Called the White City, the National University of Colombia, in Bogota, is a vast 300-acre complex showcasing Columbia’s architecture from 1935 to the recent past, unified by a pure white color scheme. It plays a vital role in the cultural and political life of the nation. Just how vital was revealed by the photographs of Guillermo Santos in a recent exhibition that was part of the multi-venue exposition Fotografica Bogota 2013. Shooting exclusively in black and white and mostly at night, Santos catalogued the modernist geometries of the various department buildings. The high contrast of many of the prints emphasized the architectural ambitions of the campus but qualified any admiration with a noirish tone. Even the pristine Philosophy building looks a bit like an apparition. This ambivalence gets at the heart of the project. Bogota is famous for its truly spectacular graffiti, and the White City especially has become a canvas for art and political expression. Santos has captured the ubiquity of graffiti on the campus and with it the incongruity of contemporary social protest in the context of modern architecture’s dream of social transformation through purity of form.
Quite apart from the truism that buildings don’t make revolutions, people do, the photographs recognize that forms of institutionalized “progress” tend to become mechanisms of social control and invite rebellion. Yet Santos, a professor at the university, knows that in the White City, something else is taking place: ideas are being debated and opinions freely voiced, even in times of enormous difficulty. For him, and for the students, the buildings aren’t the enemy, and inscription does not rule out affection, and loyalty.