The dizzying spiral structure in central Caracas was conceived in the 1950s as a monument to a nation’s confidence – but now its crumbling shell

The planned interior.
The planned interior. © Archivo Fotografía Urbana / Proyecto Helicoide

El Helicoide – as it was named in a nod to the geometry that inspired it – was conceived in the early 1950s as a shopping mall that would embody Venezuela’s wealth and confidence. Its curving lines are created by more than two miles of ramps in an interlocking helix, designed as a modern take on the high street.

The design included space for 300 boutiques, and parking spaces for each. There were also plans for a hotel and galleries. But the building was never finished, and the shops never opened. Instead, areas earmarked for the sale of luxury goods were turned first into shelters for the homeless, then prison cells, police headquarters and eventually even torture chambers, described by former inmates as “hell on earth”.

Several Venezuelan governments tried to remake El Helicoide as a museum or cultural centre, but all the efforts ended in failure. Its cells have never been as crowded as they are today, after months of street protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro that often turned violent. Support for his government has collapsed in the face of severe shortages of food and medicine, hyper-inflation and spiralling violence.

The president blames foreign sabotage for the country’s problems, even though Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, and he has responded to the unrest by jailing and blacklisting opponents, convening a legislative super-assembly to sideline the opposition controlled parliament, and even openly flirting with “becoming a dictator to guarantee prices for the people”.

Celeste Olalquiaga, a cultural historian who grew up in Caracas, said: “El Helicoide is a metaphor for the whole modern period in Venezuela and what went wrong.” She has launched a project to document its extraordinary history and a book about the mall-turned jail.

The transformation from icon of Venezuela’s hopes to emblem of failure and repression was slow and complicated. It began with a coup, stretched over decades of dictatorship and democracy, through the rule of 14 presidents and several cycles of oil boom and bust. Someone looking for bad omens might have found one in the name of the hill where it’s built, Roca Tarpeya; the Tarpeian Rock was an execution ground in ancient Rome.