Who is destroying the art deco architecture of the most dangerous city in Colombia?

Built for residential purposes, these elegant buildings find no new function in downtown Cali, a commercial district by day with a high crime rate by night.

There are many ways to destroy a city, the most effective way being to destroy its architecture. And there are also many ways to destroy architecture, bombing a city back to the stone age being merely the most dramatic. Equally effective and much less news-worthy is the demolition of large swaths of old buildings under the guise of urban renewal; neglect and abandonment on the part of their owners; or gutting, sub-dividing and converting residential buildings into commercial space. In Cali, Colombia, all such kinds of destruction are happening at the same time. 

Cali is in no way an architectural mecca. It does, however, contain a healthy mix of past-century architectural styles, especially within the historic area of its city center. Among these styles are several large, stately Arte Deco buildings. That is, there were several Arte Deco buildings in the city center until they began being destroyed, one by one, in different ways and for different reasons.

When transplanted to the Americas by European, mostly Jewish immigrant architects, Arte Deco buildings didn’t provide palaces for the wealthy so much as housing for the culture class of immigrants and locals. Arte Deco was the last gasp of European elegance before functionalist, cookie-cutter architecture from the USA swept over the region, churning out buildings that packed people into ever smaller spaces and utilized airspace merely to increase the number of housing units.

These days, however, almost no one lives in Cali’s city center due to the rampant commercialization of public space during the day and the high levels of crime at night. Despite containing the majority of the city’s historical structures, such as churches, colonial buildings, government palaces, theaters and plazas, Cali’s center is no longer the cultural center of the city (much less a tourist destination), and has been reduced mostly to a huge street market for pirated goods from China. 

Most of the Arte Deco buildings in the city center of Cali, built between the 1920s and 50s, have long suffered from neglect. The local government gives discounts in taxes for patrimonial properties, but Arte Deco buildings are very rarely included in the lists, and even so the costs of maintaining architectural heritage can be onerous. Without government financial support, few owners have the money to restore these elegant buildings to their former splendor and maintain their original function, and instead are forced to sell them off to real estate consortiums that ruthlessly gut and convert them into crass commercial enterprises. 

The fate of the Hotel Aristi, one of the city’s emblematic Arte Deco hotels and a key site of the city’s cultural history of the second half of the 20th century, is an example of the needless loss of architectural and cultural heritage. The hotel, built in 1951 and modeled after the Hotel Albion in Miami, offered ten floors of rooms to rent by day or long-term (with discounts for artists). The hotel boasted a roof-top swimming pool and sauna, a grill room, the classy El Paraiso bar, huge salons for concerts, a European pastry shop, beauty salon, barbershop, florist, as well as an art gallery and a cinema, and a 1,000 seat theater next door with designs inspired by New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. Hotel Aristi was sold years ago to developers who recently gutted and sub-divided this immense structure into a mall composed of little shops selling imported goods. Although the building still stands, the conversion has destroyed one of the greatest repositories of Cali’s history and culture.

The grand old Hotel Bulevar del Rio is another case of an iconic hotel refashioned as commercial space. This hotel boasted a classy lobby, a swimming pool, and rec rooms, but now rents out its three floors of rooms for storage. Although the classy though now decrepit lobby is still intact, the swank swimming pool located on a ground-floor patio was recently filled in with gravel to allow the commercial parking lot operating inside the building’s structure to squeeze in another four extra cars.

There are many ways to destroy a city, the most effective way being to destroy its architecture.

Arte Deco buildings have suffered so much mostly because they were originally built for residential purposes, a useless function in the city center’s current real estate market. In line with the current economic direction the city is taking, many of the lobbies and first floors of these Arte Deco buildings have been invaded by fast-food restaurants, convenience and stationary stores, car repairs, lottery vendors and, more than anything else, as car parking lots. 

As most people who come to el centro do so to shop or grab a quick bite to eat, there is a great need for parking options. The lack of city parking (and the fear of having one’s car or motorcycle stolen) has created a new economic niche for parking lots, an effortless way to convert space into cash. The owners of these Arte Deco buildings in the city center, with no regard for the city’s cultural history and often in violation of patrimony laws, demolish these grand old structures (though at times retaining the building’s façade) just to create empty lots. As cheap Chinese motorcycles have flooded the streets of Cali during the past decade, parking lots created especially for motorcycles within the ground floor of abandonded Arte Deco buildings are quite common.

The widespread destruction of Arte Deco buildings in el centro of Cali, which might seem like genocide against a specific, immigrant architecture, is in fact part of larger transformation of the city center. Ciudad Paraiso, an urban mega-project that includes the construction of an upscale mall (right across the avenue from Hotel Aristi), a new court house and upper-class hi-rise residential units, began with the complete demolition of one of the oldest and most traditional neighborhoods in the center of the city.  The promoters of Ciudad Paraiso insist that this project will help uplift the neighborhood and end insecurity, but so far it has only brought the destruction of a traditional neighborhood’s single-family residential architecture and the displacement of a large working-class residential community.

Urban renewal is often described as class warfare. In addition to the many megaprojects that have completely disfigured the urban landscape in the city, especially that of working-class neighborhoods, Cali has suffered directly from a civil war that has lasted over fifty years and which has included car bombs and other attacks on the city’s infrastructure and architecture. On August 7, 1956 in a working class section in the center of Cali, seven army trucks loaded with over one thousand boxes of dynamite were, for reasons no military official could explain, parked by the old railway station.

The resulting explosion occurred in the early hours of the morning and destroyed 41 blocks and left a crater 50 meters wide and 25 meters deep. The blast, the equivalent of an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.3 on the Richter scale, wiped off the face of the earth hundreds of buildings, homes and businesses, and incinerated about 4,000 people (one percent of the population), injuring 12,000 more. Urban disasters are always opportunities, and the Cali Explosion led to a real estate bonanza that forever changed the face of the city and left no sign of the carnage and destruction that had occurred. 

Although the gutting of Arte Deco buildings in the center is an isolated, non-violent, non-orchestrated event, the widespread displacement of the city’s working-class is a long-term, coordinated process of architectural genocide. As grand old Arte Deco structures are destroyed, their propped-up facades are often left standing as memorials of brutal economic policies and the crass commercial function that architecture is forced to serve in a city in which the government lacks the foresight to preserve the city’s culture.

Latest on Architecture

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram