Much as I believe in Samuel Johnson’s maxim, that a man bored of London is bored of life, I still find an escape from London invigorating. It offers clarity as well as new insights. Accordingly I recently escaped with a few friends for an ‘Archi-tour’ of Columbia and Chile.
Bogota is a magical city. Located in a salt lake plateau at a dehydrating 2600m. A city built around a lust for the mythology of El Dorado where the infamously violent Spanish traded salt for gold, pound for pound. The legacy of violence survived until very recently when, after many decades of kidnapping and murder as a fixture of everyday life, an unlikely truce was reached. A truce where the conservative and liberal politicians, the military, the students (always a lively group in South America) and the Communist and the Narco guerrillas negotiated with the US and it’s Drug Enforcement Agency in a deal of funding in return for guns and the extradition of key drug barons.
Now, with the high value activity of the drug industry business chain – and the associated extreme violence – moved to Northern Mexico (cocaine production remains still an important part of the rural economy) Bogota is a very different city.
The bus-based rapid transport system could be a good UK import. It is hugely busy and slices through the traffic jams that are familiar to residents of any metropolis. They complain that it is packed but that is the price of its success. The kit of parts bus stop pavilions and pedestrian bridges are the best looking I have seen anywhere, until I arrived in Santiago that is. And this simple infrastructure avoids the delay caused by the laying of tram tracks.
We could learn much from the consistent use, in very different ways, of a locally quarried red clay. A constant that binds the architectures of the city together. This, along with the simple detailing and single glazing – appropriate to the temperate climate – suggests architectural coherence where there is none. And that is all for the urban good. The outstanding result is a red silhouette of encircling towers set against the green of the surrounding Jungle.
The great individual architectural discovery of the trip was the main library and courtyard housing by the national hero, and rebellious protégée of Le Corbusier, Rogelio Salmona. His work is both rich in varied references and particular to its place.
We arrived in Medellin by a metro system of ski lifts which forms part of a city wide transport system. The favelas specifically are served by a kit of parts infrastructure of escalators, bridges, stairs, ramps and roads. There is also a building infrastructure of medical centres that include sports clubs with crèches; Libraries that offer places to read but also to learn all forms of other skills; and a school that worked in three shifts a day and all through the weekend. All three with the same purpose: to assist the urban poor in their efforts to escape a life of petty drug crime.
The city’s other significant architecture was a modern art gallery. A wonderfully robust industrial basilica comeart container. As with our own Tate Modern the recent extension was more about ramps and stairs than rooms. Indeed we struggled to find any art. This new world preoccupation with architecture as an art without programme was a problem to me and my fellow travellers.The grand projects we went on to witness in Santiago and the beautiful port city of Valparaiso all suffered similarly. The bigger the project, the more the circulation. Architecture for art’s sake, and all the worse for that.
I am all for architecture as a celebration of the theatre of everyday life. But it fails when the architect is only engaged with the easy stuff of private houses and one-off cultural buildings. Without the challenge of the everyday problem the Chilean architect’s retreat is to essays in form and formalism. And a sickly rich common language of architectural indulgence. The most notable shared vocabulary was an excess of cantilevers and concrete. All decorated by fashionably articulated random lines of supposed structural forces. Apparently all of this was inspired by a single issue of a Japanese architectural magazine, featuring Tadao Ando, that was secreted into the country in the violent nineties. This insight made it more understandable if not excusable.