Transforming a Tower

An abandoned real estate project becomes a hive of self-organized activity.

When the Venezuelan developer David Brillembourg conceived of the Centro Financiero Confinanzas in the late 1980s, he imagined the largest private skyscraper complex in Caracas. There would be a 16-story building of luxury apartments with a swimming pool on the sixth floor. There would be a vast atrium housed beneath a glass dome. There would be a 10-level parking garage. And at the heart of it all, there would be the Torre David: a 45-story tower containing corporate offices, a high-class hotel, and a helipad on the roof.

Instead there was a bursting bubble. In 1994, four years after construction of the project began, a banking crisis crippled Venezuela's economy. The company financing the effort collapsed and the complex was never completed, although the builders were just a few months short of their anticipated finish date. The government took ownership of the site, but it didn't do anything with it—not unless you count chasing out some squatters who tried to colonize the structure in 2003. "In the heart of a struggling financial district, the Tower stood dark and silent," the architects Hubert Klumpner and Alfredo Brillembourg (David's cousin) write in a hefty new book, Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities (Las Muller).

One stormy September night in 2007, a second set of squatters arrived. They had organized themselves with cell phone calls and text messages, and when they appeared outside the tower that evening, Klumpner and Brillembourg recount, "The two guards on duty took one look at the mass of drenched humanity, turned over their arms, and opened the gates." The complex has been occupied ever since. Approximately 750 families—around 3,000 people—live there today.

Outsiders often talk about Torre David as if it's a pile of squalor. "That building is a symbol of Venezuela's decline," one local told The New York Times in 2011. "What's our future if our people are living like animals in unsafe skyscrapers?" The place's reputation took another blow in 2012, when security forces searched the structure for a kidnapped diplomat. The man turned out to be somewhere else entirely, but the incident fed the idea that the enclave was a seedy blot on the city.

Yet Brillembourg and Klumpner, who have observed the community close up since 2011, see something more hopeful in the place: "a success of sorts within a failure." Their book—which features detailed diagrams of the building and its environs, stunning photographs by Iwan Baan, and even a 16-page "graphic novella" in which the cartoonist André Kitagawa tells the tower's story in comic-book form—describes the settlers' ingenuity:

  • Torre DavidThe building's dwellers have radically transformed the place. They have created a community basketball court, an open-air gym with parts scavenged from inoperative elevators and A.C. units, and—in an adjacent building of the complex—a large church. Residents are constantly adding improvements to their quarters, and while some invest little in the spaces they occupy, others have spent as much as $10,000. The settlers have added new walls, guardrails, and other features to make the structure safer. In other places they have broken through the original walls, both to allow more air to circulate and to build bridges from the garage to the residential quarters.
  • The settlers have developed an intricate system of self-government. Residents pay $15 a month to a cooperative that establishes rules, maintains the space, and pays for various services. The rules range from restrictions on noisy parties to a ban on domestic violence. The organization is a mixture of bottom-up consensus and control by a centralized committee; the authors describe the system as an "autocratic democracy" and an "authoritarian anarchy."
  • You have to apply to move in. Once you live there, three infractions of the rules will get you evicted. And not just any visitor can enter: The co-op pays security guards to man the entrances 'round the clock. Torre David is, in Brillembourg and Klumpner's words, "a barrio that is also a gated community."
  • Initially the residents pirated their electric supply, but the co-op eventually approached the power company about getting a contract and consistent service. The company agreed, but only after the onetime pirates paid $10,000 for the electricity they'd already taken. Water, meanwhile, is transferred from a city water main to the residents by what the authors call a "rather Rube-Goldbergian system." The residents pay for that too, but less reliably: As of the book's publication date, they had accumulated a water debt of more than $56,000. (Venezuelan law prohibits the water company from cutting anyone off, lessening the incentive to settle the bill.)
  • Where the homesteaders have not been able to fix the structure's deficiencies, they have invented ingenious workarounds. There is no working elevator system, for example, but hired drivers have stationed themselves in the garage, giving customers a lift to the floor of their choice in a car or on a motorcycle.
  • Those drivers aren't the only entrepreneurs on the site. Grocery shops are interspersed among the building's apartments. (The residents' co-op regulates the stores' prices on the first 10 floors. Above that, where the parking garage doesn't reach and transport expenses are higher, shops can charge more.) Other enterprises have taken root in the complex as well: here a hair salon, there a snack shop, there an auto workshop.

The tower has a distinct culture too, including a surprisingly strong affinity for evangelical Pentecostalism. The church in the settlement is Pentecostal, most of the families in Torre David subscribe to the faith, and the pastor does double duty as president of the co-op. In this majority-Catholic city, it turns out, the Pentecostals are deeply involved with squatting. "Across Caracas," the authors write, "the Evangelical Pentecostals have taken over former theaters, cinemas, supermarkets, and other large spaces in buildings owned by [the government], converting them into churches and social centers."

Torre David, in short, is a complex and fascinating place: not just a symbol of poverty, but a symbol of the self-organized activity that offers a way out of poverty. It isn't the development that David Brillembourg envisioned, but it isn't a Ballardian hellscape either. It's more of a messy testimonial to human creativity and survival: ragged, flawed, inventive, and amazing.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Paul.||

    Jesus, imagine the code violations.

  • Tony||

    Even modern complex (governed) civilizations started in their evolutionary journey as "self-organized" societies of smaller groups of people. For some baffling reason, most people seem to prefer the modern convenience of a strongly governed state over less sophisticated prior arrangements.

    Anyway, this place was featured in an episode of Homeland!

    Also, would Libertopia have to steal its water from other people too?

  • Paul.||

    "the Evangelical Pentecostals have taken over former theaters, cinemas, supermarkets, and other large spaces in buildings owned by [the government], converting them into churches and social centers."

    It looks like you've overlooked your biggest concern, Tony. Homeschooling.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    They like toilet paper too. Too bad Venezuela has trouble in the department with their strongly governed state.

  • Brian||

    Tony:

    For some baffling reason, most people seem to prefer the modern convenience of a strongly governed state over less sophisticated prior arrangements.

    False choice. And, I don't remember anyone asking anybody. That's the way assumed consent works.

  • Mark22||

    "For some baffling reason, most people seem to prefer the modern convenience of a strongly governed state over less sophisticated prior arrangements."

    Even if "most people" did that, it wouldn't matter. The fact that the majority of people in various countries have, at times, chosen socialism, communism, or fascism doesn't make those acceptable forms of government.

    "Also, would Libertopia have to steal its water from other people too?"

    They are "stealing" water from the surrounding socialist state that failed them and threw them into poverty in the first place. And the irony is that they are getting away with it because of the rules of that broken system.

    Besides, do you seriously think that other Venezuelans aren't doing much worse? That's how socialist states work: corruption, theft, and black markets.

  • Paul.||

    "autocratic democracy" and an "authoritarian anarchy."

    Hmm.

  • BenjaminRTucker'sRevenge||

    Yeah, that's like saying "dead living guy" or "tall short lady".

    This isn't an example of anarchism or panarchism, as it's a coercive monopoly on law for a given geographic area (the building). To be anarchy it would have to allow competition in dispute resolution services (law and courts) within the area, and allow competition in the security services (police) they pay $15 a month for.

    There is no competition there...it's just a really micro state.

    I'll say it's democratic, or more directly, a form of republicanism. They also have elements of Athenian democracy it seems...but that's a mere shade of difference from usual attempts at small republican experiments.

    As for being authoritarian...statist might be a better word. There is nothing anarchic about this building...take from me, I'm an anarchist.

    Spontaneous order, or stigmergy for that matter, is not equivalent to anarchy; it's just one aspect of anarchy.

  • Johnimo||

    I especially love the idea that if you don't find what you want in the price-regulated grocery stores on the lower levels, you can climb upstairs to the entirely free market stores. I'd love to discover what is the reasoning behind this two-tiered system. Do they not like the idea of little old ladies having to hike uphill for (what would be in a free market) lower prices? Rather, they have to hike upstairs for what must now be a greater selection of higher priced goods? Love this story!

  • Paul.||

    Yeah, interesting. My first guess is you go to the regulated grocery stores to get stable pricing, but like free healthcare, you might not actually get the item you're looking for. So they go to the free market one to actually receive the goods they're trying to purchase, but at a higher price.

    But alas, that may be oversimplified. Interesting story though.

  • JD the elder||

    I do feel that the bit about "the residents' co-op regulates the stores' prices on the first 10 floors" shows the omnipresence of the desire to regulate, though. Even in a squatters' community, price regulation is there. I realize the urge to control is everywhere, but it does make me wonder if Venezuelans are particularly prone to it or something.

  • ||

    Reminds me of this photo spread which I saw today. I cannot even imagine living in an apartment building like that, where my front door opened up into a yawning cavern.

  • JD3||

    Very interesting story.
    In the absence of laws and HOA-type BS, people learn to get along just fine...there's no Mad Max, AIDSey, lawless land (sorry, I've always wanted to use the word AIDSey in a sentence and this just happens to be where I took my shot).
    Most people just want to live a relatively comfortable, safe, horror-free life.
    Good on them!

  • seguin||

    You have to apply to move in.

    Como se dicés "irony" en Español?

  • LibertarianX||

    What appeals to me about this story is how they needed no additionsal government for their society to function. Citizens are always treated as idiots by their government, incapable of taking care of themselves. This shows it is the elitists in government who are not necessary.

  • IT||

    Cool story. But the residents are still there at the whim of the Government. The powers that be have decided for whatever reason to do nothing about it. I guess they've weighed the options and doing something doesn't benefit them. I'm interested in seeing how long this lasts.

    Property rights are an essential part to personal liberty. This leaves the residents there with a very weak hand.

  • ||

    "The settlers have developed an intricate system of self-government. Residents pay $15 a month to a cooperative that establishes rules, maintains the space, and pays for various services."

    This reminds me so much of Robert Nozick's idea of a dominant protective association. Not exactly a night-watchman state, but really fascinating.

  • pob||

    uptil I saw the receipt of $6158, I have faith that...my... neighbour really taking home money part time on there computar.. there aunts neighbour has been doing this for only about 9 months and by now cleared the debts on their home and bourt a brand new GMC. read this post here W­ o­ r­ k­ s­ 7­ 7­ .­ C­ O­ M­

  • pob||

    my stepmom just got a fantastic cream Mercedes CLS-Class CLS63 AMG only from working parttime off a home pc... browse around this website ➤➤➤➤➤➤ www.works77.ℂℴ¬m
    my stepmom just got a fantastic cream Mercedes CLS-Class CLS63 AMG only from working parttime off a home pc... browse around this website ➤➤➤➤➤➤ www.works77.ℂℴ¬m

  • julia14juli||

    my best friend's sister-in-law makes $70 /hour on the computer . She has been without work for 7 months but last month her check was $12532 just working on the computer for a few hours. you can look here

    =========================
    http://www.tec30.com
    =========================

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement