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The world's first planned drive-through shopping centre is now a prison -- take a look at its history

Leanna Garfield
Helicoide juan carlos montes

Amongst the small houses on a hill in Caracas, Venezuela, the massive Helicoide looks otherworldly -- or at the very least, out of place.

The spaceship-like building was originally planned as a drive-through shopping centre. Instead of walking, shoppers would have been able to drive right into the complex and park in front of the shops they wanted to visit. (Though, the shops wouldn't have drive-through windows.)

Construction on the shopping centre started in 1956, but the project was abandoned a few years later because of funding woes.

Over the next few decades, the building transformed into a prison and, according to several former inmates, a torture chamber for political prisoners.

A new book by historians Celeste Olalquiaga and Lisa Blackmore, "Downward Spiral: El Helicoide's Descent from Mall to Prison," aims to bring its mysterious history to light.

Take a look below.

Located in Caracas, Venezuela, the Helicoide -- which translates to 'the helix' -- stretches 25 acres.

In the early '50s, architect Jorge Romero Gutiérrez designed the structure to be a modern retail destination inspired by the Tower of Babel and Frank Lloyd Wright's proposed planetarium, the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, Olalquiaga told BI.

At the time, Venezuela's state-owned oil company had made significant profits as a petroleum supplier to WWII allies. The government funneled some of this money into building the Helicoide.

Source: FiveThirtyEight

'We are going to build … a super project with Romero Gutiérrez. A mountain of shops, with ramps!' the architect's partner, Dirk Bornhorst, wrote in 1955.

People around the world renowned the Helicoide for its spectacular design. Poet Pablo Neruda called the building 'one of the most exquisite creations to emerge from an architect's mind.'

Source: CityLab

The plan called for 320 stores and two elevators. But instead of walking through the mall, shoppers would be able to drive through on double-lane ramps.

The Helicoide would also include a car showroom, a gas station, a repair shop, a car wash …

… as well as exhibition halls, a gym, a nursery, a pool, a 7-screen movie theatre, and a bowling alley.

But the project was abandoned in 1958, after the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship collapsed. The spiraling building was left in concrete, just one year short of completion, leading to a long bankruptcy process.

In 1975, it became government property, still sitting empty (though there were proposals to turn it into an environmental center or a museum). From 1979 to 1982, it was used as a temporary shelter for about 500 squatter families and flood victims, who lived in shipping containers inside the building.

Then, in 1984, a Venezuelan police agency -- the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) -- moved in and built a prison for political detainees.

One report by a local NGO notes 145 cases of torture and inhumane treatment, mostly by SEBIN and Bolivian National Guard agents, from January 2014 to June 2016. Other former inmates allege electric shocks, beatings, and hanging for hours.

Source: CityLab and 'Repression by the Venezuelan Government from January 2014 to June 2016'

'Helicoide is an incredible paradox, so futuristic and yet so retrograde in its use,' Olalquiaga said. Today, there are at least 340 prisoners in the Helicoide, including students who protest the government.

Source: CityLab and 'Repression by the Venezuelan Government from January 2014 to June 2016'