Hard Lines, Soft Lines, Broken Lines: An Architectural Analysis of the Colombian Built Environment

Typical residential expansion methodology
in the United States (left) and Colombia (right)


1. being in accordance with the usual requirements, customs, etc.;conventional: to pay one's formal respects.
2. marked by form or ceremony: a formal occasion.
3. designed for wear or use at occasions or events marked by elaborate ceremony or prescribed social observance: The formal attire included tuxedos and full-length gowns.
4. requiring a type of dress suitable for such occasions: a formal dance.
5. observant of conventional requirements of behavior, procedure,etc., as persons; ceremonious.


1. without formality or ceremony; casual: an informal visit.
2. not according to the prescribed, official, or customary way or manner; irregular; unofficial: informal proceedings.
3. suitable to or characteristic of casual and familiar, but educated,speech or writing.

FORMAL: being in accordance with the usual requirements, customs, etc.;conventional: to pay one's formal respects.
INFORMAL:not according to the prescribed, official, or customary way or manner; irregular; unofficial: informal proceedings.

In contemporary architectural discourse, formalism is an oft-touted term to describe buildings that project meaning solely through their form.  While the professional and academic community recognizes this term formalism as a paradigm for buildings to aspire to beauty, the currents of social and architectural discourse are beginning to shift.  While the formalism-for-form’s-sake of iconic skyscrapers and megastructures is undeniably elegant, three new means of organization also exist: the biomimic, the modular, and the informal. The first two means are most often found in more developed parts of the world; biomimic organization seeks to represent natural systems and organizational strategies through technology and construction, modular organization seeks to represent buildings through their accretion and addition over time through the repetitive use of modular elements (most notably through the architectural experimentation of the Japanese metabolists and increasingly in the work of parametric mass customization).  But organization through informal means is perhaps the least understood of these three means; rather than working to impose an order upon a building’s form, informalism emerges as the unpredictable formal development of a space when left to time and the common hand of builders who expand and manifest their personal spatial needs within the framework of a traditional architectural space.
While in Colombia this summer our class worked to understand this breed of informalism set against the backdrop of a rapidly developing South American nation.  While we visited three major metropolitan areas (Medellin, Bogota, and Cartagena) we also passed through many informal metropolitan areas that were often not demarcated by markers or traditional signs of urban development, but rather by their lack of formal organization and development.  These two forces, the formal and the informal, battle against each other in all aspects of Colombian life from architecture to social and political structure.  But most notably and visibly, colombian cities have responded to this battle between the formal and the informal in one of three ways: 1) the Hard Line: embracing and enforcing the formal. 2) The Soft Line: imposing the formal only to have it systematically rejected by the city’s forces of the informal. 3) the Broken Line: by finding ways to stitch together forces of the formal and the informal into a patchwork quilt of built spaces that begin to approximate how cities and architectural projects can predict an evolution of design that provides a well-organized project within an infrastructure that can accommodate eventual appropriation and expansion based on the informal and formal needs of the building’s users and inhabitants.
In this paper I will explore how the these three expositions of the formal and informal have manifested by analysing one case study in each city.  For Medellin, a city that has imposed Hard Line formal development I will analyze San Cristobal Biblioteca and the shifting tides of Colombian architectural formalism.   For Bogota, a city that has imposed Soft Line formal development I will analyze Biblioteca El Tintal and the failures of hard-line formal Colombian architecture.  And for Cartagena I will be analyzing the city walls and the shifting use and forms of public infrastructure.


Chapter 1: Medellin -- the Hard Line

Medellin: Bound by mountains on either side
 and organized along a central axis, the city's E-W expansion
 challenges the traditional boundaries of the city
Medellin: a city constrained. As two high ridges of the Andes mountains have guided the city into a linear North-South development along the base of these two ridges, forces of informal occupation have pushed the city’s poorest citizens to develop ever-higher reaches of the eastern and western mountain slopes.  But over the past several decades as Medellin has recovered from cartel wars and narco-trafficking, city officials have taken proactive measures to develop a system of subway lines that funnel public transit North-South along the valley floor and a system of cable cars that extend up the eastern and western mountain slopes to service the informal barrios of the city’s poorest residents.  

The city’s effective implementation of this linear transit route has ensured that even the most far-flung and least provided-for residents have easy access to central city plazas and a direct access route of formal transit through dangerous intermediary neighborhoods to access jobs and social centers throughout the metropolitan region.  In short, Medellin has been able to successfully construct a formal system of spatial and social organization around unyielding social and infrastructural hard lines.  This conflict of hard lines against informal social practices is perhaps visible most poignantly in the Fernando Botero  biblioteca (library) in San Cristobal.  Although the neighborhood is peripheral to the city core, it is easily accessible through the city’s MetroCable cable car system and the library sits in a prominent point from which by day it stands out as a beacon of culture and security to the neighborhood, and at night blends into the backdrop of the city to create a much-needed public resource space -- almost a theatrical stage on which the informal antics of the Colombian barrio can thrive under the watchful eye of a building built to protect and defend its users.  

G Aterlier's Biblioteca Fernando Botero (above) mirrors the traditional
 Colombian building expansion methodology with a greater capacity
to adapt than Mazzanti's Biblioteca Espana (below left)
 or Felipe Uribe's Biblioteca EPM (below right)
But while the Fernando Botero library is admired for its sleek ‘hard line’ elegance, the building’s true mastery comes through its interior layout.  Circulation around the building enters through a central axis entry (along the building’s longest two faces) to a run of interior circulation that connects private office spaces with reading rooms, performance halls, and computer labs.  While each of these spaces are well placed within the overall building form, the most ingenious element of the building’s layout is the inclusion of a structural grid that will allow for the addition of a future second floor above the central reading room.  The architect’s understanding of informal growth in the San Cristobal neighborhood took into account that the building would need to grow as the community grows, and rather than placing a formal second floor above the reading room he decided to instead lay the formwork for a second floor but let the future use of the library dictate what programmatic elements should occupy the second storey.

How can we view this in light of other hard line buildings in Medellin? Whereas many of the city’s formalist structures act as sculptures lifted on pedestals to be admired by the surrounding neighborhoods (Felipe Uribe’s plaza structures and Giancarlo Mazzanti’s Biblioteca Espana for example), these buildings are icebergs. Islands of fixed use unable to be modified or expanded upon from within.  They hold true to Medellin city’s desire to see the city respond to orderly hard line fixed and formal structures. But at San Cristobal biblioteca (unlike most notably Santo Domingo biblioteca), future use is anticipated and designed into the building’s design and construction.  A happy marriage of the informal nature of barrio development cast starkly in contrast with the city’s desire to see buildings as fixed and formal cultural establishments unchanging as the years go by.

Chapter 2: Bogota -- the Soft Line

Bogota: Bound by mountains to the East, its
soft infrastructure enables unbounded urban sprawl
to the west, exceeding the city's traditional boundary
at the Bogota River.
In Bogota, a city long marked by corruption and political upheaval, the orderly Paisa culture of Medellin is replaced by the more industrious and toilsome Cochoco Bogota spirit of business and bureaucracy.  At its core, the city of Bogota seems only to exist so that the nation’s financial, military, and political engines can maintain order within the country.  And  to a large degree this spirit of pervades all aspects of capital: although over the past twenty years there have been non-partisan political forces that have truly transformed Bogota socially and economically -- most famously the mayoral duo of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa -- for the most part political regimes have supported alternating conservative and liberal factions toward corruptive ends and blurred results.  This alternating of policies from anti-urban to pro-urban, from pro-mass-transit policies to the city’s current eight-year stint against expanding the city’s existing TransMilenio BRT, all of this points toward a mixed opinion of urbanism and social architecture in general.  Other than some exquisite works by Colombian master architect Rogelio Salmona the city is rife with mid-rise apartments and offices that take a neutral stance toward public space, a decidedly anti-urban approach to city sprawl, and a highly conservative approach to the use of traditional brick and concrete construction techniques.  Unlike Medellin where social and political culture draws a hard line between the formal and the informal, in Bogota wherever the city government draws a line -- formal or informal -- the forces of the city work to blur the boundary and smooth out any difference between one and the other.  Bogota is a city of soft lines between the formal and the informal.

Biblioteca El Tintal takes the soft frame of the city's original
waste disposal facility and expands it past its original boundaries
to create a light-filled urban library center
With such a history of political oscillation and fluctuation between formal and informal urban forces, the best building to exemplify the characteristics of this soft line city is the El Tintal Biblioteca in El Tintal, a neighborhood southwest of the city’s center.  El Tintal Biblioteca (library) is one of four major libraries in Bogota, and as El Tintal has only emerged as a residential core neighborhood within the past twenty years it is also one of the neighborhoods least tied to the political mistakes and fluctuations of the past.  But true to form, Bogota finds a way to blur the boundaries between the new and the old, between useable space and unusable no-mans-lands, between space for formal functions and informal operations, and between programmed zones and unprogrammed parks and plazas.  Although El Tintal Biblioteca could have been located anywhere within the El Tintal barrio, architect Daniel Bermudez chose to site the building around an existing waste facility.  The facility’s existing ramp structure -- although originally only intended for waste disposal -- was converted into a central axis entry that projects out over a conflicted public plaza.  Is the open space meant to be used as an extension of the library? Is it meant to be used as an extension of the large public park next door? From our observations there were formal operations on the plaza (library tours, public seating, and bike spaces) but the plaza was also home to illegal/informal street vendors, hawkers asking for money, and local kids just trying their hand at learning moves on their skateboards.

When given the opportunity, buildings and plazas in Bogota are planned as formal developments to be used for formal purposes.  But for every intended use, the people and social practices of Bogota seem to seek out an equilibrium of formal and informal uses for the city’s many public (and sometimes not-so-public) spaces.

Chapter 3: Cartagena -- the Broken Line

Cartagena: bound by the Caribbean
to the North and West, the city's
development has stitched and
broken apart sections of the
city to create new urban develop-
ment zones
Given the transition between Medellin to Bogota -- from a city of hard lines to a city of soft lines, formal to blurred formal, you would perhaps anticipate that Cartagena is a city of utmost informality. A place where social customs trump spatial customs and physical boundaries kneel at the feet of unspoken cultural boundaries.  But the incredible gradient that is visible throughout Colombia that to American outsiders appears to range from formal to informal is actually, in fact, all formal.  There is no informal business in Colombia (unless it is relative to American business).  Every social custom, every spatial use, every physical boundary, and every cultural norm is in fact a formal process and quantifiable reality to Colombians.  For that reason Cartagena makes for a fascinating urban and architectural laboratory since so many of the city’s buildings date back for 200+ years and many of the practices that we students witnessed on the streets, which seem so informal and ad hoc to us, are in fact cultural forms of expression that have been passed down from generation to generation (this formalization of the informal is monumentalized perfectly through the iron statues scattered around the city depicting everyday Cartagenan Costenos engaged in informal activities.  The fruit-basket ladies. The ice-grinders. The men playing chess-- all are formal characters and formal practices cast into the life of Cartagenans, meant to remind locals and visitors alike that their city is one in which old and new, past and present, are stitched together by practices and not by policies.  

A perfect example to understand this informal formality is the multifaceted use of Las Paredes de Cartagena -- the city walls of Cartagena.  At one time these walls stood to repel invaders.  To protect the city from intrusion. To maintain order within the city and to command from each post and wall walk a respect for the Spanish military that kept the city safe.  But today the walls have been appropriated in a way that breaks down old spatial formalities and replaces them with new and specialized practices of informality which, over time, have themselves been re-crystallized as formal practices.  

Just as the physical terrain has been torn apart
and stitched together at the regional scale, so too
have Cartagena's historic walls (shown dashed)
been torn apart in order to stitch the city's colonial
center back into the urban fabric
The walls now serve to welcome guests from around the world.  They stand as cultural icons photographed for tourist brochures meant to draw foreigners toward the city-- completely different from their repelling intentions during the colonial era.  The walls have been perforated by roads that allow cars to pass in and out with ease, while raised stone walkways that once were traversed only by the military elite have now been reappropriated as a series of small public ‘parks’, each serving a specialized formally informal function.  While one segment of the wall may be the ideal location to sit and sip a cool drink at Cafe del Mar, another segment makes use of cobblestone window-wells as the ultimate location to share in an intimate conversation.  Weddings are hosted and marriages are proposed on the same crenelations that once staged battles between the Cartagena imperialists and attacking invaders.

Suffice all of this to say that the walls of Cartagena function as an excellent metaphor for boundaries in the Caribbean city.  While most neighborhoods and buildings are separated by an archipelago of water (or walls at the scale of individual buildings) they are connected visually, programmatically, and in every way culturally, through rips, tears, and stitches.  Perhaps the walls act as a metaphor for cultural and architectural formalism in Colombia as well: given enough time, informal customs will crystalize into formal arrangements that bring buildings and people into a closer relationship with their social and physical environments.

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