Squatter Communities, Living Below the Line
Russell Scheer and Ángel López
Squatter settlements have been a way of survival in developing nations across the globe. By using easily accessible materials, or preexisting structures, large groups of people in South America, known as squatters, have found various ways to create shelters to suit their basic needs of surviving. The people of these communities are considered poor, but never homeless. One community in Caracas, Venezuela has received the spotlight in Architectural news, for its informality in an Urban setting. Contrasting the favelas in Brazil, that are built with the random remainders of building materials and stacked along the rugged landscape, is the site of a vertical squatter community in an abandoned office tower in the center of the city of Caracas. The structure is known by its residents as the “Torre David” or the “Tower of David.” Since its establishment in 2007, the Torre David has prospered and grown into a self-run, unofficial housing project. Torre David, originally planned to be called Centro Financiero Confinanzas, had the initial function to be an office tower. Following the death of its investor David Brillembourg in 1993 and the banking crisis in 1994, the Venezuelan government took control of the site. The intention of the architect was to create a space that contained business, but has transformed into a place where over 3000 people live and thrive. A question is raised from this event; is space defined by its intended function, or by the intentions and needs of the people surrounding that space? The 3000 occupants of this unfinished office tower are certainly not controlling companies or filing paper work, but fulfilling their own basic needs. People of informal squatter communities adjust and assimilate natural environments and ignored infrastructure to place themselves in urban centers as a means to further make socioeconomic advancements.
Other than supplying the frame of a living space, the Torre David has altered its function, and its occupants have done the same. Though the initial purpose of the tower was to be an office space, the occupants have fully developed it into a residential community. The program of the Torre David resembles a mini economy, including supply shops, a location for exercising and lifting weights, and various makeshift systems of transporting goods and people. The people of this tower acted as parasitic organisms that have clung to a host, in which they have adapted this structural body to their needs and desires. Due to this condition, the programmatic design of this tower closely resembles that of an official high-rise residence. As mentioned in the trailer of the upcoming documentary by Urban-Think Tank, titled Torre David, this is architecture without architects (Urban-Think Tank). The people of this squatter community are simply trying to meet their own needs in a logical orderly fashion. Taking into consideration the large and expanding lower class in Venezuela and the existing various squatter communities, it seems logical that those who seek improved lifestyles would occupy the abandoned tower. This tower symbolizes the merge between socialist and capitalist mentalities as the dominance of this intended economic center. As well, it symbolizes the power in the capital of the country and how it is weakened by the occupancy of squatters and the reformatted purpose and function of the building.
The displacement of people living in poverty is a common condition in every developing urban environment. Throughout South American cities, various informal settlements exist in the wake of poor urban planning and their lack of affordable housing. An ever-changing community in the outskirts of the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro is an example of the displaced lower class that builds to survive. The Favelas in Rio are self-built homes that have adapted to the landscape surrounding the city. Oscar Lewis is quoted in the article titled Squatter architecture? A critical examination of vernacular theory and spontaneous settlement with reference to South America and South Africa, by saying, “every third world city is a dual city- an island of wealth surrounded by a black belt of misery. Outside of the bright shining modern city of skyscrapers, flyovers and desirable residencies, the poor are camped in squalor, disease and neglect, in shacks and hutments of plywood, cardboard, mud, or straw” (Kellet/Napier 1995). He continues to explain that there is this fine line between the success within an urban environment, and the slow paced communities around them. The construction of the favelas was done out of pure desire to survive. Inhabitants of such squatter communities face poor conditions that continue to inhibit their improvements. The photographer Pedro Lobo investigated the existing favelas in Rio de Janeiro. He explains that the creation of these makeshift shacks was a mandatory process that helped to extend the life of the massive amounts of people living without shelter. Although the shelters and created communities helped a people survive, it also naturally inhibited them to improve in their lives. “The favelas were formed by groups of slaves that moved to the cities in search of job opportunities. The cultures of exclusion created problems of its own that are the roots of today’s violent drug and gang culture” (Lobo). Lobo goes on to say that this unintentional act of exclusion is the creative method of the formation of two separate worlds within one city. Although the poverty line is clear, and improvement seems distant, the favela is more than a community “about crime, or criminals, poverty, or misery, but about human beings who found, or placed themselves in extremely adverse situations and decided not to give up the struggle for a dignified existence.”
The inhabitants of the Torre David can be seen as opportunists or as survivors. The ideal location of the Tower due to its original symbol of power in the nucleus of downtown Caracas, offers the residents an opportunity to further connect with the metropolitan community that exists around them. With a more central location than the other slum and squatter settlements that are present in the outskirts of the city, the residents may obtain a better social status within society. However, the idea of the tower being a squatter community drives insecurity within those who live legally in the shared urban space. As seen in the video by Dezeen magazine, Iwan Baan describes that there are two perspectives to the towers situation. Those who don’t reside in the Torre David and believe that it is a center for drugs and illegal activities and those who occupy the tower and feel secure in that environment. Baan mentions the story of a woman who has not left the tower in over five years, and how she feels as if her home, this squatter community, is the safest location she and her family can call home (Baan 2012). Considering the poor conditions within the squatter settlements of South America, the concept of these informal communities is beneficial to the people that live in them. “The future of urban development lies in collaboration among architects, private enterprise, and the global population of slum-dwellers” (Furuto 2013). The difference between an informal squatter community and a planned residential community is the cooperation of these three groups of people; the designers, the private owners, and the people who live there. It is necessary to consider that every space has a purpose, and that purpose is prescribed by the inhabitants of that space. In order for the improvement of these settlements, their needs to be an understanding of the needs of developing urban communities and every aspect and group that is contained within them.
Magalhaes, Fernanda, and Eduardo Rojas. “Facing the Challenges of Informal Settlements in Urban Centers: The Re-urbanization of Manaus, Brazil.” Inter-American Development Bank June (2007): 1-18. http://www.iadb.org/en/publications/publication-detail,7101.html?id=4509 (accessed September 7, 2013).
This journal entry goes into great detail about the struggle of the people living in the informal settlements in Brazil and South America. The search for solutions to urban and social problems prompted by informal settlements is gaining importance in the development agenda of most large cities in Latin America. Nearly 60 percent of the population lives in informal, often centrally located settlements.
“Informal Toolbox.” Sustainable Living Urban Model Lab 2008 (2008). http://www.u-tt.com/researchTeaching_2008SLUMLabInformalToolbox_01.html (accessed September 8, 2013).
In this report titled Informal Toolbox, information on the Slums in Latin America is revealed and discussed in great detail. The report explains the study of the many different squatter communities and how they have improved, failed, or succeeded. There are many solutions to the problem, and the Sustainable Living Urban Model Lab reports the possibilities involving the improvement of these settlements and other urban housing issues.
Furuto, Alison. “Torre David – Informal Vertical Communities Exhibition | ArchDaily.” ArchDaily | Broadcasting Architecture Worldwide. http://www.archdaily.com/388821/torre-david-informal-vertical-communities-exhibition/ (accessed September 9, 2013).
In this article on ArchDaily.com, the Torre David exhibition is explained in great detail. The exhibition brought attention to the issue of the vertical informal community inside of a tower in Caracas, Venezuela.
Lobo, Pedro. “Favelas- Architecture of Survival.” Picturetank 1 (1995): n. pag. www.picturetank.com. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
The photographer Pedro Lobo describes the Favela Squatter communities in this series of photographs. He describes these settlememts as being architecture of survival where any material is used for shelter. He enters the communities created in the Favelas and gives the viewer a true inside experience of the poor situation the people that live in them face on a daily basis.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “favela,” accessed September 09, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/202893/favela.
The favela in Brazil is an example of the poor urbanization in South American countries. The favela is a housing unit that is usually made from the random supplies that the indigenous people of the area can find. These housing units are sometimes built into the mountains, and then stacked on top of each other. Building these housing units are the squatters of the cities in which they live. This entry in the Encyclopedia explains the way in which favelas have become a normalcy in most developing South American nations.
Cedric Pugh, Squatter settlements: Their sustainability, architectural contributions, and socio-economic roles, Cities, Volume 17, Issue 5, October 2000, Pages 325-337, ISSN 0264-2751, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0264-2751(00)00029-9.
Keywords: Sustainability; Housing; Emerging nations
This article’s purpose is to explain the prevalence of squatter settlements around the world and their significance in the urban environment. These settlements make up a large part of the housing space in cities of developing countries, and they have a large significance on the economy of these cities.
Kellett, Peter, and Mark Napier. “Squatter Architecture.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 5 (1995): 7 – 24. http://iaste.berkeley.edu/tdsr6_2.htm (accessed September 8, 2013).
Kellett and Napier, in this article, investigate the vernacular of squatter architecture and its impact on society. It becomes an investigation of spontaneous settlements in the past three decades. They emphasize the process which gives rise to informally produced housing rather than the built form of the housing itself.
Mangin, William. “Latin American Squatter Settlements: A Problem and a Solution.” Latin American Research Review 2 (1967): 65 – 98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2502178 (accessed September 8, 2013).
In this article, Mangin attempts to derive some sort of meaning from the squatter settlements in Latin America. He proposes that there are many myths about these informal communities, but that each myth has its reason for existing. Although each settlement is complicated and they are all different, Mangin believes that there is a solution to the problem. Through the study of the settlements, each has the capabilities of improving in its own ways.
Stimson Global Health Security, “SÃO PAULO – DISPARITIES, VIOLENCE, AND HEALTH.” Accessed September 9, 2013. http://www.stimson.org/images/uploads/Sao_Paulo_Case_Study.pdf.
In this report by Stimson Global Health Security, Sao Paulo is described as a dangerous, violent and city in despair. The socioeconomic culture in Sao Paulo can be communicated through the way in which the poor are separated from the rich, in a very strict and obvious way. The city is split down the center by a highway, on one side is a favela village, and the other side contains high rise housing.
TORRE DAVID. Informal Vertical Communities. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2012.
This book, written by the researchers at Urban-Think Tank, is about the Torre David and its purpose as an informal vertical slum. There are orthographic drawings of the tower. These drawings include, program plan, wind/water influence plan, sectional drawings, and various other diagrams.
Video and Audio
VocativVideo. “The world’s tallest slum: Caracas’ notorious Tower of David – YouTube.” YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1p9jlQUW0k (accessed September 22, 2013).
This video is a Dezeen Magazine interview with the photographer Iwan Baan about his film on the Torre David. He speaks about the informal vertical community as an architecture, without architects.
Urban-Think Tank. “Torre David Trailer – YouTube.” YouTube.
(accessed September 9, 2013).
This video is the trailer of a documentary called Torre David in which Urban Think Tank studied the social organization of one of the largest squatter communities in South America.