Understanding Barranquilla: a bit of architecture and history

I love my city, but there is nothing adventurous to do.

Old republican hotel, closed hairdressing and avocados.

As a girl raised in the north coast, people often ask me what places would be nice to visit there. The question becomes a little awkward when they ask what is nice about Barranquilla, or why I don’t ever suggest that people go there. In general, I don’t recommend people visit Barranquilla (unless it is Carnival time) because this is an industrial city only concerned with making money; there are not too many discos or bars and although food is absolutely delicious (the best I’ve ever had), we do not have an historic walkable center or nice beaches.

Barranquilla was settled along the biggest river in the country which gives it a geographic advantage over cities like Cartagena or Santa Marta, to develop an economy based on trade and maritime transport. Consequently, by the time it was officially recognized by the government as a village on April 7th, 1983 (more than 100 years after the first houses were built) it had double the population of Cartagena. However, due to its lack of a legitimate existence during colonial times most of the settlements were established chaotically throughout public space, and the architecture of its buildings fluctuate from republican to canonical modernism.

Traveling outside the city, taking the old road to Cartagena made me realize how much the city has been growing in recent years with many new two- and three-building condos with at least 20 apartments each, the construction field in Barranquilla has grown 111% since January! Nostalgia overtook my body when I noticed the new architecture boom lacks innovation. Apartments that look like matchboxes are apparently the new wave of architecture in my city. Where the hell is the sense of belonging among the Barranquilleros?

To understand my city a bit more, I decided to take a walk through the El Prado neighborhood to immerse myself among republican houses, those with tall roofs and big entrances. Most of these houses (at the moment, most belong to companies) were built 80–100 years ago and they are still preserved. In Barranquilla, we can’t say there was a prevalent architecture trend, as I mention before the city was not founded but named after many years of settlement invasions, yet, it’s almost easy to identify the ones who belong to this period.

Republican Architecture in Prado neighborhood

After a 45-minute walk along Alondra street (most commonly known as Carrera 54) I thought about our constant attempts to preserve and flatter the past as it was the key of the future. I couldn’t stop myself from relating it to the spooky quote in the novel, 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Although we are not fighting against a totalitarian system which is “changing the past” to control people’s minds, our past experiences are a defining factor in urban decision-making, therefore, the worship of the old should be to encourage to learn from it more than to be proud and show our ancestors’ achievements as our own; after all, we are not dealing with the same health issues or weather. Regarding “whoever controls the present controls the past”, I am not really concerned with people changing records to turn all citizens against an specific country: although the media has a great influence on people’s “hatreds”, hopefully journalists will do an impeccable job of uncovering the truth (sorry Trump, your deviant Big Brother dream won’t be possible), but this is outside the focus of the present essay.

Thus, is the knowledge of the building process of the houses being used to solve problems or is it there just to show us how splendid the architecture was in the 1900s?

Hotel El Prado. First touristic hotel in Latinoamerica. Republican Architecture from 1930.

I made my second excursion around the city at noon when it was 35 degrees in the city center, to walk around San Nicolas Tolentino church, located on 42nd street (Carrera Mercado Esteban Márquez) and 34th street (Calle Real). I had mixed feelings towards this route, as I found people working on buildings in unacceptable conditions. These buildings needed to be recovered or, in case the government doesn’t have the resources to restore them, demolished to open space for dignified Commercial Square. Nonetheless, I fell in love with the whole environment of people doing small business around the historic structures where the first trades were made between the conquerors and Colombian aborigines. The Neo-Gothic style of the church is surrounded by republican buildings which make the square feel like an architectural wormhole, and is responsible for the style of the city center.

Right now there are new projects that will highlight the historic part of the city. The government is building a pedestrian walkway along the river to connect the city center with the northern part of the city. But, I wonder if the reason they want to make a stronger connection with the center is to enhance commerce or tourism; either way it is necessary to take care of the buildings over 100 years old around the church, in order to make the city center better for people to walk by and help small local businesses progress.

What I see, when I look over the new buildings and construction, is a city trying to catch up with “modern” apartment buildings and mall culture. Malls in Barranquilla feel like enclosed buildings where people do not notice if it is day or night, with a lot of security inside and just a few ways to get in and out, and people invading your personal space every few steps you take. They are designed to isolate and make the person focus on what it is in front of him or her; each area is classified and serves a certain purpose, thus, the infrastructure plan of the city seems to be pointing to keep building these jail-shaped structures rather than create public spaces to enhance local economies.

San Nicolas Tolentino church. Beautiful day in Barranquilla!
Centro Comercial Avianca. Art Déco.

Barranquilla has the potential to be a city friendly to tourism and business. But the increasing wave of corruption around the country and the lack of creativity to come up with solutions to the lack of night or day life in the city is shocking. In my small walkable tour I have found historic buildings, modern apartments, and a neighborhood with the potential to have great bars and restaurants. But, it seems like everyone is more interested in going to Viva Barranquilla mall than having coffee in a 100-year old buildings inspired by Art Déco.

As long as my dear fellow citizens do not understand that we have more to offer than land for malls, and matchbox “modern apartments” I don’t think I’ll ever recommend Barranquilla as a city worth more than a one-day visit. I wish someday to see my city filled with mango and oak trees, with dance academies, gastronomic tours, and active life both during the day and at night. And in general, more space for entertainment.

Message on the wall “Barranquilla no limpia, arroje basura (…) ”: Barranquilla “doesn’t clean”, throw your garbage.

The picture above is my favorite so far. The building says “Casa de la Suerte (House of Luck)”, apparently a sign for a tarot house. It was built in 1913 and it’s falling apart, abandoned and sealed. It looks like it’s luck is finally coming to an end. Hopefully, it will be isolated and either restored or demolished by the authorities before somebody becomes a victim of its increasing bad luck.