Taming El Dorado: Planning Misadventures in the Venezuelan Guana, 1951-1964

By Juana Salcedo

This research explores the changing notions of planning at stake in the enterprises that in the decades that followed World War II sought to create productive and organized spaces in the Venezuelan Guayana, a region of the Amazon imagined as a promising resource frontier and as an obstacle of modernity. Both U.S. Steel Corporation and the Venezuelan government linked their extractive programs to the country’s modernization and hired the technical assistance of U.S. based architects and city planners. In 1951, Paul Lester Wiener and Jose Luis Sert, partners at Town Planning Associates implemented the universal guidelines of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in the Master Plans for two new cities, Puerto Ordaz and Ciudad Piar, for U.S. Steel Corporation. Following CIAM’s ideas, for TPA architecture and planning was a coextensive field of intervention that should provide a holistic design of the built environment. A decade later, the Venezuelan government hired the MIT Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies to develop a regional plan and a new city, Ciudad Guayana, as part of the quest to convert the region into the industrial core of the country. Between 1961 and 1964, the Joint Center sought to go beyond physical design to test a multidisciplinary approach that could convert urban planning into a tool of economic development. This thesis draws on a rich variety of primary sources from these projects and explores how the more traditional figure of the city planner as an architect that produced a master plan held dear by CIAM, was replaced with a conception of the urban planner as a “development expert,” coordinator of the multiple disciplines involved in an open planning process in the case of the Joint Center. By situating the planners’ aspirations within the complex political and economic scripts, I show how these two consecutive planning misadventures proved successful to incorporate Guayana to the national economy while failing to address the social and urban problems they desired to overcome as they joined the developmental ethos of the Cold War.