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As Venezuela’s economy crumbles, so too does its rich architectural heritage

Caracas’ Hotel Miramar, opened in 1928, embodied luxury, comfort and refinement. It was once the most elegant in the country. Today it sits abandoned.

By Samy Adghirni

As Venezuela’s economy and politics fall apart, its architectural heritage is crumbling right along with them.

The ravaged country, once Latin America’s richest, is a riot of structures: parking garages used as shelter, colonial edifices, half-built socialist public works, improvised hillside slum complexes, malls without customers. But hundreds of notable buildings have been abandoned or wrecked. The capital city of Caracas is home to most of this heritage, especially Art Deco, Bauhaus and Brutalist constructions that made it a center of modern architecture in the region, along with Mexico City, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro.

“Modern architecture in Caracas is remarkable. It’s a major feature of this city,” said Hannia Gomez, an architect and head of the Venezuelan branch of Docomomo, an international nonprofit dedicated to conserving modern buildings. “But much of this heritage is badly deteriorated.”

A hot dog cart sits at the entrance of the Quinta Las Guaycas, designed by Manuel Mujica Millán and completed in 1932. The home introduced the country to the International Style.

Among the outstanding examples is the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, labeled as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The campus has art works from Victor Vasarely and Fernand Léger. The cloud-shaped “Nubes” acoustic panels in the Aula Magna concert hall are considered a masterpiece by sculptor Alexander Calder. But the university has become a display of decrepit facades, broken glass and walls covered with graffiti. Trash is uncollected, and vegetation uncut. The campus often becomes a battlefield between opposition students and armed groups loyal to strongman President Nicolas Maduro.

The Quinta Las Guaycas was the city’s first modern construction, designed by Spanish-Venezuelan architect Manuel Mujica Millán. It was completed in 1932 and Millán himself lived there for some time. Today, it’s abandoned — except for squatters — with chipped paint all over the filthy facade and bricks exposed. The windows are boarded up and vegetation has taken over the front garden, along with a trashed hot-dog cart.

The elegant Toki Eder Building has also fallen into disrepair. Developers have proposed razing it, while neighbors have rallied to save it.

A few blocks away stands the neo-Basque Toki Eder building, built in the 1940s, with a facade enlivened by curvilinear reliefs and ornaments such as a scrollworks and shells. It was a landmark building in a neighborhood that was once Caracas’s fanciest spot. Now, it is decaying and sealed up.

The imposing, seafront Hotel Miramar once was a confection that mixed Art Nouveau, Caribbean vernacular and Art Deco styles. Everything has been destroyed except the basic structure — pillars and walls. Inside are only mounds of rubble that once were ceilings. There’s almost nothing left from the domes that were once its signature features. But the skeleton is so massive, and its structural bones so beautiful that it retains an elemental grandeur.

El Castillito, designed by Raffaele Mazzeo in 1951. Caracas is home to a cacophony of architecture. Graceful buildings co-exist with improvised slums and abandoned public works.

Not all of Caracas’s architectural heritage is in shambles. Some government-controlled colonial buildings in the city center as old as the 17th century are open for visits. So is the privately owned modernist Villa Planchart, designed by Gio Ponti, the Italian architect also responsible for the second incarnation of the Denver Art Museum. The Tamanaco, a pyramid-styled hotel that opened in the 1950s, remains in good shape and still receives guests.

Modern architecture in Venezuela flowered between the 1950s and the 1970s thanks to a combination of factors: the oil boom and migration from Europe.

“Many families that came were educated people from Italy, Spain and Portugal,” said Miguel Miguel Garcia, a Caracas curator, researcher and art critic.

Investment in modern architecture dropped after repeated economic crises in the 1980s. The rise of the socialist movement known as Chavismo in the following decade had a mixed impact: Under President Hugo Chavez, officials and experts carried out the first and only inventory of Venezuela’s cultural patrimony. That meant new preservation rules that restricted renovations — and angered owners.

But the laws are vague and enforcement is less strict for real estate owned by government supporters, according to Melin Neva, an architect and member of the organization Paisaje Ciudad Ciudadania, which promotes Caracas’s urban heritage. Authorities have never financially supported preservation efforts, she added.

While socialist rulers have conserved at least the facades of some older buildings, they have neglected modernism, which they associate with foreign values, said Neva.

The Ministry of Culture and the Cultural Heritage Institute didn’t respond to requests for comment.

After Chavez’s death in 2013, the economy started crumbling as a result of declining oil prices and years of mismanagement and corruption. Starvation, hyperinflation and crime had pushed 4.3 million outside the country by August. Caracas is full of empty properties.

“Society is so absorbed by problems that nobody pays attention to preservation,” said Neva, adding that it’s a mistake to consider heritage less important than food and medicine. “Devastated societies can overcome dark periods, thanks to the awareness of their heritage’s value. Heritage is the moral reserve that allows the resumption of development.”
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Credit: Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com