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Spinal tap: Cauce, Colombia

Sebastián Monsalve is instrumental in the transformation of Medellín’s central spine into a vast public realm

Cauce have been shortlisted for the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2019. View the shortlist here

From the southern tip of the continent, the Andes snake upwards like a sturdy backbone until they reach Colombia and cleave into three branches. Over time, human life and new cities have erupted in its crevices, nestling into rocky breaches and spilling out onto exposed tablelands. Wedged at the bottom of the Aburrá Valley, Medellín developed on the banks of the river it is named after. As the country’s second largest city modernised and industrialised in the 1950s, the river was channelled and the motorway was built: hordes of cars speeding alongside a waterway that rapidly turned into an open sewer, becoming an unsafe and unwanted strip of land, deepening divisions between the east and the west of the city.

The only time of the year inhabitants would venture closer to the river was December, when its murky waters disappear underneath millions of colourful lights: the city’s linear vacuum a perfect stage for its flamboyant Christmas decorations. The remainder of the year, ‘the river was a non-place’, explains Sebastián Monsalve, one of the two lead architects behind the winning competition proposal to give 17 kilometres of riverfront back to the city, with cycling lanes, open squares, winding footpaths and new bridges stitching Medellín back together.

Master plan

Master plan

Parques del Río masterplan

Rather than saturating the site with new structures, the proposal focuses on the soil as the ‘base that connects existing buildings’ to create a linear series of urban parks, Parques del Río. The motorways are pushed down below and buried into tunnels to liberate the ground level above. In a city that still suffers from a dearth of public space, the architect’s challenge is to take citizens out of shopping malls and into open, green spaces that feel safe and are shared by all.

Medellín’s tale of redemption by social urbanism has been the subject of much international praise – and, as the years pass, of a small but healthy dose of critical reappraisal. As the city forges ahead with its transformation, young architects are presented with a profusion of competitions and commissions. Both established and emerging practices are given the opportunity to deliver public buildings for city, regional and national authorities, an exceptional situation when many architects around the world have to survive on a restricted diet of private houses. From small educational centres to sports facilities to complex urban projects, architects are valued and still very much needed to build public infrastructure and provide shared open spaces for a population slowly overcoming the scars and traumas left by its violent recent history.

Deep economic inequalities and callous social injustice mean there is ‘a lot for architects to do, contribute and improve’, says Monsalve. Cities are young and still in the process of development, regions require territorial planning, informality needs to be recognised and understood. ‘As professionals, we have a duty to rise to these challenges and an ethical responsibility to seek the right solutions’, he continues.

‘The architects’ challenge is to take citizens out of shopping malls and into open, green spaces that feel safe and are shared by all’

Monsalve and his former partner Juan David Hoyos were just 28 and 29 respectively when the river park competition was launched in 2014. From their submission to the several stages of design and ongoing construction, Parques del Río has been six years in the making and a small, first portion of its ambitious plan has been realised so far. The complete delivery, including the construction of associated transport networks, is estimated to last between 25 and 40 years – and will inevitably be subject to the vicissitudes of political life.

Having embarked on this journey early on in his career, the degree of complexity and many layers of the project have already convinced Monsalve that architecture is ‘part of a bigger whole’ and ‘strengthened his belief in contemporary fights’, from economic inequalities to the climate crisis. Choosing ‘nature’ as the most important building material for the 21st century, his portfolio of work, as he now practises under the name Cauce, seeks to accentuate Colombia’s extraordinarily rich and diverse landscapes.

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today