by Jerry ElengicalFeb 25, 2022
Barrio Abajo, a working class neighbourhood in the city of Barranquilla, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, is an area that is deeply entrenched in the local culture of arts and creative traditions that support the fabled Carnival of Barranquilla. With roots stretching as far back as the 19th century, the carnival has been designated as part of UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, considering its status as among the world's largest such events and one of Colombia's most important folkloric celebrations. Organised annually during the four days preceding the commencement of the Lent season in the Christian calendar, the carnival’s festivities transform the city’s streets into a dazzling display of processions, music, dance, and local culture, that embody the region’s effervescent spirit.
In support of this hallowed tradition that permeates every aspect of urban life in Barranquilla over its duration, a group of researchers from the D-ARCH Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), headed by Austrian architect Prof. Hubert Klumpner, were charged with creating a 'maker space', that would accommodate the workshops and auxiliary activities that both aid in the production of the carnival, and the dissemination of knowledge and vocational training related to the event’s heritage and practices. The project was part of the larger 'Colombia Urban Transformation Program' (2014 - 2022), structured as a collaboration between the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), seeking to transform low-income areas in Colombian cities through multifunctional, innovative, and energy efficient architectural interventions. For this sensitive and culturally significant endeavour, the project team also included the groups of Prof. Dr. Arno Schlueter, Head of the Institute of Technology in Architecture (ITA), as well as Prof. Dr. Philippe Block, Co-Director of the Block Research Group (BRG) at ETH Zurich. Additionally, the venture was aided by international collaborations with entities such as the Universidad del Norte de Barranquilla (UniNorte), among others. Prior to its opening, the project’s drawings and models were also showcased by ETH Zurich during the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021.
The researchers settled upon the abandoned shell of a tobacco factory in the neighbourhood, with an ornate colonial-era façade design, as the site for the complex, which would also feature a new structure extending from the factory’s shell, besides its renovation and adaptive reuse components. Catering to 11 disciplines of music, dance, sculpture, dress making, painting, poetry, theatre, food production, digital film, and audio techniques, the new facility is operated by the Municipality of Barranquilla, and set up to offer educational services in the aforementioned vocations to local residents from all social and economic backgrounds.
Directly contrasting the old structure, the new building, realised between 2018-2021, features an exposed concrete frame structure, sheathed in a rhythmic ensemble of façade panels and expanded metal mesh enclosures. This configuration reinterprets the industrial aesthetic through a more contemporary lens, when compared to the colonial-style exterior of the old building, as the two structures depict a progression through time. A public space at the ground level with a floor dressed in a vibrant assortment of coloured tiles separates the old structure from the new, providing an open-air venue for interaction while knitting the institutional design and its diverse functions into a harmonious whole. The multicoloured tiling patterns implemented here also extend to the interior design of the new building, which contains a stacked framework of covered and uncovered spaces - including a vast auditorium crowned by a stunning vaulted brick ceiling. In essence, the institutional building's design utilises vernacular architectural practices, behavioural patterns, and fabrication techniques to craft a flexible building prototype dedicated to local arts and culture, with spaces that could be reprogrammed over time.
At the concrete frame's heart, a swirling red staircase design injects a bold burst of energy to the interior scheme, cascading down to the plaza itself. Reminiscent of the iconic external ramp of Oscar Niemeyer's Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the spiral stair slices through the structure against the backdrop of a varicoloured tiled wall, building vertical and diagonal view relationships between levels. Enclosed by railings of wound metal tubes that resemble hairpins and add a further sense of movement to the composition, this element is undoubtedly one of the structure’s highlights, assembled using box sections joined together to create smooth curves. Aside from this, the realisation of the Fábrica de Cultura also featured sustainable design measures such as the inclusion of a green corridor around the development, as well as the use of solar panels along the structure’s roof, in honouring the architects’ reverence for the locale and its preservation.
In conversation with STIR on the project’s salient features, Prof. Hubert Klumpner elaborates on the numerous considerations that gave rise to the structure, alongside the degree of nuance required in a complex urban architectural intervention of this scale.
Jerry Elengical: Why was the abandoned shell of this tobacco factory chosen as the site for this project?
Hubert Klumpner: Barranquilla has a long history of industry and entrepreneurship. Finding some of those testimonies, also from an architectural point of view in the vicinity of El Prado - which is the residential architectonic jewel of Barranquilla - being near these workers’ areas, and coming across one of those monuments that survived a previous widening of the nearby road almost felt like an obligation, and also a great opportunity to incorporate it in the complex. And the complex consists of the reuse of that factory, basically using the shell as a kunsthalle (art gallery), as empty as possible and as flexible as possible, with a newly added public square and a pedestrian route circulating through it, and additional programs that extend and densify workshops in Barrio Abajo into the new building, therefore providing the Fábrica de Cultura with a visible central role in the neighbourhood.
Jerry: What were some of the measures taken to infuse the new extension with the monumentality and interactive atmosphere of an institutional building?
Hubert: Well naturally, the new part of this complex is a building that we designed in extension to the possibilities of the old building. And as I had mentioned before, the opportunity was to sort of extend the existing structure in the best possible way, creating an interior courtyard, which never existed in the tobacco factory - it was maybe a loading party or something - and creating an open space in a very big industrial block. It essentially provides a stacked public institution with workshops and ateliers, designed to be as interactive as possible, in a sense that you can be either in the new or in the old building and watch what's going on in the square, as well as in the opposite building.
I would say as much as the building might look big, it is an extremely democratic structure. It looks for no outside symbols that underpin monumentality, and there is no column order. The tiles that we introduced become like a carpet that floats from the square into the building. And the stair, which is perhaps the only large object, is also - I would say in architectural terms - an incredible alternative to an elevator (which is normally used in a building of this calibre) extending the publicness of this square inwards. I think in that sense, this thing really worked when we were there. There was nobody standing at the elevator door, you know, it's almost incredible! You can have people lounging or standing around the stairs, sitting and watching. It's really big, but it's not a monument.
Jerry: What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
Hubert: Well, the challenge is probably to look at a neighbourhood, which is already full of workshops and creative people who are producing this popular part of the carnival. And the challenge is probably the question "Why do you concentrate it in one building?" And, in that sense, I think it is also the whole idea of providing a public space, pedestrianising it, connecting it with this new, widened avenue, to create one central area within an already very busy craft, workshop, and fabrication zone. I think that the challenge is just to combine the two, not to isolate what is happening in the Fábrica from those other activities, but to see it more as a centre and as an open invitation to connect and also to use those other workshops. When we walked around with Diego and Maria (of the project team), he had a very good observation, where normally we as architects ask, “How do you do it?” He said: “Why do you need the building? The auditorium is good because that doesn't exist, but the workshops are there everywhere." So I would say the challenge is again, a middle ground between leaving and recognising the existence of all those other workshops, which are not necessarily working in the carnival industry now, but they could, if this becomes a new service industry combining knowledge with crafts. Hence, finding a balance between Barrio Abajo and one central area that showcases that place is, I think, probably the challenge of the building.
Jerry: What was the inspiration behind the elaborate spiral stair and the bold contrast it brings to the new structure?
Hubert: So this is a new building, one that could actually grow in this housing block by spreading out. It also works because we have this external corridor where you go basically from outside into the building. So we could extend that building actually in the housing block, in the spirit of densifying. And I would say the stair once again, it is a translation of the dynamics of this whole event. Obviously we didn't want to make an enclosed staircase reduced to the minimum functionality of escape stairs that you normally have in a building, but it provided us with an opportunity to reinvent the spectacle of a stair, which drills through the building, not only connecting the spaces on each floor and horizon, but also linking them diagonally and vertically, which can also be seen by all the view relationships through windows and open spaces which have actually ordered the entire program around the stair. And I would say the shape of it again, almost like the tiles, should underline the dynamic character and the possibilities of connecting everything versus the elevators and necessary stairs. It's a reinvention of a public staircase in a public building.
Jerry: How did the building’s design draw inspiration from the Carnival of Barranquilla and in what capacity is it expected to play a role in the accompanying festivities in the future?
Hubert: Well, obviously the building in that sense is a tool. It is a tool and the platform at the same time, where the production of the carnival is happening. And the way that this complex was figured out: the old tobacco factory, the square, and the adjacent new structure with the auditorium in the bottom, is actually a translation of programs that we developed with different schools, the 11 disciplines in the carnival: from dance, theatre production of costumes, and fabrics, sculpting masks, caravans, and vehicles, etc. It is really an environment which makes it possible for these productions to happen. And it is also a place where you see the traces of this production. I would say this is more how we developed it. So the whole tiling of the floors is less aesthetic decoration, and more of a vibrant, dynamic carpet on which all these things are happening. And I believe that when the workshops start to operate, that will be the real visible attraction. We just laid out the public circulation areas that we fitted with these sort of tiles, such that even if there's no activity so to speak, it works as an invitation. Otherwise it's really a workshop. It is not a museum. It is not a monument. It is a sort of architectural translation of the activities which are going on and adding life. I think it's almost like a question of when you have a plate, whether the plate or the food it contains is the attraction. I think we have provided the plate, the food is coming with the workshops.
Name: Fábrica de Cultura: School of Arts and Popular Traditions
Location: Barranquilla, Colombia
Surface Area: 11,500 sqm
Development: 2014-2021 (Execution 2018-2021)
Implementing Partner: Municipality of Barranquilla / Ministry of Culture and Heritage
Design: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) – D-ARCH Chair of Architecture and Urban Design / Universidad del Norte de Barranquilla (UniNorte)
Architects: Prof. Hubert Klumpner / Diego Ceresuela (ETHZ), Prof. Manuel Moreno / Prof. Sergio Chirivella (UniNorte), (with A. Brillembourg ETHZ until Feb. 2019)
Design Team: Architecture and Research ETHZ / Chair of Architecture and Urban Design Prof. Klumpner, Pablo Levine (Project Coordinator), Blanca García-Gardelegui, Alejandro Jaramillo, Michael Walczak, Klearjos Eduardo Papanicolaou, Cristian Zabalaga, Lucas Lerchs, Ursina Roffler, Diogo Figueiredo, Lea Rüfenacht (Coord. Phase 1), Marie Grob, Sofia Avramopoulou, María Paula Celia, Melanie Imfeld
Graphic Design: Ruedi & Vera Baur
Consultants: Fábrica de Cultura / ETHZ
D-ARCH ITA SUAT: Prof. Dr. Arno Schlueter (Head of the Institute of Technology in Architecture ETHZ), Dr. Jimeno Fonseca, Prageeth Jayathissa
D-ARCH BLOCK RESEARCH GROUP (BRG): Prof. Dr. Philippe Block (Co-Director BRG), Dr. David López, Dr. Tomas Mendez, Marcel Aubert
D-ARCH ITA Information Architecture: Prof. Dr. Gerhard Schmitt (Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre / Future Cities Lab), Dr. Estefanía Tapias
Design and Engineering Team UniNorte: Prof. Fabián Amaya (Project Coordinator 2014-2018)/ Prof. Ricardo Vives / Prof. Guiselle García, Sharik Pereira, Sharon Pico
Structural Engineering: Prof. Dr. Andrés Guzmán / Dr. Osvaldo Guzmán
Mechanical Engineering: Prof. Antonio Bula / Prof. José Solano
Electrical Engineering: Prof. Daniel Soto / Prof. Rafael de Jesús
Telecommunications Engineering: Prof. Lácides Ripoll
Hydrosantiary Engineering: Prof. Augusto Sisa
Mobility and Transport: Prof. Victor Cantillo / Prof. Boris Goenaga (Mobility)
Budgets: Prof. Luis Villadiego
Construction Accompaniment: Luis Rojas, Luis García
Contracts: Consortium EDA Caribbean / Guillermo Cuello, Óscar Rodríguez (Construction Director)
Inventory: Consorcio de las Bellas Artes / María Fernanda Barros
Stair Construction: Smart Steel / Ramiro Mendoza
Local Consultants: Economía Urbana / Julio Miguel Silva, Claudia Silva and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Mauricio Claver Carone (President), Luis Alberto Moreno (President 2005-2020), Ramiro López, Francisca Rojas, Tatiana Gallego (HUD Washington)
- Adaptive Reuse
- brick architecture
- Concrete Architecture
- Courtyard Architecture
- Cultural Architecture
- Exposed Concrete
- Facade Design
- Industrial Building
- Institutional Architecture
- Institutional Building
- Institutional Design
- Interior Design
- Staircase Design
- Urban Architecture
- urban design