(Art) The Andean Futurism of Freddy Mamani

Since 2005, Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre and his firm have completed sixty projects in El Alto, the world’s highest city, which sits at nearly fourteen thousand feet, on an austere plateau above La Paz. In the past twenty years, the economy there has burgeoned, along with an enterprising, mostly indigenous population. Mamani doesn’t have an office, use a computer, or draw formal blueprints. He sketches his plans on a wall or transmits them orally to his associates.

Like most of his clients, and like some 1.6 million of his fellow-citizens, Mamani is an Aymara. His people have been subject to successive waves of conquest and dispossession, first by the Inca, then by the Spanish. As a young man, he worked in construction; in his early twenties, he earned a degree in civil engineering, against the advice of his family. “It’s a career for the rich,” they told him. Architecture, too, is a career for the rich. But Mamani has made an advantage of his outsider status; he designs in an Aymara vernacular of his own invention.

Each of his buildings has a futuristic façade, a commercial ground floor with jazzy shop fronts, a baroque party hall on the mezzanine, a story or two of apartments, and an owner’s penthouse. This aerie is sometimes called a cholet, a pun on the words “chalet” and “cholo”—a dismissive racial epithet [like the N-word] that cholos like Mamani have proudly embraced. Mamani’s architecture incorporates circular motifs from Aymara weaving and ceramics and the neon colors of Aymara dress, and it alludes to the staggered planes of Andean temples. But it has also been inspired by science fiction, particularly by the Transformer movies. [text adapted from The New Yorker]

In other words, this is indigenous Andean futurism. (Kinda makes you want to treat that film franchise with a little more respect!)

What I find most heartening, more even than that the work and style are homegrown, is how much of Mamani’s oeuvre is space for the people versus the newly rich. His “cholets” have rentable banquet halls, a staple of Bolivian society since every milestone is celebrated with large gatherings of extended family. Besides being egalitarian, his architecture reflects and serves the local culture rather than recapitulating traditional modern, which is to say European, style and form, the likes of which you can find in every major industrialized city, from Dubai to Tokyo.

In addition to his banquet halls, Mamani has also worked on a number of public housing projects for the predominantly Aymara community, some of which you can see in the gallery below.

With the popularity of the Black Panther movie, Afrofuturism, which has been around for a while, is undergoing a something of a popular revival. The filmmakers were careful to design Wakanda’s capital city using African styles and motifs, including the public transportation system and the architecture of its main buildings.

Unlike that film, this Andean futurism is real.