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Colombia’s infrastructure reclaimed as public space

Hillside water tanks circling Medellín have been repurposed as a necklace of public spaces draped around the city

It was a satellite image of Medellín at night that revealed, amid a myriad of lights, clearly delineated islands of darkness. Apart from El Volador and Nutibara, two hills, the dark patches corresponded to more than a hundred infrastructure sites supplying energy and water to the city and surrounding Aburrá Valley. Owned by public enterprise EPM Group, these electrical substations and water tanks were placed on the rural periphery of Medellín more than 50 years ago, above the 1800m altitude contour line that once marked the city limits. As the rise of industrialisation and internal armed conflict led to massive migration to the country’s urban centres, Medellín’s hills became home to displaced families and the city expanded beyond its established perimeter. The infrastructural sites found themselves engulfed; oases of void in the thick tangle of high-density settlements.

In association with the town hall, Juan Esteban Calle, CEO of the EPM group, architects Horacio Valencia (head of Sustainable Urban Interventions at EPM), Carlos Pardo and Nicolás Hermelin saw in this condition a unique opportunity to inject new public spaces into neighbourhoods while maintaining a fully functioning infrastructural network. The dark patches had the potential to be activated both in terms of public realm and as source of light, converting these fenced lots into ‘socio-technical landscapes’. The UVA or Unidades de Vida Articulada (units of articulated life) programme was born.

Spaces that speak to the city and its residents invite people out from their confined interiors to connect with their urban environment

If Medellín was still called the city of death a few years ago, Colombia’s second biggest city has since undergone a drastic transformation driven by the belief that architecture can be a tool for profound urban regeneration (AR Feb 2011). The UVA programme follows the same core principles of this metamorphosis. Thirty-seven water tanks were selected out of a total of 144, according to a diverse set of criteria: available surface area, ease of integration into residential districts, geological and technical restrictions, planned expansion of the EPM network and relationship to other tactical projects in order to pursue an ideal urban equilibrium. While previous interventions have mostly responded to the scale of the city as a whole, each UVA is a compact insertion at the heart of the neighbourhood, acting as a catalyst for change in the revitalisation of its urban surroundings.

In the UVA Los Sueños (The Dreams), a public square surrounds the solid concrete tank with jets of water, slides, plays of light and a designated area for events. Enclosed rooms are built into the topography to free up the largest possible area of open space, and house two multi-purpose classrooms, an internet café, public toilets and a launderette - a novelty in a city where it is not uncommon to rent a washing machine for half a day, home-delivered on a motorbike.

UVA Colombia Day

The first UVA site to be completed, La Esperanza, was filled by residents during its inaugural celebration demonstrating its function of bringing people together

The rugged topography creates many opportunities for stepped terraces and miradors. As Medellín is built in a valley, most of the water tank sites benefit from extraordinary views. During the years of violencia, inhabitants grew accustomed to life behind walls. Spaces that speak to the city and its residents invite people out from their confined interiors to connect with their urban environment. Views out to the surroundings are crucial as a visual connection that brings the city together as one and bestows upon individuals the status of citizen, enabling the discussion to shift from the neutrality of public infrastructure to the specificity of human rights. Earlier iconic projects such as cable cars and the Biblioteca España have been successful in demonstrating that change is possible, evolving the mindset of the people and conferring upon them a sense of pride.

This sense of belonging proves powerful in driving social inclusion and resuscitating urban dynamics. On the Western edge of the UVA Los Sueños, a series of steps climb through the neighbourhood, running alongside humble dwellings that cling to the slope. When the wall surrounding the water tank site was demolished, even before construction was complete, residents relocated their front doors to face the public square. In response, the designers created a new gathering space on the edge of the stairway, stitching the urban fabric together, allowing their homes to extend into the public realm of the street.


UVA Versalles at night

The participation of the community was an important part of the project throughout the process. The UVA projects were conceived together with the local population through a series of workshops on the collective imaginary, where every resident was invited to express their vision for the new public square through writing and drawing. Each design implementation is adapted to the needs and specificities of the context it sits in. The programme for other sites includes auditoriums and open air theatres, picnic areas and cafeterias, playgrounds and sports courts, music classrooms and a museum on the production of energy.

When located at the heart of deprived neighbourhoods, UVA interventions are inclined to succeed: they become the only public space at the disposal of the community and provide new cultural and recreational activities to encourage the interaction of citizens. In other neighbourhoods, the UVA is surrounded by a more complex social mix. Medellín divides its population into six different social strata according to area of residence. The UVA in El Poblado is bordered on one side by the wealthiest stratum - number six - with a stratum two on the other side, inevitably leading to different expectations. Currently under development, such conditions mean the interventions’ ability to bring locals together and unify the urban fabric is challenging, but potentially very powerful.

A launderette is a novelty where it is not uncommon to rent a washing machine for half a day, delivered on a motorbike

When not an acronym, uva actually translates as ‘grape’, evoking the image of a bunch of small-scale interventions spread across the city that come together as a network. Two are already in use, two are about to be inaugurated, while another eight are currently under development. Last April, the UVA Orfelinato was awarded the gold medal for this year’s Global Holcim Awards. The jury recognised the careful integration of the project into its context, both physically and socially, and commended its minimal environmental impact.

Taking down walls can be transformative. Situated at the intersection of architecture, landscape, infrastructure and urban design, these new landmarks prompt new ways of living and redefine the very notion of public space. As for the UVA project names - the Dreams, the Joy, the Freedom - they may sound mawkishly sentimental, but they speak of the trauma left by years of violence, and reveal a belief in the profound changes architecture can trigger.


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