Unlike other urban areas in the world, Medellin‘s city center has had no other option than to adapt to modern tendencies, leaving a small but representative sample of its architectural and cultural heritage. However, in the past few years, as the city has extended toward the enveloping mountainsides, a new spirit of preservation has emerged, which has led it to rescue the remains of its past. The first houses in the Aburra Valley were built in El Poblado in 1616, in the southern area of the city. After that, the first colonists moved north, near Santa Elena.
In 1675, a village called Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de Medellin emerged, though it only became a capital city in 1826. The first small village concentrated itself around Plaza Mayor (a wide cobblestone area), where today stands Berrío Park. This park is a vibrant meeting place to this day for Medellin citizens, visitors and travelers. During the early period, colonial Santa Fe de Antioquia, lying on the banks of the Cauca River continued to be the administrative and political axis of Colombia and the region.
From the colonial period, which was dominated by Spanish architecture, jewels like La Veracuz, La Candelaria and Saint Ignatius churches still survive, as well as the University of Antioquia buildings opposite of Saint Ignatius Square. It was a time of beautiful facades with big balconies and wooden windows. The houses stood out with their huge inner patios made of stone and clay tiled floors.
Toward the middle of the 19th century, construction took on a new style which became know as the Republican Period. This obvious European style was marked by iron fences, wide lawns, flower gardens & bronze statues. Two important samples of this style include Berrio Park & Bolivar Park. However, both of these areas recently had to give way for trancendental architectural developments including the construction of the Medellin Metro. Buildings representative of the Republican Period in Medellin include Villanueva Cathedral (today Metropolitan Basilica), the old station for the Antioquia Railway, Saint Joseph Church & Villanueva shopping center to name a few. San Vicente de Paul Hospital also displays some Republican Period traits.
However, the greatest number of structures from the Republican Period can be found in the downtown neighborhood of Prado, where the houses of the wealthiest citizens of the city were built. These houses are mansions that have two or three floors, outdoor gardens & patios, iron fences, big glass windows and many plaster and wooden adornments that decorate their exterior facades. There are many other styles that exist in this neighborhood, a result of styles copied from other parts of the world by the inhabitants who visited far away lands during their trips abroad. They would take pictures and bring them back only to replicate the designs in their own homes and gardens.
Another style which is prevelant in the city center is Gothic Florentine architecture. Foreign architects such as Agustin Goovaerts from Belgium was a popular figure in the past and left his mark with such structures as the old Palacio de la Gobernacion de Antioquia (now Palacio de la Cultura).
Most recently, industrial and commercial development gave way to new materials such as steel, concrete and glass. The Palacio de Bellas Artes on La Playa Avenue and the Palacio Municipal (today the Museum of Antioquia) belong to this new and modern style. By 1950, Medellin’s industrial supremecy was strengthened, which gave rise to new projects and to a new architectural phase in the city center. Old clay and mud houses were knocked down in order to make room for big buildings such as the Medellin Stock Exchange, the Fabricato Building, and later on the Coltejer Tower, which was once the tallest building in all of Colombia. Today it is one of the city’s most notable landmarks.
Today, residential and commercial areas on Medellin have extended south and also to the west. Concrete, steel and glass structures continue to dominate the landscape with their modern and contemporary styles. During the 1980′s, the city center began to suffer from time and exposure to the elements of nature. This decay was similar to other cities around the world and demanded a rescue process that began in the 1990′s and which is still in force today.
One of the most important transformations has been the creation of Botero Plaza around the Museum of Antioquia as well as the Palace of Culture. This re-gentrifying process has brought a new and vibrant life to the city center, giving Medellin a look and feel similar to that which existed more than 100 years ago when prestige and pride was part of the culture of downtown. The La Candeleria zone of the city center is comprised of 20 well defined inner neighborhoods, among which Prado stands out due to the preservation of a considerable proportion of its architectural heritage.