Fearscapes: caracas postcards from a violent city

Venezuelan architect, artist and educator Eduardo Kairuz reveals how beneath the stereotypical view of Caracas as the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ lies a history of savage imposition, dating back to its founding in the 16th century and its colonial past and manifested today in the stark social segregation between parts of the city.

In September of 2009, Foreign Policy magazine placed Caracas, the capital of oil-rich Venezuela, as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with an average of 96 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The city – a territory under siege by an intense climate of violence – had lost its previous grim title of ‘Murder Capital of the World’ to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; another Latin American metropolis, a city ruled by drug cartels on the Mexico–US border and used to drug trafficking, extortion, express kidnapping and homicide.

Nevertheless – and despite this defeat – the spontaneous alterations to the city’s architecture and urban structures triggered by the threats such forms of criminality have posed for Caracas’ citizens are already having a devastating effect on its image. But the violent disposition of Caracas is not new, nor does it manifest exclusively in its ‘fearscape’. The iconic images that follow prove that the confl icting nature of the city has always been there to contribute to a cityscape conditioned by disruption, isolation and a struggle for control.

Wounded Giants: Caracas Now

The decision to picture Caracas as a blood-drenched urban landscape, and to introduce it as such here, was not easy, for it seemed obvious, even biased. But the image (pp 101–02) shows an important piece of the city’s architecture – one that represents power, vigour and ambition – as the victim of a brutal act of violence.

A repeatedly wounded landscape, it focuses on one of the symbols of Caracas’ continuously unfulfi lled promise of modernity: the heroic irruption of Parque Central. A highly dense city within the city developed in the late 1970s and comprising high-rise housing blocks, the highest offi ce towers in South America and leisure, cultural and commercial facilities, this colossal structure is named after Central Park, New York City’s largest open space.

This seemingly insignifi cant fact reveals the crisis of identity that Caracas has suffered over the years, and which is perhaps one of the aspects that has most infl uenced the confi guration of the city’s current fearscape.

Assault and Orthopaedics: Caracas circa 1580

Founded under the shadow of the abuse and genocide infl icted by European settlers on the indigenous communities that previously occupied the ‘new territories’, a violent and confl ictive history can be traced throughout the development of the city. In Caracas, briefl y after seizing control of the valley in which it sits, Spanish settlers arranged the city by superimposing the grid, a recurrent mechanism of urban control enforced all over these territories.

This mesh, whose emplacement in cities such as Bogotá, Mexico City and Buenos Aires produced unyielding urban structures, was an urban recipe that rarely took into account the cultural and geographical particularities of the settlements.

This imposition of an orthopaedic urban structure that could not foresee its own expansion within the particularities of its geography fostered the discontinuity we see in Caracas’ current urban fabric.

Forced Identities: Caracas circa 1890

Previous to these discontinuities, at the end of the 19th century came the tension produced between imported urban models and the evolving conditions of the city.

It was at this time that an attempt was made to transform the deceptive postcard of a peaceful rural setting into an ambitious but nevertheless inconsistent plan for replicating Paris – the vision of General Antonio Guzmán Blanco, the country’s fi rst progressive autocrat and one of Venezuela’s ‘ruling strong men’.

Among these historical political fi gures, it is paramount to mention General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, a dictator who ruled Venezuela from 1952 to 1958. He is remembered for his contribution to the rapid modernisation of the country, and the establishment of a fear society that was controlled through torture, imprisonment and forced disappearance.

Self-Assurance: Caracas circa 1950

However, under Pérez Jiménez’s rule, the country – and Caracas in particular – would witness the most radical transformation it will ever see, as exemplifi ed by the fast-track hyperscale development of Unidad 2 de Diciembre, known as 23 de Enero after the general was overthrown in 1958.

This development, foremost among the plethora of modern interventions that were being developed all over the country at the time, occupies an area of 220 hectares (543.6 acres), and includes an array of social housing superblocks comprising more than 9,200 apartments and a series of complementary service buildings.

Built for more than 60,000 new city migrants in the relatively short period of only three years, this remarkable intervention was conceived by architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva under the ideals of Modern architecture and was realised thanks to the unprecedented wealth brought by oil revenues and Pérez Jiménez’s ambition for Caracas to join the league of world-class modern cities.

But these ruthless operations would also represent progress, as embodied in Modern architecture, by breaking up the grid, now considered a vestige of outdated urban models.

Viral Spontaneity: Caracas circa 1960

Yet no matter how remarkable the attempt at transforming Caracas into a truly modern city, there is the problem of containing the aggressive manifestation of informality. The appearance of spontaneous urban settlements (a consequence of institutional ineffi ciency in coping with the continued demand for social housing and public services) is a non-centralised phenomenon that rapidly expanded to form the unplanned building accumulations commonly known as barrios – hyperdense agglomerations of precarious dwellings lacking public space, services and regulations. Usually situated in the peripheral areas of the city, the excluded settlements – distinctive for their labyrinthine

footpaths and intricate staircases – are the areas in which the highest rates of urban violence can be found. A product of a massive response to necessity, they defi ne the current fearscape of the city, and have also been overexposed by local media as the only places in which crime, corruption and violence are manifested, and this has had an impact on the rest of the city’s perception of these areas.

Fearscape: Caracas circa 2010

But reality has proved this wrong, as new embodiments of the wall – intended to contain the real and constructed threats of criminality – appear as yet another informal phenomenon of self-organisation that this time operates in the spaces occupied by the city’s middle and upper classes.

An aggressive operation on the city’s facade, the unplanned implementation of security devices such as walls, fences, barricades, shattered glass, electrifi ed and barbed wire, watchtowers, surveillance cameras and gated community checkpoints (to name just a few) is applied to the existing architecture and urban structures, transgressing their integrity and triggering the emergence of episodes of spatial segregation and social disarticulation that characterise the city.

This fragmented and yet continuous barrier not only limits the possibilities of embracing an urban culture of fl uid continuity; it underlines the opposing ideological beliefs that divide Venezuela’s contemporary society.

Overcoming Trauma

It is reasonable to believe that a different outcome would have been impossible to achieve as hostility seems embedded within the DNA of this city.

It also seems obvious that in having to cope with the burden of a ruthless colonial past, independence gained through warfare, continuous overthrows of power and the imposed implementations of foreign identities, the current manifestations of violence were unavoidable.

But this confl ictive quality – what appears to be the constitutive feature of the city – might be there just waiting to be embraced through unprejudiced and eager design strategies.

A fi rst step might be to overcome a tradition of belief in miraculous remedies imposed by messianic institutions, individuals and ideologies.

Such an attitude might give way to a slow but steady transformation of the city, bringing progress and renovation alongside the inevitability of trauma; only this time in more manageable and acceptable levels.

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