Medellín, Colombia — – Over the last two or three years, a steady buzz has been building in architecture and design circles about developments in this city of 3.5 million, which through much of the 1980s and 1990s was infamous for its sky-high murder rate and viciously competitive drug cartels, including a particularly violent one led by Pablo Escobar.
Architects and urban planners who traveled to Medellín seemed to return telling some version of the same enthusiastic story about the renaissance taking place in Colombia's second-largest city, which has been driven in large part by investment in ambitious civic architecture.
After spending nearly a week in the city in late March, I'm happy to say I've joined the ranks of the Medellín evangelists. The city's commitment to public architecture, spearheaded by former mayor Sergio Fajardo, has — as advertised — produced a number of exquisitely designed libraries, schools and parks. Rising in some of Medellín's roughest neighborhoods, these projects are the capstones of a broader civic rebirth that has seen murder rates tumble nearly 90% from their highs of the early 1990s. Even the tourism business here has begun to make a fragile recovery.
It quickly became clear during my visit what contemporary architecture has meant for Medellín — for its civic identity, in particular, as well as for its long-battered international reputation. And yet the more of the city I was able to see, the more it struck me that an equally important set of lessons might be found by reversing that equation, by exploring what Medellín and its revival mean for contemporary architecture.
The architecture profession finds itself sharply divided these days into two camps, one concerned with experimental, often digitally driven design and the other primarily committed to social and environmental activism. The high-design architects sniff that the humanitarians are terrible designers, or at least unimaginative ones, while the humanitarians complain that the high-design architects are trapped in a hermetic onscreen world with little concern for the fate of overcrowded slums or a degraded planet.
Medellín is one of the few cities where these two very different sets of priorities have come seamlessly together — where buildings meant to uplift poor neighborhoods and offer residents a new range of social services are also strikingly inventive as works of architecture. In that sense its hard-won improvements are meaningful not just for its own residents but for architects and planners elsewhere, even if they never have the chance to set foot in Medellín.
The city's revival has its roots in the unorthodox approach of Fajardo, an energetic, charismatic former math professor who was elected mayor in 2003 despite a thin political resume. Not long after taking office, he and Alejandro Echeverri, the mayor's director of urban projects and an architect in his own right, pinpointed several districts in Medellín they thought would benefit from inventive and public-minded architecture. They were inspired, they've since said, by the way certain Barcelona neighborhoods were revived in advance of the 1992 Summer Olympics, as well some positive examples from Brazilian cities.
Their nascent efforts were aided by anti-corruption laws passed at the national level by the government of President Alvaro Uribe, including provisions requiring design competitions for nearly all sizable new public buildings.
Because the budgets for city projects in Medellín tend to be quite low by international standards, these competitions have drawn mostly Colombian architects, along with a handful from nearby Latin American countries. That fact alone is responsible for one of most unusual elements of the Medellín renaissance: In an age of globe-trotting celebrity architects, it has been propelled almost entirely by local firms. The city's new image has been sketched not by Zaha Hadid or Richard Meier but by small offices based in Medellín or the Colombian capital, Bogotá.
Under Fajardo's successor as mayor, Alonso Salazar, the city has continued to produce ambitious new architecture, including extensive new facilities for the South American Games, which were held in Medellín in March. A notable number of recent design-competition winners have been firms run by young architects; the impressive swimming complex for the Games, for example, was designed by a firm called Paisajes Emergentes, or Emerging Landscapes, whose founders are still in their 20s. Ctrl G, a local firm that in conjunction with Peruvian office 51-1 Architects recently won a competition for an eye-catching addition to the Medellín Museum of Modern Art, is run by a pair of female architects, Viviana Peña and Catalina Patiño, who also have yet to turn 30.