On my first trip to Caracas Venezuela in 1998, I remember being surprised by its modernity. Although the infrastructure and architecture showed significant decay, I felt as though I was experiencing a sort of mid-century lost world. The city has so many influences from its many stages of development. There are aspects that reflect the indigenous, colonial, and Modern eras.
From 1948 to 1958, Venezuela was ruled by a self-glorifying dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The military coup d’état that put Marcos Pérez Jiménez into power also coincided with the discovery of oil in Venezuela at the height of the Modernist movement. With a boom from oil revenue and no political opposition to impede spending, Jiménez commissioned a record number of large scale construction projects.
Venezuela gained the attention of the world as its economy grew. Its largest city, Caracas, began to resemble modern cities in the United States and Europe. Many important Modernist masters like Gio Ponte, Alexander Calder, Richard Neutra were hired to work on urban projects, collaborating with Venezuelan architects like Carlos Raul Villanueva to create ambitious modernist structures. Jiménez used the wealth generated by oil to create a modernist facade for the country and US corporations came to Caracas in large numbers. New homes for the wealthy began to pop up in Caracas. The most desirable neighborhoods were situated in the hilly, winding streets at the foot of the Avila Mountain.
Behind the newly constructed face of Caracas, masses of poor Venezuelans flocked to the city, erecting makeshift housing throughout the unoccupied hills and outlining areas. These communities called “ranchos” stood in stark contrast to the image that Jiménez wanted the world to see. After his downfall in 1958, the “ranchos” expanded greatly, enveloping many of the public housing projects that were to be the symbol of the regime’s great progress. The structures were taken over and folded back into the makeshift urban environment they were to have replaced.
Due to the ever expanding scourge of crime that has gripped the city since the late 1980’s, many of these homes have been demolished in favor of more secure, low rise, concrete block apartment buildings. The homes that remain are surrounding thick cement walls, barbed wire, and steel gates. The house are hidden from view, but next to the gate is usually an elegant cast iron string of letters denoting the name of the house.
Venezuelans often give names to their homes. The name can be entirely made up, or a portmanteau of the names of family members. I noticed that these name plates had a very similar look and was fascinated by their unusual typographic quality. They were all similar in style, but each one was totally unique. In each case they appeared to be handmade, but distinctly modernist. I began to photograph as many as I could find as I walked the hilly streets by the Avila. When I got back to the United States, I separated and catalogued the letterforms that I found. On each successive trip to Venezuela, I found more examples. The result was the creation of a typeface. I named it after the first home I encountered in Caracas, and its curious cast iron name plate, “Clariana"..Read more about urban development in Venezuela