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A tribute to Rogelio Salmona, the greatest of Colombian modernists and Bogotá’s maestro of brick

Colombian modernist Rogelio Salmona had an Enriching and enduring impact on Bogotá through his mastery of brick

Bogotá is a city of red brick and nobody did more to enrich that material than Rogelio Salmona (1929-2007), the greatest of 20th century Colombian architects. Inspired by Islamic brickwork of Spain and North Africa, he brought a new level of refinement to the massing and detailing of a product that had previously been used as a cheap substitute for stone. He may also have remembered the faux Tudor house in which he grew up - one of many such curiosities that still dot the fashionable quarters of the capital.

He employed brick with the assurance of German Expressionist Fritz Höger across a spectrum of public and academic buildings, private houses and affordable housing, and was the first Latin American architect to win the Alvar Aalto Medal, in 2004. Monumental, elemental, and impeccably crafted, his architecture belongs to the alternative tradition of modernism.

Salmona was born in Paris to a Spanish father and French mother. Both were Jewish and in 1934, anticipating what was to come, they moved to Bogotá where their son formed a lasting bond with his adopted city. He was studying architecture at the National University when, in 1948, a wave of right-wing violence persuaded his father to send him back to Paris.

For a decade he spent part of his time working with Le Corbusier on Chandigarh and other projects, but he was disenchanted by the 1951 master plan for Bogotá. Salmona interned with Jean Prouvé, studied art with Pierre Francastel at the Sorbonne, travelled widely, and returned home in 1957 to teach architectural history at the University de Los Andes.

As an educator, Salmona may have had too great an influence; many younger architects believe he instilled a sense of orthodoxy that discouraged fresh thinking, in contrast to the bold reforms of Jorge Perez at the Bolivarian University in Medellin. They argue that the respect accorded to his buildings may have reinforced the conservative taste of the capital. This seems unlikely. It was the political instability of Colombia and the constant outbreaks of violence that discouraged constructive investment and creative activity. Salmona’s office remained small and there were few jobs until his last decade of practice brought a flurry of prestigious commissions, several of which are still under construction.

Torres del Parque (1964-70), three apartment towers and a park in the centre of the city, was Salmona’s first major project and many consider it his masterpiece. Rising from a podium overlooking the Moorish-style Santa Maria bullring, the curved profiles and stepped balconies of this complex are wonderfully urbane, and Salmona lived there for the rest of his life.

The duplex apartments were ingeniously planned and inexpensive, but they were broken up into small rooms for working-class families -who preferred to live in houses that could easily be extended. Sales were sparse for many years; today, the capital’s intellectual elite pay a premium to live there. Felipe Uribe has recently remodeled several apartments for bachelors and childless couples.

Later work draws heavily on the Islamic tradition of surface relief, pierced screens and water channels connecting small round fountains. Salmona admired these elements in his exploration of Andalusia, and he has fused them with the stepped water features, circular plazas and processional axes of the European Baroque. There’s no sense of mimicry: the traditional forms are abstracted and given a contemporary spin.

His mature style emerges in the National Archives (1988-92) a building that anchors a decayed section of the historic core. A diagonal axis extends from the entry arch, through a circular courtyard and lobby, and past reading rooms lit from half-moon windows. Salmona developed a denser brick (baked at a higher temperature) to keep moisture from the papers, and modelled it to frame door and window openings.

In his later years, Salmona grew increasingly frail but he was more active than ever. Between 1998-2000 he collaborated with Luis Kopec to transform Avenida Jiménez into a brick pedestrian concourse that winds through the city. It traces the sinuous path of the San Francisco river, which descended from Montserrat and was earlier paved over. The water has been brought back in a series of stepped pools bordered by shade trees, and steel bollards confine the cars that cross the pathway.

The National University Human Sciences Postgraduate Centre (1995-2000) is a building of extraordinary complexity and quality to find on a rather scruffy state campus, and it is impeccably maintained. Shallow steps lead up into a courtyard; beyond is a circular pool surrounded by a covered walkway. Steps and ramps link classrooms and lecture halls through a hall in which brick is used for structural piers and as pierced and patterned decorative surfaces. The architectural promenade leads up through different levels and shifts of axis to a series of roof terraces and an open-air auditorium.

In the Virgilio Barca Public Library (1999-2001), an acclaimed landmark in the north of Bogotá, the scale is greatly enlarged and extended over a landscaped site. There’s a grand processional approach along a broad path that leads under bridges and divides to accommodate a water staircase, before you reach the entry. Brick paving and facades alternate with poured concrete.

In the capacious lobby Salmona places horizontal windows at a height that cuts off views of surrounding buildings and reveals only the park and Montserrat. A concrete rotunda contains the main reading room and curved saw-tooth roofs modulate the natural light. Steps lead up beneath a rooftop amphitheatre to terraces that offer sweeping views over the city and the moat that flanks the building.

It’s a people’s palace: a luxuriously expansive complex, with polished floors, lots of glass and exquisite details in the brickwork and concrete ceiling vault. There are echoes of Louis Kahn in the large circular openings and the muscular geometry of the roof vaults.

A country house he designed for himself and other residential commissions show a quieter, more intimate side of Salmona’s work.

In the two cultural centres he completed at the end of his life, ornament is stripped away and the forms are pared down to their essentials. In the Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Centre (2004-08) a circular courtyard is raised above the street, which provides a quiet retreat from the turmoil of La Candelaria in the historic centre of Bogotá.

A major bookstore is wrapped around a water court, and a switchback ramp leads to a roof terrace with a sinuous canopy supported on slender columns. The Moravia Cultural Development Center, located in a poor barrio of Medellín, is even sparer, but the handsome brick facade stands out from its neighbours as an example of what a great architect can achieve with the most modest of means.

‘Despite the urban planning that has made Bogotá a model for other Latin American cities, Salmona lamented the living conditions of the poor,’ wrote Simon Romero in the New York Times obituary. ‘He blamed their lack of dignity in part on the selfishness of the country’s ruling class.’ In his 50-year career he strove to ameliorate those conditions and he was proud of what he had achieved, socially and artistically. ‘Good architecture becomes ruins,’ Salmona once declared. ‘Bad architecture disappears.’

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