A wide range of Party Halls add a playful social dimension to El Alto’s otherwise monotonous fabric, finds Elisabetta Andreoli
It was 15 years ago that self-taught architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre designed his first Salon de Eventos for a local Aymara entrepreneur in El Alto, Bolivia. Now more than 60 of these ‘Party Halls’ punctuate the monotonous low-rise bare-brick cityscape of this young city, huddled on a vast plateau at an altitude of 4,000 metres just above La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital. Similar buildings have started popping up in Peru and Argentina, and in the middle of the Amazon. This new architectural type with its flamboyant funfair style has garnered worldwide media attention, but the phenomenon is still so new that it lacks consensus on a name, and has been variously called Transformer, Neo-Andean or Spaceship.
El Alto is a self-built city, home to one million people, predominantly Aymara, an ethnic group that together with the Quechua accounts for more than half of Bolivia’s population. Whole neighbourhoods of the city are populated by poor indigenous settlers from the countryside that now work a few hundred metres down the slope in the whiter and richer La Paz. The growth of this peripheral city happened quickly following the arrival of entire communities after the devastating drought of 1983 and the shutdown of the mines in 1985.
Because they moved as a group, their social ties were not broken, and simply re-established in a new location. An intricate network of trade and neighbourhood associations and community organisations also provides a degree of social cohesion. Thus the occupation of the land, at least in certain parts of the city, did not take place in a totally uncontrolled manner. What differentiates El Alto from other rapidly developing urban zones is this high level of social organisation and the role this plays in structuring the city.
Formidable traders even before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aymara have embraced globalisation and developed a thriving trade in importing goods from China. At the invitation of Asian brokers, Alteños traders spend several weeks in the commercial districts of the Far East buying and filling shipping containers with domestic appliances, mobile phones, cars or textiles. Docked at Chile’s ports and brought up the steep slopes of the Andes to El Alto, goods are then sold to the rest of the country, and as far as the central and southern part of the Amazon, reaching over the border to Brazil and Paraguay. Such is the intensity of the commerce that El Alto is considered a ‘dry harbour’ (Bolivia lost its Pacific coast and port to Chile in 1904, something the Bolivian government is trying to reverse).
The Alteños’ economic success has been supported by Bolivia’s recent growth and stability, in combination with the ethnic group’s new political status. The current president, Evo Morales, is himself of Aymara origin, and his revised constitution, approved in 2009, recognised the ethnic diversity of the country with a new name, the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Morales’s election in 2006 was part of the aftermath of a violent uprising in El Alto in 2003, known as Octobre Negro (Black October), which dramatically changed the country’s political landscape. As the leader of this historically marginalised, yet majority indigenous population, Morales was re-elected by a wide margin to a third term in October 2014.
It was in this context of renewed cultural pride that Mamani’s ideas for a new style of building found fertile ground: ‘Through architecture we are showcasing our own culture, we have money and we can build in a way that represents us’, says the busy local Aymara designer. Mamani has several buildings under construction, yet hardly makes use of his office, nor does he have a secretary or any assistants, and he makes little use of architectural drawings: ‘On the wall, I explain it there and then.’ Equally simple are his contracts with clients, also traditionally verbal only.
‘The Andean fondness for parties has to be understood within the Aymara tradition of support and reciprocity’
Mamani’s mixed-use buildings belong to a single family and all have the same programme. The ground floor is comprised of commercial units both facing the street and arranged along an internal gallery, to be let out as shops to local vendors. A double-height Party Hall with mezzanine, the most important feature of the building, is located on the first and second floors with a Perspex rooflight at the rear for natural light. The hall provides enough space for dinner tables and dancing, as well as a bar and kitchen area, while the mezzanine is reserved for music bands, the lavatories and a balcony for watching the spectacle. In most cases, two rows of columns down the middle of the hall unwittingly give the hall a liturgical feel, like a church’s nave. Entrances and corridors are long and narrow with no real adaptation to the needs of large gatherings.
Above the hall, one or more floors will house apartments, either to be let out, or for the owners’ children, while the top of the building features a penthouse or ‘chalet’ for the owner. This curious rooftop house typically features a pitched roof and occupies only part of the overall footprint of the top floor, it often also differs in style from the rest of the building. Unlike the commercial spaces, designed to maximise their lettable floor area, the owners’ home is smaller and therefore slightly easier to heat by the sun (central heating is almost non-existent in El Alto or La Paz). The intent is also to differentiate the owner dwelling from the commercial units: ‘The building is to produce income. On the roof is our own home.’
As for the layout of the flats and houses, these vary considerably in plan, and even where they specify living rooms, or three or four individual bedrooms, the actual uses of these spaces do not correspond, with many being used as store rooms or informal living spaces.
Far from the vocabulary of modern architecture, the decoration of Mamani’s work is an assemblage of a variety of motifs inspired by the Tiwanaku culture from which the Aymara descend, such as the Andean Cross or zoomorphic figures, reduced to their geometrical elements. Combined in stepped and gabled elevations, they result in intriguing combinations further enhanced by the use of reflective glass and strident colours: ‘I decided to use the colours of our textiles, colours we like,’ says Mamani, referring to the Andean tradition of using bold colours for festive garments. Elaborate multicoloured shawls and multilayered skirts are worn by the so-called pollera (urban Aymara women) and can be witnessed during the numerous local festivals, when thousands of dancers organised in folkloric fraternities take to the streets of El Alto, La Paz and other Bolivian cities.
Inside Mamani’s buildings, the extravagant facade is transmuted into decorative elements and geometric motifs which are stamped on pillars, around the edges of walls and on balustrades in different shades with varied refinements. The decoration is particularly rich in the Party Hall, and the exuberant decoration accounts for a good proportion of overall expense of the building, ranging from $250,000 to $600,000. However it only takes a couple of years to earn this money back. Parties are expensive, costing upwards of $50,000, and the halls are booked most weekends for events such as a girl’s 15th birthday, weddings, the anniversary of an association or fraternity, or community events paid for by local entrepreneurs. Elaborate invitations are sent out, photographers, videographers and several music bands are hired (sometimes even mariachi bands from Mexico are flown in) and a fully catered service with huge quantities of beer is provided by the host, usually one or more couples. Leftovers are distributed to the families to take home.
Alejandro Chino and María del Carmen Pérez are among Mamani’s best clients. Chino started work at the age of 14 as apprentice tailor, now his family business serves politicians, diplomats, the army and fraternities. Chino was so pleased with his first Party Hall, Alexander the King, that shortly after works were completed, he commissioned Alexander the Prince to be built next door. His new hall will include sport facilities, a wedding suite and a swimming pool: ‘It is the best one. I have 20 weddings already lined up. People come from all over to see it. In La Paz, they can’t even dream of it.’
The Party Hall buildings are built using basic modern techniques and materials: reinforced-concrete structures infilled with brick, pre-moulded beams for large spans, industrially produced metal window frames for the glass facades. The artisanal components of the decoration such as the ceiling roses for the chandeliers and the reliefs on the columns are made in situ by Mamani’s trained teams, using wire frames and abundant quantities of plaster and polystyrene: ‘They are decided on the spot. We make the mould and fill in with polystyrene. Everything is done by hand.’
The Andean fondness for parties has to be understood within the Aymara tradition of support and reciprocity. In El Alto’s informal economy with relatively little banking infrastructure, locals rely on their own indigenous traditions such as the pasanaco, a rotating credit system, to raise the capital necessary to start a business. With the pasanaco, a group of individuals pool financial resources to fund each community member’s business venture in turn. Similarly, ayni, as a verb, commands members of the community to help each other for private purposes such as construction and agricultural tasks. As a noun, the law of ayni states that everything in the world is connected: humans, animals and natural elements including mountains, river and soil. Both pasanaco and ayni are still very much alive in El Alto, and many of the parties are hosted by rich entrepreneurs to thank the community for their financial help in establishing their business successfully.
The typology of Party Hall buildings has been a success, salons are booked most weekends and it proves to be a profitable business despite the high initial costs. Most of the buildings are in prominent positions on main avenues or at junctions and contribute a sense of place to the city. It is fair to say that prior to Mamani, there was already the use of some colour in the facades of the local vernacular and that a handful of eclectic buildings predated his first Party Hall. However the consistent application of Mamani’s bold and daring style has had a real impact on El Alto, and the place is starting to attract visitors and tourists: ‘I wanted to give my city its own identity’, Mamani states. The construction industry is busy with colourful buildings appearing at speed. Not all recall Andean motifs. Now that Mamani has opened the door, local builders and architects are designing to the client’s fancy, with designs inspired by electronic devices or toys such as the Transformer.
Adrian Forty writes, ‘No design works unless it embodies ideas that are held common by the people for whom the object is intended.’ As in other Latin America countries, Bolivia has tried to create a regional language within the tradition of contemporary architecture, but the style that has struck a chord with its citizens has come from an unexpected direction. In the country, and particularly in neighbouring La Paz, the new stylistic trend has barely been acknowledged, and is received with scepticism and disdain with a mix of cultural, class and ethnic resentment. The architectural community were taken aback by its success, and are not sure how to relate to this phenomenon. While Mamani refers to Tiwanaku culture as his main source of inspiration, some critics ascribe its complexity and fullness of motifs and colours to the Baroque. More prosaically, others point to its resemblance to the orange, pitched decorations of buildings in the Far East. In architectural academia, Mamani’s bold colours and extravagant designs are not well received, and even the innovative mixed-use building type is reluctantly acknowledged.
Architect: Freddy Mamani Silvestre
Photographs: Alfredo Zaballos