The hills surrounding the city center of Caracas have long been the sites of barrios, informal settlements populated by a steady influx of poor, rural migrants. It is estimated that about sixty percent of the city’s five million inhabitants live in such communities, but due to their illegal status these areas have never been formally connected with public transit or other civic services. The result has been a seemingly inexorable social divide between the two parts of the city. In 2003 architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, founding partners of Urban-Think Tank, made a proposal to the city to build a cable car system linking two barrios with Caracas’s public transit system. The plan, the result of site surveys, community workshops, and other on-the-ground fieldwork by the architects, centers on the cable car system but calls for “plug-in” buildings—structures attached to each station housing cultural and recreational programs—as well as other, smaller-scale interventions close by. The idea was a radical departure from official planning strategy, which sought to gradually link the barrios to the rest of the city by creating new surface streets. The construction of roadways in the barrios would entail the loss of many dwellings; the cable car system intrudes minimally and selectively into the existing fabric.
President Hugo Chávez personally embraced the plan and set up a joint venture in May 2006 between the state and an Austrian gondola engineer to begin implementing it. The city’s first completed cable car line, with five stations, serves the barrio San Agustín; regular service began in January 2010. Some elements of the highly politicized project have been altered or not yet realized, but the project will continue to contribute to gradual changes in Caracas’s social structure; Urban-Think Tank has set a new precedent for development in the informal city.