Histories of Place, Architecture, and Underrepresented Communities: For a Complete City
Enlace Arquitectura, the architectural firm I established in Venezuela in 2007, was invited to be part of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition at the Biennale di Venezia, curated by the Lebanese architect and dean of the MIT Faculty of Architecture, Hashim Sarkis, which examines the question “How will we live together?” The installation is part of the segment dedicated to “emerging communities” at Le Corderie of the Arsenale.
Instead of proposing “improvements” for the barrio La Palomera, a small neighborhood of 16 hectares in Caracas and just under 6,000 inhabitants, the installation focuses on showing the spatial and cultural richness that already exists. It acknowledges a piece of the city that is the home of more than half of Caracas’s residents.
Barrios have been naturalized as “informal” and “marginal.” Deep-seated feelings of discrimination, condescension, and fear cloud the perception of many, the approaches of well-intentioned professionals, and determine the way public funds are invested.
Interested in addressing this problematic perception and taking advantage of a close relationship with the community of the barrio La Palomera, Enlace Arquitectura, Ciudad Laboratorio, and neighbors began the cultural program “Integration Process Caracas (IPC)” in 2018. The Foundation Bigott, the City of Baruta, La Hacienda La Trinidad, artists, journalists, educators, and designers also participated. In this project, making the Histories of Place visible, and celebrating the existing experiences and ways of living, has become an integral element of architectural design. Emphasis is placed on participation and the temporal dimension of practice as strategies for encouraging awareness.
Over the course of a year and a half, multiple excursions were organized for people to get to know La Palomera. Activities included the public reading of the Manifesto to the Complete City on February 9, 2019 written by the Venezuelan writer and activist Cheo Carvajal which calls for an integrated city that overcomes prejudices and exclusions. Artists were invited to work with the community on shared projects. A wide audience participated in walks, bocce games, celebrations, dances, music, mapping exercises of the barrio, and listened to the stories of its founders. Another fundamental activity was the mapping of the vegetation that grows in La Palomera and a tour of its gardens. Twenty-four gardens were identified and recorded with portraits of their owners and their stories.
A synthesis of the IPC experience was exhibited for the first time at La Hacienda La Trinidad Parque Cultural in February 2020. The exhibition on view in Venice builds on this work, and includes the Ethnobotanical Dictionary of the plants from the gardens of La Palomera, which identifies 260 species in the barrio with information on their use, whether medicinal, culinary or ornamental, and a description of how they are reproduced and cultivated. It is complemented by drawings of 18 gardens and 3 public spaces where all the plants, objects, and paraphernalia that make up these places are detailed. The 1.75 hectares of public space in the barrio which consist of walkways, stairs, and squares, in addition to the gardens, are also celebrated in the format of a wooden model that measures 8 meters by 4.5 meters and hangs suspended from the high ceilings of Le Corderie. The model also includes both cultivated and spontaneous vegetation in acrylic reproductions. Images of these plants are reproduced on long scrolls suspended from the ceiling. The species, gardens, public spaces, as well as events and celebrations in La Palomera are documented in www.lapalomera.org as part of the exhibition.
Just as knowledge of vegetation is worth celebrating, there are also many other remarkable attributes to recognize and appreciate in the barrio. Integrating a fragmented Caracas is both a symbolic and spatial process. Recognizing the inherent value in gardens and public spaces represents a fundamental premise in the process of advancing urban integration and in strengthening the notion of a complete city.
Furthermore, these activities have generated concrete opportunities to rehearse a Complete City in terms of integrating territories and leveling differences. For example, since October 2019, a new waste collection strategy is in place in La Palomera. Barrios typically have a large open-air container at their entrance where all residents deposit their garbage, since conventional garbage trucks cannot navigate the barrio’s narrow alleys. Instead, a door-to-door waste collection strategy through seven pedestrian routes has been implemented by the company Fospuca and the city of Baruta which in turn allowed the container to be removed and its place is now occupied by a planter cared for by residents of the sector. A second example is a project to transform an abandoned space into a center for art and culture. It aims to be not only a place for artistic expressions, but also a platform for thoughts and discussions that can feed urban transformations focused on integrating the city.