Something quite strange has been happening in Bolivia. Something that isn’t related to it being the home of the world’s largest butterfly sanctuary, nor to its delightful culinary delicacy that is the humble guinea pig.
No. Neither of those. This strange phenomenon, it appears, actually involves something far more interesting than these two organisms already pretty well known to man. We’re talking aliens. Aliens, and what they appear to be using to travel to and from South America’s landlocked nation in.
It’s an architectural quest fit enough for ET and friends, buildings and super structures that look startlingly out of place amid Bolivia’s bustling inner cities and dusty provincial towns.
And while they’re obviously not really for aliens, these buildings are the showpiece of a new architectural and cultural phenomenon that is helping the country gain a bit more cultural relevance back from its press hungry neighbours in Brazil, Chile and Argentina.
Referred to as cohetillos (little rockets, or spaceships), these curious looking edifices are the creation of architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre (presumably of Earth). Like the surrealist Gaudi who came before him aiming to change the public face of Barcelona, Silvestre is doing the same for Bolivia.
Starting in El Alto, the country’s second-largest city behind capital La Paz, there are now more than sixty buildings in the city taking on Silvestre’s signature spaceship-style.
Self-taught in the field of architecture, Silvestre’s history in helping to birth the cohetillo is an interesting one. It was more than a decade ago, before the wave of national pride following the 2006 election of President Evo Morales Ayma hit, that Silvestre first set out to change the skylines of the city. Commissioned by a local entrepreneur in El Alto to design a Salon de Eventos, it was with this project that Silvestre first thought about his mission of giving Bolivia an architectural identity of its own.
Foregoing computers and an office, Silvestre began making his plans on paper, working to create something unique that would help separate it and ride the new wave of indigenous patriotism to come. His clients, the Aymara, an ethnic group making up a quarter of Bolivia’s 10-million population, prove the perfect partners for his designs thanks to their relative affluence and open-mindedness.
Making use of geometric patterns and a colour palette that nods to the Aymara’s folkloric culture, the creations themselves are a far cry from El Alto’s simple concrete and redbrick past. Carrying motifs inspired by the Tiwanaku culture (from which the Aymara trace their roots), the buildings carry zoomorphic figures and Andean crosses, as well as reflective glass that represent the multicoloured skirts and shawls of the group’s women. Chandeliers imported from China, numerous flashing lights and tall lime green pillars, make up additional elements that combine to help the structures stand out in the world of international architecture without falling into the realm of kitsch or kooky.
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Mixed-space in design and purpose, the entranceways and corridors of cohetillos are typically long and narrow. Each features a main central hall as the principle space. Referred to as the Party Hall, this helps pay for the construction of the building (usually at a cost between $250,000 and $600,000) through its availability for hire as a private space for parties, weddings and community events.
Elsewhere in the construction, a penthouse is what sits at the very top. Set apart from the other sections of the building, the intention of the house’s stylistic clash is to help differentiate the owners’ residence from the commercial units offered below.
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Effective in both function and form, it seems the spaceship style is catching on. Similarly designed buildings have begun popping up across Peru, Argentina and even in the middle of the Amazon. Attempting to incorporate Silvestre’s intriguing facades with their own decorative elements and balustrades, the motifs differ in other country’s representations reference separate Andean cultures.
Away from the South American continent too, it seems the world’s media is also growing enamored with Bolivia’s architectural quest, if a little confused. Struggling in classification, the works have, aside from ‘Spaceship’, also been called ‘Neo-Andean’ and ‘Transformer’ among the European and American press.
And so while aliens among us might look at these buildings and ask themselves just what Bolivian people are doing dancing, celebrating and otherwise living life inside of vessels designed for the long trek home, looking at these many beautiful examples sure beats other Bolivian past times.
Counting butterflies and gnawing down on Guinea Pig?
Definitely pales in comparison to the thought of spending the night partying it up in a brightly coloured spaceship next to the locals of El Alto.