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AR report on Colombia

The AR reports on how reformers have combated crime and poverty in Bogotá and Medellín with programmes that foster decent, dignified architecture and responsible urban planning

Over the past two decades, architects have played a significant role in changing the perceptions and realities of Colombia. There’s a high level of commitment to public projects and a lively collaboration between architects of different generations, who jointly enter competitions and share credit for the buildings they design. Progressive mayors have enlisted their support and empowered them to enhance the livability and self-esteem of the poorest barrios.

This is a report on two cities: the capital, Bogotá, and Medellín, the second largest. It explores how reformers have tried to narrow the gulf between rich and poor: a polarization that afflicts every major settlement in Latin America. The challenge was immense and much remains to be done, but these two cities have progressed further than most. Homicides in Medellín, which was once a synonym for narco-violence and corruption as Ciudad Juárez is today, fell from 381 per 100,000 people in 1991, to 26 in 2007. For decades, Colombia was torn apart by the clash of the army, brutal paramilitaries, and terrorists from right and left. The government eventually subdued gangs and guerillas, and decentralized authority. Urban crime is still an issue, paramilitaries and traffickers are still active, but there has been a dramatic transformation of the public realm.

As recently as 2003, the hillside slum of Santo Domingo in the north of Medellín was a no-go zone for outsiders, and residents were advised to stay off streets that were controlled by urban militias. A systematic programme of urban improvements changed all that. An elevated Metrorail extends in three directions, and cable cars skim over the steep slopes at either end. The night-time ascent to Santo Domingo is as breathtaking as the opening scene of Blade Runner. The city below becomes a glittering carpet of lights, the descending cars glide silently by, and the three black crystals of Giancarlo Mazzanti’s Biblioteca de España glow enticingly from the edge of an escarpment. By day, you discover that this library, parks, and schools are stitched together with new roads and footpaths, to enhance an impoverished but vibrant and resilient community.

Credit for this achievement and similar interventions in Bogotá is shared by a loose network of individuals who have a common vision, collaborate informally on specific projects and are committed to a radical agenda. Disenchanted by the polarization of the traditional parties, and still more by the demagoguery of Castro and Chavez, reformist politicians joined in forming the Green Party, which hopes to win national office. Interestingly, the two most influential mayors were formerly educators, and another charismatic teacher helped lay the groundwork for their reforms.

Jorge Pérez Jaramillo became dean of the Pontifical Bolivarian University architecture school in Medellín in 1993 at age 28. Over the next eight years he invited contemporaries who had received their master’s in architecture in Barcelona and London to join his faculty. ‘As young people we were fearless in experimenting with new ideas, turning the school into a laboratory,’ he recalls. ‘The crisis of the 1990s spurred our efforts to explore solutions in workshops and conferences. We invited architects from Europe and other Latin American countries to share their experience. The new democracy of Spain exemplified what could be achieved through architecture and urban design.’

The influence of Pérez and his workshops in Medellín could be likened to the ripples radiating out from a stone cast into a still pond. Graduates went to work for their teachers or set up their own small firms. Local politicians began to realise that architecture could add value. In 1998, the university faculty was involved in the design of the Barefoot Plaza, the first of several people-friendly open spaces that have contributed to the regeneration of the city centre. A few years later, the prosperous and well-run public utility company EMP commissioned Felipe Uribe to design a major public library that opens onto the Plaza Cisneros, a popular square designed by Juan Manuel Peláez that contains a forest of illuminated columns. New bus stations to north and south had reduced cross-town traffic, and the Metro was begun. It helped that Medellín is a linear city, confined by two mountain ranges, and its population of 3.8 million is half the size of the capital and more cohesive. As Pérez observes: ‘We are very violent and able to kill ourselves, but people here have a high self-esteem and great pride of place. Bogotá never had the extreme crisis that propelled our transformation, and their improvements were part of a normal process of urban regeneration.’

Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá in 1998-2000, a Green Party contender for President in the last election, has a different view. As an economist and a student of urban affairs, he came to office determined to fight for equality and human dignity. His father had encountered opposition in redistributing large estates to small owners; the son launched his reform programme by forbidding car-owners to park on pavements. ‘It was a powerful symbol of inequality and disrespect but it provoked the city-wide ban and almost led to my impeachment,’ Peñalosa recalls.
Undeterred, he launched an ambitious programme to upgrade the city’s infrastructure, starting with the high-capacity Transmilenio bus lines that cross the city on dedicated lanes, an improved version of the system pioneered by the Brazilian city of Curitiba. Feeder buses extend out from the main lines, replacing a life-threatening tangle of jitneys that were owned by crime cartels.

Peñalosa rejected a Japanese consultant’s proposal to ease traffic congestion by building elevated highways, and put the money into a network of cycle paths (which now extend over 250km), parks, libraries, and schools in poor neighbourhoods. The Alameda, a 17km pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, ties the nodal points together. An exclusive polo ground was turned into a public park and tracts of land at the edge of the city were requisitioned and set aside for low-income housing. ‘That gave the municipality a legitimacy it had previously lacked and people became more respectful of the laws,’ says Peñalosa. ‘The chief objective in life is happiness. In a city, that translates into the ability to walk safely, meet friends, and share in creative activities.’
Though Peñalosa achieved an extraordinary amount in three years and left office with an 85 per cent approval rating, he was legally disbarred from seeking a second consecutive term. His successors continued the programmes he had initiated, but with much less energy, and the present incumbent is widely judged to be ineffectual. The momentum has slackened and the most creative architects — notably Giancarlo Mazzanti, Daniel Bonilla, and Lorenzo Castro — have found greater opportunities to build in Medellín or for private clients than in the public realm of the capital. Rogelio Salmona, who died in 2007, was the one architect to put his mark on the city, in a series of commissions that are reviewed later in this issue.

Bogotá led the way, as the capital always has historically, but it has lost ground to Medellín in recent years, much as Barcelona has outshone Madrid in architectural innovation. In large measure that is due to the energy and charisma of Sergio Fajardo who ran for mayor as an outsider in 2001, and was elected on his second try in 2003. A former mathematics professor, he combined the reformist passion of Peñalosa with the respect for architecture he inherited from his father. Through his four years of office, he enlisted architects and planners to realize his programme.

‘You have to touch people’s lives,’ he insists. ‘There are plenty of beautiful plans drawn up by architects but they require political action to implement.’ His strongest ally was Alejandro Echeverri, who launched his career designing houses for the rich, and then switched his focus to the urban problems of his city — as a post-graduate student in Barcelona, and in his present post as a university professor.

‘Fajardo invited me to help him prepare proposals for his campaign and when he won I became manager of EDU, an urban planning institute within the city government,’ says Echeverri. ‘Sergio’s timing was good. He invited the best people from across the political spectrum to work with him and intervened in the most problematic areas. We called our strategy social urbanism and sought to integrate each improvement to achieve a larger impact.’

Essential improvements in infrastructure had been made before Fajardo took office, and that allowed him to focus on fewer, more conspicuous projects. His first priority was education. He persuaded EMP to underwrite new schools and, rather than wait for the mandatory competitions, he summoned 10 architects to his office and invited each to design a school, pro bono, on sites to be chosen by lot. The Biblioteca de España was awarded by competition, as one of seven new libraries and parks that ring the city. Colleagues questioned the expense of cladding it in stone that had to be trucked from a distant quarry up steep and narrow roads to the site, and suggested they economize by painting the concrete shell; however Fajardo rejected this as an unworthy compromise.

Fajardo took particular pride in revealing the potential of the Jardín Botánico as a showpiece for the city. It had been walled off and neglected; an earlier administration proposed to sell it to a developer. Echeverri was part of a team that opened it up to the street and to the Parque Explora science museum he had earlier built on a neighbouring site. Other architects were commissioned to add an entry rotunda that doubles as a café, an open-air theatre, a research facility, and a stylish restaurant. Plantings are impeccably maintained even though the park is intensively used. The star attraction is the Orquideorama, a competition-winning design by architects Plan: b and JPRCR. The lofty steel-framed canopy supports slatted-wood hexagons that shelter an events space. The political value of the garden is aptly expressed in the sign over the entry: ‘Free admission; the mayor’s office has already paid’.

Restoring civic pride in the centre of the city was crucially important, and Fajardo built on the solid foundation of the previous decade. Felipe Uribe’s House of Music opens onto the landscaped Parque de los Deseos, which has a shady bamboo grove, a play area for children, and a tilted pavement from which to watch outdoor movies. Uribe collaborated with Mazzanti on the civic centre, which pays homage to the colourful ceiling that Alexander Calder installed in Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s Aula Magna on the Caracas University campus. The character of Avenida Orienta, a main highway that slices through the city, was enriched by the vibrantly coloured ceramics that clad a pitched median strip, designed by S+A Arquitectos. This barrier encourages pedestrians to cross the eight lanes of traffic at the lights and not at mid-block.

Still more significant are the improvements that have enhanced the quality of life in the hillside barrios. Three cable car lines, which were conceived 15 years before, reach out from metro stations to link the poorest neighborhoods to the centre, as an alternative to overcrowded minibuses toiling up narrow potholed streets. Last year, a new line was constructed, looping over the mountains from Santo Domingo to the Arvi Nature Park, thrilling visitors and giving residents a cheap excursion to the countryside on weekends. Social programmes kept pace with physical improvements in the campaign to offer the dispossessed a sense of dignity. As Fajardo observes, ‘We have to give hope and narrow the door to violence, by providing opportunities and eliminating corruption.’

In contrast to Bogotá, Medellín seems to have stayed on course. Santiago Londoño, another socially conscious professor turned politician, is now a city councillor. He finds that the programmes Fajardo initiated have become almost too popular. ‘What was novel is now normal,’ he explains. ‘Everyone is clamouring for the amenities we created in a few barrios and even though the city spends 40 per cent of its budget on urban improvements, we cannot afford to do everything or standardize the solutions. Each neighbourhood has different characteristics; one size does not fit all.’ However, he supports the effort to expand the upgrade, likening the poor neighbourhoods of Medellín to the Lower East Side of Manhattan a century ago. ‘In those years, immigrants were crammed into tenements, the streets were clogged, and there were no parks,’ he says. ‘Then they discovered there were public spaces they could share, public libraries where they could read, learn and become someone else. That’s what we are trying to achieve now.’

‘Public space has a powerful meaning in neighbourhoods where housing is in bad condition,’ says Echeverri. ‘The conventional way is to tackle housing first; we focused on communal facilities to improve peoples’ lives.’ A younger architect, Emerson Marin, concurs: ‘Medellín has a climate and culture that supports open spaces, but we lost touch with that for a couple of decades because of the violence; it was too dangerous. People need to break out; I spent my younger years behind protective walls. Architecture and planning can provide the infrastructure for social programmes.’

Social housing of a quality that matches the public buildings has lagged. According to a recent report, there’s a deficit of 400,000 units in fast-growing Bogotá, and only 5,000 a year are being built. In Medellín, Ana Maria Velez has tried to fill the void. Her father is a builder-developer who worked with Arup and she graduated from the AA while her family was in exile. She worked with Wiel Arets, her former tutor, before moving back in 1992 to collaborate with her father on social housing. She’s created three major projects on the tightest of budgets that are exemplary in the quality of their construction and their generous provision of open space. The most ambitious, a 412-unit hillside complex called Punta Piedra, could easily be mistaken for a middle-class community, and the architect Felipe Uribe lived here before his growing family prompted him to seek a more spacious apartment. Other artists and professionals share the buildings with working-class families - a blurring of social barriers that is rare in Latin America.

Velez has worked with or taught a dozen architects and she is eager to combine her limited resources with those of colleagues she respects. How to explain the interweaving of practices that would, in almost any other country, be competing for, not sharing commissions? ‘Maybe it’s like magical realism — unique and inexplicable,’ she offers.

Camilo Restrepo, who organized the 2010 Iberoamerican Architecture Biennale in Medellín, has a simpler explanation. He shares an office with his father, and they work together and separately on a variety of projects. Alejandro Echeverri has a home office three flights up in the apartment building, and a majority of their peers are based within a few blocks in the El Poblado neighbourhood of Medellín. The offices are small — typically the principals and a few assistants or interns. ‘We are a group of 25 architects spread over three generations,’ Camilo says. ‘Through friendship we can learn much more and have a stronger practice. We all work like bubbles that unite in an ad-hoc way to create foam. We believe that together is better, but we also pursue our personal interests.’

All the following buildingstudies in this special issue on Colombia have been written by Michael Webb.

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