Lessons From Columbia

The entire Propel Studio team is inspired by the world around us; and it inevitably influences our office’s design work. Both for pleasure and business, we spend a lot of our time traveling, exploring new places, and learning what we can in order to design and advocate for better cities back home. The following post is a continuation of our thoughts while experiencing new or far off destinations.

La Ciudad Perdida

Propel designer, Sam Sudy, spent a week in Santa Marta, Colombia, exploring la Ciudad Perdida (or “Lost City”). Older than its similar counterpart, Machu Picchu by some 650 years, Ciudad Perdida is an archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. The site consists of over 150 stone terraces carved into the mountainside and a network of tiled pathways that connect smaller grassy plazas. The hierarchy of the stone terraces is evident in that there are distinctly two larger rings among the rest. These foundation relics were where the men and women’s wooden huts once sat. The men’s hut faces the landscape and any pending attack from down the hill. The women’s hut faces the community where the rest of the terraces meander up the mountain. It was a spectacular view, either way.

… But to get there, you have to hike for a few days. There are no roads to la Ciudad Perdida, just a trail.

The Trek

The trail to la Ciudad Perdida can be considered slightly treacherous, requiring a good level of fitness. As a long distance runner, I thought it would be a breeze. But after just the first day, out of four, I was questioning every ounce of weight in my backpack that I had brought. The trek had it all. A stark contrast of obstacles are scattered along the trek: sketchy rope bridges, steep inclines and declines, river crossings sans shoes, boulder hopping, sun exposed dry stretches, jungle humidity, and a scourge of mosquitoes, just to name a few. To top it all off, the trek also equates to the distance of a marathon up and down a 4,000ft mountain.

Compression and Release

In architecture, we have a phrase called “compression and release.” It is the practice of creating smaller, compact spaces and hallways that then open up onto more expansive rooms or views. This architectural device has a profound impact on the psyche, evoking appreciation, awe, and sometimes spiritual illumination.

After trekking my butt off through the Sierra Nevada jungle, I realized upon reaching the precipice of la Ciudad Perdida that I had bared witness to the very device I utilize in my practice - and it felt amazing gazing over the open terraced hills after emerging from the compression of the jungle confines. All of the hard work it took to get there made the experience that much better. The claustrophobic, stuffy jungle had been preparing me for the contrasting grandiose, expansive views I was inundated with upon reaching the summit.

Mundane

Too often, modern day architecture does not make use of compression and release. With technology at our fingertips, our society has adapted to become impatient, and that has translated to the design of our built environment as well. This “mundane architecture,” as I like to call it, has filled our public spaces with uninspiring banality, where the flow from space to space offers little, if any, variety.

One thing that was very evident in Colombia, was that society seemed more present. People still know how to take their time. Sometimes, there must be toil before reward. We forget it is this struggle that makes each accomplishment that much more gratifying. This is true in life as well as architecture, where the choreography of a building, and the flow of spaces can have a dramatic impact on our experience and enjoyment of the built environment.

Takeaway

Hiking through the Sierra Nevada jungle has reinvigorated me to bring the idea of contrast, compression/release, hierarchy of scale, back to my design efforts. Most days, I am working on the ADU designs that come through our office. But, just because projects are inherently small, does not mean they can’t have big moments.

¡Gracias Colombia!