Caracas

Following modern design's footsteps

May 14, 2015

When I think of the Caracas of today and its waning modern design heritage slowly disappearing to the rhythm of a slow and grave pavane orchestrated with picks and jackhammers, I can’t stop myself from remembering the history of some of the greatest metropolises of the ancient world whose splendor, lost today, at one point left a mark on the history of humanity. Cities like Baghdad or Alexandria come to mind, usually destroyed—and reconstructed—yet from their most glorious moments hardly any  archeological vestiges remain.

Financed by the enormous postwar oil industry boom, Caracas’ astonishing transformation started in the mid-1940s. In less than a decade, the bucolic “city of red roofs,” as described by the Venezuelan writer Enrique Bernardo Núñez, was transformed into one of Latin America’s most cosmopolitan and modern cities. Brand-new buildings, ultra-modern houses, wide avenues flanked by businesses and cafés—symbols of a sophisticated urban life and of the longed-for progress promised by the incumbent government—soon swept through the narrow valley where the city is located. During those years, modern design prevailed, often at the hand of immigrants whose contributions gave form and culture to the burgeoning metropolis.

The great modern architecture of Caracas has resisted the poundings of time and the construction obsession prevailing in the city. Some giants like Ciudad Universitaria by Carlos Raúl Villanueva, the Humboldt Hotel by Tomas Sanabria, or the Torres del Silencia by Cipriano Domínguez still stand, proudly defying the passing fashions and changes in taste that have eliminated so much of the architecture from the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, the modern interiors of these buildings have been so profoundly altered that, besides a piece of furniture or a lamp, perhaps carelessly forgotten, little or nothing of the original proposals remain. However, the maze-like streets of Caracas still hide some design treasures, many of which are unnoticed even by their own inhabitants.


Aula Magna – Plaza cubierta – Ciudad Universitaria 
Plaza Venezuela, Caracas

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Aula Magna, Universidad Central de Venezuela. Photo by Paolo Gasparini

Marvelously, the Aula Magna in the Ciudad Universitaria, one of the modern jewels of Caracas, has withstood time and the general negligence that has taken over the majority of the university campus. It’s always an amazing experience to attend any event under Alexander Calder’s clouds. It’s worth going through the adjacent Biblioteca Central and admiring the famous stained glass window by Fernand Léger in the lobby. Attentive visitors will easily spot the remaining original furniture in some of the reading rooms.


Restaurante Casa de Italia
Av. Las Industrias, Ed. Casa Italia, Piso 3. La Candelaria, Caracas
Teléfono: 0212.571.27.44/29.55

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Casa de Italia. Photo by Jorge Rivas S.

To see some of the modern splendor that characterized Caracas during the mid-20th century, you have to start in the city center. In the vicinity of Urdaneta Avenue, on Candelaria, the stoic La Casa de Italia survives. This magnificent building, designed in 1955 by the architect Domenico Filippone, is one of the few public places that still conserves a large part of its original interior design. The restaurant Casa de Italia (located on the third floor), still dazzles its customers with its design, notwithstanding a few unfortunate additions. In particular, the extraordinary crystal lamps designed by Max Ingrand for the Italian firm Fontana Arte, the bar’s decorative panels with gold backgrounds, and the elegant mahogany furniture with bronze details stand out.


Fundación Planchart
Quinta El Cerrito, Calle La Colina, Urbanización Colinas de San Román, Baruta, Caracas
Teléfono: 58.212.9912973

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El Cerrito. Photo by Paolo Gasparini, taken from Domus

Looking out over the city on the top of a hill that commands the valley, El Cerrito(1957), Anala and Armando Planchart’s house—today the headquarters of its namesake foundation—is another one of the magical places where time has stopped. The house, one of the most important works by the great Italian architect Giò Ponti, has intact interiors. It is worth attending one of the events or the guided tours that the foundation organizes, to admire the architecture and the extraordinary collection of art and design objects.


Sala TAC 
Final Av. Ppal. de Las Mercedes
C.C. Paseo Las Mercedes; Nivel Trasnocho
Teléfono: 993.29.57

Located in the basement of a shopping mall in the east of Caracas, the Sala TAC in Trasnocho Cultural is the only exhibition space in Caracas that regularly shows design. Within its space, designs by Miguel Arroyo, Cornelis Zitman and Nedo, among others, have been exhibited. Besides the exhibition gallery, the institution has a small shop that sells art, design and craftwork along with exhibition catalogs and other publications.


Artificio Siglo XX
Visita preferiblemente previa cita
Contacto: Rafael Abuchaibe y Rafael Montero
Dirección: Av. Maracaibo, Quinta Villa Sofía
Urbanización Las Palmas, Caracas
Teléfono (0212) 782 12 21

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Artificio Siglo XX. Photo courtesy of Rafael Abuchaibe and Rafael Montero

Caracas offers some interesting options for modern design collectors and enthusiasts. Artificio Siglo XX is the oldest gallery specializing in the modern design. Directed by Rafael Abuchaibe and Rafael Montero, the business is located in a modern house in the Las Palmas neighborhood, which has been carefully renovated and furnished with contemporaneous pieces.. They always have a good selection of modern Venezuelan pottery and design with works by Tecoteca, Decodibo and Muebles Azpúrua—some of the mid-20th century’s most important manufacturers.


Møbel, muebles y objetos originales del siglo XX
Contacto: Edmundo Hernández y José A. Rangel
Avenida Andrés Bello. Entre 1 y 2 Transversal
Edificio Everi, Los Palos Grandes
Caracas, Venezuela
Teléfono: +58 212-9938294

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Møbel. Photos courtesy of Møbel

Møbel - muebles y objectos originales del siglo XX, is an eclectic business that exhibits vintage pieces along with contemporary Venezuelan furniture and design objects by designers like John Gornés and Daniel Reynolds. Established seven years ago by a group of friends who loved modern design (Edmundo Hernández, Fran Beaufrand, Carlos Gutiérrez, and José Alfredo Rangel), the gallery is housed in Casa Curuba’s old location—an important reference for late 20th century Venezuelan design—and preserves most of the original finishes and fixed furnishings of the vanished locale.


Greenella
Final calle California entre Jalisco y Monterrey, Urbanization Las Mercedes
Caracas
Telefono: 58 212 993 8883

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Left: Rodolfo Agrella, Tazas Serie C [Teacups Series C], Ceramic. Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Agrella. Right: Bernardo Mazzei on his Avila chair. Photo courtesy of Bernardo Mazzei

The contemporary design scene is very fragmented; however, in spite of the difficulties that today’s designers face, there are still some that continue to develop new products. Some stores like Greenella on Las Mercedes commercializes local design and exhibits pieces by young designers like Rodolfo Agrella. In other cases, designers open up their workshops for appointments and accept special orders. One of these is Bernardo Mazzei, who has developed a line of aluminum furniture.