At 13,000 feet above sea level, the arid, urban sprawl of Bolivia’s El Alto is quite literally a city in the sky. The highest urban metropolis in the world, it is also the biggest city both built and inhabited by Indigenous Americans, the vast majority of whom are Aymara (only 0.1% of the population is criollo, or white).
El Alto essentially started off as La Paz’s suburban runoff, but from the rebellious – even haughty – spirit there, you wouldn’t know it. Sitting high above the capital, Alteños sneeringly refer to La Paz as “la hoyada,” (the pit), and have been known to use their geographic location to shut down the capital with paralyzing protests and strikes.
Given its rebellious reputation, it’s not altogether surprising that this is the city that would birth a riotous new Andean aesthetic that has captured the world’s attention. Across the barren altiplano of El Alto – where mud-colored matchbox buildings and rusted tin roofs stretch as far as the eye can see – ornate, technicolor buildings have begun to pop up, like gleaming candies buried in a cluttered purse. Blending Andean motifs, hundreds of LED lights, bold colors, and extravagantly ornate interiors, these buildings represent an architectural style that frankly wouldn’t look out of place in some kind of acid future-folklor space fantasy.
The style has been dubbed “Neo-Andino,” and it is the brainchild of Freddy Mamani, a man the Washington Post has dubbed “the Aymara version of Michelangelo.”
To hear him tell it, Mamani, a largely self-taught 41-year-old architect, just wanted to inject some color into El Alto’s monotonous, beige topography. But his buildings found a captive audience in the city’s new bourgeois class, a group empowered by the economic and cultural boom that has unfolded since Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006.
Mamani’s style caused such a stir, so quickly, that a book has already been written about his work (Arquitectura andina de Bolivia: la obra de Mamani Silvestre), and the ripples of his futurist folklor approach can be felt in the output of artists all over the continent. Chilean indie-pop singer Gepe, for example, set his newest music video in one of Mamani’s mansions, (it’s premiering today on Remezcla – check it out here).
With the world watching him, we called the architect in Bolivia to talk about his work, creative process, life and tastes. More than anything else, we learned that he’s a man of few words – but when your oeuvre is so loud, why not let it do most of the talking? – Andrea Gompf
Where are you from?
I was born in Catavi, in Bolivia’s province of La Paz.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up with my brothers and sisters. We are six children, four boys and two girls. We had a happy childhood.
When you were a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I always wanted to be an engineer, and I made it happen. I got a degree as a senior technician in civil construction and architecture.
What creative process did you follow to get to this aesthetic, and the final design of your constructions?
It was a long process, it took me 18 years to get to my first Neo-Andino construction. I was inspired by Tiwanacota shapes [the Tiahuanaco were a prehispanic culture considered “Cultura madre de Bolivia”], and also by textiles from the Andean region, like aguayos, taris, chulos, and chuspas.
In terms of architecture, how do you define your work?
My architecture is ornate, with lots of details. I’d call the style Andean Architecture of Bolivia, which emerged in the city of El Alto.
How many colors do you use for a building?
No less than eight colors, and we make several combinations out of them.
Who do you work for? Who requests your services?
Families who are local tradespeople, involved in commerce, mining, people who export abroad. [In a prior interview, Mamani notes that these families are “typically well-to-do Aymaras who have been emboldened by the success of Bolivia’s most famous Aymara, Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.”]
Do you choose the colors or do the people who commission the buildings?
We chose the color combinations on the first building, but since then we’ve gotten requests. I’ve noticed people prefer green, burgundy and red.
Have any politicians commissioned buildings?
I haven’t been very involved in state works, because those type of projects require a lot of time and patience to build.
In Brazil, Oscar Niemeyer designed a capital city, Brasilia. He had support of the Brazilian government. What do you think about that? Would you like to design an entire city?
There is a lot of bureaucracy and political red tape required to create very big works. But if there was an opportunity, I’d do it.
What cities can we see your work in?
Here in Bolivia you can see my buildings in Los Altos, Cochabamba, Oruro, and Potosí. I’ve also built things in Fist, Perú, and in Brasilia, Brazil.
What is the typical layout of one of your buildings?
All of them are multi-story buildings. Since most of the people who request my services are local tradespeople, they generally use the ground floor for commercial purposes – stores, businesses, things like that. The first and second floors usually house event/banquet halls [where weddings and other celebrations are held]. Above that, on the third through sixth or seventh floors, we build apartments for rent, so that the owners of the buildings can recover their investment. On the very top floor there are the “chalets” with grills and a terrace for the owners. [Chalets are penthouse-like structures, with huge windows]. 80% of the buildings have pits for elevators, and 5% already have working elevators running.
In all your working years, how many buildings have you finished and how many are work in progress?
In my 18 years of work, I’ve finished almost 300 buildings. But in these last years, with the new Andean architecture I’ve been working on, I have at least 60 buildings concluded and about 20 still in progress.
How much does it cost to build a multi-story building and how long does it take to finish it?
On average, it costs between $200,000 and $300,000, takes about two to two and a half years to finish.
How many construction workers do you employ?
I need at least 200 people for each project. There are several specialties, from the builder, to the bricklayers, painters, locksmiths, etc.. In the construction business we usually get along like friends. I like to see [my colleagues] as friends because the best way to work is as one big family. [Editor’s Note: Mamani’s actual family works with him too — The Washington Post reports that he employs his five younger siblings.]
What is your next goal?
To keep on working. I would like El Alto to develop its own identity and urban class so that it becomes one of the best cities of the country.
Does your own house draw from your Andean Architecture style?
I have a house that’s still a work in progress.
Do you like any sports?
Who are you an “hincha” for?
Bolívar til I die.
What’s your favorite food?
Quinoa soup, I love it.
Do you like to dance?
Not so much.
How about music?
Folk, I like Elmer Hermosa’s music.
Introduction by Andrea Gompf, interview conducted by Raul Vilchis.
Check out the exclusive premiere of Gepe’s new music video for “Hambre,” set in one of Mamani’s mansions, here.