Caracas, Hecho en Venezuela

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The special economic position of Venezuela as the world’s fifth largest exporter of raw materials has a lasting effect on the appearance and social development of the capital Caracas. A wave of modernisation influenced by European concepts left its mark on the city in the 1950s. Major architectural projects such as the campus of the Universidad Central de Venezuela or the public housing project 23 de Enero won international acclaim. As a founding member of OPEC, Venezuela profited from the increased oil prices on the global market in the 1970s. This gave rise to the futuristic Parque Central housing and business area with the Teatro Teresa Cerano culture complex and Hilton Caracas as the new city centre. Decades of orientation to the raw materials industry led to neglect of national agricultural production and encouraged massive rural exodus.
Today, 90% of the Venezuelan population lives in cities. Investments in construction of what was at the time the world’s largest hydropower project in the south of Venezuela, nation-wide motorway construction, and an aluminium industry conjured up out of nothing caused national debt to skyrocket as a result of the collapse of oil prices and plunged the country into crisis in the 1980s. The corrupt political system was no longer able to rectify the social and economic polarisation of the country. The profit of few contrasted with the growing poverty of large sections of the population.
A national uprising in 1989 and a failed attempted coup in 1992 were the consequences. In 1998 Hugo Chávez was elected president by the majority of the socially disadvantaged classes.
In recent years, the Latin American metropolis of Caracas, now grown to an estimated five million inhabitants and characterised by informal housing estates, has undergone processes of urban appropriation and redevelopment that are substantially influenced by those inhabitants who were largely excluded from political decisionmaking just a few years earlier. The remarkable thing about these forms of transformative urbanism – such as urban agricultural projects and education programmes – is that they productively combine the “bottom-up” initiatives of the citizens, rural committees and district organisations with the Chávez administration’s “top-down” “Bolivarian Revolution” reform project.

23 de Enero
The 23 de Enero district, the supposed clash of barrios and superblocks, is an exemplary site of transformative urbanism, linking the promises of architecture and planning with political demands and will. The housing project was built on a scale unique for Latin America under the supervision of the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva during the dictatorship of Marco Péres Jiménes (1948 – 1958). Between 1952 and 1958, a modernist megastructure evolved in the west of the city, fundamentally changing the face of Caracas – superblocks mixed with smaller-scale apartment blocks and school buildings, kindergartens and a hospital.
The urban appearance and the architecture seemed to meet the political promises of modernisation of the dictatorship. However, the social situation was precarious, with a national uprising putting an end to the dictatorship in 1958. In what was a mass occupation, the impoverished lower class took possession of 4.000 of the 9.000 apartments during the uprising.
Since then the district has had the reputation of being socially and politically rebellious – also because of its central location and proximity to the political centre Miraflores, the presidential palace and the seat of the government. Its inhabitants, organised in activist groups, lend massive support to the new government of Hugo Chávez, who has been shaping Venezuelan politics since 1998.

The Constitution
The Bolivarian Constitution passed in 1999 was the first major effort of the new government focusing on rearranging social conditions. It was subjected to nation-wide discussion, put to a national referendum, and finally passed in 1999. Among other things, it codified anti-neoliberal politics, the autonomy of indigenous segments of the population, and the recognition of housework as producing surplus value. Participation models for communes, grass-roots initiatives and citizens are intended to further develop participative democracy. Specifically, the urban and rural land reform legislation based on this constitution helps replace the outdated programmes of repressive economic modernisation with new practices and pave the way for broader social participation, for a “bottom-up democratisation of the city”.

The billboard “Caracas, Hecho en Venezuela” (Caracas, Made in Venezuela) is based on an aerial photo of 23 de Enero. The photograph is transformed into an ASCII file containing the text of the new constitution. In the picture the housing project and the constitution merge – two forms of organisation that structure and indeed create the city architecturally and socially – to form a system of reference.