What would it take to transform an entire city? In the Bolivian city of El Alto, architect Freddy Mamami is doing just that.
Amidst the two and three story brick buildings of Bolivia’s highest city (El Alto is 4,150 meters above sea level), a new style of building is emerging. The bright colours and geometric designs are a counterpoint to what was once a city dominated by poverty. El Alto, a city of about one million people, is adjacent to Bolivia’s capital of La Paz. Traditionally, El Alto has been a poor city, with approximately 80% of the population of Indigenous Aymara ancestry.
Freddy Mamami, who is one of the Aymara people, is not a classically trained architect. His designs draw heavily from Indigenous Bolivian culture, particularly from the Tiwanaku archaeological site (thought to be an ancestral Aymara site dating to 200 B.C) and from the textiles and traditional patterns of his people. In combination, these elements are indicative of a new style of architecture unique to Bolivia: neo-Andean architecture.
Rooted in Indigenous Andean culture, Mamami’s designs have been criticized as frivolous by the architectural establishment. It seems as though the people of Bolivia disagree with the critics, as Mamami has designed and built more than 200 buildings across the country, each one as distinctive—and as brightly coloured—as the last. As Mamami explains:
“I think it is an architecture that goes from the rural to the urban. It is necessary to look at the context of these buildings, the clients, their uses and traditions, of the beliefs and legacies of the Andean society.”
Mamami’s buildings are more than decorative. Each one features ground-level commercial space, with professional and residential areas of above. This design not only provides a mix of commercial and residential spaces that are important for sustainable community design, it allows residents to take advantage of light and views in the world’s highest city.
The geometric patterns extend into the interiors of the neo-Andean buildings as well. Almost garish, the colors and lights are unmistakably unique.
Architecture is a reflection of place. The style of our buildings reflects our history and our culture and showcases what our communities value. After being subjected to years of racism and oppression, the Aymara people are reclaiming their culture through their architecture, a legacy that will be visible for decades into the future.