Architectural Lessons from the Remaking of Medellín

Rubin Global Design Studio

Rubin Global Design Studio leads students on a study and tour of progressive urban architecture in Medellín, Colombia.

Colorful architecture and rolling hills in Medellín, Columbia

Students in last fall’s Rubin Global Design Studio researched, analyzed, and created building projects in contemplation of a South American city transformed through architecture. A weeklong trip to Medellín, Colombia, with School of Architecture professor Francisco Sanin, brought all of their work into focus. Once known for its drug cartels, dangerous streets, and extreme poverty, Medellín underwent a revitalization in less than a generation through progressive urban and architectural planning. In their travels throughout the city, students saw the details of the transformation in the unique cable car system that transports hillside dwellers to the jobs in the valley below; in the new libraries, community centers, and playgrounds; and in the artwork by local artists in poor and marginalized communities. The experience was a revelation for Christina Rubino ’19. “The government is using its funds to create top-of-the-line architectural projects in the poorest areas of the city,” she says. “This was the first time I had really been able to see how architecture can change a society and help people in powerful and meaningful ways.”

Supported by School of Architecture alumnus Todd B. Rubin ’04, the Rubin Global Design Studio has sponsored architecture students’ travel to international cities for the past six years to immerse themselves in other cultures. For the latest studio class, Sanin—who grew up and was educated in Medellín, and played a role in its comeback—was a fitting navigator during the studio and trip, which allowed students to experience a city that has benefited from new ways of thinking about urban architecture. “For our students, it’s a great opportunity to understand and experience one of the most interesting cities in terms of urban design,” Sanin says. “As a faculty member to be able to expose our students and school to these ideas is amazing, and as a person from Medellín to be able to bring and hopefully provoke new ideas from students is also quite exciting.”

Students look over Professor Restrepo's shoulder at architectural models
Students in the Rubin Global Design Studio course listen to Alejandro Restrepo, professor and city architect, as he examines a student team’s project at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín. Photo courtesy of Francisco Sanin.

Designated by Time magazine in 1988 as “the most dangerous city in the world,” Medellín was reawakened through the work of a progressive mayor—and his successors—and a continuing collective of politicians, city administrators, urban designers, artists, and architects, including Sanin. Beginning in the early 2000s, public buildings and spaces were constructed in neighborhoods plagued by violence and insecurity. The philosophy of then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo was to build the most beautiful buildings in the most disadvantaged areas to give dignity and provide opportunities for those communities—instead of creating impressive structures near the seats of wealth and power. By 2007, The New York Times was heralding this urban and political transformation.

Sanin has traveled back countless times to contribute to and promote the ideas of urbanism and thoughtful design to the city and through collaboration with the architectural community and colleagues at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB), which became a center of research for many of the projects implemented by Fajardo. “The transformation was a very long process with the participation of very many different people from all sectors of society,” Sanin says, including community groups and grassroots and international organizations.

The city used architecture and urban design as a tool for social and political transformation. Within the span of four years the mayor had empowered the city and the city was completely turned around.

—Francisco Sanin

Working with Fajardo and in celebration of the end of his time as mayor, Sanin was invited by the mayor to serve as the academic director of a series of events, colloquiums, symposiums, and theater presentations to disseminate information about what was happening. Sanin and a friend and fellow architect, Alejandro Echeverri, also created a master’s program in architecture and the URBAM research center at Universidad EAFIT to further develop the ideas. In recent years, the city has won international prizes for its stunning transformation, including the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in Singapore and the Curry Stone Prize in the United States, and was named most innovative city in the world in 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and Citi, with the Urban Land Institute. “The city used architecture and urban design as a tool for social and political transformation,” Sanin says. “Within the span of four years the mayor had empowered the city and the city was completely turned around.”

In telling the story of Medellín to his students, Sanin kicked off last fall’s studio with a lecture and panel discussion in September at the School of Architecture with three key people in the Medellín transformation: Echeverri, director of URBAM in Medellín; Jorge Pérez, former director of urban planning and former acting mayor of Medellín; and Alejandro Restrepo, current director of strategic urban projects for Medellín. The experts led students in workshops to help them develop projects examining the work that had been done, proposing new ideas, and addressing such issues as social segregation that limits interaction between communities.

Architecture’s Role in Change

On their 10-day trip to Medellín during Thanksgiving break, students explored the city with Sanin—and Rubin, who also accompanied the students—and toured the sites they had been studying. Student Anita Karimu ’19 remembers their visit to Communa 13—once a dangerous hillside barrio known for drug cartels, now a district with artistic graffiti and connected to the city below with a 900-foot-long escalator and gondola cars, making the city more accessible. “The community was one of the most violent in the city and was transformed through a series of social and architectural projects,” Karimu says. “It was inspiring to see how architecture on various scales can truly change lifestyles and tangibly experience how design decisions we make in the classroom can shape the world.”

Students climbing a steep sidewalk in a rural area of Medellín
Architecture students, along with alumnus Todd Rubin ’04, explore the hilled walkways of Medellín's neighborhoods.

Officials with the local universities, UPB and EAFIT, provided the students with space to work and a guide to help them through the city. Sanin noted a special connection between EAFIT and Syracuse University, which had been recommended by the U.S. State Department in the 1960s to the South American university to help guide the university in establishing a business school. “We met with EAFIT’s chancellor who sent our Chancellor [Kent Syverud] a photo of Syracuse faculty arriving in the ’60s. It was a momentous occasion,” Sanin says.

Students also met with city officials, including Mayor Federico Gutiérrez; university students, with whom they engaged in conversations about their understanding of architecture; and members of other institutions in Medellín. Meeting with Gutiérrez in his private office, students heard about the heavy investments made in the transportation systems, technical issues, and social changes that had been brought about with jobs now more easily accessible. “It was a precious opportunity, as college students, to directly exchange our ideas on urban design and development with the mayor,” says Kefan Zhuo G’17.

As architects in training, students learned how urban design embraces the lives of the city’s residents. “One big lesson that many government officials emphasized was the need for urban designers to truly learn about and understand the culture of the people and the place in which they are designing before designs are made,” Karimu says. “The most successful urban interventions in the city were not the ones that copied ideas from other famous cities, but the ones that truly embodied Colombian culture and the way of life of the people into the design and program.”

Students listen to Chancellor Juan Luis Mejia speak
Architecture professor Francisco Sanin and Syracuse students meet with Chancellor Juan Luis Mejia of Universidad EAFIT.

During their time in Medellín, students visited the sites of their proposed projects. Rubino and her partner scaled steep stairs and pathways to examine a remotely located sports complex and soccer stadium with a school next to it. In their proposal, the students wanted to overcome the problem of a lack of public space due to the natural landscape and raised the school on a continuous plinth, cutting in the mountain. Within the space, they included shops, a tech center, and library on the same level as the school, with a public space connecting to the soccer stadium. “We solved the problem of topography, but still had elements that are true to the natural landscape while also making it easier for people to use the space,” she says.

Zhuo and his partner collaborated on an urban renewal proposal for downtown Medellín, called Urban Infiltration. They proposed using a series of paths to connect the inner voids of urban blocks to bring in more diverse activities and creating a linear megastructure above existing buildings. “The social idea of this project is residents are relocated into the upper level with better living quality, better ventilation and illumination,” Zhuo says. “Meanwhile the existing lower level is transformed into a mixed-use neighborhood.” Impressed by the students’ work, the city’s architect is planning a publication of their proposals with Sanin.

Creating Better Cities

As a teacher of urban design and an advocate for the success of Medellín, Sanin has brought the ideas of the progressive city to the rest of the world. In 2017, Sanin was recommended by the city to present at the United Nations in May as a panelist at the Gateway Portals to the City conference. “The presentation was about the case of Medellín and showing how it is possible for architecture to play a transformative role in a city, and it is possible to do it if accompanied by the political and social vision,” he says.

Sanin also organized a forum of city architects in November as part of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. The role of a city architect has now become more prevalent with the importance of urban design and public spaces—and their impact in collective life and sustainability, both social and ecological. “The idea is to come together and think about creating a global network of city architects who share ideas, projects, and initiatives on how architecture can help create a better city,” Sanin says.

Medellín hillside featuring Spain Library Park
The Spain Library Park, located in a hillside neighborhood in Medellín, is representative of the city government's social master plan to enhance economic and social opportunities in the poorest areas of the city.

Sanin continued to work with Fajardo on urban planning when he became governor of the state of Antioquia in Colombia, and is also involved in projects in South Korea, China, and Mexico. He is constantly fascinated by urban life and all that it offers. “There is a hopeful negotiation of all the differences and conflicts we have and perhaps in creating a more equitable and just society,” Sanin says. Collectively working together and teaching students to be not just expressive but responsible for those ideals is important, he says. “That’s where we start.”

For Sanin’s students, they saw the larger picture of urban architecture and the impact they could have on larger issues of life and society through their own professional lives. “Professionally, this trip helped me to look at my studio education as more than just an academic exercise but begin to see the real-world implications of what I design and the ramifications of different decisions I make,” Karimu says.

The relationship between urban design and architecture was another lesson learned for students. “I’ve become more interested in not just working on a singular building, but something within the urban realm,” Rubino says. “People are coming back to cities from the suburbs, and, through urban design, cities can be places not just for work but as truly livable spaces for families and people of all ages.”

Kathleen Haley

This story was published on . It also appeared as “​A City Transformed” in the Spring 2018 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


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