As a result of a complex crisis, more than six million Venezuelan citizens have left the country since 2014. Presently, 20% of the population is abroad. The scale and speed of this exodus has drastically changed living conditions within the country, resulting in an ever-growing and distinct vacancy. The management of vacancy by local actors has set in motion new practices of caretaking that revolve around the preservation of patrimonies left behind.
This paper aims to sketch out the context and framework of the research project and share preliminary findings on instances of vacancy and its management by local actors, framing them within the objectives of the research project: to document caretakers’ role in reshaping the built environment of the city. As these practices produce new architectural and urban conditions, space becomes a vehicle for observing emergent economies, social practices, forms of solidarity, and activism that interconnect migrant and non-migrant actors. The central issues the paper wishes to address –in the form of questions at this early and fluid research stage— are methodological: What is the best way to document everyday actions of caretakers, the resulting spatial transformations of these actions, and their implication in migratory dynamics? Can design-driven research open new possibilities for understanding fieldwork as an act of design, shifting the focus from the product to the process as a source of knowledge?
Introduction and research framework
Since 2014 Venezuela has been immersed in a complex political, economic, and social crisis. The rapid deterioration of a conflict marked by economic decline, political instability, state-led repression, high crime rates, and infrastructure collapse has triggered a migratory crisis of unprecedented proportions. At least six million Venezuelans –20% of the population—have fled the country. The Venezuelan migratory crisis is the second largest in the world after Syria, and it is expected to surpass it. This exodus has created an extraordinary pressure on neighboring countries, which have scrambled to accommodate the influx of immigrants, and produced a genuine diaspora that plays an increasingly important role, both economically and symbolically. While these facets of the migratory crisis have been the focus of international aid and academic research, the local impact of emigration remains largely unexplored. Nevertheless, the utter speed and magnitude of this exodus are transforming life within the country, arguably creating another manifestation of the crisis that is experienced locally.
Any account of the Venezuelan crisis would be incomplete without considering the wide and profound impact of emigration, from the loss of human capital to the contraction of the economy, the restructuring of families, or the emergence of new avenues for the exercise of democratic practices, citizenship and social life. The void created by emigration has both symbolic and spatial connotations. Symbolically, it has produced a society that lives in a permanent state of “mourning” over the loss of those who have left.1 Spatially, emigration has resulted in a distinct and ever-growing vacancy. This vacancy, however, is rarely equal to abandonment (understood as both breaking of ties and giving up rights over property). On the contrary, maintaining local property preserves migrants’ symbolic ties to the country, extends the possibility of return, and safeguards a sense of citizenship and belonging. It also questions the finality of international migration and the unidirectional nature of exchange across international borders, typically framed as a one-way flow of economic remittances to local families. Vacancy, in turn, is actively managed through activities that not only preserve –as a suspension in time—but transform spaces. Vacancy is thus folded into the dynamics of everyday life, it sustains livelihoods and economies, supports new forms of solidarity, ensures social continuity and cultural renewal, and triggers processes of urban transformation. Caretaking-as-management-of-vacancy reframes ordinary spaces and actions as it implicates non-mobile populations in the dynamics of emigration. Moreover, as a means to relate to others and to the built environment, caretaking “extends beyond the activities from which it arises, generating a stance (or standpoint) toward ‘nature,’ human relationships, and social institutions.”2
The research frames Caracas as a “departure city”, a place “fundamentally shaped by emigration.”3 The concept of departure city describes the impact of emigration on cities in post-conflict and post-socialist countries in Europe where labor migration and political instability have produced unique urban and architectural transformations. The authors have argued that approaching migration from the point of view of “arrival” excludes an essential aspect of a two-sided, non-linear process that also transforms places of origin. While research on the topic has been limited to what authors term “the (European) periphery” they have called for the need to expand “the scale and scope of the departure city in its manifold realizations [through] empirical work.”4 This presents an opportunity to probe the concept beyond the European context and as a contemporary urban condition.
The research aims to observe, document, and visualize caretaking practices in their role in reshaping the built environment. In examining spatial transformations through the lens of emigration, they will come into focus as processes of co-production that actively involve ‘absent’ others, undermine conventional procedures of architecture and planning, and are infused with symbolic values and creative potential. This prompts subsequent research questions: Do caretaking practices offer clues for broader forms of cooperation as a relief from the crisis? How do transnational networks manifest locally, creating distinct instance of translocality? What is the role of various actors (citizens, activists, architects and planners) in this process? If vacancy constitutes a new starting point for urban and social regeneration, what knowledge can we extract from it that is relevant in other contexts?
The dissertation will center on the figure of the caretaker, a unique character who inhabits the departure city and manages the vacancy created by emigration. Caretaking refers to relational practices based on mutual dependency and trust “by which order and meaning (…) are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended.”5 In an urban context characterized by infrastructural collapse, service shortages, distrust, and loss of human capital, caretaking practices have come to the forefront, exposing actions that are normally hidden from view and producing new spatial and programmatic conditions. As caretaking practices gain relevance, mundane actions are infused with a meaning that transcends practical considerations and repositions local actors within their own environment, since the preservation of a “thing” is also the protection of the “negotiated order that surrounds it.”6 In this sense, caretaking is a creative act, it plays an active role in the transformation of the built environment and cultural renewal. As it is enacted everyday “through practices of mutual aid and solidarity, sharing resources, de-privatizing spaces, undoing the separation between public and private”, it can open new “horizons of possibility” amid a growing crisis. 7 While these practices have been documented in press, film, and literature, a detailed account of caretaking as it relates to the broader picture of departure city remains open to inquiry, especially in its social and spatial consequences.8
Through interviews, literature review, and real estate data analysis, the research has carried out a preliminary search for instances of vacancy. This search has pointed to distinct practices of caretaking, including the preservation of life (solidarity-based actions involving vulnerable populations), maintenance, simulation of occupancy, temporary inhabitations, adaptation and repurposing, and citizen activism. This search has also led to preliminary conclusions and opened further methodological questions. These conclusions are:
Vacancy ≠ Ruin. Emigration produces a specific form of vacancy that is different from abandonment. Vacancy sustains livelihoods and economies, transforms spaces, and supports new forms of habitation, solidarity, community engagement, and social encounter.
The management of vacancy implicates local actors in the dynamics of emigration. This involvement can recast emigration as a shared experience and one that can bring “potential migrants, and immobile home communities and families” into the focus of migration research. 9
Vacancy is a feature of the crisis. Its management is a way to convert it, to extract a utility from it or to find a footing amid unstable conditions. The means for achieving this are the same ones that shape other interactions of daily life, where the boundaries of legal/illegal, formal/informal, here/there are systematically blurred.10
Negotiating vacancy upends established norms and procedures. As illegal transformations of domestic environments generate urban pressure, they prompt a reaction of planning authorities, exposing the limitations and relevance of the mechanisms that regulate urban development and professional practice.
Vacancy is quantifiable. However, initial findings point to an inconsistency between the quantitative dimensions of vacancy and its experience across various domains. For example, caretaking as a simulation of occupancy can disguise the fact that 50% of homes in an area are effectively empty, while streets in the neighborhood are desolate.
Vacancy begets vacancy. Vacancy results in a city that is double empty, because of emigration and by further abandoning the public realm. In this sense, caretaking practices are not innocent, they play a role in the transformation of the spaces they act upon the spaces they neglect. The counterpart to the increasing withdrawal from the public sphere are two parallel processes: the emergence of enclaves as controlled urban environments, and a residual, uncared-for city.
Figure 1: The garden of a vacant house turned into a mini-golf course next to a hamburger restaurant. Image credit: https://www.instagram.com/mang...
Figure 2: Party lights, temporary structures, plastic furniture, and artificial grass: Vacancy has become the latest site for the withdrawal of social life from public space and its replacement with controlled environments. Image credit: https://www.instagram.com/mise...
Figure 3: In informal settlements, homes left behind by migrants are turned into kitchens for children, classrooms, and other community facilities. Image credit: Alimenta La Solidaridad
Figure 4: Online advertisement for one of the many home caretaking companies that have flooded the local market in recent years. Image credit: https://www.instagram.com/cuid...
As stated above, the central methodological question is how to document caretaking, capturing not only the spatial or programmatic conditions that it produces but the practice itself, the everyday actions and routines that, in a context of departure, are imbued with symbolic meaning and entangled in migratory dynamics.
Through fieldwork, the research aims to: 1) document caretakers’ engagement with vacant spaces through daily actions at various scales and register subjects’ views and ideas while performing these, 2) examine cross-border exchanges between caretakers and migrants, with a focus on information exchanged, platforms employed, and the possible networks created through the involvement of intermediaries and third parties, and 3) quantitatively measure the impact of caretaking on the built environment (occupancy rates, use changes, density, etc.) Subjects of interest include neighbors, relatives caring after or residing in properties, real estate agents, NGO staff, entrepreneurs, as well as local architects and planning authorities. The fieldwork will limit itself to a small sample area of the city where several instances of vacancy can be examined.
The initial methodological stance of the project, through architectural ethnography, aims at combining two distinct toolsets that can complement each other in the field. On one hand, resources such as interviews, conversations, mental maps, and photography can record caretakers’ viewpoints, register interactions with everyday objects and spaces, and their performance of daily tasks. On the other hand, architectural means like plans, sketches, diagrams, and maps, will aid in visually reconstructing scenes and paths, recording spatial transformations, situating daily actions as they intersect various domains (domestic, public, digital) and scales (intimate, urban, transnational). Taken together, this integrative toolset aims to simultaneously expand on the means employed to describe everyday lives of subjects and include dimensions diminished or absent in architectural representation.
Methodologically, the project builds upon Momoyo Kajima’s approach to architectural ethnography in its aim “to draw the world from the standpoint of daily life."11 As Michael Taussig has sensibly pointed out, “to draw is to apply pen to paper. But to draw is also to pull on some thread, pulling it out of its knotted tangle or skein, and we also speak of drawing water from a well.”12 Taussig’s understanding of drawing and his upholding of the “raw material of observation” as a valid form of knowledge about the world brings forth a second methodological question, which has to do with the role of fieldwork as a phase where data is either collected for later interpretation, or one where the means of collection constitute a form of knowledge, since observation and documentation are in themselves imbued with subjectivity and interpretation. If design is essentially “a question of choice” and a project is a tool for synthesis 13, an approach to fieldwork-as-design refers not only to the planning ahead of a course of action –as one would ‘design’ an experiment in a lab—but also to an approach that conceives gathering information as a form of ‘drawing’ –as an act and as a ‘bringing out.’ Thus, fieldwork could be a systematic process of visualization and of selective disentanglement of relevant features. In this way, the distance between process and product could be not only shortened but also short-circuited, as the gathered material would remain open to multiple possibilities of assemblage.
Figure 5: Flea markets have become a common way to sell goods to pay for the costs of emigration. An abandoned gas station, once a symbol of the car-based suburban expansion of the mid-20th century city and of Venezuela as an oil nation, has become the site for this type of informal activities. Image credits: Stefan Gzyl
Torres, Ana T. (2021): Luces y sombras del país de hoy. La Gran Aldea. https://www.lagranaldea.com/20... from August 24, 2021
Sara Rudick, as cited by Virginia Held. See: Held, Virginia. (2006): The ethics of care: Personal, political, and global. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. P.36
König, Jonas. (2016): Pristina: Departure city? Eurozine. https://www.eurozine.com/prist..., from February 16, 2016
König, Jonas, & Vöckler, Kai (2018): Departure Cities? Tirana Architecture Week Proceedings, pp. 411–418.
Jackson, Steven. (2014): “Rethinking Repair” In: G. Tarleton, P. Boczkowski, & K. Foot (Eds.), Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 221–239
Graham, S., & Thrift, N. (2007): “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance”, in: Theory, Culture & Society, 24(3), 1–25.
- Blanco, Elvira. (2021): “Between the Private and the Common in Contemporary Venezuela: A Reading of ‘La Soledad.’” ACLA Conference (proposal), Mexico City.
- For film, see La Soledad, Jorge Thielen (2016); Once upon a Time in Venezuela, Anabel Rodríguez (2020); Hotel Humboldt, Thomas Sipp (1999) For literature: Karina Sainz, La Hija de la Española (2019) and El Tercer País (2021); Escribir Afuera, various authors (2021). For press, see The Guardian (2018) https://www.theguardian.com/ci...
- Robertson, Shanti (2015): “The Temporalities of International Migration: Implications for Ethnographic Research.” in: S. Castles, D. Ozkul, & M. A. Cubas (Eds.), Social Transformation and Migration. London, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 45–60.
- This reading of the crisis transcends economic or political aspects and centers on dislocating, inexplicable, or absurd experiences, in the face of which individuals lose frames of reference and a capacity for action See: Mbembe, A., & Roitman, J. (1995). Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis. Public Culture, 7(2), 323–352
Kajima, Momoyo (2018): “Learning from Architectural Ethnography”, in: Kajima, -Stalder, Iseki (Eds.), Architectural Ethnography. Tokyo, TOTO Publisihing, pp.7-14
Taussig, Michael. (2011): I Swear I Saw This. Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
- Meredith, M., Sample, H., Aravena, A., & Schafer, A. (2010): MOS interviews Alejandro Aravena. PRAXIS, pp. 16-31.