Friday, December 9, 2011

Element-in-Tension: Production (Part I)

A city is a social production, the multi-faceted expression of myriad vested wills, political ecology, and zeitgeist. In Caracas, the interaction of these factors seems to have collectively segmented the production of the city into several distinct eras.

During the early days of Caracas, like the early days of many other cities in the European colonial era, the economy was based on conquest, Spain bending “virgin” lands and lesser peoples to state purposes. Plantation agriculture drove the Venezuelan economy for three centuries and provided an agenda for the production of Caracas. To ensure that new colonial cities would provide efficient and effective hubs for ongoing profitable management of nature and people, Conquistadors were trained in town planning practices in vogue in Spain. The city masters (if not master planners) were instructed in best practices regarding geographic location, street lay-out, building construction, industry, water supply, food systems, and public services. The colonial urban centers were carefully designed for protection of inhabitants from climate, disease, and enemy forces but also flexible enough to grow and change. Thus, from the founding of the city in 1567 until the late 1800s, Caracas followed development under a grid-iron pattern, which Spain had rediscovered from ancient Roman design. The short square blocks allowed expansion in all directions without much revision, reduced wind among the blocks, and allowed easy navigation[1]. Below are some images of the gridded city gradually filling the Caracas valley through three centuries of development.
1578: Original Caracas Grid

1578: Caracas Grid in Geographic Context

1766: Nuestra Senora de Caracas  (Our Lady of Caracas)
1812: Sketch of Caracas
1839: Vista de Caracas
1870: Plano de Caracas

As I have previously discussed in some detail regarding wellness in Caracas, the late 1800s marked a new era in the social production of the city. The metropolis had grown into a cosmopolitan center considered to have a European ethos (declared the “Paris of South America”), yet the city had defective infrastructure that yielded high mortality rates. In order to make Caracas a “Complete City,” health experts spurred the Bella Epoca (Beautiful Time) in Caracas. By the 1920s, the early evolution of the oil industry helped to fund a new development agenda focused on hygiene, civility and progress. The state regulated hygiene, controlled land development and architectural design, and established Banko Obrero, the first South America housing administration, in order provide working-class housing for the many new laborers needed to support Venezuela’s growing industrialization. While not comprehensive in scope, the coordinated consideration of traffic, sprawl, and housing in the Bella Epocha of Caracas ushered in modern urbanism.

Following the turn of the century shift to begin prioritizing issues of urbanism, in the 1930s the Venezuelan government formed Direccion de Urbanismo, the first official Venezuelan urban planning office. The group worked with French urbanist (and Yale professor) Maurice Rotival to replan the central zone of Caracas into a modern metropolis reflecting the new hope, influence, and economic power of oil-rich Venezuela. In 1939, Rotival’s Plan Monumental de Caracas was unveiled (then approved by council in 1940). 
Plan Monumental de Caracas
The plan provided Beaux Arts approach to capital with a very wide main avenue and redesigned distributor streets, intended to solve traffic problems by “absorbing great vehicle mass.”[2] Later in the 40s, the second phase of the plan was implemented replacing the central square with an impressive new modern building integrated with a five-level central plaza and transit terminal – Centro Simon Bolivar. The new center was considered a success in both image and utility, and it still functions as the emblematic central tower of the city, a core square and retail area, and a transit, traffic, and pedestrian node. 

1940s Plan Monumental de Caracas - Model
Plan Monumental de Caracas under development
Centro Simon Bolivar

The social product of the lucrative 30s continued to yield additional modernist development, entwined with the structure and aspirations of the Plan Monumental de Caracas. Maybe most significantly, in terms of influential urbanism, in 1944, Carlos Raul Villanueva (having arrived in Caracas in 1929) planned a modernist central university campus in Caracas – called City University. The campus was located on the site of the historic hacienda of Simon Bolivar’s family and was connected to the new city center of the Rotival plan. The University plan was one of Villanueva seminal works, and he continued to refine phases of its development until his death in 1975. In 2000, UNESCO declared City University a World Heritage site.
Villanueva's City University
Another major development occurred in 1950 with Villanueva’s plan for development of enormous Corbusian residential super blocks, designed to prevent sprawling informal development in Caracas. The blocks were constructed to provide affordable housing in 20,000 apartments, but they were expropriated by the military elite in the 50s[3]. Then, in 1958, poor residents physically retook the blocks in a popular uprising overthrowing Dictator Jimenez and demanding democratic rule. Since that time, the housing development has become known as 23 de Enero (23rd of January) commemorating the day of the dictator’s ouster.
Villanueva's 23 de Enero
While the ongoing evolution and increasingly well-to-do social production of newly-democratic Caracas continued through the oil boom of the 70s, the fast growing city also developed a working class counter culture that would eventually rend the socially produced fabric of Caracas urbanism. The divided city ultimately became more visible upon the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s. As neoliberal regimes supported by influential and wealthy Venezuelans tried to sustain standards of living through international borrowing, associated increases in interest rates and national inflation made life extremely difficult for the lower classes. Tensions grew... (continued in next post)
Caracas's modernist Helicoide was designed in the 50s as a shopping mall,  then
commandeered by the State intelligence agency, and is now surrounded by barrios!

[1] Waldron, K. (1977). A social history of a primate city, the case of Caracas, 1750- 1810. Available from /z-dissert/ database.
[2] Almandoz, M. A. (2002). Planning Latin America's capital cities, 1850-1950. London: Routledge.
[3] Lester, J. (2009). Prometheus unbound in caracas. Social. Democr. Socialism and Democracy,
23(3), 61-88.

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