A New Book Tells the Story of a Modernist Mall Turned Political Prison

The building, El Helicoide, is an especially striking example of failed Modernism, one that multiple scholars are seeking to unpack and explore.

Downward Spiral Book El Helicoide
El Helicoide, abandoned, in 1968. Photo by Paolo Gasparini, courtesy UB

Like many Modernist buildings, El Helicoide was “built for a future that did not arrive,” says historian and scholar Celeste Olalquiaga. The spiral structure in Caracas, Venezuela seems like a fortress that looms over the slums that surround it. El Helicoide was designed to be a futuristic vision of retail architecture, though it’s essentially a strip mall wrapped around a terraced hill, with the ramps taking cars to each shop. However, it was abandoned within a legal and financial quagmire in the late 1970s and became home to squatters. Since 1985, it’s been home to Venezuela’s intelligence agency. It now also serves as a prison for political dissidents. The project is an especially striking example of failed Modernism, one that Olalquiaga (along with her co-editor Lisa Blackmore) seeks to unpack and explore in a new book—titled Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent from Mall to Prisonwhich is now available from the New York imprint Urban Research.

Downward Spiral began with Olalquiaga’s obsession with the structure. Growing up in Caracas, she was always “impressed by this strange building,” she said at a press event. And while it may seem natural to become obsessed with such an imposing and bizarre structure, the building had, in many ways, been forgotten. At first, El Helicoide was hailed a triumph of modernization: construction of the concrete structure began in earnest in 1958 and the MoMA even featured photos of the project in a 1961 exhibition. (The project made another appearance at the MoMA’s 2015 show Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980.)

However, the ouster of Venezuelan strongman Pérez Jiménez triggered a series of events that doomed the project: when the country returned to democracy, El Helicoide became a symbol of the old regime. Despite being a privately-funded development, a series of government actions and subsequent lawsuits scuttled its financing. Construction stopped in 1962, just months before it would’ve been completed. After that, the building became a political football and it gradually left the public eye, despite its later occupation by squatters and spies. Like many modern cities, says Olalquiaga, Caracas can have a short memory: “El Helicoide is a failure—we forget about it.”

Downward Spiral Book El Helicoide
Deeply depressed by its failure, El Helicoide’s architect Romero Gutiérrez would never practice architecture again. He would continue working, though only as a developer. Seen here: El Helicoide in 2012. Photo by Nelson Garrido, courtesy UR

In 2013, Olalquiaga set out to “rescue the memory of this building” and recover its Modernist heritage. Her efforts were nearly derailed in 2014 when political protests against the Venezuelan government turned El Helicoide into a political prison. According to Olalquiaga, some 400 political prisoners are still being held there now. Still, Olalquiaga decided to forge ahead with the book, thinking “this is the moment to really make this building visible” on the national and international stage.

Downward Spiral seems to leave no stone unturned as it explores El Helicoide’s many facets. The book features no less than 28 chapters—authored primarily by architecture scholars—that delve into the building’s unique design, complex history, urban context, use as a prison, and its connections to larger topics ranging from spiral-shaped architecture to oil politics, vertical slums (such as the Torre David), and modern ruins. The book is also rich in visual imagery, both in terms of architectural photography, plans and drawings, and even selections of El Helicoide’s original promotional pamphlet pages.

Downward Spiral Book El Helicoide
Original promotional material for El Helicoide. Could the project have succeeded if its political headwinds had subsided? “Many architects say it would’ve failed nonetheless because there’s very little usable space,” said Olalquiaga. Courtesy UR

It seems only fitting that such a striking project—a “living ruin” towering over slums—should be equally fascinating under the surface. Olalquiaga has a theory as to why it has such a draw: “As we become more digital,” she said, the present becomes more intangible. Ruins like El Helicoide “are the concrete things of the past.”

You may also enjoy “The Complicated and Contradictory Legacy of Arcosanti.”

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