Portable Cholets | El Alto AA Visiting School 2019

Project

As you walk in the streets of La Paz, you immediately understand that there is a mystic feeling in paceños. There is a practical and a sacred sense in all the things they do, the most ordinary routines can be naturally transformed into unique spiritual happenings.

The city is extremely faceted – the immense highlands of the altiplano in El Alto are juxtaposed to the agglomeration of small houses in the valley, the intricacy of the historical center contrasts with the fake modernity of the Zona Sur area.

In 2019, we will continue our journey into the extravagant, bustling and chaotic life of the Bolivian capital city, still exploring this fertile ground for cultural assembling.  The VS will insist on questioning notions of identity, folklore and contemporary rituals translated into architecture.

Students will again appropriate the Bolivian attitude of collecting objects and reproducing miniatures that gain symbolic connotations within specific ceremonies. They will carefully select ready-made pieces and samples, which then become fragments to be de-contextualized in terms of meaning, proportions and materiality  – to create radically new artifacts.

If last year the VS investigated the masks, the costumes and the choreography of an actual Bolivian traditional dance – the Diablada – in the 2019 edition we will craft our own characters, to construct a layered performance, dealing both with popular myths and the urban fabric morphology.

Students will thoroughly experience F. Mamani Silvestre’s cholets, as built examples of the syncretism between Andean paganism and Catholic elements. Their compositional and aesthetic features are indeed grounded into the symbolism of indigenous folkloric dances and textiles: here in El Alto demons, dragons and angels, together with real-world creatures like bears and owls not only populate the parades, but also dictate the geometries of abstract motifs and the proportions of ornamental details.

We will try to absorb these contaminated visual languages – privileged witnesses of a cultural symbiosis – to extract design principles and spatial hierarchies, that enable a direct interplay of scale between architecture and the human body.

Indeed, we will record the memories of these identitarian architectural compounds, consciously adopting dysfunctional procedures to track back the symbolic items that inspired them. El Alto’s colourful buildings will become again costumes, masked characters with anthropomorphic and animalistic lineaments to dynamically inhabit the streets of La Paz – wearable and portable Cholets.

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ARCHITECTURAL ASSOCIATION VISITING SCHOOL EL ALTO
22 July – 4 August 2019
APPLY NOW!

OPEN CALL TO ARTISTS, DESIGNERS, FILM MAKERS, STUDENTS AND ANY CURIOUS MINDS! https://www.aaschool.ac.uk/STUDY/VISITING/bolivia

The AA Visiting School requires a fee of £860 per participant, which includes a £60 Visiting membership fee. We do provide scholarships for Bolivian students as well.

Fees include tuition and private transportation around the city and to El alto. All museums entrances, workshop setup, materials and tools are provided.

Interview

What prompted the project of the Visiting School in La Paz?

La Paz is an extraordinary country rich in history which still today is able to embed folkloric moments within the daily life of its inhabitants. As architects, we started to analyze El Alto’s diverse range of visual languages, as well as religious and cultural references, to extract design principles and spatial hierarchies. In the streets of La Paz, the most ordinary routines are naturally transformed into unique spiritual happenings. Architecture offers a unique way of creatively tapping into and exploring this process. The ‘Portable Cholets’ Visiting School will use Freddy Mamani’s spectacularly vivid cholets (brightly colored mansions), along with the vibrant culture of the surrounding El Alto area, as inspiration for a piece of wearable performance architecture that will question notions of identity, folklore, and contemporary rituals.

What informed the choice of Bolivia and La Paz as a site?

The emergence of the new “Neo Andean” architecture triggered our interest in what is happening architecturally speaking in Bolivia and especially in El Alto, the altiplano surrounding the city. El Alto is also home to the eye-catching and irreverent buildings that many people call “cholets,” a very precise way of building typologies by Freedy Mamani Silvestre. More than 500 of these party halls got erected since 2014. Our research started retracing the streets of el alto to discover these buildings and photograph them focusing on the social and architectural contrast they represent.

Crucero del Sur
Crucero del Sur

What questions does the Visiting School raise and which does it answer?

Through these two intense weeks, we are questioning how architecture is seen as a means of reclaiming a cultural identity. How in this informal Bolivian context can we construct a new way to approach architecture. Last year we spent three weeks analyzing how these cholets were examples to counteract a certain gentrifying flatness of today’s architecture- providing an opportunity to describe singularities and sub-cultures, through iconographic and architectural strategies.

How does the project approach notions of making architecture?

We are building through individual elements, pieces that each participant collects through the first week of investigation. These fragments become a vocabulary to build a new architectural language. We are not interested in the debate on what is good or bad in today’s discipline, but experimenting with other fields to reach an architectural outcome. This year we will be collaborating with filmmakers and photographers to construct our own narrative of El Alto.

How and to what extent in this edition a development of the work executed last year with the students?

If last year the VS investigated the masks, the costumes and the choreography of an actual Bolivian traditional dance – the Diablada – in the 2019 edition we will craft our own characters, to construct a layered performance, dealing both with popular myths and the urban fabric morphology. Students will thoroughly experience Freddy Mamani’s cholets, as built examples of the symbiosis among religion, politics, Pop and popular culture. Their compositional and aesthetic features are indeed grounded into the symbolism of indigenous folkloric dances and textiles: here demons, dragons and angels, together with real-world creatures like bears and owls not only populate the parades but also dictate the geometrical abstract motifs of the facades and the proportions of ornamental details within the interiors.

Mask by Marcos Loayza
Mask by Marcos Loayza

How and to what extent is the realm of academia key for research and innovation within the architectural realm?

I think It’s the first proving ground that architecture has, it’s the academic realm that allows us to keep on exploring and testing the ideas that could become relevant to the future of architecture and it’s implications with culture and society as a whole.

What informed the choice of the different acts through which the students will operate?

These three moments serve to give a structure to our research, defining the scale, the focus and the aim of the project.
ACT I

During the first days we explore El Alto, the highest metropoli in the world, mapping selected cholets and the surrounding markets. Students will search for shooting locations based on their interest and investigation. We will sample precise architectural bits, record symbolic signs and pair them with daily found objects – recovering forgotten myths and looking for meaningful clashes.
ACT II
The actual translation will then take place: the cholets will be dissected and recomposed into personified miniatures. We will work mainly with clay, understanding its properties and construction techniques. Earthy finishings will be combined with polished components, the masks will be conceived as open interfaces for additions of alternative material fragments.
ACT III
The architectural masks will become portable cholets: alive characters inhabited by the students. They will collectively build and record an urban performance, a collection of moments to embody a culturally generated spatial narrative. And, eventually, to represent a constructed accomplishment of another form of Andean syncretism: the physical convergence between architecture and its actors.

How do you define the 'Act'?

It’s a set of directives that can be studied and separated as parts of the entire event that define how you can operate, be that in a play or in a construction process.

How and to what extent does the work developed with the students within the realm of academia impact the work you do as architects and vice versa?

It is indeed the academic realm that allows us to keep on exploring and testing the ideas that could become relevant to the future of architecture and it’s implications with culture and society as a whole. Portable cholets will challenge the strong self-referential character of the architectural discipline, continuing with the firm belief that architecture follows culture – fundamentally being a tool to depict and embody reality. Architects cannot afford to propose aseptic, anorexic, and flat images; it needs to be as rich and differentiated as the world that surrounds us. We need to re-think how to address issues of specificity, symbolism, and identity in our built environment: the crafting of props and films can be an expressive, inclusive and enabling device. The context of El Alto creates a fertile ground allowing architecture and its generative mechanisms to be deeply interwoven with the different ethnic group’s reality. We will dissect the built environment into a set of variegated interactions not necessarily linked – between people, alive beings and inanimate objects or just between material fragments and tools – each of them becoming then the basis for an open architectural vocabulary.

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