There was a time when everyone heaped praise on the Helicoide. Poet Pablo Neruda called the building “one of the most exquisite creations to emerge from an architect’s mind.” Salvador Dalí wanted his art displayed in what promised to be the most modern shopping mall of the 1950s.
Sixty years later, the building still has its eye-catching, daring form, a spiraling pyramid with floors that grow smaller as they rise. It is topped by a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller.
But today, like much of Venezuela, the structure tells a different story. Sometimes called a tropical Babel, the one-time symbol of the country’s progress wound up converted into a prison and, according to some of its former inmates, a torture center for political prisoners.
Planning for the Helicoide began in 1955, during a period marked by abundant oil money and the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, known for his love of massive construction projects. Everything seemed possible to Venezuelan architects at the time.
“During that wave of optimism … one developer approached [architect] Jorge Romero Gutiérrez and asked for plans for a lot in a place known as Roca Tarpeya,” Gutiérrez’s partner Dirk Bornhorst wrote in his book The Helicoide. The lot measured about 25 acres.
The firm Arquitectura y Urbanismo C.A., where Bornhorst, Gutiérrez, and Pedro Neuberger worked, created the ambitious design, inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. It conformed to the steep topography of Roca Tarpeya. “We are going to build … a super project with Romero Gutiérrez. A mountain of shops, with ramps!” Bornhorst wrote in his diary in January 1955.
The original idea was for a shopping mall with 320 stores. But the Helicoide would break the mold: Shoppers would drive, not walk, from store to store on double-helix ramps. The Helicoide would include a showroom to sell cars and spare parts, a gas station, a repair shop, and a car wash.
The Helicoide was supposed to pioneer the use of elevators that moved at an angle through its telescoping levels. It would also offer exhibition halls, a gym, a pool, a bowling alley, a nursery, and a movie theater with seven screens. Its own Radio Helicoide would broadcast activities and special offers.
But the project began to fall apart after the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship collapsed in 1958. Amid the political uncertainty that followed, the building remained half-finished. The architects lost their investment. In the new democracy, no one wanted anything to do with the project. Although it was started with private capital, its identification with the dictatorship sealed its fate.
The design continued to gather applause abroad. The Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition titled “Roads” that highlighted the integration of the Helicoide’s architecture and roadway design, a feature never before seen. But work on the building stopped in 1961.
From mall to prison
Half a century later, another exhibition in New York is again praising Venezuela’s architectural wonder. The Center for Architecture is hosting ”El Helicoide: From Mall to Prison” through July 13. “One of the values of this [exhibition] has been to put this work on display again, as a structure, as architecture, as a cultural phenomenon,” said Celeste Olalquiaga, director of the Project Helicoide, an initiative to keep the story of the building alive.
“The Helicoide puts in focus what happens with modernity and democracy,” Olalquiaga said. “Because it was identified with the dictatorship, no one wanted anything to do with it. Each successive government then put it to a different use, without any continuity. In the end, they turned it into a living ruin; it’s being used even though it was partially abandoned.”
The building went into a lengthy bankruptcy process and in 1975 became government property, starting the long chain of failed efforts to reactivate or at least make some use of the white elephant. From 1979 to 1982, the complex was home to 500 squatter families who lived in shipping containers. Proposals to turn it into a history and anthropology museum never got off the ground.
An idea to make it the Environmental Center of Venezuela began to take off in 1993. According to Bornhorst, architects Julio Coll and Jorge Castillo climbed to the top of the Roca Tarpeya, meditated in silence and “contacted” the indigenous people who once lived in the Caracas Valley. That’s how they “discovered” that the area had been a tribal cemetery.
“The architects apologized to the energies of the Indian souls for their ignorance. A new, conciliatory spiritual environment was created, in which a benevolent, non-commercial goal … allowed three years of uninterrupted work until Venezuela’s environmental symbol was finished,” Bornhorst wrote.
But the dream of the Environmental Center remained just a dream. The new government of President Rafael Caldera abandoned the idea and decided to use the building as the headquarters of a police agency known as DISIP. President Hugo Chávez kept the agency there but changed its name to the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, and based his new Experimental Security University there. A forgotten place like the Helicoide was convenient for the police.
“What a contradiction,” said Vicente Lecuna, a professor at Central Venezuela University. “That a space that wanted to be a symbol of free commerce in the Fifties and Sixties would later become a jail, a jail for political prisoners.”
Rosmit Montilla witnessed what happened in the Helicoide for two years, six months, and eight days. He was arrested by SEBIN agents on May 2, 2014, and detained in the complex for alleged links to subversive activities during large anti-government protests that year.
“All that time I was in a cell they called ‘Little Hell,’” said Montilla, an alternate member of the legislature from the state of Tachira and a member of the Voluntad Popular opposition party. “It was a space five by three meters [15 feet by 9 feet] that held 22 people. We ate there, slept there, went to the bathroom there. We were tortured with a white light that was blinding.”
Montilla said he also saw that the building was being modified little by little to hold more prisoners. “At first, it was just three cells. The rest was administrative offices. Over time, they turned them into cells and torture chambers where they shock prisoners with electricity or hang them to make them talk.”
A report by an NGO, Venezuela Penal Forum, titled “Repression by the Venezuelan Government from January 2014 to June 2016,” documents 145 cases of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the majority by SEBIN and Bolivarian National Guard officers.
“The cases of Gerardo Carrero and Daniel Morales, who were detained in the Helicoide, are clear examples of torture and impunity,” said Alfredo Romero, executive director of the Penal Forum. “After complaints of electric shocks, beatings, or hanging for hours were submitted to the courts, the judges and prosecutors turned a blind eye.”
Olalquiaga argues that since the Helicoide was not designed as a prison, its use is essentially a human rights violation and should end. “That place has a lot of negative connotations,” she said. “Give it another chance. It only makes sense to turn it into a community and sports center, and thereby remedy the mistake of this ambitious project that ignored its immediate context from its beginning.”
For Montilla, that’s too easy. To this day, he gets angry whenever he sees an image of the building. He is anguished at the thought that other Venezuelans are being tortured there, and wants the Helicoide to serve as a memorial to the suffering that took place—that still takes place—inside.
“The Helicoide is a symbol that should not disappear,” he said. “It’s a symbol of what Venezuela could have been, and was not. And now it should be kept as a reminder of what happened and what should never happen again.”