Excerpt from an interview with Venezuelan architect and historic preservationist Hannia Gómez
As we in the United States hear weekly about the degradation of conditions in Venezuela, and the growing political unrest, little is said about the state of architecture in the country. In late June, 2016, I had the opportunity to speak with Hannia Gómez, a trained architect and urban designer currently working as a historic preservationist, exhibition curator, and the architecture critic of El Nacional newspaper in Caracas. She founded the preservation organization Foundacion de la Memoria Urbana, and is a founding member of DOCOMOMO Venezuela. We spoke about the little-known Modernist architectural heritage of Caracas, which defines the character of the built environment.
When we spoke, Gómez described her passion for historic preservation, and her motivation to record and save the memory of Caracas’s Modernist heritage.
The most important thing about preservation is that we live a very short life. History was invented to contain the beauties and the experiences of all those who lived before, to make their descendants’ lives better, more rich, and more proud of history itself. History is a synonym for the city, and the city is history built.
In order to make new things you must know what was there before. Younger generations must learn from what is sown into the fabric of the city. Architecture is a constant re-invention; there is no absolute new, like zero out of space. It is impossible. Everything is a mixture of creativity and history, feelings and personal lives. Now everything is being destroyed in cities like Caracas. If you have a city where everything disappears without leaving a trace, then you lose clues for the new: clues to build, to create, to design, and to invent new projects.
At the same time, there are other arguments for preservation. One is that if you tear down buildings and build new ones constantly, you are acting absolutely unsustainably. Buildings should be renovated and reused as much as possible. Building new things is very expensive and difficult. Sadly, people find it’s often easier to build new than to preserve the old.
Another argument for preservation is, of course, cultural identity. If you always build new, you end up erasing identity. It’s like what is happening in Midtown, New York. The Baccarat Hotel could be anywhere in the world. It doesn’t talk about New York like Rockefeller Center talks about New York, as an absolutely New York architecture. This is the erasing of identity. Of course there are new buildings that are more related to the city, more delicate, made by better architects with more sensibility who work with the colors, materials, ideas, lines, typologies of place, and with everything that is already written in New York — or in Caracas, whichever city in the world. But those few architects are very few. Those are the best architects. Cities are thus being gradually erased and homogenized, and all becoming the same city. This goes against culture. Preservation is a way to protect the creativity and art of architecture.
There are very few people dedicated to the field of architectural criticism in my country. In Venezuela there are university facilities and organizations of architecture, but people are quiet and usually don’t speak out. My life has always put me in the spotlight, so I am a natural spokesperson. This is why I have spent so much of my life speaking out for architectural criticism, and the preservation of culturally important architecture. Young people think that things were always like they are now, but the truth is that nobody gave a damn about Modern Architecture in Venezuela back in 2000. Along with architects like myself working for the recognition of preservation, the rise of the internet, where people can see and read what is happening abroad, has changed many things.
Now, young architects have begun to take an interest. They do tours for architecture, they do InstaMeets and lectures, and everything related to this kind of work. They are not activists — as I was, right under the Caterpillars stopping demolitions -- but they understand the importance of preservation. People say that copying is the best homage, and I am glad to have achieved success in the minds of many people, the younger the better.
Caracas has its own story to tell, which cannot be exchanged for anything else in the world. It is unique. Every place has its name and its story. I saw a Burle-Marx exhibition today on projects from Rio and from Sao Paulo. Those parks — incredible! Almost nobody knows about those parks— but they do exist. And the Burle-Marx projects — or the other Modern Masters projects — in Caracas? They are also real and wonderful, and even less known. So it’s like that. There are many wonderful things about Venezuela to be unearthed. This is why I keep doing my work.