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In Caracas, the tallest squat

Posted by Amanda Katz  November 9, 2012 12:31 PM

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Iwan Baan Confinanzas 1950.jpg

By Elizabeth Manus

As Hurricane Sandy delivered an unprecedented disaster to New York City last week, it brought to mind apocalyptic movie-style scenarios: abandoned shops, streets without power, the 1970s vision of a dystopic city.

New York doesn't seem to be headed that way anytime soon, even with the nor'easter that followed. But if you're curious about what a genuine modern post-apocalyptic urban environment might look like, one example is a 45-story office tower in Caracas, Venezuela. After the building's developer died and its financing dried up in the 1990s, the building was abandoned and is now home to some 3,000 squatters.

Their lives are chronicled in "Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities," a forthcoming book about "the improvised home to more than 750 families living in an extra-legal and tenuous squat, that some have called a 'vertical slum'." The book will be published in the United States this month by Swiss publisher Lars Müller.

Authors Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, co-founders of Columbia University's Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory (S.L.U.M. Lab) spent a year studying the "ruin-become home." The book includes floorplans and maps amidst extensive photographs by Iwan Baan showing how Torre David residents have adapted the structure to create homes and businesses. There are also drawings showing, for example, how water is distributed throughout the complex.

In order to begin to think differently about the billion people who are now estimated to be living in slums on the fringes of the world's mega-cities, the authors consider the power of terminology in the case of Torre David: what should they call this "growing house" of a thing?

They alight upon the "arrival city," a term coined by journalist Doug Saunders, which they see as a corrective to the "the judgment-laden terms for squatter settlements--barrio, favela, slum, shantytown." The idea of an arrival city evokes the possibility of social mobility for its residents, and allows us to see a structure like Torre David, in the authors' words, as "a laboratory for exploring and testing a utopian potential."

[Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of the publisher]

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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