Constructing El Sistema

On Thursday, the Latin American Development Bank, CAF, approved the second part of a $350 million loan for the construction of a new Sistema centre, the Simón Bolívar Complex for Social Action through Music. Building has already begun alongside El Sistema’s nearly new HQ in Caracas, the Centre for Social Action through Music, which was funded by the Inter-American Development Bank and only became fully operational in the last couple of years. This vast (and vastly expensive) new complex will stand as a testament to José Antonio Abreu’s political clout and his capacity to persuade development banks and the Venezuelan government that pre-professional training in European orchestral music is an effective and culturally appropriate model for social development in Latin America. Like so many aspects of El Sistema, however, it also raises some important questions.

The first concerns centralization. The director of CAF proclaimed: “it’s a big contribution not just to Caracas, but to Venezuela. This is going to be something world class.” Without a doubt, the new complex will impact on the lives of musicians outside Caracas, who will continue to travel (in many cases overnight) in order to take part in activities there. But it is hard to see the expenditure of $350 million on a single complex in the centre of the capital, literally alongside what are already far and away the best facilities in the country (the recently completed CASM), as anything other than a highly centralizing move. As the CAF director’s words suggest, the impact on the wider country is likely to be primarily in terms of international prestige rather than practical benefits.

Centralization is a longstanding problem in the Venezuelan cultural sphere. The IDB has been urging decentralization on El Sistema since its first loan proposal in 1997, and the principal aim of its second loan proposal in 2007 was the construction of seven regional centres, which had first been mooted a decade earlier. The idea of strengthening the regions has thus been on the table for fifteen years, yet evidence of progress is thin on the ground. The IDB’s stated aim in 2007 was: “Four Regional Centers have been built by the end of 2010 and all seven Regional Centers are operating normally by 2014.” While my information is very partial – and I would welcome updates or corrections – it seems that in at least three of the seven regional cities, work has not yet progressed beyond the laying of a symbolic first stone.

The first CAF loan was approved much more recently – in 2010. Yet construction on the new Caracas complex is already well under way today. If we look at the bricks and mortar, rather than the rhetoric, decentralization does not seem to be a very high priority.

The second question concerns the destination for these huge sums of money – above all, the infrastructure of a small number of huge, imposing centres. Some of the IDB loan was spent on importing granite from Panama for the entrance hall of the CASM, while the new complex will have “exceptional acoustic conditions” according to Abreu. Certainly, one could argue that a socio-musical program should not have to compromise on quality, though how much impact a granite floor or exceptional acoustics have on social development is a moot point.

Of the new complex, Abreu claims: “It will really be unique in the world, because there are conservatoires and music schools in the world, but there are not buildings that have in themselves the capacity to educate, train teachers, and fulfill a social function of this magnitude.” It is worth thinking about the kind of social function that buildings may have. The idea of creating jaw-dropping temples to classical music is hardly a new one, and part of their social function is undoubtedly to inspire awe, admiration, and reverence for the cultural traditions they embody and the individuals who promote them. Whether they inspire creative engagement, resignification, and self-directed development on the part of users is another matter.

Let us imagine a different kind of project. One in which, instead of creating a single dominant focal point in the centre, resources were decentralized and spread out towards the periphery. This is what has taken place in Medellín, Colombia, a city with considerable social problems that is taking steps to reverse its fortunes via a program of creating “library parks.” To save me reinventing the wheel, I’m going to quote extensively from a newspaper article on this project – but I should add that I have been to Medellín and visited one of these libraries and sat in on a class.

> Pabon is a docent at the Parque Biblioteca San Javier, which opened in 2006 — one of nine “library parks,” combination community centers and social service hubs, currently operating or under construction in the slums that ring Medellín, a city with 3.5 million people. The city’s poorest residents live in these barrios on steep mountain slopes that were settled haphazardly, illegally, during the massive urbanization of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

The library parks are some of the most architecturally impressive buildings in the city. The Parque Biblioteca San Javier, designed by Colombian architect Javier Vera, hugs a hillside in western Medellín — four tiered concrete blocks that drop vertically but also stretch horizontally. Inside, the blocks resemble giant steps connected by wide staircases and open ramps. Glass panels both partition and link the interior in a flow of classrooms, computer labs, and studios.

Within, locals of all ages sit at computers, practice ballet steps, take English lessons. Nine new mothers sit in a circle in one classroom and share advice while a trained nurse listens and offers guidance. <

There are two things that strike me about this description. First, the decentralization of impressive architecture into the heart of the barrios. There is of course a double decentralization going on here, since this flagship project that has gained international attention is taking place in a provincial city, not the capital Bogotá. Second, the range of activities that takes place in these new spaces, the meanings of which remain fluid.

> In 2004, Sergio Fajardo became mayor of Medellín. […] He diverted 40 percent of the city’s $900 million annual budget to education, much of which was used for his flagship project: the library parks. He chose San Javier for the first park. <

In other words, the new mayor put his money where his mouth was, and diverted funds to where they were most needed – the barrios.

> To gain support for his project, Fajardo barnstormed San Javier. He led children on tours of their neighborhoods. He proclaimed that the city would put its most beautiful structures where its poorest residents lived, that it would create hilltop sanctuaries where they could learn, interact, and relax. He invited residents to meet with architects, academics, and developers. Community representatives sketched ideas on rolls of white butcher paper. Wizened old men and 20-something women told officials that the green space around the library park had to be bigger, that they should offer movie nights, that none of it would work unless a bridge was built over Calle 44, where drivers never slowed down. <

In contrast to monumental construction projects of earlier periods (from which El Sistema has inherited much), the Medellín library parks were designed in consultation with local communities rather than simply imposed from a central office.

The new mayor, Alonso Salazar, proclaimed:

> “Always the power is local, central, from the community. This formula is indispensable.” <

Though these words are slightly contradictory, the meaning is clear: this is about decentralization, about devolving power to the local level.

One of the most interesting aspects of the article is its opening paragraph:

> Three teenagers are break-dancing in the courtyard of a government building in Medellín, Colombia. A boom box blares hip-hop — pure bass against the concrete walls. A dozen other teens sit cross-legged or lean against backpacks. Johana Pabon stands near the building’s glass entryway staring at the break-dancers, arms crossed, hips thrust sideways, eyes narrowed. Her tight smile, though, shows unmistakable pride. “They have this space,” she says. “They can use it whenever they want.” <

This is a space that has been created in order to be given meaning, to be resignified, by its users. It is not a place to go and learn a particular skill dictated by someone else, which means that if you find yourself unsuited to that activity (physically or temperamentally), you have little choice but to leave. It is not a music school, and yet it may be transformed into one by some of its users. The space is shaped by its beneficiaries, not by a paternalistic vision from outside that determines what kind of activity is best for them.

Of course, El Sistema operates in some barrios, particularly in Caracas, but facilities are often crumbling, and in many towns and cities the Sistema núcleo is in fact far from the poorest areas, for example on a central square. Just imagine if El Sistema had taken those $350 million and decided to divide it up between all the existing núcleos for improvements, repairs, or simply building from scratch (many núcleos operate in borrowed facilities). That would be somewhere in the region of $1.5 million per núcleo.

Such a move would let the country know that every community’s cultural life was valued equally. A $350 million complex in Caracas, on the other hand, will simply exacerbate the already marked flow of talent to the capital – and it’s hard to see how this will benefit communities across Venezuela.

Of course, the issues around Medellín’s library parks are undoubtedly more complex than can be represented in a newspaper article (just as is the case with El Sistema). No doubt there are problems and criticisms, as there are with any large project. But I think we can see here clearly a very different kind of philosophy for urban and social development, and one that is arguably much more reflective of progressive 21st-century thinking than planting another high temple of European culture at the centre of the map.

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