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Venezuela's Skyscraper Slum

My uncle Gabriel works in a busy modern office in the heart of Caracas’ financial district. But when he goes to take a leak in one of the men’s rooms on the top floor, he doesn’t get to look out and survey the dull urbanity that surrounds other...

PHOTOS: JULIA KING & J. COMBARI

My uncle Gabriel works in a busy modern office in the heart of Caracas’ financial district. But when he goes to take a leak in one of the men’s rooms on the top floor, he doesn’t get to look out and survey the dull urbanity that surrounds other skyscrapers across the world. Instead what he sees is the unfinished shell of La Torre de David; a huge tower full of Caracas’ drug dealers and prostitutes, its disease-ridden and displaced poor.Most mayors work hard to sweep such people to the fringes of their city, but this gigantic phallus of architectural dystopia sits rotting slap bang in Caracas’ center. I went to visit my uncle Gabriel, and let myself into the tower for a little sightseeing.

The construction of La Torre de David began in 1990. The plan was to fit it with luxury apartments, entertainment facilities and a helipad. It would be headquarters for Venezuela’s biggest bank, Fogade and would come to symbolize the country’s ascent into ultra-modern global-powerhousedom. But in 1994 money kicked Latin America in the balls, and all of Hugo Chavez’s rich friends flew away.

David Brillembourgh, the man who originally funded the tower’s build and gave it its name, was one of them. He died in 1993. His team managed to get the helipad built though, so it wasn’t a complete waste of everyone’s time and money.

Ever the optimist, Chavez saw it that way, too. He blamed the West for destabilizing the economy and offered up La Torre de David’s 45-storeys as a salve for the capital’s escalating housing problem. The poor flocked to claim their new territory in a way that would reinvent the eighth tallest building in Latin America (and make JG Ballard fans across the world vertiginous with envy).

I was alone when I wandered into the tower, so left my camera at home to avoid being the victim of a Venezuelan squatter “snatch and grab”. That’s why all the photos are shot from the outside.

Here are a couple of shots of a typical Caracas barrio. I arrived in Venezuela just after heavy rains had caused many slum houses to collapse, leaving another 150,000 people without roofs over their heads.

As a result of this, the government was openly encouraging people to occupy unused or vacant land and houses. When the owners get home from their holidays, this makeshift village on the runway of Caracas airport may be the first clue they have that drug cartels are chewing chorizo in their kitchens.

It’s pretty dark inside La Torre de David. There was rubble everywhere, but as my eyes adjusted I saw groups of people emerge and then disappear back into the shadows again. Fairly quickly I felt justified in leaving my camera behind and taking scaredy-cat shots from afar that look like Escher prints instead.

Despite the general miasma of impoverished despair that hangs over the place, the people of La Torre de David summoned the will to organize a community cooperative that exerts some degree of control over the tower. They flushed out the worst of the drug dealers and gangsters. After living so long with the criminal element, they’re extremely wary of outsiders like me poking my nose in.

As such, it was a bit of a struggle finding anyone who would talk to me. One guy told me that when they arrived in 2008 they allocated houses on the higher floors above the car park. These are the ad hoc apartments without windows. If they hadn’t made these holes in the wall, the rooms would have been uninhabitable. The A/C's exactly firing on all cylinders.

As the building remained unfinished, the residents built ramps so that they could move bricks and other construction materials around. Everyone who gets a plot has to pay a small fee to the co-operative who do their best to maintain the building. They are illegally wired up to the electricity mains, and have broken into the drainage network to provide some basic access to (totally undrinkable) water.

I’d heard that at the heart of the building someone had erected an evangelical church. Unfortunately when I tried to go pay my respects to the Big Man In The Sky I was escorted all the way to the ground floor and slung back out onto the streets of Caracas.