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).
“From the time I was a child, it was clear to me what aesthetics meant as a tool for social transformation, as a message of inclusion,” Fajardo, whose father was an architect, tells Mazzanti. “That is something that is often misunderstood here. Underneath it all is the most important word in all of those urban interventions in which architecture plays an important role: dignity.”
It was clear to us that we were going to have to confront a unique mixture of problems in Colombia: social inequality and deep-rooted violence. How can we diminish violence every day, but also deliver social opportunities with each individual elimination of violence?
Many people in our society have a solid wall in front of them: at one end is a door to enter into the world of illegality. Drug trafficking has taken on some extraordinary dimensions, more so in Medellín than anywhere else. Another door leads to informality and homelessness. Our challenge has been to open doors in that sealed wall, doors so that people can pass through and go on participating in the construction of hope. What is hope? When someone in the community sees a path they can follow. If they are living with only a wall in front of them and can’t see any options other than illegality and informality, they have no real alternatives.
At one point, Fajardo says, he was advised to bring in international consultants to improve the city’s dangerous image. “It was always very clear to me that the problem in Medellín was not branding,” says Fajardo (who, it should be noted, is running for president in this year's Colombian elections). “We didn’t need to come up with a style campaign: ‘Medellín, life-shaking natural beauty.’ Our trademark is the transformation of the conditions we had and showing that you can take a chance, that we’re capable of doing it, building it, and turning it over, and reaching out to an entire society to build hope.”