Bolivia: 'Spaceships' invade El Alto

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Nick Caistor

The cityscape of La Paz, Bolivia’s political and business capital is one of the most dramatic in the world.

At more than 3,500 metres above sea level, La Paz sprawls along a huge gorge that cuts through the Andean altiplano plateau.
More than a million people live there, and in the city centre glass skyscrapers are rapidly replacing the old single storey buildings, many of them with corrugated roofs, and the older colonial stone buildings.

But almost as many people live in El Alto, the city that has grown up on the top of the altiplano above La Paz, close to the international airport.

It is here that most of the Quechua and Aymara migrants who flock to Bolivia’s metropolis choose to settle: land prices are much lower, and the opportunity to build homes much greater, with fewer planning restrictions and more space.

Most of El Alto’s buildings are nondescript brick and corrugated iron constructions.

But El Alto is now home to some of the enterprising indigenous business people who have thrived under President Evo Morales, as trade within the country has soared thanks to sustained economic growth over the past decade.

A new indigenous middle class is emerging, and they want to flaunt their success. Increasingly, the greatest status symbol they can have is a building designed by Freddy Mamani Silvestre.

Silvestre was born 43 years ago, the son of an aymara bricklayer, and first came to El Alto as a young boy. Now his five brothers work for him.

Between them they have built some 80 of these El Alto ‘palaces’ locally dubbed as ‘cohetillos’ or little space rockets.

“I want society to value what we are doing,” says Mamani Silvestre. “I consider myself an artist because I started working like this as a small boy.”

Mamani Silvestre designs the highly-coloured ornate palaces with sketches on paper, and claims never to have used a computer or other digital aids. He says the bright colours come from the vivid textiles made by Aymara women like his mother.
 
His buildings are usually five storeys high, with shops on the ground floor, two storeys above them given over to a huge salon-cum-ballroom, apartments on the floor above that, and a smaller penthouse built on the roof for the owners known as the ‘chalet’.

One writer has described the interiors as: ‘spellbinding tapestries of bright paint, LED lights and playful Andean motifs: chandeliers anchored to butterfly symbols, doorways that resemble owls and candy-coloured pillars that could hold up a Willy Wonka factory… One soaring wedding hall evokes the inside of a reptile, with arching roof beams like dragon ribs and huge orange curlicue mouldings that could be alligator eyes.”

Mamani Silvestre’s creations can cost as much as $US 500, 000 but he has an overflowing order book - the new rich of Bolivia want to show off their wealth.

“There have always been rich Aymara, but before Evo, they were timid. They didn’t want to draw attention to themselves,” Mamani Silvestre told one journalist. “Now they say: ‘This is where the successful Aymara live.’ They are proud of Evo, and they say: ‘I have wealth, I can show it off. I don’t have anything to hide.’”

At the same time, these altiplano entrepreneurs hope to earn their investment back not only by renting the apartment but by hiring out the salons for quinceañera celebrations and weddings, occasions when no expense is spared in the Aymara community.

Dismissed by some as mere kitsch, others see his work as the continuation of a very Andean kind of architecture, and photographs of the ‘spaceships’ recently caused a stir when they were exhibited at London’s prestigious Architectural Association early in 2015.

The photographs were taken from a book on Freddy Mamani Silvestre’s work by Elizabetta Andreoli and Ligia D’Andrea, Arquitectura andina de Bolivia: la obra de Mamani Silvestre. 

Andreoli herself has no doubt about the value of the new architectural phenomenon: ‘at its heart is a fundamentally contemporary urban version of indigenous cultural elements,’ she says.

What is most remarkable, Andreolio argues, is that these aspiring newly rich Bolivians no longer feel the need to follow the architectural norms of the developed world, but have the self-confidence to assert their own identity.

Republished from LAB where you can also find photos of a range of building in El Alto


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