Spread out across the Bolivian highlands, at 4,000 meters, the city of El Alto is predominantly ochre-red, with thousands of low, matchbox-like brick houses with unfinished and unpainted facades lining the sides of dusty, unpaved roads. It’s so drab and monotonous and depressing that residents have started to liven things up by adding splashes of color wherever they could. They have also started to design their houses into bizarre shapes.
Spearheading this new architectural revolution is self-taught architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre, whose ostentatious mansions and tacky color choices are poised to take over the entire city. These buildings are dubbed cholets, from the words chalet, which means large house, and chola, a pejorative term for the indigenous Aymara people.
Established just over a century ago, El Alto was originally a slum and a suburb located above and on the outskirts of La Paz, the country’s administrative capital. But in recent years, the suburb has outgrown La Paz to become the second most populous city of Bolivia after Santa Cruz. It is also one of the highest metropolis in the world and the fastest-growing in South America.
The change began in 2005 after Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, got elected. An Aymaran, Morales gave the Aymara people, who have long been marginalized in Bolivian society, a new self-confidence. He gave the indigenous groups greater political autonomy and encouraged them to embark upon commercial ventures. Under Morales’s leadership, in the past ten years those living below poverty line has been reduced by more than a third. By 2012, about 1.2 million Bolivians had become middle class. Mamani’s architecture is a symbol of this newfound confidence and economic blossoming.
Some Aymarans become so affluent that they can now afford to build their own chalet. Those designed by Freddy Mamani Silvestre cost anywhere between $300,000 to $600,000, and some even more. For the affluent Aymara merchants, Mamani’s works are a status symbol.
So far, Mamani has designed some sixty or seventy buildings in El Alto, with dozens more under construction. He has even bigger dreams for the city — Mamani wants to design El Alto’s plazas, bus stations and boulevards.
Although critics dismiss his bold colors and extravagant designs as kitsch, others compare him to Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s Strange Architecture. Some believe Mamani can do to El Alto what Antoni Gaudí did to Barcelona and Oscar Niemeyer did to Brasília— entirely transform the shape and aesthetics of the city.
Mamani himself oozes with confidence. “In 20 years, half of the houses here will be built in my style,” he says.