Concrete Ruins

Publication Date
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?

Publication Date
November 14, 2019
Graphic Designers
Web Editors
Sean Yang, Hamzah Ahmed, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects
2707 words
Katie Lau, Rhea Schmid
769 words