A Coin, Spinning: Glimpsing the multiple faces of Colombia

This summer I have had the great opportunity to work, travel, and study in Colombia, a country that lies in the extreme northwestern region of the South American continent and is home to over 45 million people.  Through a school connection I was able to secure a job at a small architectural office in the capitol city of Bogotá, where I have picked up some useful skills and a perspective on the design professions that I expect will be of great value in the future.  Over the summer I also participated in a study program organized by PennDesign, during which I met with leaders of prestigious design firms and explored the architectural landscapes Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena, with a particular focus on the ways in which design is responding to the challenges and potentials of informal settlement.

Typical informal development on a hillside in Bogotá, Colombia

Typical informal development on a hillside in Bogotá, Colombia | photo: Tom MacDonald | 2014

The architectural history of Colombia and the complexities of informal settlement are beyond the scope of this blog post, however I would like to say a few words about life in Colombia and how it has altered my perceptions on civilization.  Colombia is a developing nation that feels at times rich and exciting, and at other times uncomfortable, sad and risky.  In every Colombian city one gets the sense that a bright future is emerging, yet it is clear that many are being left behind.  Walking the streets you see an endless array of small independent shops and feel an air of excited entrepreneurship, yet it is unmistakable that this shining atmosphere lies juxtaposed against a shadow of extreme poverty and desperate criminality.  It is as if a massive coin is balanced on end and spinning around in the street, flashing the dichotomous faces of the country’s nature as you bump your way past it.

During my short time here I have personally sampled a bit of this duality, as illustrated by the following anecdote.  Upon my first arrival to Bogotá I had the good fortune to rent a room in the trendy neighborhood of Chapinero, where I resided comfortably in the company of two designers.  For the first few days I explored this neighborhood exclusively, enjoying cafes and restaurants that would rival those of any middle-class American neighborhood.  At this point I considered Colombia to be a developed nation, surely with its trouble spots, but clearly over-exaggerated in its reputation for danger and disorder.

Within a week I was enduring one of the worst illnesses of my life.  I had contracted an intestinal parasite from drinking water at a bar, and after an unsuccessful week-long attempt at fighting off the infection I found myself in a state of agonizing pain and extreme dehydration.  By this point I was certain that my initial judgement of the country was inaccurate and naive – Colombia was certainly not a developed nation on the level of the U.S., but an unhygienic and dangerous place I wished only to escape.  As I walked to and from work gripping my aching stomach I was induced to lend greater recognition to the conditions of poverty and risk that I passed along every street.

Giardia is a parasite found in contaminated water in every country in the world. It can cause chronic diarrhea lasting for several weeks, in addition to vague pain, weight loss, excessive burping, bloating, and fatigue. |photo: Dr. Stan Erlandsen | 1988

Giardia is a parasite found in contaminated water in every country in the world. It can cause chronic diarrhea lasting for several weeks, in addition to vague pain, weight loss, excessive burping, bloating, and fatigue. |photo: Dr. Stan Erlandsen | 1988

Upon reaching the point of fearing for my life due to the illness, I grudgingly implored my boss to assist me to the hospital for treatment.  At this point I expected nothing but a terrible experience from a Colombian hospital; surely this would prove to be a costly procedure coupled with limited medical competency and unhygienic conditions serving only to place me at further risk.  Again my perceptions on the country were reversed; I received excellent professional medical care in a clean, modern facility that was far quicker and infinitely less expensive than anything I have experienced in the United States.  Within a few days I was completely cured – though a thinner version of myself – and was once again enjoying the vibrant life of Bogota.

In the weeks following the incident I extended my exploration of the City, delving into skyscraper landscapes of downtown, the colorful historic district of La Candelaria, and the impoverished but surprisingly endearing outlying informal barrios.  I travelled to other cities and observed consistent patterns, and in time came to a singular conclusion: the country of Colombia exists as a state in which multiple distinct social and architectural realities coincide alongside and against each other, bleeding back and forth, lurching forward in the throws of resolving one another unto themselves.  Beginning to comprehend this condition through personal experience and critical architectural consideration has been a revelatory experience for me not only as a designer, but as a human being interested in understanding the concepts and trajectories of civilization.

El Bosque de la Esperanza (the Forest of Hope) in the Altos de Cazucá barrio of Bogota, Colombia | photo: Tom MacDonald | 2014

El Bosque de la Esperanza (the Forest of Hope) in the Altos de Cazucá barrio of Bogota, Colombia | photo: Tom MacDonald | 2014

My time in Colombia has felt as duplicitous as the country itself.  While at times uncomfortable and uncertain, I have been moved by the surge of optimism and potential for upward mobility that accompanies limited government interference and loose business regulations.  I have experienced the vibrance of evolving seaside cities and the beauties of tiny coffee towns tucked into misty green mountains.  I have looked down upon sprawling informal cities from swinging gondolas and walked the corridors of massive underground temples.  And I have enjoyed the culture of an easy-going people who dance salsa to the anthem of a rising country.  At times I have considered that Colombia is to the U.S. as the jungle is to a farm: perhaps more uncertain, but far richer, wilder in an enabling sense, and full of hidden opportunities waiting to be discovered.

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