caracas, a house the size of a mountain.

notes from the documentary Caracas: the informal city, which grew from the Caracascase urban think tank.

In Caracas, these two scenes lie side by side. The developers' version of the city, and the people's version: barrios built over 25-30 years, a flexible city that is constantly adapting itself to the growth of surroundings and families, plugging in to existing electricity and water supplies, and adding rooms and floors so that the mountain feels like one big house.

Infrastructure is important in the informal city. How is it built?
People cut out parts of the mountain, and then put the land on the other side of the hole, creating a horizontal parcel which is used to make the first hut. Then later on a concrete structure is built ontop of these foundations. This unstable frame is later filled with the cheapest available block - which is bright red - leaving steel rods poking out: a symbol for continued growth and construction.

As buildings are getting taller, the steel rods and concrete are increasingly stressed. Caracas lies in an earthquake zone and sooner or later, the thousands of houses will come crashing down.

One solution - the urban barrio. A raw concrete frame with inbuilt necessary water and electricity connections. Then the individuals of the barrio can build their own units, alongside areas where gardens can grow, food and animals too. This is one answer to how the city could produce food without relying completely on imports: Recuperating resources so that life in cities becomes more sustainable.

In Caracas, water is more expensive than oil, as an abundance of drinking water just north of the city converts into a sewer after a few metres. A water resource larger than the yearly downfall of London is lost, but plans are currently being made to build a series of dams.

Food is so expensive in the barrios because the stores are organised in tiers: the stores on the ground level sells food to the next tier of the mountain, which in turn sells to the third tier section, and so on. As the food is moved up the hill, it gets more expensive, so that the poorest section of society is buying the most expensive food.

At the same time, Caracas has become the most dangerous city in the American continent - 60 people are killed every weekend. Between the 1st of January and the 27th february 2007, 300 people were killed. Architects are linking this lack of security to the lack of public space: Caracas is missing 70 hectares of sport areas due to government laws, as some of the barrios are still not recognised as part of the city.

Luckily, some buildings fell down the mountain, leaving room to build a vertical gymnasium using specially developed building systems. A football field lies ontop of a running track, lies ontop of a gymnasium. Here the sports facilities - which use solar energy, wind turbines and collect water - serve the main population affected by crime: young people. Linking together pre-fabrication, speed, infrastructure and community, a new prototype is built.

The documentary tells of how the middle class have lost the right to the city of Caracas, because of the reliance on the service sector. The servers - the lower wage tier - are all living in the barrios, and are both building the formal city in the day, and the informal city in the night.

The others are "strangled and limited to their islands" leaving a gaping hole in the structure of the city - and architects are put forward as the link that could tie the bottom-up initiaves with the top down initiatives.

The story tellers say they aren't glorifying this wild urbanism, merely observing the shifts and realities of this kind of developing city. Which isn't even subversive any more: the barrios are no longer politically or spatially invisible, due to Chavez and immensity of scale. It is merely an important lesson on how cities can be built outside of zoning and regulations and the mythical PLAN: a self-built plug-in city.

(Peter Cook, Archigram)

(Cable car design made by the residents of Jose Felix Ribas, to link the metro to the hills)

See also: Robert Neuwirth on squatter cities - the "shadow cities" of the future.


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