Blow my whistle, baby (from Medellín’s contemporary fortresses)

Browsing through Medellín: guía de la transformación ciudadana. 2004- 2011  (Alcaldía de Medellín, 2011) I stumbled upon some interesting pieces of architecture that were constructed with the aim of providing peripheral areas of Medellín security and protection. What seems like a fortress at first sight, was allegedly conceived as a lighthouse meant to “illuminate and orientate man in dark lands”.*

Commissioned by EDU [Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano de Medellín], the architect of the seven security buildings [CAI-s periféricos], John Octavio Ortiz Lopera describes their conception in the following way: “these buildings are designed based on communal imaginary that allow us to recuperate and strengthen the positive image of the police and the state in peripheral developing territories. The physical investment is accompanied by social programmes and integral policies of security and cohabiting that seek the comprehensive transformation of the city.”*

The first thing that comes to my mind is how very awesome it is when architects know how to turn whichever piece of construction into a nearly sublime lived experience thanks to their well developed rhetoric. Secondly, what bullshit! Take a look a the building below (and check this video if  you don’t get the picture) and you’ll also be asking where is it that the interaction with the citizenry takes place. I mean, sure, the hillside areas need a stronger police presence because of the high crime rates, but must the surveillance system really be made so very obvious?



9 CAI-s were projected covering pretty much the whole hillside periphery of the valley of Aburrá (in which Medellín sits), leaving only the area corresponding to the district of El Poblado outside the surveillance network. El Poblado is Medellín’s high-end neighborhood where the majority of the city’s wealth is concentrated in tall vertical buildings equipped with private pools, gyms, etc.  The location of the buildings corresponds to areas that have been difficult to access and where the state has been absent thus far. Offering security through the 24h presence of policemen, the CAIs pretend to lower crime rates in areas where the arrival of police officers used to be nearly impossible or simply too time-demanding to correspond the necessities of the residents. As the architect contends, “during the daytime the CAIs have a friendly, colorful image, opposing the conventionally cold and monochromatic look of surveillance buildings.”*

Mapa ubicación CAIs periféricos.png

Both through Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucult’s work, the idea of panopticism and the use of architecture as a means of social control has been disseminated. Going back to medieval times, hospitals, jails and orphanages were located in the peripheral areas of the city to maintain the ‘contagious’ at a safe distance to avoid them infecting others with diseases or malicious behavior. The church was naturally the center of the urbanization (and the Universe) as that is where good behavior and moral is taught. While Foucault speaks of panoptical architecture as structures with a central element that allow a special someone to observe his surroundings from above; Lefebvre revealed the dangers of  sublime architecture, especially the type that makes man feel small (churches, towers, skyscrapers, etc.) as according to him it serves the interest of making man obey those in posession of the construction.

Despite residents’ smiling faces that appear in the video commissioned by EDU, confirming their neighborhood becoming safer, I question the inclusivity of these buildings that are mainly designed as watching towers, including beds and a kitchen to allow the 24h presence of police officers. Despite its aims of representing “illuminating” architecture, the holes in the superior part of the building are more similar to medieval fortifications’ arrowslits that allowed shooting the enemy whilst remaining in safeguard.


*All quotes were translated by the author of the blog and taken from this article, just like the images. The video is courtesy of EDU.





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