For over 30 years there’s been some serious bad juju emanating from the heights of Roca Tarpeya the place where El Helicoide slouches, looking down over the city like an overfed chavista bureaucrat.

Emma Graham-Harrison at The Guardian narrates the story of Venezuela’s infamous political prison and torture chamber.

From Jorge Romero Gutiérrez, the visionary architect whose reputation remained forever tainted by what his creation symbolized, to Hugo Chávez’s santero beliefs, to the astrologer who became its first political prisoner Caldera’s political prisoner , the unfinished structure has always been surrounded by a dark mantle of superstition.

But more than a curse, El Helicoide is actually a metaphor for the last 50 years of Venezuelan history, as nuestra Celeste Olalquiaga, a cultural historian who grew up in Caracas, so eloquently states:

“El Helicoide is a metaphor for the whole modern period in Venezuela and what went wrong.”

She has launched a project to document its extraordinary history and written a book about the mall turned jail.

The transformation from icon of Venezuela’s hopes to emblem of failure and repression was slow and complicated. It began with a coup, stretched over decades of dictatorship and democracy, through the rule of 14 presidents and several cycles of oil boom and bust. Someone looking for bad omens might have found one in the name of the hill where it’s built, Roca Tarpeya; the Tarpeian Rock was an execution ground in ancient Rome.

It’s an unlikely enjoyable read on such a sad topic.

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  1. I saw The Guardian piece when it came out and read it with interest. The idea that the helicoide is an apt metaphor for how wealth and modernization went horribly wrong in Venezuela is powerful. But a few other points from The Guardian piece also stand out: how the project got started under the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship and has now been taken over as a site of repression by the current dictatorship; how it was built with private investment rather than as a state funded project; how most of it is outward appearance and very little of its interior space is actually useful; and how even under the Caldera presidency it was already being useg as a jail for political prisoners.

    But even with all that, is still is a remarkable architectural example of optimism and modernity, and I dare say part of a trend in Latin America at the time (1950s & 1960s) whe these sort of projects were common, in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, etc. Here are a couple of examples, the Natinal Library of Argentina and the UNAM in Mexico

  2. Apparently this building is replacing the Panopticon as the great archetypal architectural symbol of modernity gone wrong. You’re famous once again, Venezuela! Congratulations!

    But seriously, I like the sound of this book, but there’s a certain area of intersection between cultural studies and architecture that has consistently produced literature that is unreadable by mere mortals.(I believe the entire catalogue is stored in a room in Saint Martin, in Paris, only accessible by skinny bearded men with enormous spectacles). Do we need a graduate degree in post structuralism to understand this book?

    • The book does seem worth a look although what you say about readability might be a draw back but not necessarily. The irony of the helicoide planned as an exclusive mall turned prison of turture seems almost macabre fictional creation . In Uruguay there’s a similar example but in reverse: a prison turned shopping centre after dictatorship. There might be hope yet for the rehabilitation of the helicoide in future:

      • Interesting. Mall of Prisoners describes the universal shopping experience for me. But in Caracas, it might hold a particular significance I think. Right now, Venezuelans live in a Paradise but are prisoners of their local shopping mall, for economic and social reasons exacerbated (ironically enough), by the Chavista brand of “socialism”. Public life for the middle class is literally trapped in malls, by necessity. In that regard, it’s a little like Mexico City or Bogota in the 1980s and 1990s.

        When Venezuela recuperates the social from socialism and people can use their talents freely and productively who knows what the building, and the city around it, could become. Caracas still has the heart of a great city.

  3. There’s a quote in The Guardian piece by the Venezuelan cultural historian Celeste Olalquiaga that especially caught my attention. Olalquiaga describes the experience of visiting the inside of the helicoide:
    “It’s very anti-climactic, like a building equivalent of the Wizard of Oz. From outside you see a huge thing, but from inside you see that it’s kind of small,” she said. “I call it a living ruin as it’s semi-abandoned.”

    The description is related to a narrative of Venezuelan ‘exceptionalism’ –borrowed perhaps in part from US exceptionalism, although in Latin America we also have our own versions as part of specific national narratives. The helicoide is an outstanding feat of architecture, the result of oil wealth and progress that made Venezuela standout for a good part of the 20th century. A nation of wealth and relative democracy (after 1958) unlike others in the region, where immigrants could arrive and make their fortune. The military regimes of Brazil, Chile & Argentina were something viewed from afar with the belief that it could not happen here. Ditto for Cuba too. We Venezuelans were (are?) exceptional, simply look around in 1965, 1975….

    My own family have experienced and benefited from Venezuelan ‘exceptionalism’. My ancestors arrived in Maracaibo in the 1860s from an English-speaking island in the Caribbean. Some migrated to Colombia and later returned to the homeland because of the exceptional opportunity it offered. My point is that Venezuelan ‘exceptionalism’ was not surprisingly a chimera or mirage to which some still cling. We believed we were above / beyond? the type of disaster that has made the county into a “semi-abandoned ruin.” The Wizard is dead, the posh shopping center on the hill is populated by repressive forces, and at the national wheel there’s a bus driver with a GPS made in Havana. Perhaps not exceptional but it’s all made in Venezuela – nuestra historia, todavía en plena redacción….

  4. “The Wizard is dead, the posh shopping center on the hill is populated by repressive forces, and at the national wheel there’s a bus driver with a GPS made in Havana. Perhaps not exceptional but it’s all made in Venezuela – nuestra historia, todavía en plena redacción….”

    Wow … I was going to say something, but that’s awfully good, so I’ll just repeat it. I was a little kid when the helicoide went up. I didn’t like it, for some reason, can’t say why exactly, maybe I just thought it was too centralized, or a bit too ambitious, a bit too ahead of its time, a bit overwhelming. So I ignored it. It didn’t go away because I ignored it. Defeat. But just a few years ago I became aware it had been turned into a mega-police station of some sort, and that was bad. Maybe some day it will wash away in heavy rains, or be bulldozed to build something else, like maybe sold off in lots to build shops and stores and auto repair shops, and then Caracas will be made OK again. Except for the Guaire. But you learn to live with the Guaire. If the Guaire were cleaned up, there’d be boats, and boat tours, and colas and trancazos.

  5. I really enjoyed this article, as The Guardian one, as well. When I was living in Caracas, I went to El Helicoide. Indeed, I recall We (My Father, Mother, Sister) all went by car to the very top of El Helicoide. There was some sort of fairground on the top of it. It’s plain the way to climb up there. At least, that’s how I felt it. When We arrived at the top, I almost fall because I was staring at the city by night and walking without any attention to the ground I was tread. I was near the edge of the top level of El Helicoide. My father took me by the arm to one attraction at the Fair and bought me some popcorn, just to relax. But, even when I was a child then, I remember the lights from beneath. From the city. Years later, I knew another spaniard like me, talked to me about El Helicoide. It was the year of the floodings that put people living there. He bought a shop in El Helicoide. He showed me the papers. I was shocked to read that papers. He was fighting against venezuelan government for getting back his money. And won. As a symbol of the Venezuela’s ill fate, I desagree. It’s not a failure of modernism. It’s the physical evidence of a collective failure. Because that’s what Venezuela is at this moment. Venezuela is facing it’s very collective failure. And El Helicoide was an early warning of it. Modernism is the core ideology of venezuelan people. Modernism is deep inside venezuelan’s DNA. No other country in Latin America embraced Modernism as Venezuela. For example: How many “Museums of Modern Art” opened in Vzla until 1998? Just to bring an example. And this dictatorship will fade away, but El Helicoide wii remain. Or maybe, it will dissappear. Like the National Security Headquarters did in 1958. Indeed, it was nearby El Helicoide: now is Alba Caracas Hotel.


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