This year, the Venezuelan government will present the concept of its new socialist cities at the International Architecture Biennale in Italy, which is due to be held from August 29th to November 25th. The architectural exposition, which will be hosted in the cultural hub of Venice, was founded in 1980 as a way of promoting the development of urban spaces across the globe.
In a joint effort between the ministry of culture and the ministry of foreign relations, the Venezuelan government's contribution to this international celebration of architecture will focus on the Chavez administration's “great housing mission,” which aims to construct 3 million “dignified” houses before 2017 with the help of organised communities. The exposé will be called “the socializing city vs. the alienating city” and will be presented by national architect and artist Domenico Silvestro.
According to Silvestro, the presentation is aimed at exploring the “home” as the nucleus of social transformation, the urban reality of Venezuela in the 21st century and the solutions that the Venezuelan government has used to solve the housing problem in Venezuela.
The artist has used sketches and paintings in an attempt to depict the lived experiences of the government's new housing mission, as well as audiovisual testimonies from families who have already received their houses as part of the scheme. These testimonies also feature recordings from families who helped to build the houses, in an attempt to explore the individual and collective experience of constructing your own home and then later living in it.
“The piece will depict the solutions that the State has been implementing to resolve the housing deficit in the poorest and most vulnerable areas of society. It's a presentation which explores the human and essential dream of having a dignified home,” said Silvestro.
The Venezuelan presentation has been celebrated as an examination of the social and human component of architecture which brings it to life, yet it is also an exposé which asks questions and poses solutions; it reflects the ongoing creation of a new kind of socially inclusive architecture, both in construction and design, that is currently being promoted by the Venezuelan government.
Inside the socializing city
So what is it exactly that makes Venezuela's new communal cities a socializing experience? How different are they to the barrios in the country's cities, which are all too often described as dens of inequity, violence and poverty by the Western press, with little respect for the inhabitants who live there and in fact, constructed them?
It is true that for decades Venezuela's barrios have been sites of social, economic and cultural exclusion; yet it is undeniable that the houses and communities which welcome you at Caracas airport and span all the way into the city have a certain charm.
The millions of brightly coloured homes built haphazardly on top of one another, with absolutely no regard for the rules of town planning or even gravity, are a vibrant testament to human resilience and creativity. It is unsurprising that they have been described as symbols of anti-capitalism, and there is certainly something subversive in their asymmetrical and unregulated design.
The buzz of barrio life on the ground can be felt right up in the hilltops, sometimes a 25 minute jeep ride away, and there is always music, usually salsa, being played. The mountain air is a surprising and refreshing change from the smog which engulfs the centre of Caracas, and some people even raise chickens in their makeshift courtyards.
It is the same atmosphere inside. The design of the houses, which traverse numerous levels and are a labyrinth of stairs and building blocks, means that you have to pass the entrances to numerous homes before you reach your own. This set-up promotes a certain kind of cooperation and interaction inside the home; community meetings and politics become topics which are discussed on doorsteps as you make your way to your front door.
Yet it is less easy to construct this experience outside on the street. The lack of infrastructure, communal spaces, and the very real, albeit exaggerated, violence in the barrio, are all elements which impede the construction of communal life.
Walking around Venezuela's new socialist city Caribia in the evening time, the barrio feels as if it were a million miles away. For a start, children are still out playing in the street or in the various communal spaces at 7 o'clock at night, even though it is dark. There are both stairs and ramps for disabled access, communal squares which are lit up at night and there is no rubbish in the street. People are watering the grass and trees and there is a well-attended communal meeting on the local economy and transport being held in the community primary school. It is hard to imagine how the BBC managed to qualify these cities as “ghettoes” earlier in the year.
Speaking to residents in the area, I was told that each family pays about 120 Bolivar (US$28) for the houses, to which they hold the titles. In Caracas, just half an hour away, you would be lucky to rent a place for less than 2000 Bolivar (US$465).
“Here, we all work together to keep the city looking nice, on the other hand in the barrio, you're just looking after yourself, making sure that your house looks nice, and maybe your neighbour can't do that because they have less income than you... there was more poverty there,” said Francis Yanis, 20, a worker in the local state-run bakery.
This response, along with wide eyed astonishment, was typical of the answers I received when I asked; “so, is Caribia really different from where you used to live?”.
“No way! There is a huge difference! Look, we used to live in a huge barrio, the kids didn't have squares, they didn't have anywhere to play or entertain themselves. Here they have parks and squares, or there is the sports pitch,” commented José Villa Suda Cari.
“Here you can walk around and there is always someone about, in the barrio, who are you gonna ask? You live there isolated, in your little street with your family and that's it. Here you interact with all the people, it's more social, you get me?” he continued.
José has been living in Caribia for a year now and his sentiments appear to be shared by the wider community.
The local kids I asked, including Jesus Lugo, 10, also seemed to agree. “It's just better,” he said, “we have parks here.” “We're safer,” added his friend, Evenso Villa, also 10.
In a conversation with Consuela “Tita” Manzanilla, 35, and Eddy “La Negra” Mata, 33, I was told that in Caribia there are currently 4 communal councils in operation, and that they are hoping to form a commune. Consuela believed that life in the new city had allowed residents to build a true expression of communal self-government.
“We're organized, because there are projects. For instance, the president said we were going to build a city and develop community projects, and that's what we are doing,” she said.
Eddy, on the other hand, noted that the workers building the houses were labouring “night and day,” to get them finished, “because they are working for the revolution,” added Consuela. They also noted that government functionaries came to the city to train people as part of the State's work and knowledge mission; a project aimed at eliminating unemployment. Both women thought that having men and women who both lived and worked in the city increased community cohesion.
To conclude our conversation, I asked Consuela and Eddy what word they would use to describe the socialist city. “Love,” replied Consuela. Eddy went with “co-existence”.
It might be difficult for Silvestro to capture these sentiments in the Venezuelan exposé in Venice, or even to describe them to a European audience, but it is understandable why he wants to try. As Consuela told me, “it's like an example”.
An edited version of this article was published in Correo del Orinoco International