Saving Colombia, One Building at a Time

“By now, Medellín is synonymous with progressive architecture. The Colombian city has scrubbed out the stigma of war and drugs with aggressive urban design strategies, set up by its former mayor, Sergio Fajardo, and its former director of urban projects, Alejandro Echeverri. Their plan was simple: better buildings in poor areas. Attractive public spaces, they thought, would save the city, and to an extent, they have. (The philosophy has spread throughout the country, and excellent new public buildings have been built in other poor areas like Villanueva, and even in Bogotá.)

Great architecture has become Medellín’s brand, so much so that it’s no longer limited to the city’s poorest places. In fact, the latest news from Medellín is the expansion of its modern art museum by Lima-based 51-1 Arquitectos. While earlier projects like Giancarlo Mazzanti’s Parque España library brought “the city…to the barrio”, the museum expansion, in the more affluent southern end of Medellín, brings the barrio to the city.

The building is a stack of rectangular boxes, like Herzog and de Meuron’s VitraHaus, designed in the same brick vernacular as the barrios. The boxes are connected by external staircases, which turn the exterior of the building into a series of outdoor plazas, like a neighborhood. It’s exactly the kind of urban-oriented project that made Medellín famous, and an interesting example of innovation flowing up, from poor areas to rich ones. It’s expect to be built next year.” – Fast Company

My Take

Having spent time in Medellín, I can say the manmade shapes and structures will never equal the views of the beautiful Aburrá Valley that engolfs the city. That being said, architecturally, Medellín is a pleasure for the eyes and part of that, in the eyes of the government, means bringing the “city…to the barrio” which beautifies long-neglected areas. The problem with that is that it can serve as a band-aid over a larger problem because simply putting a nice-looking building in a poor area won’t do a lot for that area. This is evident when one visits the Spain Library high up in the hills, in the low-income barrio of Santo Domingo Savio (within which I accidentally got lost for about 30 minutes). Sure, the building looks nice. Sure, taking the metrocable up the mountain and enjoying the view is nice too, but when you enter the “library”, you realize there’s not much else to the building aside from rooms that are, in their majority, quite empty. I noticed the same thing while in the La Ladera library (nice-looking but where were the books?).

Now, I’m not sure how these libraries were built but if the city employed the local residents in the construction process, then it would begin to make some sense. All in all, what I’m getting at is the true connection or lack thereof between the barrios and the city. If there’s a way to connect the two in a meaningful way, then I’m all for it. If not, why not spend all that money on the barrios themselves or perhaps creating more opportunities for the residents? The installation of the metrocable was a good start.

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