The heart of Venezuela beats loudly in Barrio 23 de Enero. In this low-income neighborhood of Caracas, long concrete superblocks containing thousands of housing units tower above the streets, their peeling facades of teal, yellow, orange and blue speckling the skyline. In the mid-20th century, when Venezuela’s oil economy drove rapid urbanization and European postwar modernist architects extolled the virtues of class-neutral social housing, the military dictatorship of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez commissioned architect Carlos Raul Villanueva to address Venezuela’s growing housing challenge. Villanueva’s blueprints borrowed from Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s Soviet-inspired Unite d’Habitation communal housing experiment in Marseille. What resulted was not a utopian community that erased the cleavages between the lower and middle classes but a densely populated ghetto where a revolutionary spirit took root.
The superblocks were one of many public works projects into which the corrupt Perez Jimenez poured Venezuela’s petrodollars in hopes of pacifying its restless populace. The government named the neighborhood 2 de Diciembre to commemorate the day Perez Jimenez came to power and the progress he claimed to have brought to Venezuela. When Perez Jimenez fled the country following a civilian-military uprising in 1958, 2 de Diciembre was renamed 23 de Enero to commemorate the day Venezuela’s last dictator was overthrown and democracy took hold.
23 de Enero has since borne the scars of Venezuela’s most severe political transitions. In the 1980s, it produced…gweekly_151215_pdf