Mariana Saldarriaga, Juan Pablo Uribe
If public space is the place that belongs to all of us, shaping it is never an innocent task. Mientras Allá Trabajan y Progresan is an ongoing research project in the form of an exhibition and a publication that takes Bogotá’s Public Space Handbook as a cautionary tale to investigate and critically read how ideas of beauty, progress, and urban renewal embedded within urban regulations shape a society.
The 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale focused on an unprecedented shift: by 2008 most of the population of the planet would be living in cities. The exhibition entitled “Cities, Architecture and Society” focused on the role of the architect when “designing democratic and sustainable urban landscapes”. During the event, the Golden Lion for the city was awarded to Bogotá. The jury stated that the award served as recognition for a city that stood as “a beacon of hope for other cities, whether rich or poor”.
Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá from 1998-2000 and 2016-2019, is widely recognized as a crucial figure in the process of changing Bogotá’s physical image. To investigate Peñalosa’s first term as mayor is to understand the physical transformation of a city of 8 million people. During his mandate, he would often state that his intention was to create not only a more egalitarian and democratic city but one that was “prettier and happier”. To accomplish these goals, he collaborated closely with some of Colombia’s most celebrated architects, designers, and urban planners. Libraries, parks, and schools were built all around the city. A massive transportation system was created, and every piece of urban infrastructure designed.
The story about Bogotá’s physical transformation is one that puts aesthetics at the forefront. Peñalosa openly stated that inequality could be addressed through infrastructure and urban design, and that happiness in a city is directly related to its beauty. As a consequence, for three years, many imagined –and ultimately built– what they claimed was going to be the catalyst to a more egalitarian society. Colombian and foreign architects seemed to approve of this taking: besides the Golden Lion, Bogotá was subject to countless articles and documentaries. In 2000 —and for the first time in history— Colombia’s National Architecture Prize did not go to an architect but to a city: Bogotá.
To interrogate an administration’s understanding of public space it’s best to go to the primary source on which it manifested its intentions: policies. During Peñalosa’s first term in 1998, he gathered a group of experts to understand what public space in Bogotá was to become. Very early on in the administration, a group of architects, designers, and urban planners, put up what was to become the roadmap for public space development in the city: Bogota´s Public Space Handbook. A 200-page document where every piece of urban infrastructure, down to the bollards, were designed and regulated. The document introduces itself as a technical and neutral handbook that aims to “fix the arbitrary and chaotic nature” of public space in Bogotá by creating a more “dignified image” for the city. For being understood as a technical document –therefore without political affiliation– the handbook has remained regulating public space in the city with minimal alterations ever since its first appearance in 1998.
The rhetoric employed by Peñalosa when addressing Bogotá and defending his own contributions sheds a very clear light on the type of city that architects and urban planners were aiming for. It was common to read Bogotá’s new projects in terms of how it would equate it to cities like London, Madrid, Paris or Manhattan, which were recurrently referred by the mayor as “the good cities’’. Statements condemning the streets of Bogotá for not being authentic avenues for they did not resemble The Champs Élysées or referring to the Natural Reserve in the outskirts of Bogotá as nothing more than “pasture grasses for cows”, were common within Peñalosa’s lexicon. These all translated into a narrative that introduced the changes the city was undergoing in terms of progressive and beautiful, and the existing as informal and barbaric. Even if introduced as just a technical document, the Public Space Handbook played no innocent role in this narrative.
Peñalosa’s ideal of achieving equality through building infrastructure relies on the understanding of architecture and urban design as a complex of civilization in progress. A narrative based on an epistemic distinction between the formal and the informal, forged by a lack of better understanding of broader social processes represented in existing urban fabrics. A modern view of the city grounded in the incapability of its leaders to escape dogmatic notions of progress and aesthetics.
Fifteen years after the Golden Lion, and twenty-one years after Peñalosa’s first term ended, a critical examination of the transformation Bogotá underwent is more poignant than ever. Where did the projects that appeared as signifiers of modernity and urban renewal come from? Where did the notion of beauty come from? How does an architect respond to urban inequality? What is the cost of putting architecture at the forefront of urban renewal? To start understanding these questions, we propose taking a closer look at Bogota´s Public Space Handbook. What is hidden behind those technical words? What type of city was it aiming to create? Which citizenships is it celebrating? Which citizenships is it neglecting?
To start, we propose a publication. A dissection of Bogotá’s Public Space Handbook in which every idea is heavily scrutinized. Language is not innocent, and technical documents are not exempt from politics. The publication (in progress, view image 1) relentlessly adds footnotes to the original text. Bibliography from very different origins is added to the official document. Ideas from authors as dissimilar as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul B. Preciado or anonymous tweets are gathered to unveil the complexities hiding in the oversimplification of the technical. Once the text is dissected and its concepts problematized, we propose an addition to the text: an illustrated glossary. It adds ironic definitions for concepts presented in the texts that are introduced and illustrated with photographs taken in public spaces around the world.
As an extension of the publication, we propose an exhibition. A first iteration was presented in Bogotá during August 2021. For the first iteration, a series of 600 pictures taken in public spaces around the world from 2016 to 2021 were printed in postcard format and pinned up in the gallery walls. The photographs were categorized to illustrate concepts that are read as footnotes on the lower part of the wall. The guide to the exhibition included a glossary with the humorous definitions given to the words on the walls. The overall layout is thought to suggest connections and dialogues between the images while allowing it to be open for interpretation. On the floor, a series of objects create a formal dialogue with the images on the walls. The next iteration (date and location to be decided) aims to deepen the formal research that started with the objects mentioned above, to take the project out to the public space. Objects that ironically respond to the language contained within Bogota´s Public Space Handbook will act as a means to publicly problematize public space, by making visible what often goes unnoticed: the policies that act as its guiding principles.
Mientras allá trabajan y progresan exhibition archive at Universidad de Los Andes. Bogotá, Colombia, August 2021
 “Cities, Architecture and Society” Biennale Architecture History, Venice Biennale, accessed October 8, 2020, https://www.labiennale.org/en/history-biennale-architettura
 “Golden Lion” Award Description, Venice Biennale, accessed November 9, 2006, https://www.labiennale.org/en/news/architecture/en/67078.1.html
 Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá D.C., Cartilla de Mobiliario Urbano (Bogotá: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá D.C., 2007), 3-8.