One of the great joys of traveling and lecturing about building is discovering new heroes. Bogota has been a great crash course in local and regional traditions, and a whole city of case studies in how a global city has balanced those with international ideas.
The students and faculty who showed us around painted a pretty clear picture of postwar architecture in Colombia. Keen to show itself as a global city, Bogota’s architects adopted International Style modernism in several forms—glass curtain walls, a standard-issue 1950s SOM tower for the Banco de Bogota, and a whole slew of Corbusian concrete buildings with purely decorative brise-soleil (the city is equatorial, and the “sun breaker” for any building is really the roof—not much more is needed). Corbusier came here in 1947, beginning a decade-long relationship that resulted in a master plan that was never executed. But that relationship led to four Colombian architects working in Corbusier’s office, including the Paris-born Rogelio Salmona, whose family moved here while he was young. Educated at the National University, Salmona followed Corbusier back to Paris, where he worked for about ten years.
Salmona absorbed much from Corbusier, but he also looked around at other influences—historic Islamic architecture in Spain, but also very obviously to the north, and to Alvar Aalto. When he returned to finish his degree at the Universidad de los Andes in the early 1960s, he carried home with him a rich synthesis of ideas and attitudes that were condensed into his first major project, the Torres del Parque, a set of Aalto-inspired towers that wrap around Bogota’s historic bull ring and its early 20th century Planetarium while offering public staircases and plazas that extend a city park up one of the downtown area’s hills. We got to see it inside and out thanks to an accommodating faculty member and resident, and the scale of the towers and outdoor spaces together was brilliant. Salmona was obsessive about the long tradition of Colombian brickwork and about the newer utility of reinforced concrete, and he managed to draw out the textures and colors (the country’s brickwork is characteristically a distinct pale orange) in ways that make the entire complex feel like a series of intimate residential spaces.
Yesterday we spent the morning at the country’s national library, one of his last works completed in 2001. Its range of influences includes Aalto, Kahn, and Corbusier, but it also integrates a sensitive understanding of the city’s climate—spaces wander inside and out, the sun is always diffused through concrete roofs and vaults, and dark, cool spaces alternate with bright views outward toward the mountains. Around it, water makes for a consistent theme. Fountains bring you in the entrance alongside a lengthy channel (shaped with Salmona’s trademark gutter-profile bricks).
It’s a monument, but a graceful, subtle one that manages to be impressive and dignified (there was a graduation ceremony there for a University across town—quite a commitment given the city’s traffic) and yet utterly humane and often surprising. One student pointed out that the clerestories were cleverly proportioned so that patrons in the main reading room looking out would see one strip of nothing but grass, and another of nothing but sky, leaving the mountains for views from the indoor and outdoor circulation areas at the library’s perimeter. Amazing to see that level of experience designed into a complex building type.
Lunch yesterday on the terrace of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Center a few blocks from our hotel and from the Plaza Simon Bolivar, the country’s ceremonial center. Again, an uncanny sense for place—you see the towers of the Plaza’s Cathedral sticking up beyond a circular colonnade as you arrive at its level—and for construction, with brilliantly executed concrete detailed to diffuse light, to shade patrons from the overhead sun, and to define a ceremonial moment in a gloriously chaotic neighborhood.
Much more to read up on and to find out. But Salmona deserves more attention in the canon of both architectural history and of construction history—a gifted designer who achieved real fluency in local materials and built up a body of work that wears its influences frankly and gracefully.