Music will save your mortal soul, Don McLean says. And architecture will save your ailing city, Michael Kimmelman says in The New York Times.

“For some time now, if you asked architects and urban planners for proof of the power of public architecture and public space to remake the fortunes of a city, they’d point here,” he writes in the opening of his article. Where’s here? Medellin, Colombia.

The second largest city in the country, Medellin was once best known for being home to the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and for having one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Today, just a few decades later, the city is like a Phoenix rising from its own ashes.

Now a budding medical and business center, Medellin has an “improbably immaculate metro and cable car system,” and is an up-and-coming tourist destination. Architecture, Kimmelman says, has been a major catalyst in cleaning up the city and its reputation.

Around the world, followers of architecture with a capital A have focused so much of their attention on formal experiments, as if aesthetics and social activism, twin Modernist concerns, were mutually exclusive. But Medellin is proof that they’re not, and shouldn’t be. Architecture, here and elsewhere, acts as part of a larger social and economic ecology, or else it elects to be a luxury, meaningless except to itself.

Kimmelman goes on to document the city’s radical transformation and to tell how architecture, infrastructure, and urban planning played an instrumental role in it all. But, he says, the story of the city’s evolution isn’t as rosy as it’s often made out to be.

Read Kimmelman’s full account on the city of Medellin and how architecture saved its urban soul.