High Rise

The new architecture of an ascending Bolivian indigenous people

Olympia Condor is the owner of El Alto’s colourful, Titanic-inspired Crucero del Sur building, known as a “typical example of the new Andean architecture.” {{name}}
01 November, 2015

In mid March, the architect Freddy Mamani sat surrounded by microphones and cameras inside the press room of a municipal building in El Alto—Bolivia’s second-largest and fastest growing city, sprawled across a high plateau above the country’s capital, La Paz. Mamani, dressed in a wrinkled shirt, announced that an exhibition of his works, A4 Expo: Art and Architecture Andina in El Alto, would be held on 20 March, in one of his most extravagant creations: the Príncipe Alexander building, with two ballrooms, seven floors, one indoor football arena, and a value of almost $2 million. Mamani, once called the “Aymara version of Michaelangelo” by The Guardian, was convinced that his style of architecture would redefine the image of not only El Alto, but all of Bolivia.

Mamani belongs to the Aymara, Bolivia’s largest indigenous group, who comprise nearly 20 percent of the country’s 10 million people. Like all of Bolivia’s indigenous communities, they were, until recently, historically excluded from money and power. That changed in 2006, with the election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an Aymara himself. As the economy boomed—per capita GDP almost tripled from 2006 to 2013—Aymara incomes did too. Between 2004 and 2012, their total bank deposits quadrupled, from $2.6 billion to $10 billion. In El Alto, home to a quarter-million Aymara and seen as their unofficial capital, conspicuous consumption has risen as the Aymara assert themselves economically and culturally. This city of scruffy, low, red-brick buildings is now dotted with large, showy, brightly painted high-rises—both commercial and residential, and often of mixed use. Mamani’s buildings—he has now designed over a hundred—are the most famous of them, and have assumed a totemic significance as symbols of the Aymara rise. Some have started calling them “cholets”: a blend of cholo, a term for indigenous people, and “chalet.”

In a La Paz bar, I met Jorge Viaña, a sociologist, who told me the Aymara rise has been underway for a while, but that Morales’s rule has accelerated it. “We are a very slow country and too peaceful,” he explained. Before the mid-sixteenth century, what is now Bolivia was part of the Inca empire, until it was conquered and colonised by Spain. After the country gained independence almost 300 years later, mestizos, of mixed indigenous and European ancestry, replaced the Europeans in positions of power. Until the 1950s, many indigenous people were still subjected to forced labour. They “were not even considered citizens,” Viaña said. “They were treated as slaves.”

Morales and his party, the Movement for Socialism, or MAS, are trying to turn the old dynamic around. Most mestizos are under pressure to denounce discrimination. “Now many public institutions are occupied by Indians,” Viaña explained, “who are favoured because they are closer to the president and the men of his party, MAS. But when we were fighting for a more just and democratic society, this was exactly what we wanted.”

I arrived at the Príncipe Alexander on the afternoon of 20 March for Mamani’s exhibition, which was a carefully organised affair. Viewers, many from La Paz, took a quick look at photographs of Mamani’s buildings inside, before loading into four buses for a tour of the architect’s signature creations.

One of these was the Crucero del Sur building—Cruise Ship of the South—so called because Olympia Condor, its 63-year-old Aymara owner, wanted it to look like the Titanic. Condor listened timidly as young guides led nearly 100 people through her hall to appreciate “a typical example of the new Andean architecture.” Round-faced and with two long braids reaching all the way to her belt, Condor wore a skirt that matched the colours of the room, and seemed almost an extension of it. The “blue–yellow and green–orange combinations used by Mamani were often used during pre-Columbian times,” one guide said, and are still seen on the shawls that Aymara women typically wear over their shoulders. The polystyrene butterflies surrounding the chandelier, he added, harked back to Andean mythology.

I asked Joaquin, one of Condor’s seven children, how the family had raised funds for the building. “My mother sewed ponchos ... for many years to build this house,” he said. “Each of us brothers put in some money to help.” Earlier, at the press conference, Mamani had told me, “All my projects have the same structure. On the ground floor there is a shopping arcade and party rooms, above a gym, a restaurant or small apartments that are rented.” These commercial areas, he said, are completed first, so they can generate revenue while work continues on the rest of the building.

After the tour, we drove back to the Príncipe Alexander for an event that showcased Aymara fashion, food and music. I spoke to its owner, Alejandro Quispe, on the terrace. El Alto spread out around us—a carpet of red brick, with cholets popping up every now and then, begging for attention. Dressed in a cream-coloured suit, Quispe, a renowned tailor, told me his story.


“I started as an assistant tailor at the age of 14, and have always worked with my family,” he said. “And now I am one of the most successful tailors in the country. I dress officials, ambassadors, military people, folklorists—and I frequently travel to international events to represent Bolivia.”

Quispe doesn’t live at the Príncipe Alexander, but in an apartment in La Paz. He said he only spends his weekends here. The building’s halls are rented out for weddings, christenings and communions, for 7,800 bolivianos per night—roughly $1,000. Inside, the columns wear a range of colours—orange, yellow, red and green—and flamboyant chandeliers, imported from China at $4,000 each, hang from the ceilings.

But beyond the Aymara, the chalet style has its detractors. During the fashion show at the end of the programme, I spoke to Carla Berdegué, a 60-year-old mestiza. She recently returned to her homeland after more than two decades in Caracas, Venezuela. Her take on the architecture was rather frank. “I think these buildings are definitely in bad taste, but these people represent the new Bolivian society,” she said, but added that the mestizos must accept that the country has changed. “My son will marry in one of these rooms, maybe an Aymara girl.”

Claudia Bellante is an independent Italian journalist who reports on social issues in Latin America. She collaborates with several magazines across the world, including Internazionale in Italy, Rhythms Monthly in Taiwan, and Marie Claire and El País in Spain.