Medell'n, Colombia

Although Medellín, Colombia, a valley metropolis of more than two million in the northern reaches of the Andes, is sometimes called the City of Eternal Spring, it is better known for its erstwhile reputation as Murder Capital of the World. It earned its nickname when drug lord Pablo Escobar and his minions made it the center of their business operations in the second half of the 20th century, and guerilla and paramilitary groups and street gangs proliferated in their wake. Though Escobar was “taken out” 15 years ago and the crime rate has dropped dramatically, Medellín has been fighting a long uphill battle to reinvent itself and gain back its reputation as a vibrant commercial and academic center.

Parque Biblioteca Espa'a

Following in the footsteps of the country’s capital, Bogotá, the city started developing a social master plan in the late 1990s. By creating infrastructure, architecture, and community programs, the government hoped to bring opportunity to the lower classes (to repay a historical social debt of inequity), improve the quality of life for all, and draw business and tourism to Medellín. Since the turn of the millennium, the city has been experiencing a building boom (guided most notably by Mayor Sergio Fajardo) of parks, housing, schools, libraries, and new public transportation—concentrated primarily in poorer neighborhoods—for which it has employed many accomplished designers from within the country.

In 2005, Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, whose firm is based in Bogotá, was awarded two public commissions by way of open competition, and has designed a pair of libraries, one in the neighborhood of La Ladera, the other the Parque Biblioteca España, whose striking, unorthodox form sits in stark contrast to the makeshift architecture around it in Santo Domingo Savio barrio.

Completed in 2007 at a total cost of about $4 million, Parque Biblioteca España, which looks out over the valley from its hillside perch among simple brick and stucco structures, has a profound presence and has caused quite a stir, which has spread far beyond the neighborhood. At the end of the last century, the Santo Domingo Savio barrio was considered one of the most violent in all Latin America—so dangerous that the police purportedly would rarely enter. Though much improved today (no longer dominated by a panoply of outlaws, it is now fairly safe to walk around), it is still an impoverished district. Few cars use the winding, narrow streets, so a strange silence pervades, penetrated by the rattling of homemade go-carts that children race down the hills. Most people enter the neighborhood by way of the new Metrocable, a gondola that serves some of the city’s more depressed and inaccessible areas. Mazzanti responded to this most unusual site by building not just a public facility in a densely populated community, but also a point of pride for the neighborhood and a symbol for the larger city. The program requirements were straightforward, calling for a library, auditorium, classrooms, and administration areas.

Though the 11,500-square-foot library’s three discrete, boulderlike shapes were informed by the rugged, mountainous terrain, they also help the building stand out from the surrounding neighborhood, emphasizing its monumental scale and muscular stance. The program is simply divided among the three masses: auditorium, library, and community center, which are linked by a rectilinear concrete podium at the main level. The various areas are entered through this “covered public square,” which is topped with a wood deck, connecting the volumes at the next level and offering dramatic views down into the valley through the voids between the faceted mounds.

The facades’ glazing is limited to small square and rectangular windows grouped in irregular patterns on axis or on a diagonal. Daylight enters the library and community center mostly by skylights that run around the periphery of the roof and bring light into the broad floor-to-ceiling chasm between the poured-in-place concrete core and the steel-framed envelope, which is clad with dark stone tile. The library’s core houses three stacked, double-height reading rooms, each ringed with computer stations in upper balconylike mezzanines that look down on the rooms below. At its uppermost level, an event space tops off the core. The community center holds a day care in one of the lower levels and, within the core, classrooms/workshops and an exhibition/event area. The auditorium is a simple white space lined in drywall with dark strips of acoustic fabric on the back wall and ceiling. Its stadium seating follows the steep contour of the hillside to which the whole building clings. The solitary source of daylight, a cluster of small windows, admits light into the backstage area. Limiting apertures to create an inward-looking building was an intentional move by Mazzanti. This “disconnects the people temporarily from their context,” says the architect. “We wanted to take people from this poor community into another place and change their reality.” And it works: In the pleasant interiors, animated with children’s activity, one quickly forgets the difficult realities of the world just beyond the library’s confines.

Mazzanti employed simple materials, such as the dark stone tile for the exterior walls, which comes from the Bogotá area; a local stone tile for the floors, commonly referred to as “café pinto”; and drywall. Oak paneling sheathes many of the interiors in the library core, and is accented with squares of lime-green laminated glass, while a dark stained patula pine wall system encloses the core space in the community center.

Though the library has only been open about a year and a half, it is already showing signs of aging. There is water damage around many of the windows, and some of the exterior tile, which is fastened to a fiber-cement-board substrate with rivets, has fallen off, while a white efflorescence runs down portions of the facades. These problems are largely attributable to the difficulties of public construction in Medellín. Among other things, Mazzanti says he had just three months for the design phase (which is typical for public work), and that construction deadlines were pushed—and corners cut—to complete the building in time for a visit from King Juan Carlos I of Spain who contributed a small sum toward the project (hence its name). Mazzanti, who says that he is working to make the necessary repairs, also acknowledges that pushing the envelope with the design may have been a stretch for the government-assigned local work crews, which use low-tech construction methods and low-skilled labor.

Construction quality is one factor that has left the Colombian architecture community divided on the library, which won the 2008 Iberoamerican Architecture Biennial award and has grabbed the widespread attention of the international press. “The fact that it received an award has caused the first real uproar we have had in the architecture community for years,” says one Colombian architect, explaining that some believe the library, among other things, is not representative of “Colombian architecture.” But others question the existence of a single, authentic vernacular. “It’s not so much a Colombian tradition as a Salmona tradition,” says another architect, referring to the detailed masonry work that became the hallmark of the revered late Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona, a widely adopted approach with which Mazzanti does not actively identify. Instead, Mazzanti, who says he is “interested in understanding conditions that reflect what the world is today,” maintains that inserting riskier, global architecture in this context was necessary to create the symbolic gesture he was after.

With the Parque Biblioteca España, Mazzanti set out to create an icon, and in this he has been successful. With its site, bold forms, and materials, the library is the most visible of the projects associated with Medellín’s recent program to use architecture to effect social change. It has also helped catalyze a challenged community, especially its children, who flood the computer stations and play and socialize on the deck. Additionally, the building has created a pride of place, with boys even greeting visitors getting off the gondola by offering “architectural” tours. This is quite a change from the feared neighborhood of the recent past. Given all this, of course, it is incumbent on the city to maintain the building: Watching a symbol of hope fall into disrepair could have troubling consequences. It is critical that the powers that be in the municipal government have a continued interest in the Parque Biblioteca España and other programs they have helped bring into the small world of Medellín.