Medellín used to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Drug cartels took advantage of (senseless) global demand and local inequalities to create a parallel government of fear and insecurity. It took sophisticated and courageous political willpower to understand how the city could be used as part of the solution and not be the problem. Once the framework and procedures were set in place, there was conceptual clarity: at the end of the chain, quality architecture was needed. Quality buildings alone may not have caused the change, but they crowned it, made it visible, and consequently made concrete and real a process that may otherwise have remained too abstract and been impossible to maintain over time. A series of libraries, day care centers, and social facilities were commissioned with the specific aim of using bold architecture as a forceful sign of the new era to come.
This was the framework within which the architecture of Giancarlo Mazzanti came into existence. Despite its iconic autonomy, Mazzanti’s best known project, the España Library, has to be seen as part of a system of interventions that include transportation (cable car), sanitation (water and sewage), services (electricity, phone lines), and accessibility (stairs), all of them built along the cleared space for the construction of the cable car. These combined operations overcame two significant hurdles: first, intervening in a territory controlled by Pablo Escobar’s sicarios; and second, limiting the coordination costs for such a complex intervention by working through a centralized, state owned company of urban services. The intelligence of Mazzanti’s architecture consists in having balanced the sculptural power of the volumes with a rather neutral canopy for the spaces in between. His architecture works as a covered area protecting people from the rain and the sun where they can meet even if the library is closed, thus accommodating street life (as opposed to fearing it). From far away, the building is as visible and bold as possible so that the entire city knows that there is a neighborhood that was recovered as part of the whole; at the local level, it is a subtle series of foyers that blend more intimately into the existing fabric. This may explain why unusual forms are so naturally integrated in the social tissue of the community. Such strategies are not only traceable in all of Mazzanti’s projects but may also serve as important lessons for other cases: escaping from the stereotyped debate of star-architecture versus aid-architecture, Mazzanti’s work reminds us that it is possible to be iconic when needed and humble when required.