The Torre de David in Caracas is a symbol of the worldwide housing shortage.  The 45-storey tower was once part of an urban renewal scheme in Caracas.  Today, it’s a concrete armature, half-filled with an army of squatters who claimed it as their own after the country’s financial system collapsed.  It could only have happened in the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez…

Photo: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

Across the world, planners argue about ways to provide large-scale housing.  In Western Europe, housing is either left to the free market, or provided by the state.  In the unrepentantly socialist Venezuela, the Chávista government had a permissive attitude towards land invasions, so squatting became a realistic option.  As a result, Torre de David became “the tallest squat in the world”.

Until recently, la Torre de David wasn’t well known beyond Caracas, but the BBC ran an feature about it, then the New York Times picked up on it, and Domus magazine later covered it too.  All were equally fascinated by its appearance, which carries hints of William Gibson’s or JG Ballard’s dystopian novels, and the notion of the tower being a “vertical slum”. 

However, it was only when an installation by the Urban-Think Tank at ETH Zurich won the Golden Lion at last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, that the Torre in its current state was considered as a piece of urbanism.  It was conceived as the Centro Financiero Confinanzas: a concrete-framed, curtain-walled tower block designed by the Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez.  The masterplan included a cluster of buildings around the tower’s podium, with luxury flats, a helipad, and a hotel. 

Photo: Iwan Baan

Construction began in 1990, propelled by David Brillembourg's financial group, called Grupo Confinanzas.  It was almost complete when work stopped following his death, in 1993.  With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy a year later, the tower was abandoned.   All of Brillembourg's assets were liquidated by the collapse, and the Venezuelan government's insurance body FOGADE acquired the unfinished tower.  However, the lower storeys lacked flooring, drainage, second fix joinery.  M&E services were incomplete.  Large slabs of marble, intended for a luxury hotel on the lowest six storeys, lay shrink-wrapped in plastic.

High rise stasis isn’t unprecedented: after the Empire State Building in New York was completed, many storeys remained as unlet shells until well after WW2.  Similarly, after Siefert’s Centre Point in London was finished, some floors lay empty for decades.  Like both, La Torre de David is a building born of speculation.  It was the lynchpin of a plan to transform this area of Caracas into a financial district: it was one of many planned along a so-called Avenue of Banks. 

The tower was also symbolic of the new money which emerged during the boom years of the 1980’s, quite distinct in its attitudes and approach from the “amos del valle”, or old families of Caracas.  With new wealth came risk-taking, speculation, loss of control and eventually, total collapse…  It seems that once the acquistive half of the human brain overcomes from the ethical half, a Financial Crash is the result.

Photo: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

First squatted in 2007, today around 750 families live in the tower, in conditions which some writers have described as a vertical slum.  It’s the eighth tallest building in Latin America and squatters live on 28 of the building’s 45 storeys.  “It doesn’t look good, but it has the seed of a very interesting dream of how to organize life,” suggests Alfredo Brillembourg, an architect and namesake of the building’s original developer.  

La Torre de David is a good example of how people organise a society for themselves, when the larger super-structure of government, law and civic life around them breaks down.  Although the building still lacks lifts, mains water, balcony railings and so forth, in a societal sense it works.  The tower’s new residents hooked up electricity and created a rudimentary drainage system.  Space is granted to new squatters for free, but they pay a monthly fee of around 150 Bolívar fuerte (£13) towards health services, recreation and security. 

Its human worth is arrived at using a different calculus.  Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, thinks the building has great potential: "What interests me more about Torre de David is its emergent ecology with small businesses, jerry-rigged services; it makes it an obvious candidate for a 'green skyscraper' experiment." 

Photo: Iwan Baan

Regardless of what many press articles say, la Torre is definitely not abandoned, nor post-apocalyptic, and arguably it’s not a slum, either.  There are many practical examples throughout history of how expropriation works.  It offends the established system of land ownership and capital markets, yet offers high density urban development where the “system” has patently failed to.  It happens in direct response to a defined need.

La Torre’s closest relatives are Kowloon’s Walled City, bulldozed many years ago but recorded in an excellent book published by Watermark a few years ago; Lucien Kroll’s experiments in Belgium which provided a structural frame into which residents could adapt their own homes; and the Kabouters, the epitome of squatters who created self-sustaining communities during the 1970’s in the Netherlands.

The tower confounds many received ideas.  It’s been compared to J.G. Ballard's novel, "High Rise", yet Ballard thought of the archetypal tower as a diagram of hierarchy.  The rich and powerful live upstairs in the rarified air, while the poor stay close to the traffic fumes at ground level.  Torre de David disproves Ballard’s vertical stratification: in Caracas there is a distinctly horizontal separation between towers for the rich and towers for the poor.

Photo: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

Rather than Wall Street’s financial monoliths, which it sought to imitate, the Torre de David became a vertical favela - and of course Kenneth Frampton posited that the favelas are ”Italian hill towns”.  This is a helpful model, and at one time the Italian hill town was on the syllabus of every school of architecture’s first year course.

It became an archetype – perhaps the best archetype of all – as it tumbles down the slope in higgeldy-piggeldy fashion.  It’s more than picturesque: it’s a diagram of kinships and social ties; it responds to the lie of the land; over time it evolves, organically.  Much beloved of cosmopolitan architects, the type who contribute articles on “my architectural travels” to the learned journals, the Italian hill town is an example of architecture without architects.

There were several outcomes in Scotland.  One was the sprawling megastructure of Cumbernauld town centre; another was the way in which the suburbs nearby, like Seafar, ran up and down the contours to create a serrated roofscape.  Today folk can’t see past the buildings’ bleak context, harsh microclimate and lack of maintenance.  Nonetheless, the Planners’ original vision for Cumbernauld comes from the same root as those well-organised folk who live in la Torre.

Photo: Iwan Baan

Similarly, it was a dream of the socialist governments of the 1960’s to place Scottish social housing tenants in tower blocks.  Had they been built on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, or Park Avenue in New York, the flats would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each.  But in a Scottish housing scheme, their value is low.  In Caracas, Brillembourg set out to create floorspace with a high rental value, but in its incomplete state with hundreds of sitting squatters, the tower’s capital value is even less. 

Is there a lesson in Caracas for the Scots?  Why didn’t we take over the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters at Gogarburn for bedsits, when Fred Badloss sank the bank?  Perhaps because RBS was nationalised, hurriedly, to maintain the credibility of the financial system, and to shore up the distant government in Westminster which would have gone down with the banks.  By contrast, the Torre’s backers were allowed to fail by the Chávistas.

That much is different, yet both countries have a housing shortage which hasn’t been diminished by their respective politicians.  Now RBS is quietly handing back and selling off offices and branches as it contracts.  Lloyds TSB is about to be split into two, in the so-called Verde scheme, and HBOS is similarly shrinking.  It seems unlikely that any of their former property will end up housing those thrown out of their social housing for having “too many bedrooms” – although we can only hope.

Photo: Iwan Baan

So, could it only have happened in the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez?  Thanks to our squatting laws, it seems very unlikely that a phenomenon like la Torre could happen here.  Yet there are things we could learn from it.  The Urban-Think Tank at ETH Zurich have studied ways to improve “informal settlements” around the world, using la Torre de David as a case study.  Interestingly, they’re keen to explore Giancarlo di Carlo’s notion that the person and architecture should function as one.  A simple lesson, perhaps, but how does it work in practice?

Well, di Carlo’s ideal social structure was none other than the Italian hill town…

Photos courtesy of architectural photographer Iwan Baan; and of Daniel Schwartz of the Urban-Think Tank at ETH Zurich.

Here is a link to the full set of Iwan’s photos -

Here is a link to the full set of Daniel’s photos -

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