Imagine a city on a steep, sloping hill. Cables cars drift overhead as escalators cling to the hillside, carrying passengers to and from. There are places for children to play and for community groups to make future plans under the shelter of palms and pylons.
While this might sound like an idyllic place, what lies below was, until relatively recently, the fortress of the cocaine king Pablo Escobar on the northeast edges of Medellín in Colombia.
The cable car is an articulation of the change since the streets and warrens were Escobar's fiefdom. As is the building that towers above the barrio's skyline, a granite cliff of award-winning modernist design, the parque biblioteca, or library park, where some of the poorest people in the world come to study, use a computer or just seek respite.
These are symbols of defiance and resurgence in Medellín, two decades ago the most dangerous and murderous city on the planet. A place where several car bombs a day could explode as Escobar's cartel went to war with the state, its apparatus, elites and society at large. They are part of a bold civic and political venture: to force breathing spaces into the desperately poor and exhausted barrios on the city's frayed outskirts, in which peace and even opportunity might stand a chance of prevailing.
The Northeastern Urban Integration Project in Medellín is a symbol and example of how collaboration, shared values and vision for the future can reshape societies in the most unexpected ways.
The spirit with which this project is injected, is a modern incarnation of the essence which informed Walter Gropius’ formation of the Bauhaus school. A place to recognise the interconnectedness of not only the arts, but of their relationship to mathematics, science and politics.
At the Bauhaus school, dance was seen as a form of science; a study of the boundaries and possibilities of the human anatomy and spaces within which it lives. Architecture became a social science – a way of improving human lives through design which understood, with great detail, how we act out our daily lives.
It was about a social agenda and thinking afresh about the modern world, using materials and techniques of manufacturing as a new way of addressing needs of all kinds, at every scale.
It was also a marriage of disciplines, a way of bringing all kinds of people together to create greater capacity to live in urban complexity, especially artists and makers of things, bringing the corporate world, the artistic world, the intellectual world and all disciplines together.
In the case of the Northeastern Urban Integration Project in Medellín, it was not single-handedly an architect, urban designer, infrastructural engineer, community group or ecologist that was responsible for the project success. These groups acted together to produce a collusive effect that embodies all of the disciplines, but does not seek to offer mastery to one or the other.
Instead each discipline jealously strives to protect its boundaries when, paradoxically, the problems we face demand a structural change in the way we tackle them.
However, ventures like the Bauhaus Movement and The Northeastern Urban Integration Project serve as important reminders of how design is not just an artistic experiment. The main recipient of great design is everyday people. In the Bauhaus’ case, confronted with the social conditions of a particular time, as well as the experience of the First World War, the movement concerned itself with the political and social connotations of design from the very outset.
The 100th anniversary of Bauhaus should not simply be a celebration of great design, but should act as a reminder of the potential collaborative design possesses to improve the quality of lives, from the poorest to richest. It is a reminder for the design fraternity to imagine the difference it could make.