A week ago here in New York, the Architecture League hosted two interesting panel discussions offering insight into different models that cities are using to engage and employ design as a means of city building. The first centered around New York City’s Design Excellence Program. The other highlighted the work done in Medellin, Colombia over the last decade, highlighted so briefly and sweetly by Christopher Hawthorne of the LA Times a few weeks ago. We thought it would be informative to briefly summarize and compare the two. And even if not, it might be interesting to see pretty pictures of cool things built in Colombia.
The NYC Design Excellence Program was put in place by Mayor Bloomberg through the Department of Design and Construction in 2004 with the goal of pursuing an “innovative and ambitious public works program in partnership with the most creative and experienced professionals in the world” as an alternative to public low-bid design contracts. Essentially the program serves as a mechanism for “awarding public projects to a relatively small shortlist of the usual globe-trotting suspects” and places a heavy premium on experience and reputation, tending to result in high-quality, predictable public spaces. While this approach does limit possibilities and codify the method for commissioning public works, the program also acts as an effective regulation on the market for the design of public spaces and creates accountability for the creation of public works in the City.
On Saturday, May 22nd, the Colombians came to town. Introduced by Matilda McQuaid, curator of the Why Design Now exhibit at Cooper Hewitt, and moderated by Mark Robbins of Syracuse, the panel included Mauricio Valencia, Planning Director of Medellin, Federico Restrepo, civil engineer, CEO of Empresas Publicas Medellin and former Planning Director, and Camillo Restrepo, architect and co-designer of the Orquideorama that we love so dearly here at FASLANYC, and co-editor of the blog ATLAS (agencies translatina de arquitecturas).
The following is an edited version of my feverish notes, with specific points attributed to certain speakers by their initials in parentheses. One important note; the Arch League would not have been able to host this event if these three guys had not taken the time to learn English (to varying degrees). The single most critical step that North American designers must take in the next five years is to learn basic Spanish (and/or Portuguese) to a level that enables the communication of practical academic ideas. It is not only absurd and ethnocentric to expect others to learn English, it is also a relinquishing of power and an abdication of responsibility, one we are beginning to pay for.
In the introduction by Mrs. McQuaid, all of the work was immediately placed in a socio-political context: Medellin had historically been the violent crime and drug capital of the world, a trend that began to change with Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993. The city was not particularly poor but had a huge income disparity and distrust of elected officials and tax evasion were common, especially among the poor (FR).
In a turn of events that smacks of Jamie Lerner’s 1988 coup in Curitiba, Sergio Fajardo was elected mayor of Medellin in 2003. As the figurehead of a group of young, invested professional citizens including social workers, planners, architects, and engineers, he instituted a new program of “Social Urbanism”. Emblematic of this approach was the decree that “We must build our best buildings in the poorest areas”. These projects were to be public; schools, libraries, museums, bridges, botanical gardens and sports recreation facilities. These new icons help residents to construct new mythologies about their city and its public life.
But the projects were more than symbols; they were to meet the needs of quotidian life in Medellin through specific and layered programming. The libraries are the best known example of this focus: 40% of the programming was given over to books and media, 60% to public services including job training, computer access, and micro-credit lending centers. Each library would also include a public garden and open space, and the new projects would connect to remade streets that provide necessary amenities- seating, planting, bus shelters, and newly prioritized public transit gondolas and bus lanes.
This Social Urbanism (MV) initiative was conceived of as a catalyst to break the vicious cycle of disinvestment and disenfranchisement in poor neighborhoods. In Medellin the areas with the strongest voter representation received the most public investment, yet the poor areas in greatest need were under-represented because of the distrust of government in those areas (FR). Community involvement in identifying needs as well as programming and design was considered critical, the “software of each project” (FR).
Each of the projects was commissioned through an open national competition juried by prominent designers, engineers, and bureaucrats. These competitions functioned as a mechanism for dialogue and discourse within the local design community. Anecdotes about the collaborations between the various design offices seemed to bear this out (for instance, the collaborations between Camillo Restreppo and Massif, Camilo Ramirez, and Tres Arquitectura on the Biblioteca San Cristobal and Biblioteca 12 de Octubre).
On the theme of openness in architecture, Camillo made one of the most eloquent and impassioned statements (paraphrased):
The small construction budgets and distance from centers of learning and commerce- it is a landlocked city at high altitude- means that Medellin designers have a certain amount of freedom and autonomy. They do not have to pander to stylistic vogues and indeed this is often impossible because of complicated fabrication techniques and material requirements. There is an emphasis on lo-tech/hi-concept design in Medellin, and the exploration that this requires is possible because their is no heavy legacy of former architecture masters in the city. And there never will be! Architecture in Medellin is the antithesis of the heroic individual making his mark on the world. Rather, it is a potent social weapon, one that must be aimed directly at the situation. Here, we are trying to rebuild the city as an open university where everything is a learning opportunity and public life is varied, rich social interaction (CR).
However, this open process which encourages exploration and is not dominated by bureaucratic politics and foreign influence also leaves a messy and difficult process (MV). The constant recreating of program, aesthetics, and methods of intervention- the “hardware and software” of each building- is arduous and at times contentious.
The difference in the models for commissioning public architecture in New York City and Medellin is striking and is an excellent chance to contrast two opposite approaches as cities try to rebuild in the wake of the crises and plan for future growth, resource scarcity, and climate change. Both models work relatively well for their respective cities. In NYC, one of the richest and most well-connected of the world’s “network” cities, creating a list of some of the most prominent and accomplished architects in the world and keeping them “on-call” for requests-for-proposals for the city’s public architecture is an effective way of ensuring a level of quality and international notoriety for the various works and an orderly process.
The codification of the commission process does stultify some of the design impulses in the city, driving it underground. More sinister, this embarrassment of Design riches and the bureaucratic processes behind it serve to harness design as a “method of exclusion“. Most damning, much of the work is just not that interesting. As many of the practitioners are old with established methods and approaches, and commissions favor those with significant track records, some of the projects are just expensive stylistic masturbation, equal parts ego and political hubris; not rooted in any particular mythos of the site or city but rather a copy of the memes making the rounds in the world of star designers.
In Medellin, the Social Urbanism seems to be working. Not only are the individual projects worth lusting over from afar at a computer in New York City, but there is evidence that communities are being knit back together and public life is reviving. The design community in Medellin includes practitioners and academics from a range of ages and backgrounds, and there seems to be a real optimism about the future of the city and its public works.
New York has more influence over the traditional (English-speaking) media and as mammoth has previously noted, some version of their model is what currently predominates when commissioning public work in the US. We will see if the Medellin message gets out. Hawthorne and McQuaid are trying to do their part.