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Downward Spiral: El Helicoide's Descent from Mall to Prison


Downward Spiral: El Helicoide's Descent from Mall to Prison


Editors: Celeste Olalquiaga and Lisa Blackmore

Contributors: Pedro Alonso, Carola Barrios, Ángela Bonadies, Bonadies & Olavarría, Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, René Davids, Liliana De Simone, Luis Duno-Gottberg, Diego Larrique, Vicente Lecuna, Engel Leonardo, Albinson Linares, Sandra Pinardi, Iris Rosas, Alberto Sato, Elisa Silva, Federico Vegas, Jorge Villota. Designed by Álvaro Sotillo and Gabriella Fontanillas (VACA).

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Hailed in the 1950s as a beacon of Latin America’s modernist architecture, Venezuela’s El Helicoide is a futuristic fantasy gone sour. At its conception, this drive-through shopping center embodied a narrative of progress, fueled by soaring oil prices, consumerism, and car culture. Yet a very different story unfolded on its spiral ramps. Caught in the transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule, El Helicoide became a site of abandonment, encircled by slums, and repurposed in 1979 as an emergency shelter for flood victims. Since 1985, it has been a headquarters for national intelligence and security police agencies, and an infamous prison. Combining archival documents, critical analysis, literary texts, and visual commentary, Downward Spiral traces the turbulent history of this living ruin and reveals the dystopic side of urban modernity.

Celeste Olalquiaga is an independent cultural historian. She has a PhD in Latin American Cultural Studies from Columbia University (1990) and her books, Megalopolis: Contemporary Urban Sensibilities (1992) and The Artificial Kingdom (1998) have become classics within modern cultural studies. She writes for specialized journals and lectures worldwide, and has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller awards. In 2013, she created Proyecto Helicoide, dedicated to rescuing the memory of El Helicoide.

Lisa Blackmore has a PhD in Latin American Cultural Studies from the University of London (2011). She recently published Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948-1958 (2017) and has published widely in academic journals. She was Postdoctoral Researcher on the project Modernity and the Landscape in Latin America at Universität Zürich from 2014 to 2017. She is Lecturer in Art History and Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Essex.

"Of all the radical transformations to the Caracas landscape during the 1950s oil boom, none is as poignant in its revelations of modernity’s paradoxes as the failed drive-through shopping mall of El Helicoide, constructed at the apex of modernist architectural innovation. This anthology offers a veritable 360 degree tour of El Helicoide’s history from conception to ruin, revealing in its various twists and turns a profound view into more than half a century of Venezuelan politics, as well as the follies of 20th century automobile urbanism." —Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History, Columbia University

“Upon his arrival in Brazil in 1935, Claude Lévi-Strauss famously commented on the ‘premature aging’ of New World cities, caught ‘in the grip of a chronic disease’ that made them 'pass from freshness to decay without ever being simply old.' As this book vividly illustrates, this urban progeria (or premature rubble syndrome) is but the symptom of a tropical modernity whose violent, syncopated, and contradictor y temporality is materialized in and as space. Downward Spiral does a marvelous job of taking us into this vortex, perhaps nowhere as emblematically set in stone as at El Helicoide.” —Jens Andermann, Professor,  Department of Spanish and Portuguese Language and Literatures, New York University

“Delving into one of Latin America’s most iconic modernist projects, Downward Spiral is both a fascinating collection of essays and a highly imaginative compendium of visual and literary responses to El Helicoide. Wide-ranging and richly illustrated, this book is a landmark contribution to the history of architecture and urbanism, not just in Venezuela but in Latin America and beyond.” —Valerie Fraser, Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Essex


268 pages, full color, softcover, 8” x 11”, ISBN 978-1-947198-00-5, printed in the United States, 2018.


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