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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Models for Sustainability

As the human species marches towards a ubiquitously urban future, many countries and cultures are forced to rethink the impact of their building practices and turn towards new ideas of sustainability.  Some countries are further along in this pursuit than others; the United States lags while the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark consistently erect some of the most energy efficient commercial and residential buildings on the planet.  While the full scope of techniques and methodologies employed by sustainability-seeking Scandinavian architects, engineers and planners is broad, perhaps the essence of their approach can be reduced to three main ideas: building technology, recycling, and infrastructure.

Wall Section ModelBuilding technology in Scandinavia tends to focus on overcoming the cool climate by capturing and recycling heat from all available sources.  The primary heat source is the sun, and most buildings are oriented with large windows facing south, however the heat generated by machinery, appliances and people is also taken into account.  Many windows are double-paned and gas-filled to trap heat and provide a layer of relative insulation, and building walls are heavily insulated with recyclable materials.  Special membranes are applied within walls and interstitial spaces that allow moisture to escape while preventing heat loss through the air, and fresh air is commonly warmed as it enters buildings via heat exchangers that harness energy from thermal and other sources.  The cumulative effect of these technologies is that, despite the cold climate, Scandinavian buildings are more prone to overheat than to be cool, necessitating a keen application of ventilation and understanding of interior air movement.

Recycling processes in Scandinavia go far beyond those used in the United States and are carefully calculated into the overall sustainability and environmental impact of each building.  Materials from demolished buildings are scrupulously sorted on site, then either incorporated into new buildings or moved to a local recycling facility.  The amount of immediately reusable materials can be surprising, often exceeding 80%.  This not only reduces the natural resources required for new construction, but also limits transportation costs, landfill waste, and overall carbon footprint.  Complementing these on-site recycling efforts is the requirement that materials be procured from within a limited distance of the new building, further reducing the carbon footprint.  Such level of care, cleanliness and organization would seem alien to most U.S. builders, however it is in part through this assiduity that the Scandinavians push the boundaries of what is possible in sustainable building construction.

Drammen Section Sketch_1024pxAdding to Scandinavia’s advanced building technologies and recycling procedures are progressive sustainable infrastructures.  In many cases a network of energy exchangers, recycling facilities and waste management programs are laid out before the first building of a community goes up, establishing an integrated recycling framework.  One example of this is Stockholm’s Olympic Village, a once-polluted industrial port area that has been transformed into a robust living and working community bound by clean water and supporting active recreation.  Here residents are expected to sort and place their domestic waste in special canisters which are tied to a network of underground vacuum tubes.  The tubes transport waste to a recycling facility where water is extracted and purified before being released back into the environment.  Products of this recycling process – such as gasses and heat – are further distilled for their fueling and heating properties and then piped back into the community to reduce heating costs.

Student Project Section SketchIt is important to note that Scandinavian architects, engineers and planners draw from well-understood principles of energy efficiency and sustainability when responding to unique site conditions.  This ideology contrasts with that of the U.S., where decisions such as window placement and orientation are often determined using general “rules of thumb,” which ignore natural energy flows and are inefficient or counterproductive.  Also, the Scandinavian application of progressive building technologies and sustainability practices are not necessarily mandated by building regulations, but informed by a culture that has been working with limited resources for hundreds of years.    Scandinavian architects and engineers take a certain pride in pushing the limits of energy efficiency beyond what was previously thought possible, and through this determination are constantly ratcheting the bar higher for themselves.  The legal reverberations of this ambition are that successful prototypes drive future expectations and regulation, not the other way around.

Although differences between the climates of the U.S. and Scandinavia preclude the direct importation of most building technologies, many lessons can be learned.  Perhaps most important is the responsibility of Scandinavian designers to empirically document the performance of their buildings after construction has been completed.  Through this process clients can be shown that they received the building promised in the initial contract – if not, the designers are required to make adjustments.   This process does not restrain designers, but encourages them with the knowledge that their efforts towards sustainability will be recognized and recorded, increasing credibility for the next project.

The Scale of Sand

Landscape architects should not become fixated on large-scale solutions to large-scale problems; oftentimes the key to solving a very big problem lies in the infinitesimal.  One example of this idea is being played out along the eastern shore of New Jersey’s Delaware Bay, where efforts are currently being undertaken to restore migrating bird populations through remediation of beaches where horseshoe crabs breed and lay eggs.  The scale of this project spans continents and responds to a complex web of factors, including biological, geomorphological, and political, yet success or failure may ultimately be dictated by the designers’ sensitivity to individual grains of sand.

At Moore’s Beach, New Jersey, biologists Larry Niles and Amanda Dey are leading an effort to restore migratory bird populations through the remediation of beach habitat for horseshoe crabs.  Crab eggs, which have been historically abundant after the crabs’ breeding season, constitute a primary source of fat for birds as they complete flights spanning distances as far as South America to Canada.  Unfortunately, with the recent loss of beaches due to human development, climate change, and extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy, the number of crabs breeding along Delaware Bay beaches has been greatly reduced.  Without the crab eggs to sustain their journeys, many migrating bird populations have been decimated to the brink of extinction.  Along with this tragic loss of biodiversity come the effects of an upset food web, with far-reaching consequences that may impact human civilization.  It is easy to imagine how insect populations will surge without birds to prey upon them, upheaving sensitive natural ecologies and ultimately leading to increased pestilence among human farms.  Afflicted farmers will likely respond by spraying food fields with excess amounts of pesticides, leading to health problems, further ecological damage, etc.

Work by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2013 | All rights reserved


Work by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2013 | All rights reserved Work by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2013 | All rights reserved

The scale of this problem may at first seem to dictate a large-scale solution, such as dumping thousands of tons of sand back onto the beach to restore crab habitat.  However, this is not the direction that the project leaders are taking.  The research conducted by Larry and Amanda has recognized that it is not simply the presence of sand that provides nursing grounds for the horseshoe crab, but the unique qualities of the individual sand grains that make up areas such as Moore’s Beach.  The size, shape, and consistency of the grains influence the overall structure of the beach, holding it at a specific grade and preventing it from being washed away.  Within this environment the crab eggs are protected from disruption but not oversaturated or suffocated, allowing them to develop properly and encouraging pregnant crabs to utilize the beach as a nursery.  To properly restore the beaches, project leaders have gained the approval of political officials, government agencies and local residents to bring in highly-specific sands from nearby sand mining operations.  Although such beach restoration efforts do involve the movement of many tons of sand and the careful use of heavy machinery, operations are highly targeted and relatively small in scale as compared to other go-to beach replenishment solutions.

The important work of Larry Niles and Amanda Dey looks promising and should be both commended and supported, but beyond that their approach should be incorporated by those in the design fields.  Landscape architects and urban designers would do well to rethink the notion of “scale-for-scale” interventions, i.e. a large-scale problem does not necessarily warrant a large-scale solution (this type of thinking is more the purview of engineers and infamous city planners like Robert Moses.)  Good landscape architects and planners should be prepared to initiate sensitive, site-specific design investigations that first look towards the fruitful complexity of a problem’s constituent elements before attempting to apply a large-scale solution.

Concept Art vs Architecture

Work from Feng Zhu Design blog

Due to my artistic proclivities I am drawn to industrial design, or entertainment concept design (see FZD School of Design’s YouTube channel to see what I’m talking about.)  I oftentimes consider what the fundamental differences are between this type of media-driven conceptual work and the work of an architect.  What about the differences between architects and Hollywood set designers, cinematographers, or directors?  All are creating spatial experiences in one form or another and there are surely some crossovers in skills.  However, I was thinking today that there is one intrinsic characteristic that seems to set architecture apart from all else, which is this:

The media artist or industrial designer bases his work off imagery that has already proven successful.  He might push this envelope a bit or add his own style to it, but, in the end, he is constrained by what the public can easily accept, readily identify with, and quickly buy into.

The architect, on the other hand, is free to invert all conceptions, analyze time and space from new or unexplored perspectives, and foment completely new paradigms that might create far-reaching change.  The media designer pushes envelopes in the pursuit of marketing – the architect destroys and rebuilds envelops in the pursuit of a better world.