Latin America's Living Ruins: El Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya

October 6, 2017

This text draws on the forthcoming book Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent from Mall to Prison (New York: Urban Research, 2017), co-edited by Olalquiaga and Blackmore.


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El Helicoide in the 1980s. Photo: Gorka Dorronsoro


Bearing witness to one of the most outstanding periods in Latin America’s architectural history, mid-century modernism’s heritage is also a powerful testament to the social and political upheavals that modernity occasioned in the region. While urban design gave material expression to development, the twentieth century’s uneven urbanization, rapid population growth, and spasmodic economy all ran contrary to modern planning. Consequently, iconic modern designs were repeatedly undercut by contingency and precariousness, leading them to take unexpected detours and become what Michel Foucault termed heterotopia: unpredictable “other spaces” where opposed functions and distinct realities converge on a single site.[1] The manifold aftershocks of the modernization processes resulted in world-famous sites of Latin American modernism lapsing into the very opposite of its futuristic thrust as the sites turned either into unplanned spaces or outright ruins.

Examples abound. From the very start of its 1960s construction, Brasília dramatically embodied the paradoxical overlap of formal and informal architecture that characterizes urban modernity in Latin America. In addition to pouring concrete into the molds of the new Brazilian capital, the incoming workforce—or candangos, as migrant laborers were called—raised their own makeshift huts, creating a sprawling metropolis that directly contradicted the top-down design of Brasília’s “blueprint utopia.”[2] In other emblematic modernist sites, political fractures undermined forward-looking designs. The monumental scale of Mexico City’s Tlatelolco housing project was in tune with the narrative of rapid economic growth—dubbed the “Mexican Miracle”—and the state spectacle surrounding the Olympic Games hosted there in 1968. However, the site became embroiled in violence before the games even began, when the army and police massacred hundreds of student protestors gathered in Tlatelolco who were demanding greater democratic rights.[3] In Santiago de Chile, the unfinished and abandoned Ochagavía Hospital, whose construction began in 1971 during the tenure of socialist president Salvador Allende, stands today as a remnant of the military coup that derailed his democratic rule and made the country a laboratory for neoliberalism.[4]

As the dust of last century settles, the importance of salvaging the memories and remnants of these contested or forgotten sites has become more apparent than ever. Understanding modernity’s utopia through its buried traces, as Walter Benjamin proposed a century ago, enables us to study historical processes and urban phenomena without reducing their singularities and contradictions. Furthermore, since the transition from the 20th century to the 21st prompted a reappraisal of the former’s achievements and failures, the relative character of a modernity that the West long took for granted as a unified, monolithic model has been laid bare. Recent debates about modernity have expanded their remit to encompass those regions previously excluded from this hegemonic model to address the alternative modernities produced and lived in the Global South. In this context, Latin America’s “living ruins” offer opportunities to reassess a modern culture shaped simultaneously by material excess and quick obsolescence, periods of rapid economic growth that alternate with drastic slumps, and ongoing urban poverty.[5] Incomplete and decaying, ignored and forgotten even by those who live next to them, the ruins of modernity appear to be lost in time. Yet rather than a finished story, discarded buildings can be seen as a point of departure to ask how and why modernizing projects and processes stray from their projected paths. 


Caracas’ Spiral Ruin

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Since the 1960s, the unfinished building has stood amid a sea of slums. Photo: Paolo Gasparini, 1967–68

Caracas is home to a paradigmatic modern ruin. Built as a futuristic beacon of private capitalist development and consumption in the late 1950s, El Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya was designed by architects Jorge Romero Gutiérrez, Pedro Neuberger and Dirk Bornhorst as a spiral-shaped, drive-through shopping mall. Conceived to develop the steep, rocky plot of Roca Tarpeya—the city’s “Tarpeian Rock”—El Helicoide was set to boast a 2.5-mile double-helix of concrete ramps, lined by 300 stores and other entertainment facilities, all accessible by car. The project epitomized the effervescent economic and cultural milieu of 1950s Caracas, which attracted international luminaries from architecture and urban planning, and benefited from the buoyant and stable context provided by the loaded cocktail of Venezuela’s mid-century oil boom and military dictatorship. The structure’s peculiar shape and monumental volume generated great admiration in the United States and Europe, contributing to Caracas’ growing reputation as a modern Latin American capital. Fittingly, El Helicoide’s design and construction, as well as its promotion and sales, were all cutting-edge, with the architects selling plots and stores off-plan to fund the land movement works that began in 1957.

Yet the project faltered mere months from completion, amid the turmoil caused by the fall of the military dictatorship in January 1958 and the subsequent shockwaves this sent through the commercial and industrial sectors. Despite an emergency plan to bring the project to fruition, construction ground to a halt in 1961 and the unfinished concrete ramps were relegated to the backdrop of the city, leaving the building erroneously stigmatized as just another pharaonic construction project of a dictatorship that had used avant-garde architecture to craft its positive, modern image. Over subsequent decades, myriad private and public attempts were made to recover El Helicoide. However, to date the building has only known two sustained uses. After legally taking over the structure in 1975, the state mandated its use as a temporary refuge for flood victims in 1979, creating an ad hoc settlement that grew to some ten thousand people who were removed in 1982. Then, from 1985 onward, the place has been a headquarters for the state security forces and a site of confinement, mainly for political prisoners.

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El Helicoide's planned interior. "Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya," promotional brochure c. 1958–1960. Courtesy Archivo Fotografía Urbana/PROYECTO HELICOIDE

El Helicoide’s paradoxical status as a living ruin, a half-abandoned, half-occupied site, is best understood as more than the sum of its parts. A product of mid-20th century geopolitical and developmentalist models, the building offers an unparalleled look at the consequences of adopting U.S. consumer culture as an ideal of social progress. It also provides a case study of the frictions between monumental architecture and urban precariousness, which surfaced as El Helicoide’s futurist form took shape over and above Caracas’s ever-growing marginal communities. The stagnation of the building’s construction and its gradual enclosure by the adjacent barrios show how paradigms of rapid development are prone to backfire. This, in turn, raises questions about the structural factors that both fueled and stunted dreams of instant modernity in Venezuela.


Petromodernity’s Informal Topographies

The way urban ruins slip out of public consciousness suggests that the telos of progress is based on the willful omissions of buildings with troubled afterlives. In Venezuela, a modern oil nation that fast-tracked to first-world development, such buildings confound what social scientists called the “Exceptionalism Thesis,” whereby Venezuela’s combination of petroleum wealth and a relatively stable democracy during the second half of the 20th century earned it a reputation as an exception to the rule of strong-man dictatorships in Latin America.[6]

Venezuela spent most of last century caught up in the peculiar quandary common to oil economies, seeking to position itself as a buoyant economy kept afloat by gushing oil wells and transnational capital flows. Bolstered by the petroleum boom and the post-World-War-II economic recovery that made this Caribbean country a hotbed of modernist experimentation and speculative ventures, El Helicoide became an outstanding flagship for the bid to implant modern consumer culture in Caracas and catapult Venezuelan society into “First World” development. Yet for all its auspicious beginnings, the building is also the embodiment of what Stephanie LeMenager has called “petromodernity,” a modernity fueled and infused by the oil industry where boom-and-bust cycles disrupt even the best-laid plans.[7]This condition is exacerbated in Venezuela by a chronic lack of continuity and maintenance.

Consistently, the building’s syncopated afterlife has known a stuttering “on-and-off” modernity that shifts in speed and scale with different governmental administrations and economic fortunes, the latter running particularly high during the oil boom of the 1970s. Left adrift during the transition to democracy after a decade of military dictatorship, over the subsequent forty years of two-party rule a string of aborted reinvention projects was planned for the site. Among other proposals, the structure was to become a museum, a ministry of the environment, even a bus terminal. The fact that none of these came to fruition (with the exception of its use as emergency shelter and police headquarters) is symptomatic of the stop-start rhythm of electoral politics, with campaign pledges soon turning into forgotten promises.

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El Helicoide’s ramps lined with container homes during the 1979–1982 “Gran ocupación.” Gobernación del Distrito Capital, Proyecto Helicoide (Caracas: Gobernación del Distrito Capital, 1982). Archivo Fotografía Urbana/PROYECTO HELICOIDE

El Helicoide’s fate as a neglected ruin, a site unseen, is a result of both the modern allergy toward all things past, and Venezuela’s unwillingness to come to terms with the failure of its flagship projects. Transformed into an active police headquarters and prison, the structure is immersed in the very ad hoc urban fabric of the impoverished communities that mushroomed in and around Caracas throughout the past century, as oil wealth pulled workers from rural areas and petroleum replaced agriculture as the country’s economic backbone. Today El Helicoide sits amid a sea of ranchos—makeshift homes that became permanent—a peculiar cohabitation that provides a striking portrait of the social conflicts and complexities that emerged from the modern utopia of rapid development. Few places in the world offer such a crude, obvious contrast or such compelling material proof of systemic economic inequality and entrenched urban neglect. 

The legacy of modernism, then, is a patchwork city, shaped as much by the urban poor as by visionary architecture. Indeed, the barrios have often proved to be more resilient and adaptable than “formal” architecture itself. This is certainly the case if El Helicoide is read as a forerunner to the more recent architectural phenomenon of La Torre de David, a failed complex of skyscrapers built in the 1990s as the headquarters for a banking group and brought to a halt by Venezuela’s financial meltdown of 1994. By no means out of sight, the failed tower certainly remained out of mind until it was occupied by some two hundred people in 2007 and turned into a vertical barrio. Its direct predecessor, El Helicoide’s “spiral slum” (when the building was officially used as an emergency shelter from 1979-1982), has never been properly recognized as such, signaling the lack of historical perspective about the urban landscape in Venezuela, where focus on the immediate present tends to disregard both past and future alike.


Dark Site

El Helicoide’s use as a state security forces headquarters and prison over the past three decades raises questions about the entanglement of democratic politics and disciplinary apparatuses. The building’s inaccessibility and the incapacity of earlier governments to give it a definitive purpose made it an apt place to become what military jargon terms a “dark site”—a place where technologies of surveillance and discipline are withdrawn from public view, lest their infamous reputations imperil the foundations of political order and national security that hold up social consensus and governmental legitimacy alike. Consistently, Venezuela has a long tradition of demolishing those sites of confinement that became so associated with abuses and torture that they seeped into the public imaginary. Such was the fate of the sinister turn-of-the-century prison La Rotunda, destroyed in 1936; the headquarters of the military dictatorship’s security forces, the Seguridad Nacional, in the 1960s; the Retén de Catia, blown up in a television broadcast in 1997; and, more recently, La Planta prison, bulldozed to the ground in 2012. Given this time-honored policy of reducing dark sites to rubble (and thus to collective oblivion) it is significant that El Helicoide still stands—a sort of spectral afterimage of ruined jails that establishes an eerie continuity between the 19th and 21st centuries’ penitentiary traditions in Venezuela.

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The summit of El Helicoide surrounded by police vehicles. Photo: Vladimir Marcano, 2014. Courtesy: Archivo Fotografía Urbana/PROYECTO HELICOIDE

El Helicoide’s use as a jail further attests to the fact that the coercive practices of statecraft remain in place even as modern governments from across the ideological spectrum promise ever-greater freedom, democracy, and social justice to citizens. In Venezuela, the most recent national narrative promising optimistic horizons emerged with the political project of the late president Hugo Chávez, whose election in 1998 heralded the “pink tide” of Latin American socialist governments at the start of the millennium. With regard to the urban landscape, Chávez’s government promised to abandon the spectacles of petromodernity that played out in the 20th century, and instead to place the urban poor at the forefront of state action and policies. The pledge to remedy the persistent social debts that are patently visible in the continual proliferation of makeshift dwellings, deficient urban services, and precariousness made the cityscape itself a challenge for the revolutionary project.

Chávez’s rule soon became mired in a violent polarization that divided Venezuela. The country’s spatial politics were ensnared in these disputes, a situation worsened by governmental leniency regarding citizen seizures of abandoned buildings, and the use of iconic modern sites such as the public plaza at the Centro Simón Bolívar as informal street markets. In this contentious setting, land tenure, the degradation of Venezuela’s modern architectural heritage, and the blurring of distinctions between “formal” and “informal” spaces, became highly politicized topics, leveraged by critics of Chávez’s Revolución Bolivariana (Bolivarian Revolution) as proof of the country’s wholesale decline. El Helicoide’s dual status as a paragon of bygone modernity and as a home for state police forces and penitentiary practices made it an ideological battleground and a deeply symbolic space.

Under Chávez, the Brutalist-style jail became home to high profile prisoners from different ideological camps, some embroiled in corruption scandals, others in political battles.[8] “We need to start looking for a new headquarters for the DISIP (Dirección Nacional de los Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención),” declared Chávez at one point, like politicians before him. “I want us to take over El Helicoide, which is an architectural marvel, and for us to incorporate it into a project. An educational and sports facility could be set up here.”[9] Apart from the integration of a police-training academy and the rebranding of the existing security forces as the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (SEBIN, Bolivarian Intelligence Service), little else actually changed.[10] After Chávez’s death in 2013, El Helicoide has become an even more potent symbol of the national conflict and the abuses committed by state security forces. Since the violent protests that broke out in early 2014 against the government of Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro, and even more so amid the new wave of street protests that have taken place from April through the present, August 2017, the prison population at El Helicoide has swelled. According to reports by non-governmental human rights organizations, the unfinished building currently holds more than 300 detainees in its dark corridors and improvised airless cells, where agents inflict a range of torture methods, including forced inhalation of excrement and the application of electric shocks.[11] With the protests and security forces crackdown ongoing in Venezuela, the population at this failed shopping mall is only set to rise.

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Internal corridors have undergone successive ad hoc alterations. Photo: Vladimir Marcano, 2014. Courtesy: Archivo Fotografía Urbana/PROYECTO HELICOIDE

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Caught between an unrealized future and an uncertain present, El Helicoide’s spiral monolith shows the paradoxical ways in which modernity takes place, only to swirl into unpredictable detours and, sometimes, downward spirals. The dark histories associated with this living ruin do not run contrary to Venezuela’s stunning modernist heritage; they are inseparable from it. El Helicoide presents an unparalleled opportunity to rethink the cultural, economic, and political pacts that shaped not only its concrete ramps but also the ramifying pathways of the slums and the city beyond. Instead of focusing nostalgically on the undelivered promises of its original modernist designs, the spiral structure can be used to reassess the uneven urban landscape that was cast in modernity’s mould. In a sped-up present, bent on forgetting the past and moving forward no matter the social or ecological costs, retracing the circuitous routes back to El Helicoide helps us understand how modern Venezuela came to be, and some of the pitfalls of that process. In the current climate of violence and conflict in which this country is mired, the experiences written into the building’s concrete walls during its tumultuous history and sinister present are particularly revealing. After all, as a living ruin, El Helicoide’s future, much like Venezuela’s, still hangs in the balance.


[1] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16.1 (1986), 23.

[2] On this process, see James Holston, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

[3] Rubén Gallo, “Modernist Ruins: The Case Study of Tlatelolco,” in Telling Ruins in Latin America, edited by Michael J. Lazzara and Vicky Unruh, 107–20. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[4] Jon Beasley-Murray, “Utopia in Ruins: The Ochagavía Hospital,” in Performing Utopias in the Contemporary Americas, edited by Kim Beauchesne and Alessandra Santos, 301–313. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

[5] The term “living ruin” was used in travel accounts of the 19th century to refer to an exotic interpretation of ruins that allowed them to come alive in fantasy. See Lara Eggleton, “‘A Living Ruin’: Palace, City and Landscape in Nineteenth-Century Descriptions of Granada,” Architectural Theory Review 18.3 (2013): 372–387. This visual trope has been adapted here to literally refer to structures, such as El Helicoide, that are semi-abandoned or partly occupied.

[6] On this concept, see Steve Ellner and Miguel Tinker Salas, “The Venezuelan Exceptionalism Thesis: Separating Myth from Reality,” Latin American Perspectives 31.2 (2005): 5-19.

[7] Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[8] Luis Duno-Gottberg covers this topic in his contribution to Downward Spiral, entitled “Rock Bottom: Prisoners and Torture Chambers.”

[9] “Chávez anuncia que tomará El Helicoide para construir ciudad educativa,” El Universal, September 27, 2007. The Universidad Nacional Experimental Politécnica de la Fuerza Armada (UNEFA, National Polytechnic Experimental University of the Armed Forces), and the Universidad Nacional Experimental de la Seguridad (UNES, National Experimental Security University) were also given spaces in El Helicoide.

[10] Policía Nacional Bolivariana (PNB, Bolivarian National Police),

[11] See Foro Penal, “Sebin Helicoide,” Foro Penal. Available at: https://foropenal.com/lugar-detencion/sebin-helicoide, and Una Ventana a la Libertad. Informe sobre la situación de los derechos humanos de personas privadas de libertad en sedes del Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN) del Helicoide y Plaza Venezuela. June 2017. Available at: http://unaventanaalalibertad.org/uval/