exhibition show how businesses and groups also occupy the building, including factories, hairdressers a gym and even a church. "We’ve mapped how people have built a whole infrastructure and city themselves," said Baan.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

The pop-up Venezuelan restaurant brings a flavour of Caracas to the exhibition, illustrating the team's belief that "sharing a meal is the best way to establish common ground for a discussion."

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

We also reported on the project earlier this week, when it was awarded the Golden Lion for best project at the biennale.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

See all our coverage of the Venice Architecture Biennale »

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Photography is by Iwan Baan.

Here's some more information from Urban-Think Tank:


Torre David, a 45-story office tower in Caracas designed by the distinguished Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez, was almost complete when it was abandoned following the death of its developer, David Brillembourg, in 1993 and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Today, it is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extra- legal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, along with their research and design teams at Urban-Think Tank and ETH Zürich, spent a year studying the physical and social organization of this ruin-turned-home. Where some only see a failed development project, U-TT has conceived it as a laboratory for the study of the informal.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

In this exhibit and in their forthcoming book, Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities, the architects lay out their vision for practical, sustainable interventions in Torre David and similar informal settlements around the world.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

They argue that the future of urban development lies in collaboration among architects, private enterprise, and the global population of slum-dwellers. Brillembourg and Klumpner issue a call to arms to their fellow architects to see in the informal settlements of the world a potential for innovation and experimentation, with the goal of putting design in the service of a more equitable and sustainable future.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

In the spirit of the Biennale’s theme, Common Ground, the installation takes the form of a Venezuelan arepa restaurant, creating a genuinely social space rather than a didactic exhibition space. The residents of Torre David have similarly created a variety of common grounds—for sports, leisure, worship, and meetings—that reinforce the cohesive nature of this settlement.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Even before its opening, this installation has become controversial in the Venezuelan architectural community. Many are dismayed that the nation’s architectural accomplishments are “represented” by a never-completed and “ruined” work; others argue that the exhibit condones the Venezuelan government’s tacit and explicit support of illegal seizure and occupation of property. In fact, none of these positions reflects the true nature and purpose of the exhibit.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Above: the installation at the Arsenale

It, and its creators, avoid taking political sides, arguing that Torre David represents not Venezuelan architecture but rather an experiment in informal/formal hybridity and a critical moment in the global phenomenon of informal living.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Above: the restaurant

With the aim of developing the debate over Torre David and similar sites in other cities, the installation includes many of the letters and newspaper articles that have appeared in response to the announcement of this exhibition.

  • Paul

    The Gym is cool, right on the top of the building, what a view!

  • alex

    Because there is a value of m² in the city! And slums you are endorsing are in one word ugly and funny for an expo (such as this years biennale – worst ever btw as Wolf Prix said!) OMG

  • clemensauer

    Because you would not want a situation like that in Detroit.

  • Emily

    It’s sad that in this “project” they don’t mention the actual situation of the people living in this tower: rapes, robs murderer, drugs… There are offices buildings all around, such has Mercantil’s tower, a bank in Venezuela, where people from time to time hide and protect themselves because there is a shooting occurring between the squatters of Torre de David.

    This invasion is more a consequence of the political and economical situation of Venezuela, than a creative decision of reusing abandoned buildings.

    They also ignore the process of the making of these “apartments”. When there were no walls, children fell down from the floors.

    The situation that these people are living in is really bad. There are no elevators, no water, no sewers; the electricity is robbed like in all slums.

    This is a type of slum, a vertical one.

    There is a lot more to study, it’s too easy to ignore the reality.

  • M Larini

    … says the rich people with internet access (the only ones who are able to comment LOL).

    • Pablo

      I would like to see what the rich and middle class people do when something like Torre de David happens in their developed country. Take for a close example what happen in Rostock, Germany, some years ago. This award is very cynical because of the people who award it and the people who receive the award.

  • Trep

    Funny how you conveniently ignore politics. You can thank your “revolutionary” hero Chavez for these slums. Amazing what he’s done to such a wonderful country.

  • Pablo

    I am kind of disgusted by these type of research works that try to show the potential of situations like the one of Torre de David with really nice pictures and charged with interesting words as “experimental” and “new”; I would like to know what happened with Lagos after Rem Koolhass did that DVD documentary, did anything change? Or just Rem became more re know? I find this type of work, with Torre de David, in the same direction. Who will be benefit after this award? The families living in the tower or the architects that bring the exhibition to a prestigious exhibition in Venice? And knowing Caracas goverment, this won’t make any pressure to make a better living environment for the families living there. Not after knowing all of the urbanistic failures to improve the city during the last decade. For example, a bus network that stops for 6 years or so, a metro that is constantly collapsing because of the amount of passenger and the constant traffic jams, and so on.

    The way some architects and others are looking at slums in Caracas is full of the innocence of not having an accurate idea of what is going on there. Sure there are potentials in slums, but the “barrios” in Caracas should not have been happening in the first place and what happens in Torre de David should not be happening either. This doesn’t deserve an award.

    • Miranda

      This piece of work does achieve one aim in that it has become a point of discussion at the very least. The dire situation that we allow the poor to fall into is negated, ignored, and forgotten and seen as mere end of the market factors that drive the poor deeper into poverty and for the richer to remain at the top.

      Perhaps this article will do nothing more than to simply identify the issues of the lowest earners in this world, but it is now up to you sir pablo to take this issue further and to relinquish the poor from the limitations that we have provided them though our own short sighted greed. It is up to you to try harder to solve the issue of poverty, to demand more of the community at large to help those that possible do not have the support structure to help themselves, to protect those that are not protected. Don’t just take the lazy argument of targeting this particular designer as one who is seeking to gain column inches over investigating a social disaster.

      • Pablo

        Yes, is up to me to take part into this situation, and that is why I complain about this specific award, because I found it cynical.

        I think people can talk in a really nice and passionate way about how to help the more needy but from that to really helping them is another story. I got the chance to be close to the studio that won this prize, and I can tell that they can simply take a plane and disappear from Caracas as soon as the situation gets really dangerous. One of them is no longer in Caracas but teaching in Zurich. Someone can say that that is the way to transform the world and help the poor, from the top to the bottom, but I find that too simple to say.

        Yes, there should be more studies about slums and how to improve them but not only to bring them to Venice and exhibit them with Salsa music in the background and Venezuelan food to eat. Studies should reach those who need it. Before this expo, the Think Tank wrote a book about the informal settlements in Caracas, and this book is only available in English and German, not in Spanish, which is the mother language of Venezuela.

  • redfield

    “Why should the poor live in slums if there are empty offices in the city?” asks Vladimir Iljic (this goes beyond architecture).

  • Rob R

    Aw poor old wealthy office workers, having to put up with smelly working class people living near them :( If only they could be abstracted somewhere you didn’t have to see them and be made to feel ever so slightly guilty that your good fortune is built on the back of their impoverishment and desperation eh?

    And you wonder why Chávez got popular.

  • GSA

    As a former resident of Caracas and someone who has visited the site, there is very little to be celebrated here. It's a sad example of the extreme situation that the Venezuelan people have been thrust into and what is produced as a consequence. The architects of this project sit idly behind slick photos of a slum, celebrating the 'non-architecture' architecture.

    A good celebration of this project would be to actually architecturalize some solutions to the problem, rather than relying on the sick fascination of privileged eyes into a world unbeknownst to them. This building is a disaster. Open sewage and human excrement sits, festering in the tropical climate. The building is run by some bizzaro version of a COOP board in Manhattan, where inhabitants who act out of line in the eyes of the board are punished by being forced to live in higher floors. No running water or electricity. Those in Nyc who complain of a 6 story walk up in Bushwick, imagine a 40 story walkup in these conditions.

    This is an embarrassment to the regime and also to architecture. It's a thorough, if not heavily stylized, synopsis of a current condition, fine. But if the biennale is a place where criticality and design come to bear the fruit of potential futures, what does this project suggest? It puts forth absolutely no architectural vision, but rather simply says, "look what cool things these people made." Great. What does Architecture take away from this? Not much, I would posit.

    • Adnarim

      Whilst agree with the dire situation that is being presented to us, it doesn’t seem fit to say that the architects sat idly behind slick photos of the slum. If they had made assumptions of the sight based on secondry source information then I would agree that perhaps they are evaluating the content without understanding its context and the realties that might be present in what is a grotesque situation for the people actually living there.

      This is not so much an embarrassment to architecture, but to a capitalist market that prevents usable resources being used for social needs because of the lack of capital. What this documentation identifies is how a deprived populaion has taken ownership of a unique site and attempted to make it work for their needs. The architects point out that they don’t support nature of slums, however they celebrate the ability for its new inhabitants to formulate a new way of living to maintain a presence in the centre of the city. Identifying this scenario allows us to continue a debate into how and why people are put in these habitats, but also allows, as you say, to consider alternative solutions either through architecture, or through a change in the political and economic structure that we still enforce.

    • Kirill

      Hi GSA,my name is Kirill and I’m writing a dissertation about this building. Unfortunately financial situation doesn’t allow me to travel to site but I ned another point of view on this topic. As a former resident of Caracas and someone who saw the real picture, your help would be priceless. Hope you wouldn’t mind to help and are able to chat about it. Let me know how I can contact you.

      Many thanks, Kirill

  • Christopher Moore

    Human beings are fascinating creatures. Forget the politics for a moment. Forget even the reality of the lives of the people who live there if you can. Consider the sheer resourcefulness, ingenuity, doggedness, imagination and creativity of these people. Startling.

  • dannykid

    Notwithstanding the comments about the cynicism of the project and award, which are interesting as an addendum to this story, without being cynical here or challenging, what happens when the economy bounces back, office space is required, the building is to be finished and the denizens asked to vacate?

  • Anonymous

    I fear this will end just like Kowloon http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=

  • Juan

    Up to this point the comments on the book and the prize have been moral, and I mostly agree with them, but as architect and citizen, I have to add that all the hoopla and the supposed moral righteousness of the slum-dwellers initiative are downright stupid and off the mark.

    You need a corporation to have previously invested hundreds of millions of dollars in order to have a concrete carcass like this for the arbitrary though understandable disposal of the merry poor, and then gloat about your discovery of the singular, creative ways (in reality wretched and degrading) in which said Merry Masses live within the building.

  • sullka

    It’s the Slumdog Millionaire effect. Slums are now chic, go figure.