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Revisit: Nueva Santa Fe

Although Rogelio Salmona’s inner-city housing to improve the lives of middle-income families in Bogotá failed to materialise in full, it set a valuable precedent in urban renewal

Estela Granada, 68, has been living in Nueva Santa Fe since 1994. She enthusiastically describes its convenient location close to the city centre, the abundant nature colouring its courtyards, and the well thought-out design. Nevertheless, Granada admits how hard it is to live in Nueva Santa Fe these days. She tells me about the hundreds of thousands of pesos spent repairing construction issues caused by rainwater, and communication and electricity network defects that, according to her, were the result of students – invited by Rogelio Salmona to collaborate in construction – working under no supervision. She also talks about how the lack of sewerage maintenance has led to multiple floods in her flat. The building and its open spaces are deteriorating, and she bemoans the landlord’s negligence along with the alleged corruption in the building administration.

Nueva Santa Fe is a social housing project for middle-income families built in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, between 1985 and 1987. From outside, the project does not particularly stand out: it is red brick, like most buildings in Bogotá, and it keeps within the average height of four or five storeys. What differentiates Nueva Santa Fe in the Bogotá context is the way it has struggled between becoming a paradigm of the transformation of a historic centre and the realities that have hindered the realisation of this Modernist dream. Despite criticism voiced from the very beginning of the project, current residents speak of the housing with a strong sense of pride and belonging.

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 002

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 002

The bittersweet feeling towards the project is not recent. El Tiempo, Colombia’s most influential newspaper, reported in 1994, less than 10 years after the completion of the first phase, that in Nueva Santa Fe ‘everyone lost their bet’: both the Banco Central Hipotecario (BCH), which was largely responsible for its development, and the residents, ‘who bought their homes with a promise of mixed-use development that is nowadays nothing more than a series of towers without any community centre, sports court or many of the delights that were drawn in the original plans’. Nevertheless, the article concludes: ‘who lost the most was the city’.

Nueva Santa Fe is the result of a public competition won in 1985 by Rogelio Salmona, Pedro Mejía, Arturo Robledo and the consortium Camacho y Guerrero. The project was envisioned as a strategy to revitalise one of Bogotá’s most central locations, a series of city blocks close to the Palacio de Nariño (the presidential palace), many of the national ministries and the colonial complex of La Candelaria. The urban composition was simple and clear. Brick housing blocks were built on the perimeter of former colonial squares, sheltering inner courtyards. These were planned as parks and piazzas to serve not only the new inhabitants, but also people living in adjacent neighbourhoods lacking open public areas. The orthogonal grid was sliced by a diagonal axis connecting internal spaces with public spaces and facilities such as theatres, nurseries and communal centres. It was designed to improve public life and provide local shopping facilities; the plinth of the housing blocks was reserved for commercial uses, and is occupied today by hairdressers, convenience stores and eateries.  

The project integrated in a single urban piece the city functions of dwelling, working, recreation and transport, as defined by the Athens Charter. Working at the atelier of Le Corbusier in Rue de Sèvres from 1948 to 1956, the young Salmona gained much of the training that would influence his future career in Colombia – of which Nueva Santa Fe is a prime example. In 1949 Le Corbusier received the commission for Bogotá’s Plan Piloto which Salmona worked on in Paris with fellow Colombian architects Germán Samper and Reinaldo Valencia, culminating in its presentation in Bogotá in 1950.

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 007

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 007

Image courtesy of Enrique Guzmán / Fundación Rogelio Salmona

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 003

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 003

Image courtesy of Enrique Guzmán / Fundación Rogelio Salmona

Le Corbusier’s masterplan was, on the one hand, determined by the topography of the city: an extensive savannah flanked on the west by a range of hills whose dark green colour and rock formations impressed the architect from the outset. This is evident in his sketches of Bogotá, in which these hills are always emphasised. On the other hand, as in many developed by Le Corbusier, the plan was based on a modernisation rhetoric, in which vestiges of history in the urban fabric were replaced by efficient systems to accommodate accelerated urban growth. 

In this regard, Le Corbusier proposed to demolish most of the existing city. This intention was foreshadowed by the ‘Bogotazo’, three days of extreme violence triggered by the assassination of the political leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on 9 April 1948, in which numerous historic buildings in the city centre were heavily damaged. In this sense, the city was in need of renewal not only from an urban, but also from a political and social, perspective. The Bogotazo seemed to justify Le Corbusier’s vision for revamping the fabric. 

Although Nueva Santa Fe was planned nearly 40 years after the Bogotazo and Le Corbusier’s Plan Piloto for Bogotá, Salmona heeded his Rue de Sèvres training and determined to replace historic remains with a new, efficient building. He also upheld Le Corbusier’s admiration for the Bogotá mountains, making Nueva Santa Fe a device to enhance appreciation of the landscape. Corridors connecting apartments are easy to identify through the circular openings affording views of the western hills, and terraces of top-floor flats offer 360-degree views to Bogotá’s immense savannah and the colonial domes of its historic centre. 

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 004

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review 004

Image courtesy of Fundación Rogelio Salmona

In line with the Plan Piloto, the original plans for Nueva Santa Fe considered the demolition of seven urban blocks dating from colonial times – which ended in the 19th century – for the redensification of the area with more than 2,000 housing units. The street pattern remained unchanged, but one- and two-storey houses, many considered of heritage interest, were replaced with Nueva Santa Fe’s five-storey housing blocks containing green spaces, small piazzas, open-air theatres and children’s playgrounds conceived as places of social exchange and integration, again resembling Le Corbusier’s approach to the Plan Piloto. 

Although the Plan Piloto didn’t fully materialise, it did set some guidelines for the development of the city. Similarly, although Nueva Santa Fe didn’t develop as planned, fundamental principles are still evident. From the seven urban blocks initially planned by Salmona and his colleagues, only four were built. From the numerous public facilities including theatres, nurseries and communal centres that would enrich public life for residents of the complex and those in adjacent neighbourhoods, only the communal centre was finished – and, even then, this was not until 1996, after residents argued that the promise of the original plans was never fulfilled. 

The rich public life of inner courtyards as drawn in perspectives by the architects to advertise the project never became a reality. The diagonal connecting them with the public spaces was only built in the four housing blocks, leading to nowhere; the other three original blocks were emptied and demolished, and the site is now occupied by the Archivo de Bogotá, designed by Juan Pablo Ortiz and finished in 2000. Additional buildings belong to the Ministry of Finance, built after a public competition won by Manuel Guerrero in 2007, and there are some car parks – facilities totally unrelated to the original renewal project. Even today, 30 years after completion of the first housing units, two blocks are still vacant, squandering highly valuable land close to Colombia’s governmental home and Bogotá’s city centre. 

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review drawings

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review drawings

Courtesy of Fundación Rogelio Salmona

The fact that Nueva Santa Fe was never fully finished is mainly due to substantial changes in Colombia’s national housing policy. The project was an initiative of the BCH and the Instituto de Crédito Territorial (ICT), the country’s social housing apparatus since the 1930s. But the BCH was liquidated in the 1990s, when the housing policy migrated from a supply to a demand approach, in which the market would generate the offer and access would be promoted through government subsidies. The BCH, devoid of any fiscal or operational capacities, remained to complete the development. Both it and the ICT were recognised for delivering the highest-quality projects in which housing units were seen as fundamental components of the city; as such, they were assigned generous urban spaces with facilities such as churches, communal centres, municipal buildings and commercial areas. Nevertheless, they lagged behind the country’s rapid increase in population and could not reduce the housing deficit that, in 1993, reached 53 per cent. The housing policy change and the creation of the Ministry of Housing, City and Territory in 2011 did have an effect and, in 2017, the deficit reached a historic minimum of 15 per cent. 

Despite this reduction, quality remains the central failing of housing policy. Housing provided through the current scheme is considered inadequate, due to its peripheral location and poor urban and construction qualities. While it is close to the city centre, Nueva Santa Fe is neighbour to settlements perceived as less secure. A series of robberies in the first few years after the project was finished led to the courtyards being closed and some public areas being fenced off, impeding the connectivity envisaged by the architects. As the area didn’t develop as expected or reach anticipated densities, commercial uses didn’t attract enough footfall and many stores closed. Walking by the project you see a smattering of public activity but it is far from the lively atmosphere originally imagined. 

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review drawings2

Nueva santa fe rogelio salmona architectural review drawings2

Courtesy of Fundación Rogelio Salmona

Nueva Santa Fe, one of Salmona’s last housing projects, was preceded by some of his most distinctive works that formed part of his wider contribution to Bogotá’s social housing, such as Viviendas el Polo in 1963, the Fundación Cristiana de la Vivienda housing complex of 1965, the 1975 Timiza housing development and, one of his most significant works, Torres del Parque, finished in 1970. Among his extensive oeuvre, which includes many public and institutional buildings, Nueva Santa Fe stands out as a project tasked with urban renewal, contrasting with El Polo, Timiza and the Fundación Cristiana de la Vivienda, which were built in fields on the then outskirts of the city.

Thirty years after the delivery of the first units, Nueva Santa Fe remains unfinished. Not only because some of the housing blocks were not developed and facilities were not built, but also because many of the ideals related to urban integration were not realised. The project is an example of the distance that separated reality and the ideals of social integration and functionality that permeated modern urbanism. In spite of that, it is still a reference and architectural precedent for urban renewal; it demonstrates how housing can be brought back to city centres, reducing inequality by allowing low- and middle-income households to live in close proximity to jobs and public services. 

Photoraphs by Ana Vallejo, unless otherwise stated

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today