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.