URBAN UTOPIAS? A journey through some of the main works that have changed the face of Medellin, Colombia While at the university I heard someone say more than once that with architecture we could not pretend to change society. From hearing this so much, I began to believe it. That was until I got to know more about Medellin. The capital of Antioquia is the second largest city of Colombia, population-wise. Its development has taken place throughout the Valley of Aburrá, from north to south. Even though it has also grown in the east-west direction, the hills have acted as a natural limit. Towards the end of the past century, the city was known for being the most violent in the world. In 1991, over 6,000 homicides were reported. Medellin suffered first the empire of drug dealer Pablo Escobar, then the war to vanquish him, then the guerrillas and the armed bands. In 2003, mathematician Sergio Fajardo was elected mayor of the city. Having in mind education and social urbanism as strategy, the city made up its mind to change history. Last year, encouraged by countless conferences of Colombian architects in Lima, I visited the city. Travelling through and understanding Medellin is not difficult. The Metro has two lines: the main one crosses the valley lengthwise next to the Medellin River. Going through all the stations I realized that this city, as Lima, is also a city of high contrasts. The other Metro Line goes towards the west. But let us take one step at a time. My journey begins at the Poblado station, in the south, in the wealthy neighbourhood of the same name. I first go downtown to visit the new EPM Public Library (Felipe Uribe), one of the 36 of the city’s Library Network. The building faces the new Plaza Cisneros (Juan Manuel Peláez), a large urban space “seeded” with an artificial forest of columns. I continue my journey toward the west, searching for the first Library Park of the city. Along the way, the elevated Metro allows me to take in a panoramic view of the remodelled Atanasio Girardot Sports Unit –site of the 2010 South American Games- where, aside from the DIM and National Stadiums, the set of coliseums (Plan B + Giancarlo Mazzanti) stands out, under whose enormous green metallic structures the spatial limits seem to dilute themselves. The aquatic complex (Paisajes Emergentes Office) also stands out. A group of pools connected by the landscape that, in certain moments and spaces, remind me of LeÇa da Palmeira in Porto. I arrive at the San Javier station and close by is the Jose Luis Arroyave Library Park (Javier Vera). The system of Library Parks is part of the “Medellin, the most educated one” program, which seeks the urban and social transformation, generating public spaces for citizens’ encounters. To this we can add culture and education. They are located in the less-favoured areas of the city and they are accessible through public transportation, within the possibilities.
I return downtown to continue towards the north. Again the elevated Metro lets me see, this time, the plaza with the blown-up sculptures of Botero. It is the “cultural” zone of the city. My next stop is at the Universidad station, which could not have had a more appropriate name. Around it are the Botanical Garden, the Explora Park of Sciences, the Planetarium and the Building of Music. At the Botanical you can find the new Orquideorama (Plan B + Camilo and J. P. Restrepo), a large space generated by a system of hexagons that can grow or decrease in accordance with the necessities of exhibitions, events, and festivals, among other. The Explora Park (Alejandro Echeverri) is a set of red volumes geared to the scientific promotions and dissemination, basically among the younger people. The Planetarium and the Building of Music (Felipe Uribe) make up the Park of Desires, which design and urban furniture allow an appropriation of space in ways I have not often seen. I continue in the Metro towards the north, seeking the cherry of the trip. Footnote: the Metro is impeccable. People take care of it because they understand it is theirs, very simple. Furthermore, they have the Bibliometro program, which allows borrowing a book at one station and giving it back at another one. They are advancing to be “….the most educated”. The cherry is the España Library Park (Giancarlo Mazzanti) located in the high part of the Santo Domingo neighbourhood. To get there I must use the Metrocable, a cable car that is part of the public transport system, very useful where the Metro and the bus do not reach. “More than a transportation solution, what we did was to deactivate a time bomb”, said the project director for América Económica. The lines of the Metrocable have managed to integrate the populations of the cliffs with the rest of the city. When getting down at the Library Station, I am accosted by a child that offers to tell me the violent history of the place. He has not lived nor does he know half of what he tells me, but he tells it to me in such a vivid way that he earns his pesos that way. The three volumes of the Library Park hit you hard. They are three meteorites that landed in the neighbourhood and which expansive wave continues growing positively. Each block harbours a different function: auditorium, library and exhibitions/workshops. The building was awarded first prize as the best work at the Spanish-American Biennial of Lisbon in 2008. It is good architecture but it receives prizes for being much more. Medellín is no longer the world’s most violent city; today everybody is talking about its transformation. “It was clear that architecture would play a key role, since our goal was to make visible social inclusion. That is why we placed our best projects in the most modest neighbourhoods (…)” said Mayor Fajardo for Abitare magazine. Good architecture by itself may not be capable of changing society, but it is indeed one of the main tools.