In a lecture at the University of Virginia, Camilo Restrepo Ochoa, the principal of Camilo Restrepo Arquitectos, based in Medellin, Colombia, explained that Colombia, with a population of 45 million people, 65 percent of which live in urban areas, is divided by the Andes mountain range, which runs from the south west of the country to the north. Medellin, set in the Aburra Valley, is flanked by mountains on the east and west and bisected by a large, channelized river. The neighborhoods that are situated further from the center of the city, upon steep slopes, are infamous for organized crime. However, Restrepo notes, the administration of the former mayor, Sergio Fajardo, has transformed many of the “comunas,” the term used to refer to the city’s peripheral districts, through social programs. This has provided new opportunities for designers to reimagine the roles and functions of public space.
Restrepo then offered the guiding principle behind his work: architecture must respond to specific social and political conditions. To illustrate how the world has changed in the last several decades, Restrepo showed a photo of the French soccer team in the 1950’s, juxtaposing it with a photo of the current team. He cited Bruno Latour in positing that perhaps we were never modern. “Something has changed, in a very good way,” he says. “How do we in Colombia try to face the objectives and goals for our new society?”
Adapted from Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, Restrepo introduced us to fossils and monsters. Fossils, Restrepo explains, are a “straight link to history,” yet they are difficult to classify. They “look like animals, behave like stones, and have a history in [them].” Current architecture, he proposes, is much like the fossils; pre-established ideas are presented as new, when in reality they have a “clear genealogical line.” Restrepo, however, is not concerned with what’s new in architecture, but rather with change itself. “Where is change in architecture? What makes a new practice?” he asked.
Perhaps this new architecture is a monster, he continues, which, unlike the fossil, with its recognizable form, has abilities and intelligence. “Rather than just giving shape to a void,” Restrepo’s practice seeks to “perform architecture as a thoughtful action for the management and administration of space.” Instead of a hierarchical approach of the architect as the sole owner of the design, Restrepo’s philosophy is one of collaboration. Visits to the site, interviews, and post-occupancy documentation play a large part in the work. “We make open organisms,” he says. “Architecture brings life.”
Restrepo went on to highlight several projects that illustrate his design philosophy. The DG House, constructed this year, is an example of architecture as a “perception – relational device,” a way to affect the human relationship to the world. The project is located in a rural area, overlooking a valley dotted with greenhouses. The swaths of white plastic membranes create a strange contrast with the mountainous horizon. Responding to the site, the design is a horizontal insertion into the hillside, a “plank,” explains Restrepo. To mitigate the cold temperature caused by the local windy conditions, the house is recessed into the ground. Two submarine-like periscope rooms allow for viewing the landscape, while “submerged underground.”
The Orquideorama, designed in collaboration with Camilo Restrepo’s father, J. Paul Restrepo, and Plan B, another Medellin-based architecture firm, re-interprets a tree canopy (see image above and below). The design is made up of ten modular “flower-tree” components – steel towers supporting hexagonal roofs. Each structure is covered in a slatted surface of pinewood. The space mimics the “in-between” condition of being under the tree canopy, neither inside nor outside. It provides the Medellin Botanical Garden with a multi-use venue for concerts, fashion shows, lectures and other gatherings.
One of the firm’s unbuilt designs, the competition entry for the San Cristobal Public Library, demonstrates their commitment to local solutions. A collaboration with the firms Massif, Tres Arquitectura, and Camilo Ramirez, the proposal seeks to create a public space and infrastructure that would ameliorate the edge between an urban neighborhood of Medellin and the adjacent rural area. The landscape serves as a school for agriculture and the building, a resource for residents newly relocated from rural areas.
Over time the landscape is successively reforested, and the farmers are introduced to new technologies through computer modules dispersed in the fields. The activities on the farm are made known to those who pass it with illuminated signs broadcasting information about the crops. The farmers also benefit from a screen showing real-time prices of crops at competing city markets. With the government of Medellin seeking solutions to social problems through inventive use of public space, Restrepo argues that it is important to tailor this space to its specific context. In the case of the San Cristobal Library, both building and landscape lessen the potentially jarring experience of integrating into urban life.
Restrepo concluded by stating that he “strongly believes in friendship” and showed the projects of some of his Colombian colleagues. It is, in part, due to these collaborations, as well as the last administration’s efforts to provide, as Restrepo said, “for the poorest, the best,” that Medellin is seeing a shift towards a safer and more equitable environment.
This guest post is by Dasha Lebedeva, Masters of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture.
Image credits: (1) Sergio Gomez / Camilo Restrepo Arquitectos, (2) Veronica Restrepo / Camilo Restrepo Arquitectos