a rectangular building with a red roof by a highway with mountains in the background

In Colombia, a Highway Operations Center That Does So Much More

Along a rural stretch of Colombia’s national highway system, architect Giancarlo Mazzanti designed a community center that’s integrated into an infrastructure hub.

At a time when divisive highway systems are increasingly coming under scrutiny, a building in Colombia’s northwestern Department of Antioquia, by Bogotá-based architects El Equipo de Mazzanti, has emerged in tandem with the country’s large-scale infrastructure expansion program. But, rather than tearing disenfranchised populations apart, this addition to the growing roadway network seeks to connect and serve them.

the exterior elevation of a building designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti

A Highway System That Links Colombia Together

The country’s Fourth Generation (4G) Road program has picked up momentum in recent years in an effort to unify the country and link Colombia’s production centers—which are often located deep in mountainous regions, and which were once accessed by rail—with major cities and ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. As part of this initiative, a collection of control and operations centers accommodate the management and maintenance of the roadways, many of which pass through remote, underserved precincts. Noting that these utilitarian buildings were not engaging with the surrounding rural populations, Giancarlo Mazzanti, El Equipo de Mazzanti’s founding principal, saw an opportunity. “What if we were to introduce other programs inside these buildings to serve these communities?” he asked.

Working with the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI) as part of the 4G roads program, Mazzanti has made his idea a reality. In collaboration with Odinsa, the private contractor behind the construction and maintenance of the highways, he has re-envisioned this prosaic roadside amenity on a lush site near the town of Jericó and the coffee-growing region of the Cauca River canyon, in the foothills of the Andes.

a building designed by giancarlo mazzanti near a highway

A Public Amenity Inspired by Vernacular Design

For inspiration, the design team looked to the vernacular coffee drying shed, with its linear form and open sides. The new center, which straddles the highway median, is composed of two main elements. The first is a low-cost industrial sheet-metal roof that is supported on a steel structure—all of which is painted bright red in deference to the hue seen on much of the housing here. Beneath this protective canopy is a box-like volume clad in local pine-wood slats. Reflecting the local architecture, this space is accessed by exterior ramps, stairs, and corridors that provide sheltered circulation in an area with frequent rainfall and intense sun. While rooms holding the control center’s computer and camera equipment occupy insulated and air-conditioned interiors behind solid walls, the other parts of the volume are open to the air and have apertures that enable cross-ventilation and views out to the adjacent river and the mountains beyond. These spaces hold offices, WiFi-equipped classrooms, and a restaurant serving traditional cuisine. The team excavated the area under the main volume, submerging it below the level of the highway that passes on either side of the building to mitigate the drone of passing traffic. This flexible space hosts a wide variety of activities—from open-air movie screenings, to a market selling regional wares, to art exhibitions, sports events, company retreats, and religious gatherings. Playing fields flank the building, further solidifying its role as a hive of activity.

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two people walking on a path along the outside of a wood and metal building

Civic Architecture with a Social Impact

This is not the first time that Mazzanti has flipped a quotidian building type on its head to lend it new meaning. And his name has long been associated with civic architecture with social impact, perhaps most famously with his catalyzing Parque Biblioteca España (2007), a library and community center in Medellín that helped shift perceptions of the city from a bastion of crime to a place of possibility. While the effect of the new control and community center has been significant for the local population, it has extended well beyond. Due to its success, it is now mandated that all new highways in Colombia include these hybrid facilities that serve not just the maintenance and management of the roadways but also the communities through which they pass, helping to generate social- as well as economic development. “Architects can be empowered to propose new initiatives,” says Mazzanti, “and design buildings that positively affect the places where they are located.”

the exterior of a rectangular building with a wooden volume under a metal structure

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