Inside The Tower of David, Venezuela’s Vertical Slum
It was supposed to be a dramatic symbol of wealth, but became a squatters’ paradise. Now the Torre de David stands vacant in the center of Caracas, its future unclear.
This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
The Torre David was supposed to be one of the tallest buildings in Venezuela. Instead, it became its most notorious slum.
The skyscraper, halted mid-construction in the early 1990s, was taken over by thousands of squatters in 2007. For years they turned the building into an informal community that was photographed, filmed and made famous worldwide as a “vertical slum.”
Today, emptied of its unsanctioned inhabitants, it once again stands vacant in the center of the Venezuelan capital, its future unclear.
The tower is part of the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, a complex of bank buildings spurred by a banking boom in the late 1980s that sought to turn downtown Caracas into a banking center akin to Wall Street.
David Brillembourg, a Venezuelan banker with the Confinanzas Group bank, led the investment in the complex, which was to serve as its glimmering headquarters and include a 45-story office tower, an adjacent 18-story office tower, an atrium, a smaller auxiliary building, and a parking structure. Construction on the project, a gleaming, angular tower complex of glass and steel designed by architect Enrique Gómez, began in 1990.
Unexpectedly, Brillembourg died in 1993 at just 55, throwing a cloak of uncertainty over the partially built project’s future. Around the same time, the entire Venezuelan banking system began to implode, further destabilizing the large and expensive project. The financing for the project dried up, and by 1994 construction on the Centro Financiero Confinanzas stopped completely.
With its skeletal concrete core covered only in parts by a glass façade, much of the building was left open to the elements and poking conspicuously up from the city center for all of Caracas to see. It sat there empty and half-finished for years, like so many other examples of unfinished architecture cut down by economic tumult.
In 2001 the government tried to auction off the building, estimated to be about two-thirds complete, but the auction failed to attract a single bidder. The building was becoming a local and national embarrassment.
Then, in October 2007, some 200 families invaded the tower. As part of the estimated 40 percent of the Caracas population living in informal communities and self-built housing, the invaders claimed the tower as their new home.
Reportedly led by a group of ex-convicts, they began squatting in the buildings of the complex, taking over the raw concrete rooms and hallways that were once intended to hold the offices of the country’s top bankers and financiers.
In a perhaps ironic homage to the man behind the building, it became known as the Torre de David, or the Tower of David.
The 200 families were soon joined by many more of the city’s slum-dwellers who eventually filled the tower to its 28th floor, along with the entire 18 floors of the smaller building next door, neither of which had services like electricity, plumbing, or elevators.
By some estimates, roughly 5,000 people eventually occupied the Tower of David, building brick walls and rooms and fully outfitted homes within the empty shell of the buildings. Local services emerged, including shops, barbers, and haulers willing to carry loads up the stairs to the tower’s higher floors.
Electricity and water were bootlegged into the building, and services were eventually formalized to a degree. The building itself became somewhat formalized as well. According to a 2013 article from The New Yorker, a gangster-turned-evangelist named Alexander “El Niño” Daza became, by potentially violent means, the tower’s boss.
A homeowners association of sorts was established, with each inhabitant paying a monthly fee to cover utilities and maintenance of the building’s common areas.
The organization rented out the parking structure to bring in extra money, eventually enabling it to become a paying customer of the local utilities.
Each floor of the building had a designated representative, each of which attended twice-weekly meetings with Daza in a kind of ad hoc government. “I think this tower is better organized than the country,” one resident told the BBC.
Some reports suggest the building was operated by a criminal organization, of which Daza was the head. This image was further developed in an October 2013 episode of the HBO show Homeland, in which a main character is held captive in the building by a group of violent gangsters who tightly control its residents, activities, and access by the outside world. The real Tower of David was similarly tricky for outsiders to access.
But the tower is also a unique example of a new kind of informal community, a phenomenon explored in depth by the architecture firm Urban-Think Tank in a year-long investigation that suggested a series of interventions that would help make the tower a sustainable vertical community, and that its experimental nature could inform other slum developments around the world.
That project eventually won the top prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. This work led to much of the global attention—both positive and negative—that the Tower of David received.
The 2013 New Yorker article noted that the government of Caracas had essentially tolerated the illegal occupation of the building, but that officials agree something would eventually have to be done about the building.
In July 2014, the government announced a plan to begin evicting the building’s squatters and relocate them to public housing outside of the city—a decision made shortly after Venezuela reportedly signed a deal with the Chinese government to redevelop the site. Over the course of the next year, residents were gradually forced out of the tower.
Some were relocated to permanent housing on the outskirts of the city, while others are still waiting for their replacement homes. Some of the early evictees were taken about an hour’s drive outside the city to a development of newly built apartment buildings. One group arrived to find their new homes in a familiar condition: They’d been taken over by squatters.
The Tower of David once again stands empty, its last residents having been evicted in June 2015. Since then, the rumored Chinese redevelopment has seemingly fallen through. Various local ministries and officials in Caracas did not respond to queries about what lies ahead for the tower.
Rafael Machado, who led the local research for Urban-Think Tank’s investigation into the Tower of David, says the task of handling the building’s future has bounced between various ministries and the mayor’s office in Caracas.
Potential ideas include turning it into a government office, converting it into a mixed-use development with residences, offices, a mall, and a hotel, or simply rekindling the deal with the Chinese and selling it off.
“The future of the tower is uncertain,” Machado says. Whatever comes, it likely won’t erase the memory of the roughly eight years a makeshift informal community brought unexpected life to the Tower of David.