Caracas: Avenida Libertador

The genealogy of the informal city is a complex one. To attribute the contemporary crisis of the Latin American city to the somewhat recent phenomenon of globalization is not to acknowledge the forces that have been at play since its inception. Caracas, as the capital of Venezuela, a lesser colonial province, was meagerly populated, often besieged by pirates, afflicted by earthquakes, epidemics, and federal wars, all of which left the city to rebuild itself after each natural or human catastrophe. In a sense, we might be able to affirm that the informal in Caracas has been in the making since 1567, the year of its founding.

The city, however, lay almost dormant until the twentieth century when the most radical transformation undergone by the city came along with the oil boom. Its uncontrolled and vertiginous growth is certainly the result of this phenomenon, which implied the abrupt and sometimes violent modernization of a fundamentally rural and almost feudal country. The old city was stripped of its old architecture in an unprecedented building frenzy, leading to the disappearance of most of its public and monumental spaces in order to give way to avenues and highways.

The Avenida Libertador in Caracas is one such “non-monument,” where, in the recent murals that have been painted on its reinforced concrete walls, the confrontation between two antagonistic artistic expressions that defined Venezuelan modernity in the visual arts now, more than fifty years later, is resignified and staged, becoming symbolic of the ideological conflicts in the present political situation of the country. The avenue intersects two boroughs of Caracas, Municipio Libertador and Municipio Chacao, the former containing what used to be the old city itself, the latter, an expansion of the city from what was until the 1930s mostly coffee plantations, later transformed into residential areas. At what is presumably its center, also evident in the design of the avenue, is the only clearly and visually demarcated border in the city, a limit now reinforced by the murals representing each borough, each one governed by opposing sides of our convulsed political landscape.

The Avenida Libertador emerges, then, as an evident locus of crisis from which to document Caracas’ relentless path towards the informal. It could also function, by virtue of association, as a sort of mirror image of other frontier situations in urban situations elsewhere, and in the particular context of this exhibition, that of San Diego and Tijuana.

In this avenue — the lower part of which is almost inaccessible to pedestrian traffic, except for a few bus stops with staircases at the sides that connect to the upper part of the avenue — high-speed or traffic-jammed symbolic crossings take place every day in both directions: from the premodern to the ultramodern1: from the rural to the urban, from the nationalist exaltation of the local to the international dissolution of cultural boundaries; from the desire of a formal city to the actual informal one; from the idea of a nation built upon enlightenment and republican ideals to the semifeudal structure of the caudillo’s hacienda.

Angel Rama defined the Latin American city in his book The Lettered City as one that came into being on paper, by way of the letradoswho were the instrument of the faraway colonial empires. From the first edicts, regulations, decrees, to the independent press, and, of course, literary production, the Latin American city existed first and foremost in the realm of letters, where the real and the imagined, or projected city, was opposed to the real, “contaminated,” hybrid and vernacular one. On this occasion, the documents selected, from the countless sources of literature that Caracas has spawned, those that speak of this precise tension played out through most of the twentieth century in Caracas, will hopefully constitute a small archive of this particular “lettered city,” which, in its progressive surrender to the informal, seems to be losing its grip on an idea of a city it was perhaps never meant to be.

-Julieta González

1. Regarding the city’s failed modernist utopia, which in the 1970s was not considered as a failure but still very much a project, Marta Traba states (Mirar en Caracas, Caracas: Monte Avila Editores, 1974) that kinetic art is an official art that fulfills the progressive image the country wanted to project (in the 1960s and ‘70s). She criticizes Venezuelans and more specifically Caraqueños as having a fixation with the future: “only in Caracas the most important newspaper in the country celebrates its anniversary placing it in the year 2004; only here a newspaper with the title 2001 circulates. It is evident that in this space odyssey, the present erases itself with increasing strength and disdain for the past grows every day.”