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Caracas, The City that Built Itself

Utopian modernism turned on its head in Caracas, where residents have made fifty-year-old superblock housing projects into the locus of sprawling improvised settlements.
May 14, 2009, 10am PDT | Tim Halbur
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[...] In the city's San Francisco Valley, these slums, where nearly half of Caraqueños live, dramatically run up against a series of gargantuan buildings with punchy red, yellow, blue, and white facades cut out from the hillside-superbloques. Each of these housing projects is forty meters tall and over eighty meters long. Nearly swallowed by ranchos, they are vestiges of modernist urbanism long since colonized by the realities of twentieth-century Caracas.

The last Venezuelan dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, oversaw the construction of the superblocks. The project was the concrete centerpiece of the New National Ideal, an ambitious renewal program intended to foment "the rational transformation of the physical environment." In the capital, this entailed a massive endeavor to rid the city of its metastasizing slums. Between Pérez Jiménez's fraudulent election in 1952 and downfall in 1958, the state built 28,763 housing units, many of them contained in Caracas' eighty-seven superblocks. The jewel was 23 de Enero, host to thirty-eight of them. Inaugurated in 1955 with the moniker 2 de Diciembre, in celebration of the dictator's assumption of power, the parroquia was rechristened 23 de Enero in 1958, to commemorate his flight from the country. It now stands as an ironic monument to the dictator and a continuing refutation of his legacy.

This admixture of Latin America's two most prevalent forms of shelter, modernist housing blocks and improvised slum dwellings, is not unique, but the scale, site, history, and density of 23 de Enero-over eighty thousand residents live in the parroquia's superblocks and ranchos-make it exceptional. [...]

Thanks to Matt Sledge

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Published on Tuesday, May 12, 2009 in Triple Canopy
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