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The Marginal City: Dreams of Upward Mobility

Artist and architect Simón Hosie presents some of his very unique projects in Colombia ranging from community based architecture to innovations in design and policy making.


Foto simon hosie

Simón Hosie

Architect and Artist Simón Hosie Samper (b. 1975) is an architect and artist. His architectural endeavours stem from intensive work with underprivileged communities. His projects connect art,... Read more »
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The Marginal City: Dreams of Upward Mobility

Artist and architect Simón Hosie presents some of his very unique projects in Colombia ranging from community based architecture to innovations in design and policy making.

Show More

Artist and architect Simón Hosie presents some of his very unique projects in Colombia ranging from community based architecture to innovations in design and policy making.

1 pintando a la lavandera
La Lavandera (The Laundress). Oil on canvas. Studio in Cajicá, Colombia 2008. Simón Hosie. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

“If you want to be somebody in this life, you have to know how to get ahead.” — Marina Rodríguez, Ciudad Bolívar

Marina Rodríguez lives in Ciudad Bolívar, in the southern part of Bogotá. Twenty years ago, she took over a plot of land, illegally tapped into public utility lines, and built a temporary structure of wood and plastic that she replaced bit by bit with cinderblocks. Twenty years later, she was settled. She’d made her way up in the world.

Today, when asked who lives with her in her home in the neighborhood of El Paraíso (Paradise), she responds that since her children moved out she’s lived alone with God. Marina and God sleep together in one room of the house: “If it hadn’t been for Him, I wouldn’t have been able to put up half a wall.”

The dictionary definition of “Marginal City” should be the following: Densely populated urban center composed of streets and buildings without codes or rules, and held together by a miracle. // The manifestation of a phenomenon known as de-urbanization which occurs outside the boundaries of commonly accepted social practices.

In contrast to urbanization—which suggests development, the continued advancement and perfection of a city—de-urbanization is the sum total of various forms of ignorance stemming from a lack of study aimed at creating material realities that correspond to human needs.

If urbanization is synonymous with progress, de-urbanization is synonymous with regression.

The de-urbanization of the spaces and land occupied by marginal cities and neighborhoods affects the proper development of the city. From this perspective, the marginal city is not only a manifestation of what happens beyond the rules and codes of urbanization—the logic of the system—but is in fact a stance in opposition to the ideal of progress, to the way things “should” be. An aggression.

Marginal Phenomena

Marginal phenomena tend to be examined independently under the specialist’s microscope.

The conclusive analysis of each of these specializations reveals the precarity and regressiveness of these phenomena, viewed holistically as a combination of demographic, economic, sociological and political elements associated with a series of harmful and dangerous commercial, cultural, and construction practices.

Specialists concur in that these phenomena are examples of Brutalic Urban Systems (BUS). Self-built cities are viewed from the outside as phenomena of BUSdevelopment, BUSculture, BUSproduction, and BUSintelligence.1

The rhetoric of these specialized assessments tends to blame the individual—people like Marina Rodríguez who don’t follow the rules, who take over property and appropriate public utilities illegally and with the help of God.

This gives rise to social prejudices that portray the inhabitants of these self-built neighborhoods as ignorant, or lacking in culture and taste: buspeople.

2 madre
Painting of the serie “ablando con la pared” (Talking to the Wall). Mixed media / Museo de Artes Visuales. Simón Hosie. Bogotá 2010. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Marginal Reality

The existence of marginal cities can be understood in one of two ways: either as the manifestation of an illogical reality constructed illicitly by individuals, or as the logical consequence of a flawed socioeconomic system.

Viewed from the first perspective and in light of laws, codes, and norms, the best possible solution is to bulldoze roads, public spaces, buildings, and basic services and either partially or completely rebuild them. In this case, the responsibility falls to Marina, who could be kicked out of her home with God and all her things in order to return the land to its rightful owner.

Viewed from the second perspective and in light of the duties of the State, the responsibility of solving the issues that face groups or individuals affected by problems and conflicts—both those who find themselves forced to squat on someone else’s property for lack of options and guarantees, and those who were affected by the appropriation of their land—emerges. In this case, the responsibility falls to the government, which must find a way to reconcile the parties and work collectively toward a solution, such as legally recognizing the land and indemnifying those affected.

The Marginal Situation

Marginal cities depend on political initiatives that determine their situation and the possibility of interventions, given that neither the State nor private businesses can undertake development projects in illegal settlements.

The process of legal recognition takes years, during which these densely populated urban centers are consolidated. In all but a few exceptional cases, newer marginal cities lack buildings of public institutional infrastructure. The availability of educational and nutritional support depends largely on non-profit foundations and organizations that adapt to the realities of the place, and on which the State relies to introduce policies about education, nutrition, health, and recreation.

The Marginal City

A self-built settlement gains the status of a marginal city when it is legally recognized by the government.

This moment brings with it a paradox: the marginal city is legally subsumed within a reality that denies its nature as such. Marina Rodríguez becomes the legitimate owner of her land, but her home remains outside the bounds of rules and codes, and the norms of good taste and style.

Marina’s job as a maid puts her on the first rung of the socioeconomic ladder; however, biases against the way she looks, talks, refers to things, and lives perpetuate her marginal position relative to modern urban society, which points to her limited cultural and intellectual condition, and remarks on her inappropriate relationship with God.

The marginal city is no peer of the modern city; it is not a part of culture and progress.

Getting Ahead

Progress is defined as “a forward or onward movement toward a destination,” and understood as generalized advancement and perfection. Considered from the perspective of the marginal city, a not-so-simple question arises: Which way is forward?

The economic evolution of a country is determined by the average income of its denizens. Growing capital means moving forward. To be a big deal you have to be a dealmaker, or else you’re just a dealer of arepas, candy, and nick-nacks. Most residents of marginal cities are stigmatized as arms, drug, and contraband dealers, whereas in reality most of them work in low-level service jobs.

A curriculum vitae is a document outlining a person’s socioeconomic status: a collection of biographical, educational, and vocational information that establishes an individual’s professional aptitude. Marina Rodríguez’s barely fills three lines: her personal information, her education ending in fifth grade, and her job as a housekeeper in various private residences.

For this reason, when Marina tells her children that they have to get ahead, she is talking about finishing high school and getting decent jobs that will allow them to show their integrity and human worth outside the marginal city.

But being somebody in this life, as those who are born and live in marginal cities have discovered, doesn’t only depend on education. The opportunities and contacts so rare for people of their background matter, too. The inevitable tension between the moral and the material determines the trajectory of those who don’t find a real path toward achieving their goals on their curriculum vitae.

Prosperity, defined as making the shift from getting off the bus to getting into a car, brings this maternal advice face to face with the desire for success and recognition that define the course of one’s life.

The Image of Progress

When the image of progress recedes from the context of, and opportunities present, where you live the only option is to look for it elsewhere—a movement forward—because there’s no way to find it close to home: in the house your mother built, in the shop on the corner, in the vibrant colors of the neighborhood, in the materials from which it is built, in the products made by the people who live there, among signboards and benches shaded by awnings.

No one could deny the problems of marginal cities, but those who know them know that they enjoy a different type of wealth. A wealth that comes from simple living, a wealth based on using what is at hand.

My work over the past fifteen years has centered on this pursuit, on the possibility of building on the foundations of what is already there, of transforming these spaces based on the habits and customs of their inhabitants. I believe that the best way to advocate for change in a marginal city is by adhering to the behaviors that shaped it: the needs and objectives of its inhabitants.

If the fundamental aim of a project of urban, architectural, or industrial intervention is to improve conditions in a place, to create spaces and possibilities—in the broadest sense of the word—we should agree that the greatest positive impact is achieved when these projects step outside their own frameworks and propose transformations that the residents can bring about, in simple language; when the ideal of progress stops being somewhere up ahead—out there—and is discovered within the place itself, whether that place is a marginal neighborhood, a suburban town, or a rural village.

Living with the residents of a place, getting to know their reality in depth, understanding their habits, tastes, and styles, the materials on hand, and the needs and interests of its inhabitants, opens up new horizons beyond the gaze and the image. If we are able, with the transformation of these spaces, to allow people to realize their potential without having to leave, and if we recognize that no one knows the reality of these spaces better than the people who inhabit them, perhaps then we might be able to give new meaning to Marina Rodríguez’s aim of moving up, materially and spiritually, in her own home. In the neighborhood.

3 casa lavandera puesta en escenea pb 2009
Casa de una lavandera (Home of a laundress). Staged at Plaza de Bolívar. Bogotá, July 2009. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Immateriality in Architecture

Affecting change in the urban design and architecture of a place based on the perspective and actions of its residents means going deeper than traditional practices of architecture and urban design, and doing historical and ethnographic research based on direct cohabitation.

The immaterial part of my architectural production has been greater than the material one. My immersions in remote populations and marginal neighborhoods have meant significant personal and professional exertion, but though I have been dedicated and rigorous in my research, I have never denied myself the humor and spontaneity characteristic of these universes. I have lived these experiences authentically by applying the principle of alterity: knowing the other through the other. The research team that formed around these ideas applies this principle, as well.

Living directly with these communities allowed me to understand the power of symbolism and its impact on their destinies. The same way political figures in the United States placed monumental sculptures of themselves in structures reminiscent of Ancient Greece in order to stir feelings of national grandeur among those moving through Washington, architectural and urban design projects manifest their specific ideals of progress.

Hence the idea of confronting those ideals with symbolic creations in opposition to politics, business, and advertising not aligned with local possibilities and conserving the nature of a place, understanding the subjective aspect of architectural projects—appearance—as a crucial element of the design, given what it produces in a community and in each of its members.

Banco de la república (Bench2 of the Republic). Staged at Plaza de Bolívar. Bogotá 2009. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.



“Methodoillogicalogy” is an interdisciplinary method that stems from systematic and interrelated studies that seek to articulate, in rigorous and fitting language, the human behaviors that drive phenomena connected to a community’s relationship to its environmental and urban reality.

Methodoillogicalogy explores the special modes of behavior and conduct acquired by the repetition of the same or similar conducts, or those arising from instinctive tendencies, in order to understand the behavior of communities in specific geographic, social, economic, and political situations, driven by the hypothesis that it is these customs and behaviors—and not only the laws, rules, conducts, and established parameters—that define and condition their reality.

Methodoillogicalogy delves into those elements that exist outside a logical framework—that of objectively verifiable indicators—calling attention to non-quantifiable subjective elements—human elements—that complement the commonly held view of that reality.

This vision, when applied to the study of communities, implies a model of contact and familiarity more far-reaching than any baseline model drawn from socioeconomic indicators. It is a model inclined to explore beyond the bounds of reason, along the nebulous horizon of emotion.

The methodoillogical approach stems from an authentic and honest encounter with the people of a place—living directly within the community—in pursuit of a deep understanding of its reality, based on the principle of alterity—knowing the other through the other—and in trust established between individuals, rather than between an individual and an institution—on a continent where institutions are not generally trusted, while individuals are—with the objective of creating a friendly atmosphere in which residents feel welcome to share their thoughts about their daily lives. This permits an understanding of the rationale and practical motivations behind the way individuals act in the place where they live—their common sense—revealing that the science and the art of each profession are in fact one, as are those things we know and those we love, as well as the logic and illogic that condition, affect, and determine the existence of every being in a given territory.

Planos Vivos3

This is a tool that allows us to draw connections between different situations that shape lives in a community. Its platform is like a spiderweb that connects these situations exactly as they manifest in a given settlement, as seen both from the perspective of residents and under the lens of specialists, institutions, and industry. These living maps represent the virtual context of a community, and arise in opposition to dead archives and baseline analyses drawn only from objectively verifiable indicators, opening the field to readings and understandings of communities on an immeasurable human, cultural, and artistic scale. “Planos Vivos” is an interactive document that offers a holistic, impartial, and objective image of a community. A living map of a town brings urban, technical, and topographical information together with the social, cultural, and economic characteristics that determine how a given territory framed by certain unique climatic, geographical, and environmental conditions is inhabited. It is a tool that facilitates the comprehensive understanding of a community in the interest of designing, planning, and completing projects in accordance with its inhabitants and in keeping with the place.

The interactive platform “Planos Vivos” is born as a response to the need to unify local, present, and immediate information, building on historical, anthropological, and urbanistic elements in order to propose innovative solutions consistent with the philosophy and politics of sustainable design. It is a flexible, easy-to-read document made using technologies that allow the interweaving of data in such a way that the particular logic of a settlement (its physical and geographic dimension) can be examined alongside that of the community (its human dimension).

Casa del Pueblo4

This is a project of a cultural nature that seeks to generate a new concept of “center” in rural or suburban communities, away from the plaza with its church and town hall. The “Casa del Pueblo” is a space with great symbolic weight open to the public, grounded in the material and immaterial culture of the place, and built in the heart of the town using materials from the area and workers from the community. These “Casas del Pueblo” are designed on the basis of research within the community with an emphasis on the habits and customs of the place, and bringing in different groups within the population to take their interests, knowledge, and professions into account. During the research, planning, and construction phases of the projects, cultural groups take shape and cultural, artistic, and production projects are developed. The “Casas del Pueblo” value context, exploring what we think of as wealth, poverty, and quality of life, and bringing the reflections of the community to places where the important thing is being, rather than having. Housing solutions consistent with the environmental and cultural context are also developed around the “Casa del Pueblo.”

Casa de Valores

In order to connect marginal neighborhoods with modern cities and open new horizons for their residents, supplemental educational programs based on what people in lower income urban sectors “do” (professions) and “know” (information) should be developed.

“Casa de Valores” (House of Values) is a cultural and educational project that complements the educational system. Our research indicated that most children who live in marginal cities have access to public education (primary and high school), but tend to spend the rest of their time alone and shut away in their homes because their mothers are working and their fathers are off somewhere. The “Casa de Valores” is a space where they can hone their talents and have access to information that suits their interests. It is a healthy space, surrounded by nature, with large workshops and a library dedicated especially to the arts and professions. This way, the children can grow up doing things and learning professions with their grandparents. The “Casa de Valores” is integrated with its marginal surroundings, creating transformative opportunities for the neighborhood through its unique logic and aesthetic.

20 maqueta casa de valores
Model of the Casa de Valores, neighborhood El Paraíso, Ciudad Bolívar.

Libre de Marca

In order to drive small and medium scale production we developed the concept and project “Libre de Marca” (Brand-Free; registered in 2010) and implemented it throughout the country in order publicize all manner of popular artisanal and industrial projects, bringing visibility to the work of artisans and small businesses.

Libre de Marca was created with the objective of competing with big multinationals, consolidating the meaning and value of small-scale local production in opposition to the overexposed products and brands of major corporations.

Buenas Magazine

Buenas magazine is a publication (art book) that collects ethnographic studies of the residents of the El Paraíso neighborhood of Ciudad Bolívar. It dresses the part of a Social Sciences journal to address topics of class difference, distance, and the prejudices that afflict the residents of a marginal city or neighborhood.

25 portada buenas
Buenas. Photo: Simón Hosie.

Carta de Vida

The “Carta de Vida” (Life’s Letter) project emerges in opposition to the corporate curriculum vitae,5 and privileges life experience and time spent rather than the assortment of biographical, educational, and vocational data used to determine a person’s professional aptitude.

In the “Carta de Vida” written as a narrative, the person describes him or herself on the basis of their knowledge and life experience, revealing their humanity.

—Translated by Heather Cleary


The acronym for BUS in Spanish, SUB (Sistemas Urbanos Brutos), inflects these terms with a sense of underdevelopment, or that the phenomena described are insufficiently cultural, productive, intelligent. The same can be said of the “busperson,” who in Spanish is a subpersona. Note of the translator.


In Spanish, the noun "banco" means both bench and bank. Note of the translator.


In Spanish, the noun “plano” refers to the scale rendering of a territory, town, machine, or building; “vivo” translates as “living” or “alive.” Note of the translator.


The “Pueblo” in “Casa del Pueblo” carries the dual meaning of “town” and “people.” Note of the translator.


In Spanish, an “hoja” (page) “de vida.” Note of the translator.

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