The Ajayu (Spirit and Life) of Freddy Mamani’s Neo-Andean Architecture
Freddy Mamani, 51, is an Aymara Bolivian civil engineer, architect, and artist who was born in the community of Catavi in Bolivia. Currently, he resides in the city of El Alto, which is one of the world’s highest cities at 4,150 meters above sea level, surrounded by the Andean mountains. It's also a city known for the largest Indigenous population in Bolivia, conformed by the Aymaras and Quechuas.
But, it’s also a city with a vibrant and colorful architectural style full of life known as Neo-Andean architecture, which was created by Mamani. Over the past 17 years, he’s developed his own style by merging his ancestral Aymaran and Tiwanaku cultures with his academic knowledge in civil engineering and architecture.
“The Neo-Andean architecture comes from the city of El Alto. Since it’s a very young city, its architecture is also very young,” Mamani said. “It’s my new architecture that’s full of color, and identity, and it breaks the architectural canons. That’s why I’ve named it Neo-Andean architecture on an academic level and artistically the buildings are called cholets, which comes from the words cholo and chalet.”
The naming convention of this architectural style stems from Mamani's experience with facing strong criticism from his peers when he began exploring his artistic endeavors as an architect. His career in construction began when he worked in the industry as a child. Later on, he studied civil construction at the Higher University of San Andrés (UMSA) and civil engineering at the Bolivian University of Information Technology.
His academic knowledge in civil engineering was then merged with his self-taught experience in architecture in order to produce architectural masterpieces that are representative of his Indigenous traditions and disruption with the ochre scenery and traditional architecture of El Alto.
“As I’ve been studying [in an academic context], I noticed a deep gap in learning about our own identities from our cultures and our millenary architecture like the one from Tiwanaku,” Mamani said. “We learn about foreign architecture, but it’s not in accordance with our identity and culture."
That’s why he set the goal of communicating the Aymaran ajayu through his colorful buildings that make use of lines and geometric shapes reminiscent of the Aymaran culture. He found in the ajayu the connection to nature through the portrayal of fauna such as the condor and puma that are native to the region.
“The spiritual [aspect] is expressed in the ajayu, which is life for me. Through that, I’m trying to use my buildings as a source of expression in which these architectural elements are synonymous with life,” Mamani said. “They have a spirit [of their own] because they’re not white buildings. They’ve got life. They’ve got ajayu. They’ve got spirit.”
If you look at his pieces, you’ll notice that they evoke life. They merge the traditional Indigenous culture with modernity. They stand out in the city and disrupt the landscape with their strong colors. They are art in and of itself. You almost forget that there’s a structural and mathematical component to it because of its rare and distinguished beauty full of symbolisms.
His buildings are very rare both aesthetically and in their names. If you Google Aymaran palaces and cholets, Mamani’s pieces are the first ones to appear. The name of cholet goes beyond being an ingenious play of words between “chola” and chalet. “Chola” is a word mostly used in Peru as a pejorative insult towards Indigenous people.
Yet, over the years, Indigenous people have reappropriated the term and changed its meaning to a positive undertone. According to Mamani, the dismissive word was not used in Bolivia, but he combined it with the word chalet to define his buildings artistically. It’s become a catchy word and concept that strongly resonates with tourists because his architecture has drawn local and foreign tourists to El Alto.
The Architectural Tourism
His work has attracted attention so much so that he's reinvented the structure of his buildings. At the beginning of his career, he created buildings with four to five stories. The shops are on the first floor, a ballroom is on the second floor, then two or three floors are apartments, and the last one is a penthouse for the building’s owners.
But now he’s evolved the structure with tourism in focus. The concept has become more complex in the sense that he’s going beyond the façade and ballroom. He’s adding a hotel, and a restaurant, and leaving just one floor for the owners. It’s tailored more to the commercial aspect while keeping the Aymaran identity. The first building of this type will be inaugurated in September.
It will keep its initial intention of portraying Mamani’s deep ajayu through colors and symbolism. The colors are perfectly placed by symbolically depicting the vibrant colors used in the Aymara textiles.
“In an ochre city [like El Alto], we’re introducing color. We’re trying to bring life and happiness to the citizens,” Mamani said. “These buildings are shocking and vibrant. Maybe that’s why it’s also been a strong shock for academics. They’re very vibrant colors, just like our [traditional] clothing. In the Andean part, we’ve always had garish colors.”
Exporting the Cholets
With those vivid colors, he’s been able to communicate ajayu, life, family happiness, and the fraternity of community through his buildings. His masterpieces are so rare that around 2014, they garnered international attention from media outlets and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he participated in an architecture symposium.
Mamani was able to export his cholets to other cities in Bolivia and to different countries such as Brazil, Peru, and Argentina. In 2018, he collaborated with the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, France, where he built one of his famous ballrooms for the foundation’s Southern Geometries, from Mexico to Patagonia exhibit.
Just two weeks before the inauguration of the exhibit, Mamani defended his thesis to obtain his architecture degree from the Bolivian University of Information Technology. Simultaneously, he was able to exhibit his architecture in Europe and his Indigenous culture in a space where Bolivian gastronomy, folklore, music, religion, and Andean cosmovision were shared and embraced.
The Cholets’ Vibrant Interiors
His Neo-Andean architecture has garnered so much attention for its rare Indigenous beauty, that artists from all over the world have collaborated with Mamani to make use of the space because of its marvelous interiors.
Chilean singer-songwriter Gepe and Peruvian singer Wendy Sulca filmed their song “Hambre” in Mamani’s “Príncipe Alexander” (Prince Alexander) building that evokes a certain feeling of fantasy reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland with a Latin American spin.
“The personnel start from zero because all of the pieces that we do are artworks, and they’re very complex,” Mamani said. “If I hired a master builder that does normal and common pieces, my pieces would not work. They have to start from scratch in order to become masters with me because these are very complex elements.”
The complexity comes from imagining a modern Neo-Andean architecture that challenges Mamani’s creative mastermind to bring Aymaran culture and identity in a modern and contemporary manner. He does this through his geometric patterns, nature iconography, vibrant colors, vivid led lights, and enormous chandeliers synonymous with the ajayu he always embraces in his masterpieces.
He's disrupting the traditional architectural canons through his spirit and creativity by honoring his ancestral culture in the more than 100 buildings he has created over the past 17 years.
“I’m just one more [person] from the universe. I want my culture to be recognized. For it to be known that the Aymaras create this culture and that we’re capable of many things,” Mamani said. “I want my culture to be relevant and it’s important that with that spirit, we have the right to go towards modernity without forgetting our past. We can export our identity.”
If you want to learn more about Mamani’s ajayu in his Neo-Andean architecture and cholets, follow him on Instagram at @freddy_mamani_silvestre.
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