Wednesday, August 29, 2007

lima, miraflores

Oceanfront beneath the cliffs of Miraflores, the city's most glamorous district. The waves' sound as they retreat back through the rounded stones (in the image I've caught them mid-backpedal) resembles a cross between sandpaper and crumbling styrofoam soundclipped in reverse. Very groovy.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

medellín, santo domingo and la ladera

(Perhaps not entirely successful but at least well intentioned self-portrait with reflected Medellín land- and skyscape in green opaque glass through punched openings in faux stone wall whilst using the internet. Photograph by the author.)

The city of Medellín has entered an important transitional phase. In the last few years it has rebounded from its narco-traffic legacy (this was the home of Pablo Escobar, after all) and it is now reaching out to educate and incorporate the broad, sloping margins of impoverished neighborhoods. Architecture is at the heart of the city’s recuperative campaign…not in an environmentally deterministic mindset, mind you, but in one that is playfully mindful of figure and ground's interplay. The city is employing Colombia’s architects to revamp its public spaces with formal ambition and spatial sensitivity. The crusade is ongoing at the local and regional scales. As the city proper (financial center, civic center, universities, etc) extends north-south along the Río Medellín, here “regional scale” means down-in-the-valley and “local scale” means up-in-the- flanking-hills.

So far Medellín boasts five local-scale interventions. The two I show here are designed by Mazzanti Arquitectos, the office I visited in Bogotá. Their full names are, respectively: “Parque Biblioteca España en Santo Domingo Savio” and “Parque Biblioteca León de Greiff en La Ladera.” The appellation “parque biblioteca” most comfortably translates as community center. Instead of serving as passive repositories of textual knowledge (although they do harbor small collections) the buildings' main focus is housing a myriad of programs, resources, and services dedicated to all ages...small children being the most vocal.

Informal developments are relentless in their cellularization of space into semi-private and private claims. As such, they can approach modular homogeneity with a density in plan that renders it difficult to discern the circulatory network allowing them to function. In such an environment, a carved and carefully cared for public space coaxes out the public with capillary action. Projects such as Mazzanti’s, positioned in the thick of the informal mash, are fed directly by the pressure of the surrounding urban density. The interventions do not structure the surrounding built fabric so much as redirect its flows and concentrations, rending discreet reconstructive scars that heal into continuities over time.

Parque Biblioteca España en Santo Domingo Savio insets three immense geometricized stones high on a hillside overlook. The top image places the buildings in their social context. Note their modest, tip-of-the-iceberg massing versus the glowering monumental masks visible from below (see image at left). Several security guards--a common sight in Colombian cities--and a few waist-high safety rails are all that protect the parque biblioteca’s property. Its wood-floored main entry rests adjacent to the existing road. Across the street is the church of Santo Domingo and, above it, a sheltered ball court.

The image to the left looks upslope to the chamfered boxes. On a hazy day, the mottled black stones fade into the mountain’s silhouette. As one approaches by the newly installed “metrocable” (also highlighted in red), corners crisp and details clarify. If the library seems more comfortable than usual with my graphics it is because the initial scheme was presented in model form as three glowing red resin blocks.

The metrocable ride is surreal. The cars’ forms mimic those of the library and confuse scale, distance, and function. The system is minimal in some senses and massive in others. Each car is intimate, seating only eight people, and there is no continuous track or trail that needs to be cleared on the ground for the line to pass through. Terrestrial impact is limited to enormous cylindrical footprints and a progression of mammoth station stops. Floating between these implants one drifts quietly, dangling past the (clearly visible) private daily lives of all the conglomerate below.

The center image’s downhill stance elucidates the project’s immediate contextual relationships, conveys the breadth of the landscape beyond, and relates the stones’ idiosyncratic creasing to their interior tectonics. The buildings climbing the slope to the right (a church and ball court), while no architectural gems, mark the neighborhood’s communal center. A clear departure from the local architectural vocabulary, the library blocks’ stolid opacity squeezes the panoramic spectacle to their interstices, where a strong prospect-and-refuge effect begs photographic exploitation (see link to New York Times article below).

The stones’ roof lines reveal them as folded, suspended sheaths. Inside, canted walls whitewash interior towers with reflected daylight. Windows are minimal and placed as much for graphic effect as to account for sight lines. The buildings’ surprising lack of transparency intensifies their figural quality and illusive solidity. Even as the walls’ thinness and luminous interiors belie their ostensible material sincerity, the resultant spaces’ emphatic interiority enhances their union to the landscape.

Finally, the image to the right depicts a stone gabion retaining wall upslope, the main platform above, and an entrance to the partially sunken socle ahead. A layered forest of steel tubes lets air and light into the sub-platform plenum that conjoins the boxes beyond without undermining its solidity.

In Parque Biblioteca León de Greiff en La Ladera, Mazzanti Arquitectos address a similar brief to Santo Domingo by likewise anchoring three discreet boxes in a common armature.

However, whereas Santo Domingo looms with iconic imagery at high visibility, La Ladera hunkers into the landscape. It combs the topography over its head with a formal discipline bordering on Modernist orthodoxy. The building is more intent on views from within than from without. The boxes are view-finders that don’t have to do much searching.

The top image—courtesy of Mazzanti Architects—catches the building at its most charismatic. Below that, the image to the left peers over the library’s right shoulder as it hunkers into the terrain’s broad slope, tracing a contour line while its constituents slide forward out of their holsters. The slope here is much more gradual than at Santo Domingo and its green space more generously inhabitable.

The composition’s concavity catalyzes voyeuristic interrelationships. The image at center looks from one box to its neighbors’ similarly split-level condition. As is also visible in the image to the left, the uppermost deck gently slopes down to enjoy the modules’ formal frontal gestalt’s framing and shading potential.

Finally, the image to the right faces the entrance from within the communal arm. To the left is the ground, to the right are two boxes are highlighted in red, and from above the sunlight filters through young palms rising toward the new ground.

medellín, orquideorama del jardín botánico

Saturday, August 11, 2007

bogotá, transmilenio

I came to Bogotá for two main reasons. First, the city provides a prime Latin American case study on infrastructural development at the metropolitan scale. Like Mexico City, the bulk of Bogotá sprawls across a vast plane of reclaimed land. Unlike Mexico City, Bogotá has decided to develop its roads and bus system instead of implementing an underground Metro. Second (and this is related to the first) I am interested in the work of Giancarlo Mazzanti, a local architect who takes systemic approaches in creating public projects. The two interests dovetail in the pedestrian bridge system his office designed for the Transmilenio bus stations. The bridges, a kit of supports and sections that can kink over and around contextual obstacles, now mark the rhythm of the bus routes throughout the city.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

bogotá, collegio gavilanes

The school is less formally-minded than other Giancarlo Mazzanti projects and, as such, it provides perhaps the most concise example of his modular design strategies. The small campus is elegant in its simplicity and organizational clarity. Conceived as a chain of modules to be snaked and shifted into various contexts, the string is tethered by a library/auditorium at one end and a kindergarten at the other. From one of these two singular structures to the other, the chain of one and two-story classroom modules enfolds a central common space (center image) like a necklace. Upper lab rooms, wrapped in stone and ribboned with colorful glass, float above the cloister’s plastic continuity (left and center images). Distances among the modules remain constant but the architects reserve a modest degree of freedom in determining the connective ground story’s final configuration. This reservation allows them to fine-tune the space within and its relationship to the neighborhood without.

It is essential to see this neighborhood (visible in the center and right images) in order to understand the project. While not the poorest of Bogotá’s barrios, poverty is omnipresent in its ramshackle assortment of mortared clay and unpaved roads. Workers were installing utility systems and erecting housing projects to the east and north when I visited. Construction of Collegio Gavilanes is almost complete (note the paint-spattered gentleman putting finishing touches on the ball court at center) and it will be interesting to see how town and gown interact as the project matures.

*aerial photograph courtesy of Mazzanti Architects

Saturday, August 4, 2007

bogotá, selected rogelio salmona works

biblioteca pública virgilio barco

nueva santa fe community center

colombian archives

torres del parque

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

bogotá, view from cerro monserrate

The image above, taken from high in the eastern hills, shows three streets that help explain the city's peculiar urban character. Bogota’s traffic has neither the US’s barreling self-restraint nor India’s equilibrating dynamics, and its regulation is a central issue in the city’s contemporary development.

The first street is Jimenez Avenue, which snakes downhill on the left side of the image. It was recently refurbished by a team led by Rogelio Salmona and consists of a stepped linear fountain flanked by trees and lined with lanes of traffic. It was built above a riverbed that had been long been covered. The pedestrian-minded road is a scenic, graceful gesture that doesn’t knit things together so much as rend a linear pause in the city center’s gritty discontinuities.

The second is Carrera 7, the most important organizational element in Bogotá’s urban development. Called “La Septima,” it runs from Plaza Bolivar (highlighted in red), the center of the Spanish colonial grid, to the old salt mines far to the north.

Instead of climbing the Andes’ steep slopes as its population grew, Bogotá spread westward and digested its vast agricultural flatlands. The result is that the city’s main organizational corridor—along with its cultural and financial centers—have been displaced to the modern city’s far east. Its an odd situation that exacerbates traffic pressure. There are miraculous (i.e. highly controversial) plans to install the Transmillenio bus system on La Septima, which would consume precious lanes but ultimately raise its efficiency.

The third street I've highlighted is Calle 26, a high-traffic artery that extends as far as the international airport. Assuming a highway format, it is the most expressively symptomatic of the need for east-west connection. As Calle 26 nears La Septima it sinks below grade to allow the original grid to bridge over and then uses exit-ramps to disperse traffic as it passes the financial center and the Andes’ slope increases. I took this photograph in the morning while the city readied for its birthday celebration on La Septima. It’s one of those pictures that takes down a whole flock.

First, note the yellow sign at center that claims the street for the “Cyclovia” (pedestrian and bicycle use only) on Sundays and festivals, from 7:00 AM until 2:00 PM. I took the photograph on a Sunday that was also a festival day, although unfortunately I had to scoot out before the big parade fired up. Bicyclists are few but you can see plenty of pedestrians taking advantage of the traffic cease-fire.

Second, note the balcony, tarp, and bright light just below the sign. There was a camera crew up there with folks on couches warming up to color-commentate the occasion.

Third, note the tall rectangular sign rising behind the smoker’s head and the tip of the roof poking out from the behind the building on the far left. This is the Transmilenio stop on Jimenez Avenue, which runs perpendicular to La Septima.

Fourth, note the mix of buildings present. The textured wall to the right marks a Spanish colonial church. Far in the distance, partially obscured by the trees, rises a belltower of the cathedral in Plaza Bolivar. The rest of the buildings were established in the 1960’s and 70’s. The avenue here is fairly narrow because of the original Spanish grid in which it sits but as the road extends to the north it widens to take on several lanes of (choked) traffic.

Finally, note the Colombian flag in the upper left and the fellow smoking in the foreground. Bogotá is in Colombia and a fair number of people smoke here.