Venice Biennale 2012: Torre David, Gran Horizonte / Urban Think Tank + Justin McGuirk + Iwan Baan

© Nico Saieh

Last year, thanks to a photo essay by architecture photographer Iwan Baan featured in the New York Magazine, the world became aware of a dramatic urban context in Caracas, Venezuela, the result of a lack of available housing: The Torre David (David Tower). The tower, built as the headquarters of the Confinanzas Group during the economic boom of the 90s, was left unfinished after the company went bankrupt in 1994, placing the building in a murky legal void where its ownership was put into question. Since 2000, the tower has suffered looting and decay; the public take-over culminated with the occupation of the tower by more than 2,500 people in 2007.

For over a year, Urban-Think Tank studied how the tower’s mixed-use occupation worked, with improvised apartments, shops, and even a gym on the terrace. The community operates under the strict rules imposed by the informal tenants, who have been accused by many Venezuelans of being nothing more than criminals.

Invited by curator Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank recreated ‘Gran Horizonte’, a restaurant in the Torre de David, at the Arsenale of the Venice Biennale. The restaurant serves the same traditional food as the original, while photos by reveals tenants’ day-to-day lives, immersing visitors into the tower.

The installation explores how the informal settlement works in ways the building’s architect never would have conceived, and posits that the informal dynamics found in emerging countries could serve as a vital source of innovation and experimentation for urban problems in our hyper-urbanized world.

The project has been highly controversial among the Venezuelan architecture community, as shown by the letters and articles in local newspapers reproduced at the installation, and on the Internet. Most of these letters’ authors claim that the project supports the illegal occupation and depicts a distorted image of Venezuela’s reality. But, on the other hand, the Venezuela Pavilion at the Biennale showed only cheerful paintings and images of propaganda, avoiding its purpose: to critically observe and stir debate. The controversy between the two visions only further highlights the current polarity in Venezuelan society, particularly on this issue of urbanization.

For this project, Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank, and Iwan Baan were awarded with the Golden Lion by the Biennale’s Jury.

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