A City Rises, Along With Its Hopes
The New York Times. 18 May 2012
text by Michael Kimmelman

Medellín, Colombia
Urbanism Medellin01

Medellín's main metro-line & the Puerto Nuevo neighborhood in the Aburrá Valley.

FOR some time now, if you asked architects and urban planners for proof of the power of public architecture and public space to remake the fortunes of a city, they’d point here.

Twenty-odd years ago, this was Pablo Escobar’s town, with an annual homicide rate that peaked at 381 per 100,000. In New York City that would add up to an almost inconceivable 32,000 murders a year.

But Colombia’s second city has lately become a medical and business center with a population of 3.5 million and a budding tourist industry, its civic pride buoyed by the new public buildings and squares, and exemplified by an efficient and improbably immaculate metro and cable car system.

Linking rich with poor neighborhoods, spurring private development, the metro, notwithstanding shrieks elsewhere in Colombia over its questionable construction cost, is for residents of Medellín a shared symbol of democratic renewal. Even on the rush-hour train I took the other morning, crowds stepped aside to let a cleaning woman with a mop and bucket scrub the floor.

That evening I headed high up into a steep hillside slum where rival gangs still shoot unsuspecting trespassers who cross invisible borders. The city has recently installed an escalator ascending 1,300 feet, much debated at $7 million and disconnected from the rest of the city’s transit network but shortening to a five-minute ride what had been a brutal 30-story climb for some 12,000 residents. I trudged by foot, past armed soldiers, past mothers taking breathers on the decrepit steps that meandered up the mountain, past toddlers on plastic tricycles plunging down vertical streets, to a brightly painted cinderblock hut, a ramshackle aerie overlooking a sprawl of tin houses and open sewers.

The shack is home to Son Batá, a cultural initiative founded by young black migrants from the Chocó region of Colombia. Son Batá promotes Chocano music and dance, and it benefits from yet another Medellín initiative: participatory budgeting. Residents here have voted to direct a share of government financing to new schools, clinics and college scholarships. Son Batá got to hire music teachers and bought instruments and is adding a new recording studio to its headquarters. A group of players showed me the studio under construction. From another room, music drifted over the barrio and into the warm night air.

I arrived in Medellín to see the ambitious and photogenic buildings that have gone up, but also to find what remains undone. The murder rate, while hardly low, is now under 60 per 100,000. Architecture alone obviously doesn’t account for the drop in homicides, but the two aren’t unrelated, either. Around the world, followers of architecture with a capital A have focused so much of their attention on formal experiments, as if aesthetics and social activism, twin Modernist concerns, were mutually exclusive. But Medellín is proof that they’re not, and shouldn’t be. Architecture, here and elsewhere, acts as part of a larger social and economic ecology, or else it elects to be a luxury, meaningless except to itself.

The story of Medellín’s evolution turns out to be neither as rosy nor as straightforward as fans of new architecture have tended to portray it. It’s generally told as a triumph for Sergio Fajardo, the son of an architect who is the governor of the region and who was the city’s visionary mayor from 2004 to 2007. He pushed an agenda that linked education and community development with infrastructure and glamorous architecture.

But the city’s transformation established roots before Mr. Fajardo took office, in thoughtful planning guidelines, amnesties and antiterrorism programs, community-based initiatives by Germany and the United Nations and a Colombian national policy mandating architectural interventions as a means to attack poverty and crime.

“A holistic approach,” is how Alejandro Echeverri, one of the principal architects of the city’s transformation under Mr. Fajardo, described the philosophy.

I came here from Bogotá, whose renewal programs starting in the late 1990s — like earlier ones in Barcelona before the Olympics in 1992 — set the stage for Medellín’s revival. But now Bogotá is suffering, as strains multiply on its famed rapid bus system and residents’ faith in the city’s future plummets.

Medellín, by contrast, still counts on an almost fierce parochial pride, a legacy of decent Modernist architecture dating back to the 1930s, a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, E.P.M.

You can’t begin to grasp Medellín’s architectural renaissance without understanding the role of E.P.M., the Empresas Públicas de Medellín, which supplies water, gas, sanitation, telecommunications and electricity. It’s constitutionally mandated to provide clean water and electricity even to houses in the city’s illegal slums, so that unlike in Bogotá, where the worst barrios lack basic amenities, in Medellín there’s a safety net.


More than that, E.P.M.’s profits (some $450 million a year) go directly to building new schools, public plazas, the metro and parks. One of the most beautiful public squares in the middle of Medellín was donated by E.P.M. And atop the slums of the city’s Northeast district, E.P.M. paid for a park in the mountaintop jungle, linked to the district by its own cable car.

Federico Restrepo used to run E.P.M., before he became the city planner under Mr. Fajardo. “We took a view that everything is interconnected — education, culture, libraries, safety, public spaces,” he told me, pointing out that while fewer than 20 percent of public school students here used to test at the national average in 2002, by 2009 the number exceeded 80 percent.

“Obviously it’s not just that we built and renovated schools,” he said. “You have to work on the quality of teaching and nutrition in conjunction with architecture. But the larger point is that the goal of government should be providing rich and poor with the same quality education, transportation and public architecture. In that way you increase the sense of ownership.”

“But of course ownership can’t just be bestowed on poor neighborhoods; it must also be declared, in small, critical ways. In the troubled Comuna 13, two members of Revolución Sin Muertos (Revolution Without Deaths) — started not long ago by a group of neighborhood hip-hoppers rejecting the gang culture — took me on a graffiti tour. At a crowded street corner, Daniel Felipe Quiceno, known as Dog, and Luis Fernando Álvarez, who is called AKA, pointed to a mural of four of their own, murdered by local gangs. Revolución Sin Muertos paints murals around Comuna 13; sometimes residents put their own tags on them, as if to signal support. Murals, Mr. Álvarez said, have helped people here vent frustration and proclaim ownership of the neighborhood.

Progress is hard. Venture a few yards from the heralded new squares, library and cable car stations in the Santo Domingo barrio, across town in the hills of the Northeast district, and it’s clear just how dramatic but also tenuous change is here. Mr. Echeverri met me at the cable car terminal one morning for the ride into the Northeast slums.

“We were already working before Fajardo on how to use cable cars to transform the surrounding area, to have the cable car stations as the neighborhood nervous system,” he recalled. “The barrios always had lots of energy but the energy was disconnected from the city.”

Our car rose high above a sea of illegal houses, the cable car stations creating a spine of commercial development up the mountainside. In what used to be a district too risky even for the police to patrol, we got off and wandered through a souk of restaurants, schools and clothing stores, leading onto busy squares and then to the España library, the most conspicuous emblem of the new Medellín.

“A seed to plant trust,” is how Mr. Echeverri described the neighborhood after its makeover. “The main physical transformation is to public space, but it’s only the beginning,” he cautioned, gesturing toward the sprawl of poverty just beyond the new development. Mr. Echeverri said all the headlines about the recovery of this much-photographed barrio have been great, but they’ve also had the unintended effect of inclining some officials to look elsewhere, for less politically complex projects.

He showed me the $4 million España library: three linked black boulders perched 1,500 feet over the valley, designed by the gifted Bogotán architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, which has become a community center and civic symbol. It’s impressive from the outside.

But there are serious problems on the inside. The buildings are steel-frame boxes clad in dark stone tiles, with floating concrete cores — in effect, boxes within the boxes with reading rooms, a child-care center, an auditorium and other facilities. Construction is shoddy, navigation confusing, the interior claustrophobic; acoustics are awful, windows scarce.

More impressive but less flashy is another library in Medellín by Mr. Mazzanti: the León de Greiff library in La Ladera also a trio of buildings, in this case well-connected cantilevered pods on slate pedestals, splayed like a fan across the brow of a hill. The shared roof is linked to a park next door. Views are spectacular. The reading rooms and children’s play areas look out through panoramic windows.

Mr. Echeverri took me down the hillside to Andalucía, another part of the Northeast slums. Formerly ruled by gangs who held opposite sides of a garbage-clotted creek, it’s now remade with a sports complex and school, new sidewalks, new mid-rise housing blocks and a bridge over the creek. Dozens of shops have opened. Men were tinkering beneath cars in the hot sun, chatting over beers, when I visited; children dawdled on the way home from school, eating ice cream on the bridge. A thousand eyes were on the streets.