Sebastian Marroquin grew up in Medellin, Colombia, as Juan Pablo Escobar, the son of legendary drug kingpin and leader of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar. As a kid, Marroquin enjoyed time at “Naples,” a 20-square-kilometer (eight-square-mile) ranch that included swimming pools and a zoo filled with millions of dollars’ worth of exotic animals. “I’ve never been to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch,” he told The Independent. “But I doubt it had anything on Naples.”
While accompanying his father for years evading the police and rival gangs, young Sebastian saw the perils and pitfalls of the criminal life and has since started a new life as a successful architect. Senior Editor Matt Shaw sat down with Marroquin to discuss his path to architecture, what he learned from his father, and what he hopes to accomplish for Colombia in the future.
What do you think of shows like Narcos?
I don’t like them. They are telling lies about my whole life. They don’t know anything about us and that’s for sure. They don’t even know who was my father’s favorite soccer team.
Let’s focus on architecture.
Architecture is more fun. This is the first interview of my life we are talking about architecture and not about my father.
How did you get started in architecture?
After my father’s death, my mother, my sister and I went to Mozambique at first and the idea was to stay there in Africa but we only stayed for five days. We couldn’t find any place to stay and study and there was no future for us there so then we decided to move to Argentina.
I made the decision to be an architect when I was out of jail there. My mother was still in jail, and I was fighting very hard to set her free. I spent too many nights waiting for an answer from the Department of Justice in Argentina, and a lot of time passed and nothing happened, so I started to think about what I’m going to do. That is when I decided to study architecture. I studied at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Architecture saved my life because it gave me the possibility to believe that even when something is demolished new things can come out of that and architecture really helps to know how to think not only about architecture but also about life.
What inspired you to choose architecture?
My grandfather on my mother’s side was a woodworker. He made a lot of furniture and he was also a designer. Also on my father’s side, we have a lot of artists. Some of my aunts are really good at painting and making stuff with their hands and I believe that is where, in a way, I found love in design and architecture. It was also because my mother is an interior designer—in the past we had a lot of properties and a lot of buildings and my mother was involved in the design process, and I was always keeping an eye on that. So I liked what I saw. I liked the process of designing and these projects. I found architecture to be a refuge for me in those days that I didn’t have too much to do or think about, because we were waiting for the justice answer.
I have really found very good and close friends inside the architectural world. I feel very passionate about…I really enjoy being part of the community.
What kind of architectural projects do you do?
I have two big mansions designed and built in Colombia, and one in Argentina. These are the places I have been working on. They are already finished. The houses are big, one is around 3,000 square meters (33,000 square feet), and the other is about 1,100 square meters (10,000 square feet). One of them even has a bakery in it.
For the first house that I built in Colombia, I didn’t even know who the client was. It was a mystery. There was a request, and they sent me the photographs, the plans, the coordinates, and everything that I needed to design the house. I never went to the place where the house is built. I don’t even know where it exists. When it was complete, they called me and I found out that the owner was one of the guys who, in 1988, put 700 kilos of dynamite in my house. It was a miracle that we survived because I was with my mom and my little sister there. It was the first car bomb in Colombia’s history. So I built the house for the guy who ruined mine.
It was a way for them to ask for forgiveness and in a way to understand us. They knew who I was from the beginning. It was weird and it was a clear opportunity and it was clear that a lot of things have changed in Colombia and that is a great example of how things have really changed now. People want to make peace.
It affected me in a positive way. In this story in particular, through architecture, I found a way to complete my past. I ended up building a house for them. They gave me also the opportunity to be an architect because if I didn’t have that opportunity I wouldn’t have more photographs to show to other people so they can believe me as an architect.
Today, I am designing a free, public wellness center and water therapy facility for a small town in Argentina. The workers and the families from the town were willing to give me a projec…a complex with a lot of pools and water for kids. It’s not a spa just for a few people; it is a big public place. I only did the design for it, however, because I’ve been working on my second book about my childhood and my father, so I had to leave the architecture for a couple of months to deliver this book if possible.
How does your father’s legacy affect your career in architecture?
Houses are not what I choose to do, but it’s not very common for me to get work as an architect because of my father and things like that. It doesn’t allow me to participate in architecture as much as I want. People know that I have talent as an architect but they want to choose some other guy without my father’s history. So it’s really difficult for me to find a job.
We are finally working on a building that will be my first building in Colombia, in Medellin. I have a house here but I don’t have a building yet. That’s where I plan to do the next building.
In the past, I worked with very well known architects in Argentina. One of them is Roberto Busnelli and the other one is called Daniel Silberfaden. Roberto had a book published that featured his projects, including one that I brought to his office because it was big and he had a big studio that could realize the project. We won the competition and finished the project with the help of a European architect. When the book was published, my name was not on the project. They gave credit to the European architects who worked three days on it but forgot me.
So I found out that maybe this is everywhere. It’s a shame that people judge me because of my father’s past and not what I do or what I’m capable of. That’s one of the main barriers that I find every day as an architect. I don’t want to be a coke dealer. I know how to be a coke dealer, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be a millionaire again if I have to be paying my father’s debts. I have had the opportunity to pass on that, I don’t want to repeat that story. There is a lot to learn from the past and from my father’s story.
Were you around when they were building La Catedral, the prison your father designed for himself? Did you ever see any of the construction of that as a kid and admire it?
The construction guys sent my father updates of the construction of the La Catedral in the mail and I would see the men bring in the photographs and videos and instructions. From the beginning, a criminal building his own prison was very awkward because people got upset that it was happening in Colombia. But my father said, “This is a place where I want to be. This is a place where I’m going to be. This is the place where I’m going to be in prison. I’m going to pay for the designs and design how I’m going to escape from my own prison.”
I believe that in a way my father was also an architect, he was very clever. He was just an architect for his own convenience. There was a Sunday my father took me to airplane fields and in the middle of the jungle, we were standing on the airfield and he asked me, “where is the airfield?” I couldn’t see it, and he said, “You are standing in it.” I couldn’t see it because I was looking at a house in the middle of the runway and there was no way the plane could land because it would crash against the house. He took a walkie-talkie and told one of his friends to move the house. It was on wheels. When the airplanes from the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency) were searching with satellites looking for hideouts, they couldn’t find anything because there was a house in the middle of what was a possible airfield. The planes can use it—just move the house.
That’s why he was a great architect because when you visited the house, it worked. It had the bathrooms, the shower, everything. If the police went to the house, it would function perfectly. I believe that a lot of things from architecture I learned from my father and especially places to hide. He used architecture to hide.
Is that what you do today?
A lot of people ask me to do that because Colombia is not a safe country and people don’t trust banks, so every work of architecture I offer the client a possibility of “Do you want to have a secret place in your house like a panic room or something like that?” People say, “Yes, I would love to have the son of Pablo Escobar show us how to hide.”
As the son of Pablo Escobar, I know how to hide!
Your father built housing for the people living in slums. Is that something that affected the way you think about architecture?
Yes, he wanted to make 5,000 units of free housing for the families who were living in a garbage dump in Medellin. In the early 80s, he built almost 1,000 houses and then the government, they were jealous and they seized all the land and stopped the project. That’s one of the reasons why my father started fighting against the establishment. They didn’t want him to help the poor.
That encouraged me to think more and try to assist the people or Colombia, the poor people of Colombia. There are a lot of families that live in the country who don’t have lights or water in their houses. It is not about luxury, it is about dignity.
I am doing a project to house the poor in Argentina, but I would love to do that in Colombia.
What would you like to do next?
I would love to something related to Colombia’s nature. We have a tremendous amount of green here in Colombia. We have a lot of jungle and a lot of beautiful places that are rarely seen. I would love to do a hotel that really respects the environment. We have a lot of paradise and I hope we can build some things like that if we have Colombia enjoying peace.