Caracas, Venezuela: The Informal City

The documentary Caracas: The Informal City, directed by Rob Schröder, follows the Caracas-based architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner. The documentary is a couple years old (released in 2007), but remains a fascinating sample of the challenges that exist in mega-cities across the world. It shows the informal urban development that can be seen in many developing countries as a result of globalisation and population growth. In the case of Caracas, over four million of the six million inhabitants live in self-built houses and constructions.

The documentary is the second part of a two-part series. Alfredo and Hubert give in this second part their views about the implications of the informal growth that occured in Caracas and how they attempt to find simple solutions  to some of the issues. These ininiatives are developed with local communities through their non-profit Urban Think Tank.

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Caracas: The Informal City

Venezuela was in the mid-1900s the most prosperous and mordernised country of South America, and Caracas, its capital, was the city that most symbolised this optimism. During this period hordes of people from accross South America and from within Venezuela moved to Caracas with a hope to start a better life. It made Caracas one of the most culturally diverse cities of South America, but also resulted in dramatic urban sprawl. It turned the city into what is described as the most violent mega city of the South American continent.

Alfredo was born in Venezuela and had moved with his parents to the United States. Hubert is an Austrian and went for his studies to New York. It is there that they met at Columbia University. Alfredo started a practise in Caracas and Hubert joined later on. They use the proceeds from their commercial architectural practise to undertake charitable initiatives.

The barrios developed with an abscence of proper urban planning, and buildings were erected with the most basic materials and are overall self-built. By showing on-site examples the documentary shows what it means for a city to have four of it six million inhabitants living in barrios, and what live looks like for the locals. For instance, the problems with sanitation and water supplies are huge. This spontaneous urbanisation on steep hillsides means that the further away from the main roads, the prices of water steadily goes up, due to transportation costs. Water can cost more then petrol, with the poorest people paying the highest prices.

Another highlighted issue is that due to the urban density there are hardly open spaces, such as for play and activities. Through trial projects with the Urban Think Thank they completed various projects together with local communities. For instance by experimenting with constructing space-efficient stacked sportsfields, or by building simple composting toilets with showers and rainwater collection, for the use of groups of families.

One of the most worrying concern is earthquake risks. The houses and structures are built on unstable hills, without involvements of architects or engineers. Samples are shown of the freightening conditions of poor structural supports, concrete, and foundations, and frequently houses slide off the hills. Past earthquakes in other parts of the world have ilustrated how vulnerable such cities and architecture are to earthquakes.

The narrators explain how these neighbourhoods are now here to stay, and solutions will have to be found to gradually adapt and improve conditions. The documentary is most valuable given that these challenges are not limited to Caracas. Globally many urban areas face similar issues, particularly on the African, Asian and South-American continents. It explores our rapidly changing world and illustrates the potential of a city build by and for its inhabitants within a new socio-political and architectonic reality. Caracas has become a prototype for the exploding urbanization that occurs, with high levels of improvisation by the people and constant adaptation. In showing this, the sample of Caracas and the initiatives by Urban Think Tank become useful prototypes and ideas for cities, planners and communities that face similar challenges.

The Informal City was developed as a coproduction of VPRO Backlight, the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam and Urban Think Tank. For a link to a trailer at submarine, who released the documentary, see HERE.

Published by submarine (Amsterdam) – ISBN 978-90-8091-019-5 (104 minutes). Image credits by submarine and Urban Think Tank.

Text by Jan Haenraets

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

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