2020 applicants
News

From shopping centre to political prison

  • Date

    Fri 13 Oct 17

El Helicoide

How did a futuristic shopping centre in Venezuelan capital Caracas become a political prison with more than 300 inmates, and is it a metaphor for modern Venezuela? A new book co-edited by Essex art historian Dr Lisa Blackmore aims to find out.

It was meant to be a landmark; a symbol of 1950s Venezuela’s prosperity and confidence. El Helicoide was conceived as the most technologically advanced shopping centre in the Americas, designed to house 300 boutiques along two miles of concrete ramps arranged in a spiral.

El Helicoide, 1987 (Photo: Archivo Fotografía Urbana/PROYECTO HELICOIDE))
El Helicoide, 1987 (Photo: Archivo Fotografía Urbana/PROYECTO HELICOIDE)

El Helicoide didn’t open. Construction stopped during the transitional period that followed the fall of the country’s military dictatorship in 1958 and the building has never become a civic space. It was an emergency flood shelter from 1979 to 1982, when some 10,000 people lived in trailer homes and improvised huts built into the spaces originally intended for shops. In 1985 it became the headquarters of Venezuela’s intelligence services. Today the crumbling concrete structure is a political prison with more than 300 inmates.

The story is explored in Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent from Mall to Prison, edited by cultural historian Celeste Olalquiaga, founder and director of PROYECTO HELICOIDE, and Dr Lisa Blackmore from our School of Philosophy and Art History.

Dr Lisa Blackmore
“As a mirror of modern history in Venezuela, El Helicoide is a powerful and material testament to deep-rooted social disparities and, more recently, to political divides.”
Dr Lisa Blackmore School of Philosophy and Art History

“El Helicoide is an emblematic ruin,” says Dr Blackmore. “As well as a singular piece of failed architecture, it emblematises the way that Venezuela's urban utopia lapsed into a form of makeshift modernity. As a mirror of modern history in Venezuela, El Helicoide is a powerful and material testament to deep-rooted social disparities and, most recently, to political divides.”

Unlike most recent books on modern ruins, Downward Spiral is a specialised monograph focusing on one building. Dr Blackmore explains: 

“The book tells its story from a variety of disciplines and perspectives, with contributions that encompass academic essays, literary genres (short story, testimonials, comic), as well as artistic works that help illustrate the depth of the El Helicoide phenomenon.”  

‘Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent from Mall to Prison’ is forthcoming this year from Urban Research (UR), the imprint of Terreform.