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March 07, 2010

Medellin Analysis: Critical Activism emerging from Harvard's Graduate School of Design

Nancy Levinson at Design Observer has pointed to a set of interrelated articles where the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, is interviewed and credited with transforming the city. The excerpts below are from the UTNE Reader online, Bomb magazine onine, and from a set of architects who have studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The Harvard grads are theorizing that transformation as an example of "Critical Activism", a kind of critical practice -- a praxis, really. They go on to detail their emerging definition for critical activism. Full disclosure, Sergio Fajardo is running for president of Colombia, and seems to be a distant relative. I haven't met him. That he might be adopted by theory-driven, activist designers is a coincidence.


Over the past ten or so years, the city of Medellín, Colombia, has undergone a high-profile transformation, shedding its reputation as one of the world’s most violent cities. In an interview with architect Giancarlo Mazzanti in the art magazine Bomb, former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo discusses the vital role of architecture and design in the city’s renewal, which he explains was driven by the concept of “the most beautiful for the most humble”—a departure, or “rupture,” he says, from the notion “that anything you give to the poor is a plus.”

As we reported in November, during Fajardo’s term as mayor (from 2004 through 2007), any reduction in violence was immediately supplemented with a “concrete community improvement.” So as Medellín’s murder rate plunged, many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods became home to sparkling new schools, housing, community spaces, and “library parks” (the Parque Biblioteca España, designed by Mazzanti, is pictured above, at left).


In recent years, Medellín has become a necessary stop for architects visiting Colombia, and indeed, anywhere in South America. Conferences and events are held to display and promote the city’s new architecture, student excursions are organized around visits to these buildings, magazines are noticing them, and the sites are slowly being converted into symbols for the city, the images that don its postcards. Medellín has become an example of how urban transformation based on good architecture can reshape the mentality of its inhabitants. The mastermind behind the city’s transformation is the mathematician and university professor Sergio Fajardo, who was elected mayor of Medellín in 2003 and served until 2007. He is a presidential candidate in Colombia’s 2010 election. Using a coherent and inclusive urban strategy, he has changed the face of a city that in the ’90s was considered among the most violent in the world. Fajardo has introduced a positive state presence in the poorest and most violent areas by initiating multi-level urban projects, the foundation of which is architecture, most of which originates in public competitions that are open to Colombia’s youngest architects.

In the late ’90s, tired of his city’s corruption, Fajardo formed the Grupo Compromiso Ciudadano (Citizens Commitment Movement), which sought to transform the city and create greater opportunities for its citizens. This aim would carry the group to the mayor’s office, where they would undertake one of the best examples in the world of urban transformation, basing their policies on the slogan “Medellín: from fear to hope.” They worked to decrease poverty and violence by creating opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship, all while reducing social inequality through educational policy reform. In this way, they decreased the indexes of violence and insecurity and reduced the isolation of the inner city’s poorest areas through integration-focused architectural projects like parks, libraries, and modernized schools.


During the interview the two men touched on two of the issues central to DSGN AGNC's research. First, Fajardo and Mazzanti discuss how architecture can be a tool of political change, but in order to do so effectively the architect has to become part of the political process listening to and working directly with communities and decision makers. Then Fajardo launches a critique of typical development work, cautioning against viewing anything that is done in a poor neighborhood as an automatic gain.

Continuing his critique, Fajardo argues that poor communities should not receive infrastructural 'crumbs' wrapped around claims of meeting basic needs. In short, these communities deserve the best from the professions that are serving them. In architecture that means, for Fajardo and Mazzanti, to be able to bring high aesthetic values to the comunas. The larger point, I think, is that architects are at their best when they work by closely looking at historical precedent and discourse, even in a context like Medellin. The challenge is finding ways that the constraints and challenges found in the comunas can become opportunities to further design ideas and the profession itself.


Back on May 2009 DK and I faced the end of our graduate studies at the GSD and a hostile economic climate. We knew the issues we were interested on pursuing but did not yet have a project. It was then that we decided to go on a research trip to Colombia and see what we could learn.

While in Colombia we went everywhere from the presidential palace in Bogota to the barrio Lleras (comuna 3) in the port city of Buenaventura. The trip opened our eyes to many things, but perhaps nothing was as helpful as understanding the scale of the problem. Colombian government officials estimate that the country needs at least one million housing units, and that number grows every day.


In the current model of practice the architect waits for a single client with the appropriate funds to give them a project. This leads to a profit driven system making the architect subservient to the myopic whims of the market. This system is simply not flexible enough for architects to engage the built environment in a way that can change it.

The practices identified as part of the critical activism tackle the problem of practice in two ways. First they find a new organizational structure and model of financing. Estudio Teddy Cruz (ETC), Rural Studio, Urban Think-Tank and Elemental are all tied to academic institutions while holding a non-profit status as well. This set-up allows flexibility in the identification, design, and financing of projects. Second, this firms are open and seek active collaborations with design professionals and practitioners from other disciplines.


Welcome to DSGN AGNC, a design and research collaboration that seeks to address the global problem of spatial, social, economic, and political inequality in the world's urban peripheries through design praxis. We offer as operational platform the concept of critical activism--that folding activism into the discourse of critical practice opens up new possibilities to rethink the structure and scope of design process. Critical activism postulates that no product is ever final; recognizing that design can only optimize products by calibrating process and performance over time.

As a critical activist practice we believe that the best design solutions emerge out of processes based on collective discovery and experimentation. It is then important for design firms to embrace an open-source methodology, encouraging a larger conversation and sharing of information. As part of our commitment to transparency we are using simple and widely available web tools to pull back the curtain of the design practice; sharing the processes, methodologies, research and ideas that guide our designs.

Entrevista en español con Sergio Fajardo

SF A mí me gusta explicar todo esto de la siguiente manera, Giancarlo. Yo vengo de un mundo privilegiado. Cuando terminé de estudiar bachillerato en Medellín, quería estudiar matemáticas. Era el único de todos mis compañeros que quería hacer algo de esa naturaleza; todos los otros querían ser arquitectos, administradores, ingenieros, médicos, economistas, y ese tipo de cosas. Yo quería estudiar matemáticas y me vine a estudiar acá a Bogotá a la Universidad de los Andes, una universidad privada muy buena. Estudié la carrera y quería seguir estudiando, así que hice una maestría. Quería seguir avanzando y llegar a lo más alto en el mundo científico académico, así que hice un doctorado en Estados Unidos. ¿En qué consiste el privilegio? Tenía puertas abiertas en frente. Para la mayoría de las personas en nuestra sociedad esas puertas no existen. Una de las motivaciones más grandes que yo he tenido siempre ha sido que tener puertas en frente no dependa de la condición social, que no sea un privilegio sino un derecho de una sociedad justa. Y una inquietud personal mía es cómo pasar de la cantidad de lugares comunes asociados con el tema de la educación para hacer de ella algo entendido en el sentido más amplio. Habitualmente la educación se refiere al colegio, el bachillerato, la primaria, etcétera… ¿Cómo hacer una educación donde se incorporen ciencia, tecnología, innovación, emprendimiento, y cultura? ¿Cómo hacer que el motor de la transformación social sea la construcción de la capacidad de las personas para hacer una sociedad justa?

Teníamos claro que íbamos a luchar contra una mezcla única de problemas para nosotros en Colombia: las desigualdades sociales y una violencia con raíces profundas. ¿Cómo ir todos los días disminuyendo la violencia, pero cada vez que la logremos eliminar, llegar con oportunidades sociales? Muchas personas en nuestra sociedad tienen enfrente un muro sellado: en un extremo está una puerta para entrar al mundo de la ilegalidad. El narcotráfico se ha encargado de darle unas dimensiones extraordinarias, y más aún en Medellín. Otra de las puertas conduce a la informalidad. El reto nuestro siempre ha sido como ir abriendo en ese muro sellado puertas, puertas para que la gente pueda transitar e ir participando en la construcción de la esperanza. ¿Qué es la esperanza? Cuando alguien en una comunidad ve un camino que puede seguir. Si solamente está viendo un muro en frente y no ve cómo opciones más que la ilegalidad o la informalidad, esas no son realmente alternativas.

Posted by Rafael Fajardo at March 7, 2010 05:22 PM