Copyright Klumpner Chair of Architecture and Urban Design ETHZ / Alejandro Arango and Luis Bernardo Cano

Once a year, the Carnival of Barranquilla enlivens its namesake Colombian city with four days of parties and parades. Now, a new building—La Fábrica de Cultura—promises to make the annual explosion of color, sound, and form a permanent and highly visible urban fixture.

Barranquilla, an industrial coastal town that has long struggled to define itself in relation to its charismatic and much older neighbor Cartagena and the major port city of Santa Marta, has turned the carnival—the largest in the Caribbean—into its signature event. Located largely in a working-class neighborhood, the festivities draw tens of thousands of visitors, but have little economic impact during the rest of the year. La Fábrica—a workshop and school housed in a concrete framework shot through with multicolored tile and spiral ramps—will serve as a place where local people can learn the skills necessary to stage, accouter, and perform in the carnival and its ancillary activities. The organizers of the new institution hope residents can then apply those skills to develop their arts, crafts, and business skills in other areas. Additionally, the building housing the school/incubator is an open structure that itself is part of the process of institutionalizing and activating the carnival.

The project, initiated by Barranquilla’s former mayor, Elsa Noguera, started as a museum for the carnival. She turned to Hubert Klumpner and Alfredo Brillembourg, a professor and a former professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, respectively, and former partners in the architecture firm Urban-Think Tank. Brillembourg and Klumpner had been based in Venezuela before moving to Switzerland a decade ago. They specialize in developing infrastructure- and self-build-based projects—ranging from the aerial tramway with community centers they designed in Caracas to “tin shack” neighborhoods in South Africa—that stem from a close collaboration with activist groups.

When Brillembourg and Klumpner arrived in Barranquilla, they found that the strongest and most effective partner was not the amorphous carnival organization or the city, but the state-sponsored Escuela Distrital de Artes y Tradiciones Populares, a craft-based school that used garages and school halls around the city for its activities. Though it had no direct connection to the carnival, the school offered itself as a place where neighborhood groups and individuals could hone their crafts and turn their experiences into more permanent sources of income.

Working with the school and neighborhood groups, Brillembourg and Klumpner developed a scheme for what Klumpner calls a “central infrastructure for education” as an open and flexible scaffolding. The structure would also serve as an anchor that would help keep existing small fabrication workshops and housing viable in the face of creeping gentrification moving in from the nearby downtown and richer neighborhoods.

Copyright Klumpner Chair of Architecture and Urban Design ETHZ / Alejandro Arango and Luis Bernardo Cano

The result is a six-story, 80,000-square-foot concrete grid that is mostly open to the mild climate and different uses. It contains quite a few more-or-less conventional classrooms with conditioned air, as well as a large, semi-underground auditorium that can be rented out to provide income for the new institution. Similarly, the EDA hopes to develop the unfinished roof into a restaurant. The construction costs of a little under $2 million were paid by the city with help from the Inter-American Development Bank and some grants from the Swiss government.

Rising up as a closed and thin volume on a street lined with low factories and workshops, the building lets visitors in between its columns and into a courtyard where the new structure faces a renovated, one-story former factory building. The new structure’s floors stack up behind movable perforated louvers and around a central spiral staircase mounted somewhat improbably over the arched roof of the auditorium.

That central stair hall is La Fábrica’s showstopper. The staircase itself, constructed by a local shipbuilder, winds itself up in a lazy set of loops that both connect the floors and provide a stage where performers can strut their stuff or try their moves, and students can watch or just hang out. The tiles covering the walls and the auditorium’s roof were also locally produced. Klumpner worked with local artists and craftspeople on the design and manufacture, supporting the development of skills and techniques in a manner the team hopes will enable those makers to produce building components for other sites.

Copyright Klumpner Chair of Architecture and Urban Design ETHZ / Alejandro Arango and Luis Bernardo Cano

In many ways, La Fábrica—focused on its grand processional staircase that serves as a place to watch, be watched, and gather—is a rather conventional building. Rising out of a forecourt to which access is controlled, towering over its neighbors, and revolving around the Baroque circulation node, it is familiar as a palace of culture. What sets La Fábrica apart from the traditions to which it nods is the roughness of its actual spaces, the exuberance of the tile work, and the compression of the curves and colors. Just as the carnival uses archetypes developed by Baroque theater in Italy and Spain—mixing them with African and Afro-Caribbean patterns and mythologies, and then winding the whole pageantry through cities built in Colonial patterns dominated by abstract geometry and repetitive elements—La Fábrica weaves its shakes, rattles, and rolls through a concrete grid extruded up to the height of what in Barranquilla counts as midrise building.

Opened only this fall, La Fábrica was just beginning to fill up with classes and workshops when I visited at the end of August. Through its visibility and connection to the carnival, it has attracted strong enrollment to its offerings, though it is still too early to tell whether it will meet its expectations. The solidity and monumental presence the building presents also belie the openness and sense of being not just for but of the carnival that the designers’ early renderings promised. On the other hand, the school is already planning satellites in the fast-growing neighborhoods on Barranquilla’s periphery that are accommodating inhabitants forced out of the central city by gentrification.

The most hopeful aspect to me about La Fábrica is to what extent it remains an open framework and a translation of the carnival combined into a building. That structure can now serve Barranquilla’s arts and crafts and thus offer educational and economic opportunities for the city’s less economically advantaged citizens in a manner that preserves local culture. If it can be a model for local offshoots and community—and popular craft-based institutions elsewhere—it will have fulfilled its function while being a beautiful building.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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