Concrete Ruins

5-08

Building Mortality

November 14, 2019

In 1994, the construction of a forty-five story building in Caracas, Venezuela was halted due to an economic crisis. The Torre de David may be considered a building that was never formally born, because its architecture was never fully realized. What was meant to be a financial center turned into a contemporary ruin in the middle of the city. However, some years later after a housing shortage, the tower was occupied by hundreds of families. Over almost a decade, people ingeniously turned the abandoned concrete structure into a living community with housing, shops, and utilities: the building was alive for the first time. In 2015, all the residents were evacuated from the tower by local authorities on grounds of safety and security: the vitality that people had provided the tower was quickly extinguished. It was the only life it will ever have.

Decades earlier, in a completely different context, a whimsical concrete garden, called Las Pozas, was created in the Mexican jungle. In 1962, the wealthy British patron of surrealist art, Edward James, migrated to a tropical site in Xilitla. After a snowstorm destroyed his entire orchid harvest he decided to build a set of twenty concrete follies – architectural orchids which could withstand even the harshest snowstorm. These sculptures would outlive their creator, who died in 1984, and survive forever. One of the most important pieces, The Three-Story House that Might Have Five, remains a dream-like take on Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino. But unlike modernist architecture, this building has no function. It has doors that lead nowhere and stairs that lead to the skies, as if it is in a perpetual state of flux and construction- a structure that was neither properly started nor completely finished. Unlike the tower in Venezuela, this garden was conceived from the outset as a type of ruin, a man-made structure that lies in nature with no apparent life or death.

Both projects raise the question of permanence in architecture and whether the life of a building should be measured on a human level rather than on a formal and material one. The sculptures at Las Pozas were other, conceived both as a friend and foe of nature, founded in a perpetual state of architectural impermanence. On the other hand, the Torre de David was not built as a ruin and was transformed and brought to life by a different kind of human occupation than it was built for: the structure that still stands is a tribute to the constant change of humanity and its demands on the way we construct buildings.

As Empire of the Sun mentions in their song We Are the People (2009) – whose music video was shot at Edward James’ Las Pozas – “Can you remember and humanize? – I can’t do well when I think you’re gonna leave – But I know I try.” How might designers create structures that evolve with humanity and try to build an architecture that is in an everlasting state of incompleteness? If we reclaim the ruin as a foundational typology, could we remake the image of building mortality? Or is every building destined for ruination?