The media outbreak for architect Elisabetta Andreoli and artist Ligia D’Andrea’s book “Andean Architecture of Bolivia”, which focuses on the work of Freddy Mamani – ex-bricklayer turned engineer and constructor- has become the excuse to talk about everything else related to the highland country of Bolivia.
Such as the shortcomings and luxuries of the rapid urban expansion dispersed in El Alto, the youngest city in Bolivia; the birth of a new Aymara bourgeoisie in the shadow of the white elites; and the birth of a contemporary architectural identity that bothers purists and makes Aymaras proud, but is rejected by local architecture schools. Below, you can find out more about this new type of architecture together with photos by Alfredo Zeballos.
It was an achievement for everyone; one for Elisabetta and Ligia, another for Mamani. The presentation of the book “Andean Architecture of Bolivia: the work of Freddy Mamani Silvestre” at the National Museum of Art in La Paz last March, marked a moment where Elisabetta and Ligia had managed to take a new step in the serious documentation of Bolivian architecture, without stereotypes or it being disregarded as a tourist guide, such was the case with the first publication of Elisabetta: “Contemporary Bolivia” (2012). “There was not a single book that did not deal with landscape and tourism,” says the Italian architect.
During the ceremony, the prolific career of Mamani, having completed more than 60 projects in a decade, was also validated before the cultural establishment of La Paz. His work has been curiously shaped in El Alto, an old poor neighborhood of the Bolivian capital. In the last fifty years, it has taken on its own life with a population of nearly one million inhabitants. It took center stage in the so-called “Gas War” that in 2003 made President Sánchez de Lozada fall, and then rallied around Evo Morales in the 2005 elections, in a symbolic transition Bolivia went from ‘Gringo’ to ‘Cholo’, and the pride of being indigenous came with that.
Of course, Freddy Mamani is not an architect. Born in a small Aymara community called Catavi, he started working twenty years ago as a bricklayer assistant. But his dreams pushed him to study at the Technological Faculty of Civil Constructions at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (1986), and later to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering at the UBI. All of this despite, as he explained in a recent article, that his family urged him to give up: “do not study an expensive career, it’s a race for the rich.”
At the same time, in the city of El Alto -the receptor for decades of thousands of indigenous peasants coming from La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí- a new Aymara bourgeoisie was formed that found in Mamani’s office one of their own. He was a guy without academic apprehensions, who embarked on the idea of finding an Aymara architectural identity. “I seek to give identity to my city by recovering elements of our original culture,” says Freddy in “Andean Architecture of Bolivia …”
As Nathalie Iriarte points out in ‘Transforming Architecture’, the first assignment that Francisco Mamani took on was a commercial cell phone importer. He “had a plot of 300m² and wanted to build a property, but did not know what kind”. Then Freddy Mamani suggested an “elegant building, with Andean forms, colorful and with a large hall for events, something that until then had not existed in the city.”
That’s where it all began. Nowadays six-story buildings dominate the views of the Altiplano city. Large glazed panels are framed in facades with plastic compositions of plaster moldings and bathed in complementary colors like orange/green and blue/yellow. It can be considered an aggressive chromatic palette for traditional architecture, but irresistible for a city built in bare brick, behind a monochromatic, cold and dry highland landscape.
These facades, designed by Mamani, began to be called ‘transformer’, or contemptuously ‘cholas’. The concept of ‘cholets’ emerged, a play on words between chalet and cholo, and the Bolivian press effusively presented Freddy as the creator of an independent and unique style, which owes nothing to anyone, without references or tributes. Mamani had wanted to make “an architecture that spoke an Andean language since what is taught in universities has nothing to do with it”, commented Elisabetta Andreoli from Italy in conversation with Plataforma Arquitectura. “Some of the forms have been taken out of Andean art. The Tiwanacotas used a language of civilization in their forms: textiles, ceramics, and architectural ruins. Mamani uses the Andean cross, the diagonal juxtaposition of the planes, the duplicity, the repetition, the circle, which makes all this a stylisation theme, that is its source.”
The plastic composition of these facades has eclipsed the programmatic qualities originally proposed by the Aymara builder, whose main attraction is the dance halls, built on a second level over the ten commercial premises designed on the first floor. As described by Andreoli, “the Aymara culture usually celebrates the great events of life, there is always a reason to give” and when the indigenous communities migrate to the cities, they find in the dance halls the opportunity to maintain their traditions, but until now, they were not designed for the activities of the Aymara community. Nobody thought and designed them as Mamani: spacious and double-height spaces, with bars, tables to eat and drink beer, dance floors and platforms for the two or three bands that play live. Generously sized rooms in mirrors that bounce the hundreds of little lights embedded in the walls and ceilings, as well as from the hanging tear lamps brought from China. The corridors are sheltered by embroidered columns and balustrades with different tones and styles. Robust colorful curves weave compositions to the heavens.
Above the dance halls, apartments are designed to lease, or alternatively, for the children of the owners, with special emphasis on common spaces. Then above these apartments and crowning the building, is “the owner’s house, a form and design that breaks with the rest of the building” says the Italian architect.
The owner’s houses respect the chromatic palette of the rest of the work, but with a distinct roofing style. The houses boast a high front yard and a privileged view of the city, giving the building two unique attractions. In the book “Andean Architecture in Bolivia …”, they document how the locals in La Paz believed that this would be “a replica of the peasant house with its space around”. Others argue that according to the Andean conception, having the housing at height allows it to be closer to the Alaqpacha (upper world), above the Akapacha (world terrain). However, “unlike the commercial building, which occupies the entire plot, the owner’s house can be smaller and more autonomous, so it heats the rooms better in the heat of the day and can protect themselves from the cold of the highlands”, explains Elisabetta.
Despite the success and enthusiasm of the press, Manami’s work aroused animosity in the academic realm. “We did a talk at a university. There were teachers who did not even listen to us, some left and few understood that this could be part of a Bolivian identity” confesses Andreoli. Mamani also points this out in the book: “in the technical faculty we felt our culture underestimated, but now with President Evo, the original culture is revalued. I went to Tiwanaco and I was impressed with its forms and I studied the books. I have given my design a decomposition and stylisation of the Andean forms.”
According to Elisabetta, ”the architecture faculties are very envious. They must think: ‘we who study the race have not been able to invent a contemporary language that is Bolivian and this guy comes along who is a bricklayer and finds it before us’. And of course, the Bolivian schools are carrying the cross to formulate a brand of their own, but that is not this, but in line with the rest of the West. “Mamani also does not work with the aesthetics of the Bolivian elite and that’s why they consider it picturesque and not very serious. It could be understood as classism and racism.”
Faced with media coverage, criticism, discrimination and new projects that are adding all the time, Mamani does not forget his training as a bricklayer: here there are no plans or computers or orders.
However, once the heavy work is finished, each morning he hands out the instructions directly to his team and to explain some detail, he writes it down on a piece of paper, or sometimes, he just needs to put the pencil on a wall to say: “in the moment I will explain.”
For more information on the book “Andean Architecture of Bolivia”, by the authors Elisabetta Andreoli and Ligia d’Andrea, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
An exhibition was also made by the Cultural Foundation of the Central Bank of Bolivia at the National Museum of Art, La Paz. This exhibition will be presented from July in other cities of the country: Sucre, Potosí, Santa Cruz and Cochabamaba.