March 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

IMG_1782North, that is, not centigrade…

I’ve been in Bogota, Colombia, this week as a guest of the Architecture faculty at the Universidad de los Andes, a gorgeous campus nestled into the foothills surrounding Bogota. Tom Peters and I were invited to lead a week’s worth of lectures and discussions with faculty and students about our work in Construction History, and the chance to talk about Chicago and Kahn, to see one of the world’s more fascinating cities, and to help make connections between north and south within the discipline made for a priceless week.

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Bogota is amazing, and we were lucky to have a group of really thoughtful, engaging students show us some of the city’s monuments and neighborhoods this week. In particular, I’m now a huge fan of Rogelio Salmona, a heroic figure in postwar Colombian architecture—more on him later—but also fascinated by how a design culture very attuned to international movements has also inflected those ideas with local traditions and (especially) materials. Colombia, like Italy, has little in the way of steelmaking resources, so it’s been a center for concrete and brick production and both materials have strong traditions of design and craft. But it also has about as mild a climate as you can get—equatorial but some 2600m above sea level, which keeps things cool—so it’s an easy place to build with site and nature. And the setting of the city is inspiring, with 300-400m hills that butt up against the downtown and a range of mountains to the west and south that give the city a natural edge (and a foolproof wayfinding strategy…). The city has its problems, and no one showing us around glossed over the traffic or economic issues that you get when a city goes from 300,000 to 9 million over the course of a generation. But the students showing us around also talked about masterplans to reverse the city’s current sprawl (and the political reversals that’s faced), to densify its walkable central business district, and to build new infrastructure that’s long overdue at what everyone hopes will be the end of a debilitating, fifty-year long civil war.

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So, it’s been a really enlightening, mind-expanding week. The talks themselves focused on how the program teaches architectural history—they combine essays and writing with hands-on drawing and modeling projects that show how technology, culture, and society have all influenced how buildings are constructed and why they’re constructed in the ways they are. This, as any ArchFarm reader will know, is heartwarming to me, since it gives students the opportunity to engage with just how complicated and rich building really is—and how it connects to a huge range of other fields, not just art history. I’ve let them know that I’m stealing plenty of their ideas in the coming semesters.

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Marc Jané i Mas, Camilo Villate Matiz, random Chicago scholar, and Construction History guru Tom Peters…

And it was an honor to share the stage with Tom Peters, whose Building the Nineteenth Century is to my mind still the best model for what Construction History is and what its potential impact can be. Tom’s lectures covered the prehistory of the Crystal Palace, a nice bit of exposition that showed how almost nothing in it was new, necessarily, except for its scale and the quantity of its production. This “algebra,” to use Ruskin’s perjorative term, was the outgrowth of several developments in iron, glass, and structural design, and his lecture concluded nicely just on the eve of 1851—a lecture about the building that explained it without even showing it. He also presented on current research on Chinese stone bridges, a good look at what he’s up to and theories about cultural preferences for ductility over rigidity. The other patrons in the hotel bar last night must have wondered what the hell was going on as we hashed out some of his conclusions…

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I talked about Kahn and early Chicago, and also test-drove some new material about postwar Chicago—glad to have a friendly audience for this as it’s about 40% baked. It will go back into the oven for a while, but there was an unintentional resonance with local politics here and a series of mayors who have wielded infrastructural projects in the name of the city’s development…and just possibly political gain.

Hoping to come back soon. The University has a great program and is surrounded by art and engineering programs that are also doing amazing things—shared labs and maker spaces, all sorts of cross-disciplinary initiatives, and collaboration with some of the groups working to make Bogota work better.

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