Most artistic movements are named after the fact, often by critics, to group together the works of artists that share certain characteristics or that are in reaction to specific events and thus coincide thematically. Counter to this academic pattern is la nueva arquitectura andina (or the New Andean Architecture). The term was coined by the style’s creator: Freddy Mamani Silvestre, who goes by Freddy Mamani professionally.
The New Andean Architecture is often translated into English as Neo-Andean Architecture, but this has less to do with its creator’s will and more to do with traditions within Western intelligentsia, where Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes are used in an attempt to elevate certain words and ideas. Beyond being a translation quibble, this naming convention goes against the heart of the New Andean Architecture.
Mamani was born in Catavi, a small Aymara community. Looking for economic opportunity, he moved to El Alto, which has seen record surges in population and development over the past few decades. Today, El Alto is Bolivia’s second most populous city with only Santa Cruz surpassing it. This upswell is largely thanks to indigenous migrants from other parts of the country, especially the Aymara, who make up to eighty percent of El Alto’s populace.
Economic mobility has kept pace with and can largely be attributed to this influx. Formerly rural, working class communities have taken advantage of this adopted urban center, and used its infrastructure to gain a foothold in Bolivia’s middle class. One could say that Mamani himself is somewhat of a microcosm of this societal trend. Professionally, he began working with mud to pave roads and erect adobe houses. Following this he worked for a time as a bricklayer’s assistant, and after pursuing higher education at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and then the Universidad Boliviana de Informática, Mamani earned a degree in Civil Engineering. During this time he began to develop his style, partly as a reaction to his surroundings.
El Alto is about 13,000 feet (or 4,000 meters) above sea level. This combined with its cold, flora sparse climate (both consequences of the altitude) led much of the city to be built using spartan techniques and materials. At the urging of one of his clients, Mamani looked to the vibrant past of Bolivia and the Andes more broadly to alleviate El Alto’s drab skyline.
Inspirations & Form
Inspirations and Form of New Andean Architecture
In crafting the New Andean Architecture, Mamani studied both his own ancestry and the mountainous region’s heritage of structural design. The aguayo, a traditional Aymara shawl equally suited to carrying produce, goods, and infants, inspired an unsparing use of fantastic colors. Bright greens, warm reds, and inviting yellows suffuse Mamani’s buildings, each an ode to the woven craft of his people.
Another muse were the ruins of Tiahuanaco, the capital of an ancient Andean empire. This pre-Columbina wonder provided Mamani with a wealth of architectural forms and motifs to use in the development of his own style. Animals and land formations made up the physical lexicon of this city, a stark departure from the cookie cutter adobe huts of El Alto. Translating this, aguayo, and his training as both a bricklayer and an engineer, Mamani produced an architecture that embraced expressive colors, bold lines, and unconventional window panes. New Andean buildings are in many respects the opposite of typical skyscrapers. Rather than being spreadsheet-like grids of steel and glass, Mamani’s creations are loud, exciting, and contain natural forms that call back to things like flowers and mountains.
Function of New Andean Architecture
The majority of Mamani’s architectural output revolves around a similar formula: multi-story, multiple-purpose buildings. While the structures are static, their uses are semi-modular. Generally, the first floor is designed as a commercial space. What fills it is up to the owner: restaurant and grocery store being two equally viable options that many have opted for. The second and third floors tend more toward the communal in design. They can be dancehalls, bars, meeting places, or all three at once. Higher up, the fourth and fifth floors are usually more straightforward, these being standard apartments (or occasionally sports facilities).
At the top floor is the owner’s residence, a sort of penthouse known as a cholet. Cholet is a portmanteau of the words chalet (a cottage usually associated with the wealthy) and cholo (a derogatory term for indigenous peoples used across Latin America). Cholet is not a smear thought up by critics of the New Andean Architecture, but a term stemming from the movement itself. It is a recuperation of a slur used to put down the Aymara and others. Here at least, cholo is disarmed in its use as part of a label for an indigenous achievement.
Reception of New Andean Architecture
Mamani has seen success both domestically and internationally. He has overseen the construction of over a hundred New Andean buildings across Bolivia, with most of these going up in El Alto. These buildings are a status symbol for the Aymara, who make up a considerable portion of Mamani’s buyers. Newly ascendant to the middle class over the past few decades, Aymara Alteños (people from El Alto) greatly enjoy supporting New Andean Architecture given that it speaks to and aggrandizes their ancestry. Beyond El Alto, the mainstream Bolivian press has generally responded positively to Mamani’s work, and so has his competition, with other developers in and around the city constructing buildings of their own in the New Andean style.
The movement has also found resonance with international audiences. Outside Bolivia, Mamani has projects planned in Brazil, Chile, and Peru. Across the Atlantic, there was also a recreation of a New Andean ballroom in 2019 that was part of a museum exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. The pull of Mamani’s work is so strong for architectural enthusiasts that even El Alto has become something of a tourist destination for lovers of the craft. However, not everyone is a fan of the New Andean Architecture.
Many in Bolivia’s higher education system have looked down on Mamani and his work. By accreditation he is an engineer, not an architect and this combined with his humble ancestry has caused many institutional leaders to wave off the New Andean Architecture as the unserious work of an outsider to their field. Mamani claims, and is likely right, that academic elitists disregard him and his work out of the racist sentiment that nothing of worth can be found in the country’s pre-Columbian roots.
Whether intentionally or not, academics can often become the gatekeepers of their disciplines. Of course, educational standards are necessary, especially in more technical fields, but the imposition of traditional values can go overboard. A specific example in this regard is that some of the New Andean Architecture’s detractors have said that Mamani’s interiors lack technical complexity and are thus the work of an amateur who focuses too much on ornamentation. The critique here is that a “true” architect, one cast in the mold of their values, would put the bulk of their effort into the structure of a building rather than decorative elements like how the interiors are painted.
While the accusation of unrigorousness may or may not be accurate, the critique seems less about the quality of New Andean buildings as buildings, and more about the intelligentsia’s preferences. What are buildings for after all? They are shelters first and foremost, but beyond this they are places where people are meant to come together to live and to work. The masses seem quite happy with the New Andean Architecture. If bright colors and culturally meaningful detail bring joy to those who occupy these buildings, then the aesthetic gripes of traditionalists seem to lack a solid foundation.
Blair, Laurence. “These Vibrant, Futuristic Mansions Are Popping Up In Bolivia”. National Geographic, nationalgreographic.com, May 21 2018, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/south-america/bolivia/el-alto-freddy-mamani-architecture/, Accessed Sept 11 2020
Castillo, Antonio. “Bolivia’s Neo-Andean visionary”. Inside Story, insidestory.org, Sep 12 2018, insidestory.org.au/bolivias-neo-andean-visionary/, Accessed Sept 11 2020
Howarth, Don. “Freddy Mamani’s New Andean Architecture adds colour to Bolivian city”. dezeen, dezeen.com, Feb 7 2019, http://www.dezeen.com/2019/02/07/freddy-mamani-new-andean-architecture-bolivia, Accessed Sept 11 2020
Staugatis, Laura. “The Highest City in the World Celebrates Its Indigenous Culture with Freddy Mamani’s Neo-Andean Architecture”. Colossal, thisiscolossal.com, March 6 2019, http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2019/03/freddy-mamanis-neo-andean-architecture/, Accessed Sept 11 2020
Valencia, Nicolás. “Why Freddy Mamani is Leading A New Andean Architecture”. Translated by Sophie Devine, ArchDaily. archdaily.com, Nov 25 2017, http://www.archdaily.com/883951/why-freddy-mamani-is-leading-a-new-andean-architecture, Accessed Sept 11 2020
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