Articles

Trying to Save a Doomed Architectural Babel

by Allison Meier on June 24, 2014

Model of El Helicoide (via Proyecto Helicoide)

Model of El Helicoide (all images via Proyecto Helicoide unless otherwise noted)

Perhaps modeling what would be the architectural icon of your country’s capital off the infamous Tower of Babel isn’t the best idea. But it wasn’t superstition that brought down the gargantuan spiral of El Helicoide — or the Helix — in Caracas, Venezuela. It was economics, politics, and the continuing shadow of surveillance and secrecy.

The 1960s building, with its over 100,000 square meters of space carved right into a hill, was designed by architects Peter Neuberger, Dirk Bornhorst, and Jorge Romero Gutierrez. It was going to be a shopping mall and hotel on a scale never seen before, where people could drive right up the sides of the building to their destination, whether it was the swimming pool, the heliport, or even the top dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The project was exhibited as a triumph of modernist design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and even Salvador Dalí offered to decorate the interior.

Construction of El Helicoide (via Proyecto Helicoide)

Construction of El Helicoide

However, that was all before the money ran out and the project was stopped before it was finished. For decades it was used by squatters, the surrounding neighborhoods remaining poor despite the economic promise of El Helicoide. Then the country’s secret police moved in, and even now it’s still the headquarters of the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN), known as a detention center with a sinister history of corruption.

Yet not everyone in Venezuela wants to see this dark turn as the building’s only story. As Failed Architecture reported, a group called Proyecto Helicoide, started by cultural historian Celeste Olalquiaga and including historians, architects, artists, and museum workers, is working to document and present its history as a public archive. Calling it a “[b]eached cruise ship, fallen flying saucer, futuristic ruin; sitting amidst the slums of San Agustín,” they stated that “El Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya looks different from every angle. And so do the many stories that haunt this construction, all as convoluted as its magnificent, double-spiral coils.”

El Helicoide in 2008 (photograph by Damián D. Fossi Salas, via Wikimedia)

El Helicoide in 2008 (photograph by Damián D. Fossi Salas, via Wikimedia)

Proyecto Helicoide hasn’t exactly been killing it on their Indiegogo campaign (just $425 out of their $20,000 goal as of this writing, with a June 28 deadline). However, they also are planning to collaborate with five museums in Caracas on an exhibition series that would travel around Latin America and then to the United States next year. (It’s not clear if this plan is totally dependent on crowdfunding success.)

It’s a complicated issue, namely, why work so hard for a building that was a failure before it started, with a legacy that has been for the most part negative? Proyecto Helicoide argues it’s “an invaluable part of the urban memory and imaginary of Caracas, as well as a prominent icon of global modernity and its contradictions.” Perhaps in looking at our ever more ambitious architectural projects, such as the new double Phoenix Towers just announced that may take the “world’s tallest” trophy for China, we need some of these defeats secured in our historical memory.

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  • David Steele

    A model for El Helicoide — closer in time and form than The Tower of Babel — might be Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Gordon Strong Automobile Objective” project of the mid 1920’s. (See Google Images to compare both projects).

    There are differences — the main one being that Wright used the domed interior space below his automobile ramps as a planetarium, but of course El Helicoide has no such space below its ramps.

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