- Victor Salmeron
- Special for BBC World, Caracas
From November until this August 8. During those ten months, the water gushed out without restraint through a broken pipe in the Faculty of Architecture, causing a huge puddle that continuously flooded sidewalks and corridors of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV).
The pipeline and the lack of solution during those months are a reflection of the deterioration of the UCV university campus, an architectural and landscape jewel designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva that it does not withstand the impact of the crisis that the country is suffering.
In December 2000 the campus, a unique space where art, nature and architecture in the heart of Caracas merge in harmony, was elevated by UNESCO to the category of World Heritage Site.
But today the decadence cannot be hidden. Obsolete pipes, fractured roof, ruined landscaping, neglected works of art, dilapidated buildings, homeless sleeping in their facilities and the majestic auditorium, the Great Hall, attacked by insects.
“The water system is sixty years old, it must be changed. Until recently there were water leaks in architecture, bioanalysis, sports and engineering. I have no personnel or machinery,” Ibrahím Ledezma, engineer in charge of maintenance management, complains with resignation.
The campus of this public university, built between 1940 and 1960, also suffers from a lack of surveillance. “Here homeless people spend the night who generate a large amount of garbage. We have got people sleeping on the engineering roof,” Ledezma explains to BBC Mundo.
Symbol of modern Venezuela
Since 1958, with the arrival of democracy, the Venezuelan petro-state expanded access to higher education through different channels and the most successful trial was through the financing of autonomous universities, especially the Central University.
Historian Tomás Straka explains that “the political, business, intellectual, scientific leadership that led modern Venezuela graduated from the Central University.”
Graduating from the Aula Magna was a source of pride and a guarantee of educational excellence throughout the region.
The fight for a bigger budget has been constant since 1983, when the oil splendor of Saudi Venezuela began to fade. But now the shortage of funds is extreme.
“I need between US $ 10,000 and US $ 12,000 a month to maintain these facilities and so far this year I have not received anything. Of the 80 workers that I have on my payroll, only seven come to work Tuesday and Thursday; the salary is US $ 3.” says Ledezma.
Like the maintenance workers, most of the guards also do not go to work because of the meager salary.
Following the oil production debacle, which fell to 1940 levels, hyperinflation, the impact of US sanctions and seven years of recession, the administration of Nicolas Maduro applies a severe spending cut with the University.
The rector Cecilia Garcia Arocha specifies that “of the budget we requested this year they approved 2.2% and of this approved amount they have not given us 98%. In 2020 they approved 9% of what we requested and they have not yet given us 75% of that amount” .
The salary of a full professor, the highest level, is equivalent to US $ 9 per month.
Museum in decline
In the University City, ramps, patios and buildings are integrated into art and create a large open-air museum. Murals, sculptures and stained glass windows are an essential part of what Unesco distinguished as “an exceptional example of modern architecture”.
The Covered Square, a space surrounded by gardens and dotted with shadows that accompany works by Fernand Léger, Víctor Vasarely, Jean Arp, Pascual Navarro and Mateo Manaure, suffers deterioration.
Fernand Léger’s mural began to lose pieces of the mosaic, as did that of Pascual Navarro. The bronze sculpture of Jean Arp, the Shepherd of Clouds, shows the lack of care and the water mirror behind it has cracks in the floor.
The glazed ceramic in Victor Vasarely’s mural, Homage to Malevitch, is stained and broken at one end. A few meters away, the undergrowth besieges Víctor Valera’s mural in the auditorium of the Faculty of Humanities.
The monument to the fallen, the sculpture of Ernest Maragall, shows with its stains the absence of measures to preserve it, and a black patina covers the stone sculpture of Francisco Narváez in the Institute of Anatomy.
The Preservation and Development Council of the Central University of Venezuela (Copred) is in charge of preserving the heritage and its funds depend on the money that the University receives.
Its new president, the architect Pablo MolinaHe has been in office for a few weeks.
“It is an enviable inventory of art. Many of the works are outdoors and semi-outdoors and require constant maintenance that we are not doing because we lack the resources for our specialists to act,” he tells BBC Mundo.
Landscaping, which began to fade, is another pending matter. “A massive restitution of plant species is needed taking into account the progressive elimination due to natural death and carelessness”, adds Molina.
Wear covers other areas. “One of every four elevators works and there is a serious problem with the situation of the bathrooms.”
On June 17, 2020, a fundamental section of the network of covered corridors that communicates the faculties and schools and protects from the Caracas sun was fractured. The cracked ceiling fell to the floor.
Fourteen months later it still has not been repaired. A crane finished detaching two large pieces of slab that remain on the ground. Scaffolding prevents the collapse of new sections.
The government’s plan
To contain the deterioration the government created a special commission for the “rescue” of the University City.
Jackeline Faría, an engineer and former Minister of the Environment, is part of the commission and explained in a recent meeting with the rector that there will be a “two-month intervention and a long-term one; recover common spaces, schools, faculties, the scope is to the maximum.”
Weeding and repairing broken pipes have begun. In addition, Faría announced for the next few months works in “roads, lighting, intervention of some sanitary rooms and diagnosis of the roofs in terms of waterproofing.”
Rector García Arocha stressed: “It is not enough to do recovery work if we do not have resources for permanent maintenance.”
On one side of the fractured covered hallway you can see the Central Library building, a twelve-story structure. The beautiful façade, clad in mosaics in a warm shade of red, exhibits white areas from falling pieces.
The facades of the University Clinical Hospital, also on campus, are a polychrome by the plastic artist Mateo Manaure and the building is part of the spaces declared as World Heritage. The government, which controls the hospital, painted the facades and altered the color palette.
Since 2016 the Copred has sent communications requesting that “said intervention be corrected, in aspects such as the chromatic difference that exists in the shades of colors (orange and blue)”, but Manaure’s work has not been restored.
But if a space stands out above all, it is the Great Hall, an auditorium that serves as a temple of the University, with a ceiling crowned by Clouds from the sculptor Alexander Calder that project the sound and are an essential part of the acoustics that distinguish the room.
Artists like Marcel Marceau, Mstislav Rostropovich, Montserrat Caballé and it is a fundamental part of the cultural and academic activity of the country.
In September 2020, the transformer that provides electricity burned down and the Aula Magna remained dark until July 17 of this year.
Trina Medina, director of culture at the University, explains that “being without light, completely closed, without air conditioning and without adequate temperatures, there was a proliferation of termites, moths, rodents in the basements.”
In 2019, the pressure of the water broke a pipe and affected part of the wood of the stage.
Neyfrán Ortuño, head of the programming division, walks on it and details that “the wet wood deforms, loses its shine; then the entire stage must be restored to make it uniform.”
In the corridors leading to the stage the water deformed the vinyl floor. The seats, covered with sheepskin that absorb sound and contribute to acoustics, need cleaning because “after the confinement there may be some kind of fungus”, explains Ortuño.
Wooden doors have lost locks, have damaged hardware and need restoration after the proliferation of moths and termites.
To restore the Aula Magna, the direction of culture, students and graduates joined together under the Aula Magna 300 project, which seeks to raise US $ 300,000 to tackle the problems.
“We thought we could open the Aula Magna in January 2022. If we fix the electrical system, we can sanitize and repair the air conditioning, the rest could be done progressively,” says Trina Medina.
Adriana Mijares presented her thesis in April of this year in Engineering and leads the group of students that joined the campaign. “We are around 570, from different faculties, we are going to seek support from private companies,” he tells BBC Mundo.
For Venezuelan students, graduating from the majesty of the Aula Magna is their greatest achievement. Due to the pandemic, there are currently no face-to-face classes and graduations, due to the conditions of the room, are held in another part of the campus.
“My dream is to graduate under the clouds of Calder. My act may be in November and if I cannot graduate in the Aula Magna, I do not introduce the papers. For me it is important, it means a lot and there are many students who think the same as me”, Mijares says.
The young woman is determined to rescue a space that was the pride of Venezuelans. And that it still is, despite the deterioration.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.