Modernization Jaime Iregui

“The Hernández building—a work of harmonious and austere lines—undoubtedly refers to plans for the modern city, which look to the future of urban development according to the new science of city planning, the ideal of today’s citizen. Listen well: air and light, which make man serene and strong; air and light, which are the supreme glorification of the victorious and radiant life. Air and light! … ”1

An unequivocal symptom of modernization occurs when the ways in which commodities are displayed represent2 the ideals of progress, and hide the practical aspects of the object being exhibited. This is one of the most powerful forms of the specialization of capitalism. Everything on display, from a hat to a country, is transformed not into merchandise, but into the image of capital, of the new, a representation of the ideology of progress.

In 1910, on the occasion of the celebrations of the first centenary of Colombia’s independence, Independence Park was inaugurated, and with it the first Industrial Exhibition which, as the historian Fabio Zambrano states, represented a “forceful declaration of Modernism.” To set up the Industrial Exhibition, pavilions were built from emphatically modern materials such as iron and glass which served to present the latest advances in industrialization to the city.

In its own way, Bogotá thus emulated Europe’s popular festivals of industry whose purpose was both to promote the ideology of progress and to prepare the masses for the world of advertising, materialized in those great spectacles known as Universal Expositions.

The recently inaugurated Independence Park, situated in the San Diego area, was full of signs of progress. There one could find, in addition to the modern pavilions for the Industrial Exhibition, art and history shows, displays of the most advanced technology, prisons with the latest advances in security, town-planning projects for exemplarily hygienic working-class neighborhoods, amusement parks, a bullfighting arena, and the famous Salón Olympia, where the latest productions of that new art for the general public were screened: films.

The Illustrated Guides to a country or a city were another way of exhibiting progress; such was the Libro Azul de Colombia, published in 1917, which aimed to advertise the country in the market of global capitalism, and aspired as much as possible to present Bogotá as a city which had entered into modernity on a firm footing:

“The city of Bogotá has the same characteristics as an old Spanish city, the kind that little by little is turning into a modern city. Over the last three years, many quarters have been built in the modern style, and the old ones are being modernized [ … ] Many of the streets are paved and the municipal administration makes incredible efforts to keep them in good condition. More than 200 carriages and a 100 cars circulate through them. Moreover, it has a municipal tramway at its disposal which has more than nine electrified kilometers, and about four or five on the verge of being electric which are currently horse-drawn.”3

The Libra Azul de Colombia showed that for the citizens of Bogotá the notion of modernity initially came from Europe rather than North America, and especially from France. It is clear from the publication that the people of Bogotá had their eyes fixed on Paris and wanted to leave the severe and monastic colonial character of the motherland behind. At the beginning of the century this new outlook took the form of public and private buildings which were proudly presented in this guide, such as the Cundinamarca government building, Echeverri Palace, the Levant Building, the Colón Theater, and La Sabana railway station.

One of the most important moments of this process of modernization was the inauguration in 1918 of the Pasaje Hernández in Bogotá, designed by the French architect Gaston Lafarge.

The Libra Azul advertises a department store called “From a Cent to a Peso, belonging to the progressive gentlemen traders Carrizosa, Herrera & Co.,” distinguished members of Bogotá society, who “have introduced a great and useful innovation to Bogotá commerce with the beautiful department store From a Cent to a Peso, which they have opened in the magnificent Hernández Building. Thanks to direct contacts through their New York branch, they have found the best manufacturers and exporters of the United States and have been able to put within everyone’s reach articles of the highest quality, many of which could only be bought before at the highest of prices.”4

The novelty here consisted of introducing trading strategies in the very best North American style. At the same time, the businesses were in the hands of the citizens of Bogotá, and a European-style framework was offered by the equally novel Pasaje Hernández.

While in Europe this kind of architectural design was already in decline,5 thanks to the construction of wide avenues and boulevards, in the city of Bogotá it was a real advance, as it allowed the high bourgeoisie to feel as though they were in Paris and to forget for a moment the narrow and smelly streets of a large city which appeared never to progress.

Modernization 1

The Hernández Arcade had already existed as a commercial street before 1894, as it appears on the Clavijo map from this date. The building project, designed in the last decade of the 19th century, took 18 years6 to build. It has a T-structure with entrances on Calle Florían, 12th Street and 13th Street. It presents two clearly different constructions; the first consists of an arcade of two floors, each with 17 premises and covered by a canopy of iron and glass which starts from 13th Street and ends 30 meters before the street ends. The second is a three-story structure, with five commercial premises on the first floor and ten offices on the second and third floor. It has its entrance on Calle Florían and has no canopy.

Modernization 2

When the Hernández Building was inaugurated, the Rivas Arcade was already in existence, on 10th Street and 10th Avenue, and still bringing the artisans together. The Mercedes Arcade specialized in wedding dresses and first communions. The Santa Fe Arcade specialized in books and meeting places for literary types and intellectuals, and there was also the Cuero Arcade.

Due to its cleanliness, comfort, and illumination, and the elegance of its shops, the Hernández Arcade was without a doubt the most exclusive of all. It had European clothes shops and shops specializing in the import of groceries and alcohol on its first floor. The second and third floors were devoted to tailors’ workshops and offices.

The Hernández Arcade represented a modern alternative for the capital’s high bourgeoisie to stroll along, accustomed to—and surely tired of—meeting up and showing off to the common people and those of their own class in the traditional Lozano on Bolivar Square. The arcade was the symbol and emblem of modernity, thanks to the imported fashion displayed in its elegant windows. Moreover, it offered protection against the elements, against the cold, rainy, and unpredictable climate of the Savannah, and of course allowed the elegant citizens of Bogotá to avoid passing through the uncomfortable and dirty streets of the capital.

One week after its opening, Cromos magazine summarized the event,7 and under the suggestive title “Ciudad Futuro” (Future City) presented this advance in urban planning to a city which wanted to leave behind its shameful colonial past and which found itself besieged by problems of sanitation, poverty, and stagnation:

“All these generous initiatives, which tend to widen and beautify the capital city, our city, and increase the comforts of life, cannot, should not—should indeed never—go unnoticed by the patriot who loves as a son the land in which he was born and in whose maternal lap he will one day have to sleep for evermore.

The Congress of National Improvements, which was a real breath of patriotism, dealt extensively with the relatively new municipal planning movement. And there is no city of the Republic which so much needs correction of its antiquated planning than the colonial and ancient Santa Fe de Teusaquillo—a dirty and melancholic town, located in those cold climes, without any kind of forethought, by some representative of the conquerors, with the stupidity of four centuries ago, built by nostalgic monks, soured ministers, and sordid grocers.

If the national, regional, and municipal governments support such important efforts as those of the Hernández Building, through means that are within their reach, the day will not be far off in which these gray and afflicted areas will be turned into a white and cheerful city, like a North American city. The Hernández Building, with a few more erected along these avenues, will then initiate a healthy revolution in the capital. Citizens will soon realize the ideal of aesthetics, comfort, hygiene, and quality of life which is today the dream and concern of all cities at the forefront of progress.”

Fragments of the city—European and North American—which the bourgeoisie subsequently built to free themselves from their suffocating colonial past and to stage their dream with the white and hygienic ideology of progress, coexist in our present city in a wide variety of realities which are no longer dreams of progress but solutions to the problems of urban planning of a metropolis which continues to build itself from the overlaying of times and spaces, and through the assimilation of local and global cultures which, together, define the current reality of Bogotá.


I / The Hernández Arcade is located between 12th Street and 13th Street, and between 8th Avenue (the former Calle de Florían) and 9th Avenue. Detail of Clavijo map, 1894.

II / Pictures of the opening of the Pasaje Hernández. El Gráfico, March 9, 1918.


1 / “Ciudad Futura,” Revista Cromos, no. 116 (March 2, 1918.)

2 / “For (Walter) Benjamin, whose point of departure was historical experience rather than an economical analysis of capital, the key to the new urban phantasmagoria was not so much the commodity-in-the-market, as the commodity-on-display, where exchange value no less than use value lost all practical meaning, and pure representational value came into play.” Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, The MIT Press, Cambridge 1991, p. 81.

3 / Jorge Posada Callejas, Libro azul de Colombia, J.J. Little & Ives, New York 1918, p. 16.

4 / Posada Callejas, Libro azul de Colombia, p. 25.

5 / The first Parisian arcade dates from 1822. In the era in which the Hernández Arcade was opened, thinkers like Walter Benjamin had begun to look at arcades as fossils of an embryonic modernity.

6 / Mónica Almanza, “Un pasaje de la historia,” Revista Horas: Guía cultural de Bogotá (June 2004).

7 / “Ciudad Futura.”