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Laboratory of the Present: on Contemporary Colombian Architecture

“Colombia is a laboratory of history. Let’s not make it fail.” These were the words of former Uruguayan president “Pepe” Mujica when he visited Colombia in June last year. As a slogan it sounds good, but I think that the statement is imprecise. It is true that Colombia is undergoing a process of peace and reconciliation after an old and complex war, and that Bogotá and Medellín have served as a social and urban laboratory. These two processes, involving country and cities alike, are unavoidable and, in the field of architecture, raise important challenges: what kind of architecture is needed for a post-conflict era? How are we to carry on from what has been built in cities, knowing that ecological crises are beginning to dominate every agenda?

But Colombia, more than a laboratory-country, or a headquarter of professional science or historical analysis, is a territory rich in conjunctures and popular culture, and therefore has a different physiognomy and also a different challenge. It is not the place of conclusions but it can be that of imaginative attempts. Because faced with a society that has been traditionally violent and corrupt, it comes as a surprise to find that its architecture is interesting, its collective intelligence prolific, that a peace agreement was signed or that there are capable governments and councils.

A country like Colombia is not about to light up with discoveries or to celebrate the achievements of its forefathers. Rather it is about to repair what has been broken, tie together things that have fallen asunder, lay hold of what is available, combine useful and old. And the same seems to go for its architecture: the exercise is one not of invention, it is not about something new or unknown. In other words, in Colombia imagination must place itself at the service of adaptation.

Colombia is not a “laboratory of history”, and it is good that it is not; it sounds too pompous and supposes something that we are not—either with our political or social practices, or with our architecture. What Colombia can aspire to be is a field of exploration(1) of the present, of what is happening, of the gerund. Precisely because we are a place where history does not weigh too heavily, where we soon forget and there is no excessive fear of picking things up again, of trying in the now and making unusual combinations. Colombia, though beset by difficulties, is a country that attempts to solve what is urgent and tries to make this effort equivalent to solving what is important. It is this circumstance, I think, that nuances its expression and its architecture.

Although there are in Colombia interesting attempts in many respects, collective and individual efforts in different fields that are worthy of mention, I would like to tell you about a case I am familiar with: that of Archipiélago de arquitectura(2), a group that has been working for ten years or so, bringing together eleven practices in Medellín and Bogotá, their projects compiled in two books: Archipiélago de arquitectura and Teoría de conjunto.

In 2010, Archipiélago de arquitectura (Architecture Archipelago) was published. In it we brought together the work of some Colombian architects that interested us. From our point of view, and in retrospect, we believe that it was this idea of linking islands, of constructing something shared over and above individualities, that made the project interesting and held us together as a group. A group to talk, argue, converge and diverge, to share interests; to take a contrasted, perhaps less ingenuous look at the things that happen in our immediate environment.

The underlying reason for bringing these people together in the first book was not merely intellectual closeness or friendship, it was also the specific fact that they were significant architects for the collective who had been chosen as winners of public architecture competitions in Colombia. Those projects were starting to be developed, built or opened, and to form part of a larger process, now widely publicised, to improve the reality of Medellín.

In this first book we compiled part of the public and private projects of each selected practice, including protean, proven works such as the Orchidorama for Medellín’s Botanical Garden (Plan B + JPRCR, 2006), the Sport Scenarios (Mazzanti Arquitectos + Plan B, 2009) and the Aquatic Complex (Paisajes Emergentes + Andres Ospina Duque, 2009) for the South American Games, all buildings capable of changing a context, inventing uses and users. We presented the designs of the system of kindergartens for Medellín that were eventually built and substantially modified the life of local neighbourhoods. At the same time, as a counterpoint, it also included five dwellings in the country and ephemeral works that stimulated thought about the city and the changes it was experiencing.

More than a catalogue, the book was a work tool, a vehicle for learning. It looked at working procedures, at training, at aesthetic and intellectual inclinations. It was a propitious structure for reflecting the independent and shared work of each one. It revealed a network of common responsibilities. Nothing in the book had to do with identity or freshness, youth or origin. What was present, though, was the search for a territory of exchange and difference.

In 2017 we published Teoría de conjunto (Theory of the whole). This second book brought together our knowledge, relations and an amalgam of facts, we presented works with different characteristics that highlighted strategies to promote positive interactions between their occupants and what surrounds them. We presented a brief statement of Colombian architecture with a nuance: seeking out the private lives of buildings, the use, the details, the atmospheres, the edges, the anecdotes, the objects, all the things that are usually left out of the frame. We showed the works in action and this determined the form of the texts and, in general, the editing and design.

The book proposes a journey that defends something more than the actual nature of the works. The brief or the size of each one is almost irrelevant because it is a collective story that is told. Authors and interpreters disappear, the works all blend into one big whole. It is a direct intervention connected effectively and positively to the controversies of our culture, because it presents many linked gambits that use materials from different technological ranges, scales and formats, varied solutions in different climates and contrasting circumstances that reflect the diversity of the territory and Colombian society.

The theory of the whole that we present in the book, or the law that we used to relate the works and the phenomena to which they give rise, is this: the order established by architecture and design has to promote new vital orders. Nurturing life is the crucial theme of this book, the criterion according to which we selected and recorded. This is why we present the facts, the sequence of built works; hundreds of images used as words, organised as a filmstrip and edited to unleash a continuous, highly detailed graphic account of vital circumstances.

It is easy to see that there is a web of work and intentions woven between the members of the archipelago, a web in which other agents and circumstances obviously participate, and the individuals and the collective mature. The task was to identify the nutritive properties and relations of the whole. On the way, we lost a couple of valuable people, picked up others, created and closed down an online magazine called Píldoras de arquitectura (Architecture capsules), and participated and interacted permanently in the public sphere: projects, talks, workshops, interviews. Despite all this, we think that paper is still the place we feel most comfortable as a group, because it allows us to look around us, take our time, write up our notes, and reflect on Colombia and its particularities. In our dictionary of design, the word theory means building and publishing.

Obviously it is the quality of the architecture that prompts the selection of the material we publish, but you will notice that we intentionally do not talk about it. On the one hand, it is something we take for granted, and, on the other, we aim to defend an idea of intermediate beauty in the architecture we produce. That is to say we are as interested in the various degrees of value of things as in an idea of quality and beauty associated with our time and place, where the beautiful and the good lie not necessarily in composition, durability or perfect construction, but rather in the idea of an appropriate mix, assembly and adaptation to the circumstances that occur in the Neotropic. This is the sense of exploration that interests us as a group: the idea of laboratory not of history but of the present.

(1)

Article published in Arquitectura Viva 138, 2011.

(2)

Made up of Plan:b Arquitectos, Oficina informal, Ctrl G Arquitectos, Manuel Villa Arquitectos, Mesa Editores, Paisajes Emergentes, Camilo Restrepo Arquitectos, Connatural, Yemail Arquitectura, Estudio Transversal, Mesaestándar, Felipe Mesa, Federico Mesa, Viviana Peña, Catalina Patiño, Manuel Villa, Antonio Yemail, Edgar mazo, Sebastián Mejía, Luis Callejas, Camilo Restrepo, Emerson Marín, Ricardo Vásquez, Juan David Díez, Miguel Mesa.

Posted
14.Dec.2018 647 views
Author
Miguel Mesa Miguel Mesa

Miguel Mesa Rico (Medellín,1975) is an architect by the school of architecture of the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín and professor of architectural design at the same university.  In 2008, he published the book La arquitectura del Hueco. He was director of Mesa Editores between 2006 and 2014. He is co-director of Mesa Estándar since 2014, graphic and editorial agency dedicated to visual arts (architecture, art, illustration, photography, urbanism, aesthetics).

www.mesaestandar.com/
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