Back in the 1950s, Venezuela looked poised for a bright future – and the space-age El Helicoide was the symbol of the country’s hopes and dreams. Sixty years later, those aspirations lie in tatters, and the once-ambitious project has become something far more sinister. But how did this cutting-edge shopping mall become one of the region’s most feared buildings?
Ever since Venezuela declared its independence in 1811, the country has seen its fair share of political unrest. A series of dictators has inflicted their will upon the people. And even though vast oil reserves were discovered in the region in the early 20th century, its citizens have enjoyed little of the wealth generated by this valuable resource.
As the dust of World War I settled, Venezuela was able to begin capitalizing on its oil. And soon, the country had shifted from an agricultural economy towards a modern, industrial state. At first, however, the main beneficiary of this development was Juan Vicente Gómez, the military general who ruled as a dictator from 1908 until 1935.
At the time, corruption was rife, and Venezuela’s new-found wealth only served to bolster Gómez’s power. And even though the dictator died in 1935, the country continued to be led by unelected officials. Eventually, in 1945 a coup ushered in a brief period of democracy – but it was not to last.
In 1948 Venezuela’s first democratically elected president, Rómulo Gallegos, was himself overthrown by a military junta. And even though the new regime lost the next election, they installed the military officer Marcos Pérez Jiménez as ruler in 1952. But under this new leader, the fate of the country took a terrible turn.
Keen to transform Venezuela into the poster child of industrial success, Jiménez and his administration began a dedicated drive to modernize the country. And in the capital city of Caracas, the change was most visible of all. In fact, Venezuelans razed dozens of shanty towns to make way for new developments.
But despite Venezuela’s wealth, officials borrowed heavily so that they could fund these ambitious projects. And within five years of Jiménez’s rise to power, the country’s debt had grown more than 25 times the size that it had been. However, the transformation of cities such as Caracas continued apace.
At the time, Caracas was ripe for development. With many of its inhabitants living in slums known as barrios, their impoverished lives stood in direct contrast with the gleaming future that Jiménez and his regime hoped to promote. In fact, it’s believed that some 80 percent of Venezuelans were struggling to get by.
But even as most citizens languished in poverty, Jiménez pushed on with his modernization schemes. And in 1955 the president announced one of his most ambitious projects yet. Set on a hill in the South Central area of Caracas, El Helicoide was conceived as the biggest and most futuristic shopping mall that the Americas had ever seen.
“There was real investment in this idea of instant modernity,” Dr. Lisa Blackmore, the director of Latin American Studies at England’s University of Essex, wrote in her 2018 book Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent from Mall to Prison. “[Venezuela] is a country that from 1948 entered a period of military dictatorship, and the mandate was: ‘We will progress if we build.’”
That same year, construction on El Helicoide began. And almost immediately, the problems started. While some saw the high-concept mall as a beacon of hope for the future, the families living in the barrio of San Agustin del Sur were left homeless when their homes were flattened to make way for the new structure.
Once the barrios surrounding the site were cleared, it was time to make this unlikely dream a reality. The creation of architects Jorge Romero Gutiérrez, Dirk Bornhorst and Pedro Neuberger, El Helicoide was conceived as a vast, geometric construction that would house a vast array of shopping and leisure facilities.
On paper, the structure covered almost 650,000 square feet. Designed in a spiral shape, it featured external ramps that would allow vehicles to drive right into the building and park in front of their chosen stores. And with space for some 300 boutiques, there would have been plenty of shopping opportunities on offer.
As well as its stores, El Helicoide was also designed to house a five-star hotel, a heliport, leisure spaces and as many as eight cinemas. And that wasn’t all. Apparently, it was also to be equipped with all the latest technology from around the world, including CCTV and custom elevators made in Austria and delivered thousands of miles across the world to Caracas.
All in all, the project was set to cost in the region of $10 million – the equivalent of around $90 million in today’s money. And soon media outlets around the world were fawning over its bold ambition. As a symbol of Jiménez’s new Venezuela, El Helicoide featured prominently in several international publications.
First, workers tackled the hill on which the mall was to be set, cutting into it to create a spiral shape – the helicoid from which the building would take its name. Then the result was covered in a layer of concrete. Eventually, this process created a vast structure, surrounded by more than two miles of ramps.
For four years, construction on El Helicoide continued. Then, in 1958 everything changed. That year, yet another coup saw Jiménez ousted from power and a fledgling democracy spring up in place of his regime. Sadly, this was far from the end of Venezuela’s troubles – and the unfinished shopping mall became just one of many casualties to these tumultuous times.
Apparently, the construction of El Helicoide had been privately funded, with future store owners handing over a downpayment to secure their space. However, many people suspected that Jiménez’s regime had been financially involved. And even though these allegations were never proven, the project’s reputation was damaged for good.
Keen to put all echoes of the old regime behind them, the new government refused to approve any more work on El Helicoide. And with the future of the project uncertain, a legal battle broke out between the state, the construction company and the store owners who had invested in the mall. Eventually, in 1961 work on the structure stopped altogether.
That year, El Helicoide took center stage at the Roads exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But in reality, the project had ground to a halt before it was even complete. And for years, it stood abandoned in the heart of the city, a grim monument to Jiménez’s unrealized ambitions.
As the years passed, the barrios that had been cleared from the area returned. And eventually, in 1975, the failed mall became the property of the Venezuelan government. But even then, the story of El Helicoide was not straightforward. In fact, its first real function was as an emergency shelter, housing families who had been made homeless by a devastating landslide.
Even though the building had neither water nor electricity, some 10,000 people were eventually housed in El Helicoide. However, the shanty town fostered a toxic environment, and soon the building was rife with crime. Finally, in 1982 the government moved the families out of the structure, and plans were made to transform it into a cultural center.
By that point, Romero had become convinced that his building was bad luck. “He was too old, too tired, to have any real hope,” Albert Sato, the architect tasked with creating the cultural center, told The Guardian in 2017. “I remember him saying ‘It’s cursed, you are not going to be able to do anything there.’”
And just as Romero had predicted, the new plans for El Helicoide were short-lived. Even though developers managed to raise the building’s geodesic dome – the first of its kind outside of North America – a political shift in 1984 left the building abandoned once more. Eventually, in 1985 the secret police took over.
At the time, Venezuela’s secret police were known as the General Sectoral Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, or DISIP. And after they moved in to El Helicoide, the building’s distinct spiral took on a different purpose. Now they detained political prisoners who had fallen foul of the new regime within the concrete walls.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Venezuela continued to experience much political unrest. And with economic crises hitting the country hard, the population began to riot. Eventually, in 1999 the Bolivarian Revolution began – a period of socialist upheaval under the guidance of the new president Hugo Chávez.
Under Chávez, there was a renewed attempt to improve democracy and stamp out corruption in Venezuelan politics. However, the country’s political police force did not disappear. In fact, in 2009 Chávez founded the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, or SEBIN. And as the successor to DISIP, this new agency inherited their strange spiral prison.
Apparently, Chávez himself had a complicated relationship with El Helicoide. According to reports, he echoed Romero’s comments that the building was “cursed,” although he still acknowledged that it was “very important.” And at some point, he even gave the order for SEBIN to move out.
Instead of a prison, Chávez proposed to make El Helicoide into a social center. However, his plans never materialized, and SEBIN continue to occupy the building to this day. Apparently, the agency uses the higher stories as offices and the bottom two as a makeshift jail. And over the years, both political and criminal prisoners have found themselves interned within its walls.
Although El Helicoide was designed as a state-of-the-art construction, this sophistication did not translate well into its new purpose. Apparently, much of the building’s size comes from the hill that it is built upon, and the actual inside space is small and cramped. And as a prison, these conditions leave a lot to be desired.
“When you visit El Helicoide you realize that between the rock, which takes most of the center of the site, and the ramps, there is very little useable space,” cultural historian Celeste Olalquiaga, who toured the site in 2015, told The Guardian. “It’s very anti-climactic, like a building equivalent of the Wizard of Oz.”
But although El Helicoide has served as a prison since the 1980s, it’s only recently that reports have emerged claiming to reveal just how bad conditions are inside. In 2013 Nicolás Maduro took over as president of Venezuela, in what some consider little more than a new dictatorship. And soon after his rise to power, the country’s inhabitants began protesting against his regime.
Faced with hyperinflation, corruption, violence and a scarcity of goods, Venezuelans took to the streets en masse. However, the government fought back, locking record numbers of prisoners up in El Helicoide. But with the global attention that the protests brought to the country, an uncomfortable truth began to emerge about the prison.
As the protests delivered more and more inmates to El Helicoide – including hundreds of illegally detained students – conditions inside became unbearable. Apparently, everything from store rooms to lavatories was used to hold the increasing number of prisoners. And by 2017 it’s believed that as many as 300 people were being crammed into spaces that had already struggled to accommodate 80.
According to Rosmit Mantilla, a Venezuelan activist for LGBT rights who was sent to El Helicoide in 2014, the prison is a horrific place. “The Helicoide is the center of torture in Venezuela,” he told The Guardian. “It’s a hell on earth.” And in the two-and-a-half years that he spent interned there, he claims to have suffered both physical and psychological abuse.
Despite that, Mantilla believes that he did not suffer as much as other prisoners, thanks to the high-profile campaigning that surrounded his case. “There are at least three rooms used for torture, and we couldn’t sleep because we would hear the screams all night: people who would appear and disappear,” he explained.
According to Mantilla, the torture was accompanied by desperate conditions inside the facility. With male and female prisoners incarcerated on different floors, the inmates were subjected to overcrowded cells and given meagre rations on which to survive. And at times, he claims that people were beaten and electrocuted during interrogation.
Today, some believe that El Helicoide is used as a deterrent to quell unrest within Venezuela. “By arresting a lot of people, the aim was to make people afraid,” Mantilla told the BBC in January 2019. “And I think they did, in a way. Because nowadays, when there is a demonstration, many Venezuelans are afraid because they don’t want to be arrested.”
In November 2016 Mantilla was released from El Helicoide. And since then, he has been an outspoken critic of the controversial prison. However, the Venezuelan government has continued to deny the torture accusations – along with claims that minors are being detained within the facility. Meanwhile, in May 2018 riots broke out inside the facility as prisoners protested the conditions inside.
For now, the future of the building remains uncertain – much like the future of Venezuela itself. But according to Olalquiaga, all is not lost. “What should happen is the one thing that has never happened, the communities that surround it should be asked what they want,” she explained. “El Helicoide has suffered for all kinds of reasons, and it could and should be re-purposed. I don’t think things are doomed.”