Medellin's Reputation Goes Up, Up, Up: Carcas's Sprials Ever Downward... from slumdog barrio to beacon on the hill

LISA ROCHON Saturday, February 7, 2009

Catalytic architecture, visionary social spending and simple local pride are remaking one of Colombia's poorest neighbourhoods

MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA AND CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Here is a tale of two cities.

In the first, I am flying through the sky above a barrio. I must insist on this surreal description, as the experience of hovering in a ski-lift-style gondola over what used to be a crime-infested slum in Medellin, Colombia, is, indeed, charged with absurdity and a touch of Disneyland detachment.

The Santa Domingo Savio shantytown is located on one of Medellin's mountainsides in a deforested zone jammed with rough housing, and too steep to allow for regular roads. Until recently, getting to work for the maids, construction workers and road cleaners employed in the city below was difficult and dangerous.

The Metro Cable has changed all that. For about $1, a ticket allows you to float over the barrio and into an airy station that connects to the subway. From the base of the mountain, hovering over the red-brick hovels, the gondola is a line of poetry in the sky.

The second tale has to do with Caracas, Venezuela, an oil-rich city that's become one of the most dangerous in the world. Last weekend, I watched as a friend filled up her car with gas for the highly subsidized price of a single dollar. On the other hand, an astonishing 400 people are reported to have died this January, mostly caught in the crossfire of barrio gangs.

While the reputation of Medellin has floated up, up, up over the last decade, that of Caracas has spiralled crazily down. The two cities share a common topography: an urban core occupying the flats, a river running through the centre, and mountains on two sides. But, while Medellin's barrios are working hard to become models of high-density living, the slums of Caracas grow wildly out of control. The barrio of Petare is said to be the largest in Latin America, with an estimated population of one million.

Consider that, during the 1950s, Caracas could boast about its cultural sophistication, its public schools and the Universidad Central de Venezuela: a visionary campus designed over 30 years by the great Carlos Raul Villanueva, with mosaic murals by Fernand Léger and Victor Vasarely, and mobiles by Alexander Calder that hang in the school of architecture. In 2000, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The state of fear that now rules Caracas restricts people to life behind closed doors in barrio scrap-wood houses; or, within elite neighbourhoods, to entertaining at home behind 10-metre-high stone walls topped by barbed wire. Tensions run high. A referendum planned for Feb. 15 will ask the nation whether President Hugo Chavez can amend the constitution to allow for an indefinite presidency.

The morning I visited the school of architecture, students had been tear-gassed by a parapolice group concerned by an advance poll that would certainly prove to be anti-Chavez. And, to protest the 400 who recently died, a group of architects was organizing a lie-down in the central square next to the grand Museo de Bellas Artes. At the last moment, the event was postponed out of fear of intervention by Chavistas and the police.

In Medellin's barrios, by contrast, a pride of place has emerged. Knowing that people are gazing down upon their rooftops, residents have made repairs to their homes and covered their sheet-metal roofs with ceramic tiles whenever they are able. Underneath the cable car is a narrow road newly lined with trees and modest parks, making it easier for pedestrians and car traffic to access the barrio. Even more compelling and critical for the once-disenfranchised community is some monumental architecture at the barrio's upper reaches: Three buildings, shaped with the irregularity of boulders, rise up against the mountainside as if they were cathedrals of nature.

What they contain is a new kind of church for those desperate for literacy and social programs. There's a library, an auditorium, a daycare centre, computer stations and an art gallery. The massive black sculptures were designed by Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, winner of an international design competition, a storied event that has produced a total of five compelling libraries for Medellin's barrios.

The library complex in Santa Domingo, named Parque Biblioteca Espana to acknowledge funding from the Spanish government, looms above the most squalid housing at the end of the Metro Cable line. Given the context, Mazzanti's library is one of the most powerful acts of architecture I've ever seen. Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellin, and the man largely responsible for the transformation of the city from 2003 to 2007, skewed the municipal budget to cover new, catalytic works of architecture that would combine with educational and social programs. A mathematics professor and son of an architect, Fajardo believed in architecture as a catalyst for change. "Our most beautiful buildings," he said, "must be in our poorest areas."

Not long ago, Medellin, located at the front lines of the cocaine wars, was known as the murder capital of the world. After he escaped from prison, drug lord Pablo Escobar was gunned down in 1993 on a rooftop in Medellin, an act immortalized in a painting by another of Medellin's native sons, Fernando Botero. But now, partly thanks to a program of co-operation between Medellin, the government of Colombia, and with public and private agencies in Germany, stunning change is happening. The streets have been cleaned up, electricity and water services operate throughout the barrios, and there is a sense of pride that comes with feeling connected to the city.

It's not as if all the troubles have magically disappeared. Security is still an issue. Police with sniffer dogs patrol chic areas downtown as well as the streets of the barrio. Can cities of fear be transformed? Yes, they can. But only where sophisticated urban interventions and catalytic architecture are used in combination with social programs.

Such change is difficult to gauge in Caracas. Since coming to power a decade ago, Chavez has achieved folk-hero status among the poor. He promises them change, and sings old ranch songs on the radio. His self-styled revolution accuses the professional classes of being pitiyanquis (little Americans) and has isolated the country's intellectuals.

Real evidence of how Chavez is attempting to liberate the poor is in short supply. One thing that does impress is a vertical gym, designed by the Caracas firm Urban Think Tank. The four-storey infill building, an optimistic structure of bright orange metal columns, dance studios, interior ball fields and a soccer pitch on its roof, is located at the edge of one of the city's smaller barrios in Chacao. It is a spirited place of athleticism and engagement for young and old.

But in another part of Caracas, not far from the Museo de Bellas Artes, their version of the Metro Cable is nearing completion at the base of the sprawling San Agustin barrio. Unfortunately, there's only a vague hint there of the kind of transformation happening in Medellin. Because new public space and roads have not been cut into the barrio, my concern is that the cable cars will merely fly over the deeply troubled ground below. Looking up into San Agustin, it's easy to see masses of garbage running down steep sections of the mountain. There is electricity, but rarely running water.

At the entrance to the Metro Cable in Caracas, wild dogs wander in packs; emaciated addicts approach, wild-eyed, to demand money. The police are not around. At the top of the slum, you will not discover a stunning library. There is desperation instead of urban poetry. The way things are in Caracas, I wouldn't want to float in the air with strangers in the metro cable.