Whether it is the design of a new park or the construction of a residential block, urban developments are initiated with a particular use of space in mind. However, it is important to consider that the actual use of space is not dictated on the drawing board. Rather, behaviour is emergent, formed by the interaction of people and place. The "Tower of David" located in Caracas, Venezuela is an excellent showcase to illustrate the limitations of control and the spontaneous nature of human behaviour.

skyscraperabandonedConstruction of the 45 storey Tower of David began in the early nineties; it was intended to become an office building for stockbrokers and bankers. After the demise of the buildings’ principal investor in 1993, the government took over control of the construction site. A year later, several Venezuelan banks collapsed, effectively halting the development of the tower. The concrete skeleton of the building stood vacant until 2007. Then, people started moving into the tower.

At first, the new occupants of the tower lived in tents and invested their time in cleaning debris. As time passed, they started to improve their surroundings and built more permanent makeshift dwellings. A hallmark of their efforts is the construction of several utility systems; plumbing is reported to be installed up to the 22nd floor and connections to the electricity network are available throughout the building. Amazingly, people settled in as high as the 30th floor and satellite dishes can now be seen outside many of the “apartments”.

Even though the tower lacks the convenience of an elevator, the towers’ inhabitants get by using an in-building transportation system of cars and motor-taxis. Moreover, the skyscraper is home to a church and a gym. A variety of shops provides the inhabitants with services such as a butcher, a cybercafé, beauty salons and even an unlicensed dentist. The tower truly is an “unlikely example of human resourcefulness and self-sufficiency”.

ted-talk-iwan-baan-061However, commentators of the tower widely differ in their views. Some herald the tower as an example of a vibrant grassroots community and even refer to it as a utopia. At the 2012 Achitecture Bienniale in Venice, Urban Think Tank won a prestigious Gold Lyon price for their work on the tower of David. Others point out the technical deficiencies of the building and underscore its image of being a hotbed for drugs, violence, and crime. The issue seems to divide journalists, architects and academics, with proponents suggesting it shows the inadequacies of capitalism and opponents cynically referring to it as a “citadel to the wonders of socialism”.

Regardless of one’s standing on these issues, it is clear that the tower has sparked the interest of experts and non-experts alike. Even though the Tower of David sits in a context of rapid urbanization, it can provide a starting point for thinking about urban design. The tower is a spectacular example of the appropriation of space. In this particular context, it was sparked by the increasing housing demand. In addition, the tower shows us that, given the chance, people will self-organize to cater their needs.

Without doubt, the case of the tower of David is an exceptional one. Still, there are lessons to be learned for urban design more generally. More often than not, urban (re)developments aim to control the use of a park, square or block. While dynamism and community are common buzz words, these can sit uncomfortably in an urban design that also faces the challenges of congestion, pollution and crime. Regulation and surveillance go a long way in preventing such unwanted behaviour locally. However, on the level of the city it can lead to so-called “waterbed effects”; the unwanted behaviour is displaced rather than prevented altogether. Rather than instinctively seeking control, taking a more facilitating or guiding approach could benefit the quality of the built environment.

The point is that excessive regulation and control does not constitute an urban design for the people. Instead, it results in “stylized places” that lack vibrancy. Many up and coming neighbourhoods in cities across the globe are marked by a degree of spontaneity. It is the freedom for self-organization that makes SoHo, Greenwich village, Kreuzberg and SoPi into dynamic, vibrant and liveable districts. This is not to argue that we should abandon control strategies entirely. On the contrary, traditional urban design has come a long way and has contributed to improving our cities. However, we would do well to force ourselves to remember cases like the Tower of David (and Kowloon). Ultimately, it is people who shape the use of place.

Further reading:
Brillembourg, A. and H. Klummer (2012), Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities. Lars Muller Publishers
Caldieron, J.M. (2013), From a Skyscraper to a Slumscraper: Residential Satisfaction in “Torre de David” Caracas, Venezuela. The Macrotheme Review 2(5)