Monday, June 8, 2015

The Optimus Prime of architecture: Bolivia’s crazily coloured buildings, and their miniatures – in pictures

Nick Ballon photographs the exuberant and painstakingly ornamented buildings of El Alto, the world’s highest major metropolis. In this series, some are twinned with miniature versions of the same buildings – a spiritual tradition of the region

Amaru Villanueva Rance
In this series, British-Bolivian photographer Nick Ballon depicts the iconic buildings sprouting up across El Alto, Bolivia’s fastest growing city and home to the country’s rising Aymara bourgeoisie. Exuberant, multi-coloured and painstakingly ornamented, these buildings are not altogether real-looking (much like their miniature counterparts produced for Alasitas, Bolivia’s annual miniature fair). This series explores the curious relation between originals and replicas in Andean architecture.
Every January the Alasitas fair takes place across the Bolivian highlands. Thousands flock to the largest miniature fair in the world. Amidst a confluence of faithful locals, curious passers-by –and no small dose of tourists–, the fairground is peppered by hundreds of stalls and suffused with the distinctive smells coming from rising plumes of yellow and white smoke.
This is no ordinary trade fair; the devout come here to make their wishes come true. In these miniatures are contained the dreams of the country’s people. Should you want a bicycle, for example, you need no more than to buy one in miniature and get it blessed by a kallawalla or a yatiri (Andean medicinal healers and mystics). Then you simply place the miniature on your mantelpiece at home and await for the Ekeko to make it become a reality.
The Ekeko is the Andean god of all small things. He is typically represented as a figurine of a grinning man made out of clay, laden with an improbable number of miniature items, which range from to bags of rice to wads of notes in different currencies. Above all else, this man represents the god of abundance, a figure who could be seen as an Andean Father Christmas–except he has a moustach, likes to smoke, and brings gifts and blessings to both young and old. 
Today, the goods he offers range from laptops to university diplomas. Even a good partner can be sought in the form of a miniature clay rooster. And, of course, there is property, perhaps the most popular of demands. From a plot of land to a multi-storey building, anything is possible provided you deposit enough faith into the outcome. 
From Small to Large
Traditionally made out of plaster and clay, miniature houses have evolved over the years to include materials such as Styrofoam, painted glass and PVC. As a result, they have become more extravagant and garish. The outcome is a range of models which look retro-futuristic, baroque, and even on the borderline of architectural feasibility. That is, until you raise your head towards the burgeoning city of El Alto and see flashes of emerald green sparkling amidst the orange brick surroundings. 
As don Rubén, a vendor at the Alasitas fair, pointed out to me in 2013: “those big buildings, you know, they look like some of the casitas we used to make years ago. Who knows, maybe the people who own them have been faithful to the Ekeko and have asked for their houses to be built just like that”.  
A fanciful theory, of course, but after looking at some old Alasitas photographs one can start to think there might just be something to it. After all, there is no consensus as to how this style of architecture came about. What is certain is that what started off as a spattering of eccentric buildings has become a full-blown construction trend, with (according to latest counts) over 120 such structures–and many more under construction. 
There are various theories for the rise of this new architecture, but most centre around the emerging identity of the citizens of El Alto, one of South America’s fastest growing cities. The city’s growth can be seen as the product of mass migration from rural and mining regions following during the crisis that followed the country’s neoliberal reforms in the 80s and 90s. Today, El Alto is largely inhabited by people of indigenous extraction. With these populations undergoing a rapid urbanisation process, it is not surprising to find their architecture also conveys their history and culture, as well as their quest to establish a hybrid identity which is true to their roots yet adapted to their new modernised setting. 
An Andean Aesthetic
Traditionally impoverished and of a low social standing, the Aymara have struggled for centuries to survive oppression and discrimination. Hard working, austere and ruthlessly pragmatic, this people have traditionally favoured large, functional, and unornamented buildings, with facades and painted exteriors seen as somewhat of an unnecessary luxury. 
Up until the turn of the millennium, their properties grew vertically, adding stories to house new family members, space for shops, and even large party venues, all under one same roof. Yet as the stories were piled on, these edifices remained characteristically orange; their exteriors unapologetically bare-brick.
Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, came to power in 2006. Along with his leadership, these previously impoverished and socially marginalised indigenous communities not only found a renewed pride in their identity, but also an increased economic status, a by-product of the country’s improving material and social conditions.
Wealthy Aymara merchants likely sought ways to differentiate their homes from their neighbours’, once their construction projects were left with no further storeys to add. And so they invented their own architecture, their dreams left to flourish on the walls and ceilings of their increasingly palatial homes.
A typical interior (though, in reality, there is no such thing) could feature Doric columns in neon green, a myriad mirrors glinting like sequins on every wall, and swirling lines cascading from every corner. Exteriors often boast large polarised windows patterned in arrangements reminiscent of ancient ruins and sci-fi architecture.
Tabula Rasa
These creations are made a reality by plasterers and bricklayers who often have no formal architectural or construction training. Rather than a limitation, this formal lack has resulted in surprising innovation. Their creations should be seen as a pastiche of the wealth of aesthetic references which inundate them from all corners of daily life, TV and, crucially, their overflowing imaginations.
The Quena family illustrates this point. They have entrusted their son in law to orchestrate the completion of the family building. “I had never built anything, but with enough dedication you can learn anything. The construction workers we hire are very experienced, so I just need to guide them with the design and they will make it become a reality”. His work in progress features the outline of a treble clef in red and black, some twenty feet high, covering the exterior of a building which will house his in laws (inside a chalet propped on a terrace four stories from the ground), his own family (on the two floors underneath), a sauna (on the first floor), and space for 10 shops (at ground level).
Another building looks like Optimus Prime from the TV and film cult classic Transformers (photographed as part of this series). This is hardly a coincidence; the choice represents a deliberate attempt to brand the building in order for it to serve its primary purpose as a party venue. “It’s popular for children’s parties, though I’ve seen all kinds of events held there”, I am told by the lady working at the shop across the road.
Class, Redefined
This architecture has variously been labelled “neoandean”, “cohetillo (firework)” and even chola (a term used, often pejoratively, to refer to indigenous working classes). But in recent times this movement has found recognition within high-culture circles, locally and abroad, with books published on the phenomenon and widespread press coverage. In March 2014, the National Art Museum even held an exhibition based around the work of one of the key figures in this movement, Freddy Mamani, a man responsible for close to 60 of these buildings.
And so these creations continue their divergent evolution, adding a column here and an Andean pattern there. This movement is best defined not by uniformity in the designs of these edifices, but by their extravagant range of differences. What these buildings have in common is a spirit of creation. Here is a people boldly affirming its identity and prominence through architecture. 
De THE GUARDIAN, 03/06/2015

1- Escuela de Arquitectura de El Alto
2- El Olimpo
3- La Castela
4- El Tren Diamante
5- Salón de Eventos Rey Otán
6- Salón de Eventos Havana
7- Edificio Mama Natty
8- 'Sentinel Prime'

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