A city of extreme contrasts, the capital of Venezuela is quite literally getting a new lick of paint and a whole lot more to bring communities together and increase wellbeing
Caracas is a city of contrasts. The capital of Venezuela holds massive wealth and misery, asphalt and nature, skyscrapers and shacks. Deep wounds separate the city’s rich from its poor.
Half of Caracas’ population live in urban settlements, commonly known as barrios. Being vulnerable to natural disasters, the housing problem is notorious. Endless traffic jams paralyse the city. Poverty and violence are rife, placing Venezuela among the top three most violent countries in Latin America.
The barrios are mostly located on the slopes of the Ávila Mountain – an icon and visual reference that brings together Caraqueños with their city. Physical class barriers are perceptible just through observing the morphology of the barrios. They contrast enormously against the isolated condominiums, residential building blocks and gated communities where upper-class people live.
After my first visit in 2009, Caracas trapped me. Despite being called “La Malquerida” (the unloved) by some, for me it was love at first sight. It was a modern, cosmopolitan and frenetic city; I had the feeling Caracas had loads to offer. I left behind Barcelona and London and decided to work together with fragile, impoverished communities. I consider myself a promoter and a viewer, interested in not just art itself but how art and architecture directly interact with spaces, and the meanings and people around them. I believe that working together with people is the key to successful artistic urban developments.
“The mission is very simple: to reclaim public space, support fragile communities in reasserting their right to the city, and spur creativity.”
Tactical urbanism, an emerging field of urban art interventions, enables consciousness and serves as a tool of mediation. It is a powerful political and social tool that enables the development of more social forms of urban cohesion. It consists of taking sociological, architectural and anthropological tools to manage the production and distribution of culture through buildings, paintings, streets or corners of the city.
In Venezuela, there are plenty of self-initiated campaigns and initiatives designed to revive local communities. Currently, there is a smart generation of professionals reshaping the city and its hidden corners through tactical architecture, involving art, music, play and culture.
I have been involved in several urban projects such as the one developed in Plaza Bolívar of Macarao in 2012. A team of residents, professionals, government and other institutions worked together for a year to repair and redesign the historical square in the neighbourhood of Macarao, located in the South West of Caracas; a neighbourhood that had been abandoned for years. Bringing together Los Altos La Cruz, Los Angelinos and El Volcán communities, it was an example of co-existence, teamwork and self-improvement.
The purpose of the project was to preserve the colonial elements of the small square as they were considered historical treasures, part of its national identity and heritage.
For this reason, we wanted to prioritise the refurbishment of the façade of Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Curucuy’s Church as well as the central sculpture of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador (the Liberator) located in the square. We also introduced a green wall, pavements, lamp posts and benches in order to create a pleasant atmosphere inside the barrio.
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We engaged in brainstorming sessions, workshops, urban interventions and community meetings with residents to get to know each other, to understand their needs and create a working atmosphere between professionals, institutions and community. These design tools help everyone to understand the needs of the group and create powerful shared debates between neighbours.
The hard, constant work with the community finally meant we understood the square as an open space, without barriers, walls or edges: an important element for the community, accessible to all and open to all.
Liga de la Partida Urbana (LPU) is a collective which tries to transform urban ghettos by incorporating abstract notions of traditional street games. We use paint as a tool to transform the public space.
The mission is very simple: to reclaim public space, support fragile communities in reasserting their right to the city, and spur creativity by taking cues from the model of informal street games seen in the barrios of Venezuela and beyond. LPU empowers individuals and community groups to make a positive change to their surroundings; by creating colourful lines and geometric shapes, an untouchable area is generated, a space where the rules allow a socialisation outside socially imposed parameters.
Other emerging artists believe that art can be used as a tool both to transform spaces and educate people. Street artist Flix is taking over and redefining the street by painting urban elements, placing images or stickers onto walls or fences. His intention is to deliver a message of hope, express his feelings and simply exchange experiences with society.
Since 2012, Fe, another young artist from Caracas, has been covering the city with his versions of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. He merges art with architecture to attract the attention of passers-by and get them understand that art has to be on the streets, not just in museums.
“Art has to be on the streets, not just in museums.”
Just on the other side of the city, Petare – one of the largest slums in South America – has become known as the cradle of yoga and is the neighbourhood’s urban trend. It started with five collaborators, but now this initiative has around 200 collaborators and more than 50 teachers. Yoga in the barrios tries to raise awareness about violence among the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. It has also achieved the taking over – once or twice a week – of public areas within the barrios of Julián Blanco, La Bombilla and José Félix Ribas.
Nowadays, these kinds of social processes can be more important than buildings, as they engage both people and the urban landscape. These projects have become platforms for social experiences and creative exchange in the city. By pushing the boundaries of art and perception, these social processes allow for a transformative exploration of reality in the spaces they create between the promoter (the artist, architect, designer, urban planner) and the observer.
Although some want to intervene in the barrios, thinking that the problem starts from there, what’s needed is a proper exploration of the city as a whole, analysing and understanding the areas where rich and poor collide. Barrios need to be integrated into the other part of the city and vice-versa. And the most powerful parts are the limits that surround them, materialised as squares, streets, bridges, underpasses and walls.
Tactical urbanism gives the impulse cities like Caracas need, where contrasting areas are significant, creating more cohesive groups from both sides and understanding the city as a whole, opposing the wealth-based boundaries in between.
First published by Open Democracy