Hotel Humboldt, a miracle on the Ávila The beginning The epic story of the Hotel Humboldt is part of the turbulent history of Venezuela as it was developing halfway through the 20th century during the military dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez At that time Caracas was seen by the world as one of the most attractive and most promising capital cities of the continent Its rapid growth and highly original architectural development was converting it into a unique space able to see itself as a peculiar laboratory of the modern world evolving within it The main figures of this historic moment were a new generation of architects engineers and technicians graduating from the Universal Central de Venezuela and the most prestigious centers for advanced studies in the United States Their command of cutting-edge technology allowed an important group of local medium and large-sized construction companies brought about the completion of an urban transformation process helped by the invaluable immigration from Europe fleeing the effects of the Second World War These elements, to which one must add the abundant flow of riches from the oil industry would form part of a very interesting equation that had an impressive effect on the country and exercised a significant influence throughout the 20th century and up until today “In the 1950s Venezuela was a country with a very small population; there were only about 7 million inhabitants in Venezuela, and its oil production was already very significant so the income per capita of the Venezuelans was extremely high. At that time in Europe the only country that exceeded the income per capita of the Venezuelans was Germany. The income per capita in Venezuela was higher than Spain’s, Italy’s, France’s, and if we take into account that these countries are living through an extremely difficult post-war situation, Venezuela became a very much sought-after destination.” This coming together of highly-qualified local and foreign human resources and an economic strength without precedent combine efficiently with the actions of a government that was guided by a sort of essential doctrine that served it as a fundamental support. With the slogan “A New National Ideal” the President of the Republic at the time, Marcos Pérez Jiménez lent particular importance to the transformation and modernization of Venezuela’s physical infrastructure, at the same time strangling any protest or attempt at democratization “Pérez Jiménez takes over the Presidency of the country through electoral fraud and that was when what he called his “New National Ideal” was put into practice, and which actually translated into a proposal to transform the physical infrastructure. Pérez Jiménez, with his extremely practical military way of thinking – if we could call it that – what he wanted was to construct a Venezuela; physically transform Venezuela with aqueducts, bridges, highways, buildings. We should say that Venezuela, the government of Venezuela, as a result of the collection of taxes from the oil concessions, had huge resources, sufficient to carry out this physical transformation, and we have to admit that the government – the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez – attempted this very successfully in many aspects – and actually implemented that project. A very different project was democracy, a democratic route that was not part of Pérez Jiménez’s plans.” “The city is a political fact. A city is not made by an architect or a town planner; it’s the political facts that shape a city. In the days of Pérez Jiménez there were many, many political facts that came to represent a change in the architecture and in the town planning.” “At the start of the 50s, the impact of construction in Caracas was gigantic, unforgettable. Thanks to the immigration of Spaniards and Italians, Portuguese and Central-Europeans, a construction laboratory was created that the city had never before experienced. This laboratory was a reference point for construction, and not only in Venezuela, in Latin America, and the volume and the quality of the buildings constructed in those days are still here as witnesses of the best things that occurred at that time.” In a very short time Caracas achieves an extremely high level of esthetic and infrastructural development, thanks to that blend of talent, resources and interests. This potential as a country left an indelible mark on the spirit of its inhabitants; A mark that so many years later surprisingly remains, floating in the environment like a sort of vision and hope for the future “Those were years that were brimming with excitement and a Venezuelan architecture that was hugely dynamic. You see, those were the years when, although it’s not exactly understood as architecture but it’s very close, the highway down from Caracas to La Guaira was constructed with bridges, the viaducts, that were designed by the great structural designers of the 20th century; of Eugène Freyssinet, a French structural designer, renowned throughout the world and the work of the Venezuelan architects. And it wasn’t only the State. The State had a very strong presence, the University Campus, the Hotel Humboldt itself, which was a state project, the Centro Simón Bolívar, a very important work of Cipriano Domínguez, also belonging to the State, but also private investment was going through what were exciting times. There’s the Electricidad de Caracas building de Sanabria; There’s one of the emblematic buildings of the city, of the city and of modern architecture, a building that is landmark of modern architecture in the world, which is the Torre Polar and Teatro del Este of Vegas y Galia and very many more…” “And all this architecture left to one side the historic part of the city and was related more to the geography, the weather, light, air and of course with transportation. Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, if you consider the importance of the geography, the views, light, the air – it’s an ideal city.” “There can be no doubt that the process of the construction of a Latin American city comes from the laws of West Indies
but which is at the same time driven by conquest which is no more nor less than reproducing in Latin America the inheritance of the Mediterranean city. Now, at the end of the 40s, the Latin American cities, and very particularly Caracas begin to suffer a fracturing of their Colonial matrix and enter into a new scale where networks, highways and buildings strategically positioned in the topography are going to burst open, are going to reconstruct or deconstruct a new and different structure to the one they inherited from the Colonial model.” Now Caracas decides to challenge its physical surroundings with the intention of dominating it and begins to move away from the center, from the Plaza Bolívar, from the Spanish tradition to join the geography and conquer it. “The architects are educated, trained to come up with new ideas The authorities are interested in creating new conditions. The economic needs; or the economic possibilities, the possibilities of transportation; everything’s going to plot against this city that’s been there for three centuries, in such a way that this model is practically abandoned.” So it is that although districts like El Silencio still represent an important link with tradition, the Centro Simón Bolívar, with its audacious spaces and sturdy towers thus becomes the symbol of a new Caracas. transformed by the presence of a robust modernity. For its part, the Hotel Humboldt is to become a kind of metaphor of the conquest of the challenges presented by the rocky geography. This project demonstrated once and for all the capacity, genius and spirit of adventure of a new generation without any limits to its expression. “The Hotel Humboldt is an extraordinary lighthouse that opens onto that gigantic landscape of the Coastal Mountain Range. It’s on the very edge of the Saddle of Caracas and the Avila and Pico Humboldt. It looks down on the Caribbean; it looks inwards to the Valley of Caracas and it’s installed right in the middle of a huge park of 78,000 hectares. That Caribbean nature; that situation of being in a strategic location 2,600 meters above sea level staring around 360° lends it a condition which is at the same time unique, unrepeatable, installed in a landscape that defines it as the proverbial icon of the city of Caracas.” COUNT VLADIMIR DE BERTREN Yet in the midst of this great effervescence of construction, where did the idea of constructing a hotel on the top of a mountain come from? Who had the idea of looking up at the top of the Ávila and proposing such a daring plan? In 1952 there arrived from the Republic of Argentina Count Vladimir de Bertren This strange man, originally from France, had been bornin the Russian city of Derbent. His family was part of the European nobility installed in the court of the Czar. They had been living in Russia for two generations, a situation that lasted until 1922 when as a result of Russia’s October Revolution they had to flee and return to their country of origin. After completing his education in France as an engineer he joined the air force and Count Bertren fought in the Second World War as a fighter pilot and for his distinguished conduct in combat France awarded him the Legion of Honor. As a result of his knowledge and interest in cable car transport systems Count Bertren installs himself in the city of Caracas with a fixed idea in his head. After confirming that the time was ripe for plans like his and that the Ávila had the perfect conditions for installing a cable car for tourism he decided to approach the government and propose his project. “In 1953, when I was the Minister of Public Works, I gave an audience to Mr. De Bertren who proposed to me the installation of a cable car in the Ávila. But since I didn’t know the Ávila, the only way I could form a clear idea as to the viability of the cable car he was proposing was to climb up to the top in order to be better informed about whether it was a good idea and thus suggest it to my President. Once at the top I realized that the effort had been worthwhile because of the amazing view of the Valley of Caracas and the modern and thriving city that was extending along it.” Seduced by Bertren’s idea, Minister Bacalao Lara immediately appointed Engineer Gustavo Larrazábal to lead this project and undertake the necessary studies. GUSTAVO LARRAZÁBAL – Engineer, Minister of Public Works, Coordinator of the Construction of the Cable Car System and the Hotel Humboldt “Dr. Julio Bacalao Lara, who was Minister of Public Works called me in to his office to present me to Mr. De Bertren who was the one who had the idea of building a cable car from Caracas to the Ávila and that I take charge of conducting all the studies concerned and then the construction.” Count Bertren’s original idea was to construct the cable car to go directly from Caracas to Naiguatá Peak However, after making the required studies, it was decided to undertake the work in stages. “We were going to build it in four stages. The first stage was from Caracas to El Ávila; the second stage from El Ávila to the Coast; the third stage to Los Castillitos; and the fourth stage was up to Pico Naiguatá which was the highest peak of Caracas.” And so it was. On June 1, 1954, the President of the Republic approved the entire project submitted by Bacalao Lara which also contemplated the construction of a hotel. “In June 1954, Minister Bacalao Lara commissioned me to go to Europe with Mr. De Bertren, more particularly to the Alps to study the different types of cable cars in the area of the Alps, in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Once we’d conducted the preliminary study and checked which constructors were available to build the cable car it was decided to award the contract to the firm of Ernest Heckel.” Once the manufacturer of the equipment had been selected for the cable car system studies were continued in order to determine its characteristics and exact location of the stations, taking into account the nature of the terrain. “Once we’d made the topographical studies, it was decided to award the construction project of the Ávila terminal to Precomprimido Compañía Anónima and the Passenger Terminal in Caracas to Técnica Constructora.” In parallel, the base camp is installed on top of El Ávila to begin the construction work while other different measuring activities were taking place, and a trail was being constructed about 3 m wide, cutting through the steep slopes to arrive down to Caracas. Along this track and using towers the cables were put into place that would connect both stations. The Maripérez Station would be located at 995 meters above sea level, while the upper station would be at 2,105 meters “It was decided to widen and improve the road between Galipán and Caracas, which already existed, in order that it could be used to move the equipment and materials required to construct the terminal in El Ávila.” “It was almost like a mountain pike with steep slopes and many curves and the only paving was the mountain itself. We gradually improved this primitive trail. On many occasions I had to up in a powerful Unimog jeep which I myself drove until I had command of the route. The Germans, with their traditional skills, installed the towers of the first service cable car which would enable them to take up all the pieces of the system.” The original idea of building a hotel on the summit had arisen during the first visit that Pérez Jiménez made to the place where the works were planned to take place. “The Minister of Public Works, Bacalao Lara, decided to invite the Planning Minister, the President of the Republic and the Governor of Caracas and a series of authorities to go up with him, So we went up to the summit and from there at the top, along the whole ridge to the spot where the terminal is now.” There was a superb view of Caracas that none of these people had seen before. So, up there, talking, in principle someone commented that a hotel should be built with, I don’t know, 800 rooms, a very big hotel.” The President of the Republic took up this idea, and once the construction of the cable car system had begun the team from the Ministry of Public Works dedicated themselves to developing the project of the hotel that would be built on the top of El Ávila. The young architect Tomás José Sanabria was selected to design it who at that moment enjoyed considerable prestige thanks to the success of his first important work which was the building of the headquarters of La Electricidad de Caracas. Sanabria had studied at Harvard University where he was a disciple of Walter Gropius German architect an city planner, founder of the famous school of design, Bauhaus. TOMÁS SANABRIA – (1922-2008) – Architect of the Hotel Humboldt and the Upper Station “I went up with Gustavo Larrazábal for the first time to have a look at the land. I’d never been at the top of the Ávila. It took us quite a few hours. I think it was about ten hours to get up there and the emotions unquestionably rose as we went up. We took all kinds of things with us because we’d been told that the snakes in the Ávila were very dangerous, you know, the coral snakes so we took all kinds of anti-ophidic serum; we took tents, everything and after all this effort we got to the top and it was covered with cloud so I felt enormously disappointed because after all that effort not being able to see anything was a bit frustrating. But suddenly, suddenly, completely unexpectedly the clouds disappeared and that marvelous view was revealed over Caracas which is truly impressive. Caracas at that time was small, yet the lights we could see from up there were amazing and that inspired me; I think it was the greatest moment of inspiration for the concept of the Hotel Humboldt.” As a result of that experience Sanabria sketched out a first idea that was presented to the President during a further visit that the head of state made to the top of the Ávila accompanied by his ministers and most important officials. “When he climbed up with all the personalities, all the ministers so that I could show him the first ideas and sketches that I’d made, actually in a very direct way without complications, I went straight to the point and explained what I thought about it. When I showed him the sketches and the plans that I’d taken with me feeling very sure of myself I said ‘I think (and still today I continue to think) that the only way that a hotel like this in this site could be maintained economically would be by planning a casino. And he immediately replied ‘In my government there will never ever be a casino’. So that was a cold shower but I accepted and carried on speaking and as far as the bedrooms were concerned I think there should be very few and what I’ve planned is this.. some 13 bedrooms that look out onto sea, towards the area of Galipán. He said ‘No, no, no, Mr. Architect. Listen we’re building the Hotel Tamanaco which will be the hotel that’s 1,000 meters high in Caracas. There will be, the architect Malaussena was preparing the projects for the coastal hotel which will be the hotel zero meters. Both hotels will have many many rooms so this will be the hotel at 2,000 meters which will have to have at least 300 or 400 rooms.” These two observations meant that the young and talented architect went back down to the city rather unhappy and disappointed. Nevertheless, in the face of this challenge Sanabria invited the engineer Oscar Urreiztieta to participate in the work as the person in charge of making its structural calculations OSCAR URREIZTIETA – (1928-2008) – Structural Engineer of the Upper Station and the Hotel Humboldt “Questions of fate, I say. I was intensely tied up in preparing the zoning of Caracas and was consulting hundreds of engineers and architect about what could be done in their respective areas and Tomás (Sanabria) came over to me and asked me if I wanted to collaborate with him in the project of a hotel to be located on the peak at the top of the Ávila. Well that was an irresistible opportunity for me. I’d been studying the theory of structures and mathematics for years and years and I could easily use this in preparing this project and I simply said to him yes, when do we start.” Urreiztieta received his engineering degree from the Catholic University of America and then revalidated at Universidad Central de Venezuela. Among the postgraduate degrees obtained were those of mathematics at the prestigious Courant Institute of New York University, apart from a solid professional training. Urreiztieta commanded well the latest theories of structures,. rational mechanics, elasticity and torsional analysis His contribution to the Humboldt Project was vital in the generation of the mathematical and physical models which were transformed thanks to the genius of Sanabria into the construction plans of the works. “The structural part was essential in this work. I had the concept but I didn’t know how to make it. Fortunately I had the chance to meet an extraordinarily intelligent structural engineer, who was Oscar Urreiztieta and I would say that thanks to him I was able to construct the hotel because the land was minimal, there was no way, I had no way of thinking structurally what I’d conceived spatially…” “If I hadn’t shown him the structures, maybe he wouldn’t have had the concepts. When I told him we could make shells 24 meters across without a single column and he said wow, then let’s create spaces like that! We can make series of arches right up to the shells at the top. We can make suspended mezzanines – because that type of structure allows you to do that so we started to do those things; he assembled them in his design.” Influenced by this valuable interchange of ideas of the highest level between the engineer and the architect at the same time driven by a government that was eager to achieve this monumental work allowed Sanabria to present, in a very short time, the final project, which was immediately approved. “In December that year the study of the functional distribution of masses and style was presented to the President for the construction of the Hotel Humboldt.” While the architect continued with the design work for the hotel, he was presented with a parallel project which allowed him to extend the original scope of his work. “Gustavo Larrazábal said to me ‘Tomás, something has to be done because the cable car equipment is about to arrive, ‘ which was the equipment that was to go from Maripérez to the top of the Ávila, which is the other extreme of the summit, to the west, and from there down to the coast and it was from that point that the special cable car was coming that was to supply or feed the hotel. I went to see the site; he told me the conditions, which were going to be the arrival platforms from Maripérez and the way out down to the coast and I had to dedicate myself to designing that part that I called the public areas.” Like all the projects of the extraordinary plan of the works of the Office of the President of the Republic developed in the 1950s, the construction of the cable car system was executed very quickly and very efficiently Working between 18 and 24 hours a day, the installations began to rise and the 6 towers that would support the cables. To facilitate the rapid ascent of the materials, the service cable car was used with its lifting capacity of 4 tons. By this same provisional line and using special cabins, up to 8 people could go up or down at the same time thus facilitating the inspection of the works’ progress. On December 11, 1955, the President of the Republic conducted a partial inauguration of the first stage of the cable car but the opening to the public did not take place until 4 months later. The length of the trajectory was 3,360 meters to overcome a difference in altitude between both stations of 1,100 meters. Halfway up, in the area known as Papelón there was a station for tensioning the cables which allowed passengers to alight and take excursions. The cabins could carry up to 28 passengers and could travel at a maximum speed of 7.5 meters per second which allowed for a complete ascent in about 8 minutes. In January 1956 the tender specifications for the construction of the hotel are published FRANCISCO MASTROPAOLO – Vice President of Constructora Eneca, S.A. “Nobody thought it could be built in the specified term – which was very short for both the work and the type of work involved. So much so that my brother, (Giovanni Mastropaolo) President of ENECA S.A., our company, made a bet with Juancho Otaola for a considerable sum of money that yes, it could be done and in the established time frame This bet was, if you like, the stimulus to dedicate all possible interest and efforts of the company at that time ..and so it was. The risk taken by ENECA to participate in this work, influenced greatly in its being awarded the construction of the second stage of the cable car system which went from the Ávila down to the coast. this work consisted in the installation of all the equipment of the cable car and the 3 respective stations Galipán, San José de Galipán and El Cojo in Macuto “While the contract for the Hotel Humboldt was being drawn up, the second part of the Ávila cable car was tendered or rather the cable car down to the coast, when we were there with equipment, personnel and problems! At the site we were selected for the construction of that section of the cable car for which we had to bring in specialized personnel and also use a lot of equipment that we already had in place at the site.” On Wednesday, May 16, 1956 a pneumatic drill pointing into a huge rock perforated the top of the mountain with its typical noise to symbolize the beginning of the construction of the hotel. Conscious of the huge challenge facing them due to the complexity of the work and the inhospitable nature of the site due to the difficult access and the deadline that had been established, the Mastropaolo brothers took a series of strategic decisions before starting. The first of these was to create a work group of 600 people, totally new and independent of all their other works in progress using all the talent available and it was decided to work for 24 hours per day in two shifts of 12 hours each. “We began the work faced with the challenge that many of the people needed for its construction, for its advance were not available in the country; so we had to look for technicians and special equipment to take on the job in the circumstances and in the place where it was going to be constructed.” The structural and technical planning and selection of cutting-edge equipment was added to the choosing of immigrant workers from many different places who, together with local talent and Venezuelan labor turned out to be crucial for undertaking what seemed to be an almost crazy adventure. The best Italians, particularly for construction work, above all for the handling of concrete. The Portuguese were best, particularly, for the timber work, carpentry, formwork; the Spanish were very good for the ironwork, bending structural steel, etc., etc.; they were very good at that; and the Venezuelans were magnificent operators of machinery.” The work schedule established to control the execution times of the work indicated that by the 40th day, the whole structure or skeleton of the tower had to have been raised which consisted of 11 radial columns, a central one, and their respective girders and plates, otherwise it would be impossible to finish the hotel within the deadline that had been set. On the 37th day following the start of the work this had been completed and a Venezuelan flag was waving on the last floor, emphasizing the achievement. A few months later and after consuming 40 million kilos of different materials and investing 2 million effective man-hours the miracle had been achieved and Giovanni Mastropaolo went along, enormously satisfied, to collect the bet he’d made. “199 days after beginning the work we were able to meet the deadline and deliver on the 199th day all the works functioning with all their accessories and also the cable car from the coast.” The Hotel Humboldt. On December 29, 1956 the President of the Republic, accompanied by his executives and special guests conducted the formal inauguration of the works. For the first time the Hotel shows off to its visitors a very special splendor, design and architectural function. The access to the hotel is via the cable car system, articulated with the area of the lobby. The spaces of the lobby include four main vaults. The first covers the area where the guests check in; the second vault surrounds an expansive social area and there, adapted to its curves one can appreciate an attractive acoustic ceiling with a Kinetic design and next to this there is a third vault from which a large part of the floor of the lobby is suspended by means of tensioners. This area is intended for small groups, separated from the previous space by a wide flat floor with two chimneys which condition the temperature of both spaces. The fourth vaulted area protects a long corridor which articulates the hotel’s check-in area with the hall with the elevators of the tower containing the rooms and the main staircase which connects with the ground floor. On the ground floor there are the service areas of the restaurant, bar and dance floor, known as La Boite originally planned as the site of a future casino. The restaurant is the most important space of the lower floor and has a three-tiered floor with a vaulted roof, covered on the inside with acoustic checkered tiles. From the vaulted room hang the illuminations, designed by the Architect Sanabria together with the Catalonian artist Abel Vallmitjana. The bar has a sunken area for the fireplace and chimney. The dancing area has a revolving floor surrounded by the seating area and has a secondary kitchen. On the ground floor there’s a beauty salon and a barber’s shop, apart from the main service kitchen both for the restaurant and the guests of the hotel, and in the service basement there’s the acclimatized swimming pool, protected by a concrete vaulted roof and glass enclosures. The pool is surrounded in its upper part with a mezzanine and from there you can appreciate the different gardens, designed by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle-Marx The 70 rooms, divided among 14 floors were designed as suites consisting of a sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, dressing room and balcony. On the top floor there’s the Mirador (Look-Out) Bar with two open-air terraces which allow you to gaze and take in the views of the city and the coast. EPILOGUE “The Hotel Humboldt is an architectural experience, a reference, in the Latin American context. It is related to the incredibly interesting architecture and experiences achieved by Félix Candela in Mexico City or Oscar Niemayer and Lucio Costa in Brazil. It inherits all the new technologies that came from an Italian way of thinking led by Gio Ponti and particularly by Pier Luigi Nervi. Behind all this was Sanabria’s background because Sanabria was an architect who was inspired by the inheritance of Le Corbusier and the inheritance of Mies Van Der Rohe. So we’re standing before a building that’s a model; we’re in front of a building that displays a theory, a manifest of the architectural thoughts of its day and of modernity. Apart from being an autonomous experience, a laboratory of architecture, technology, aesthetics and functionality, the Hotel Humboldt was an instrument; a political instrument tied to the megalomania of a statist way of thinking which wanted to convert Caracas into a laboratory. So the Hotel Humboldt was, together with other buildings, an emblematic element, of prestige; of prestige in technology, the prestige of freedom, the prestige of modernity, the prestige of sheer scope of internationality and of the great technological documents of its time, embracing the politics of state with an image of freedom and understanding of contemporaneity with its great architectural and artistic achievements.” On December 29, 2013 the Hotel Humboldt is 57 years old. During this time it has been a zenithal insignia of Caracas and a contradictory metaphor of the country. It underscores our ability to achieve when we bring together our vocation to work, sufficient resources and exceptional talent when undertaking a project. Yet it also underlines our tendency to fall into laziness, reckless spending and lack of respect for the professionals and workers who can make a miracle come true. Following its inauguration it only operated for just four straight years and never served as a hotel for more than nine. There have been reopenings and closings as it was misused, under-used and stripped bare without any mercy whatsoever. This documentary and the book that it is inserted in represent our cry of hope for a time in a brighter future when its terrible past will not be repeated.