Atoll Blog article first uploaded 20th February 2011 and updated April 2019 on the life and work of Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona. Click on this link to read original blog article.
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Rogelio Salmona (1929 – 2007)
In attempting to rationalise, his sense of place, time and architectural history, the Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona once told an interviewer that he felt inspired by the indigenous cultural sentiments from pre-Columbian Aztec codices. He illustrated this by quoting a line of its poetry: “When I enter my home I enter the Earth and when I leave my home I ascend to heaven”. So it was in 2007 at the age of 78, that Salmona sadly passed away to leave behind his beloved Colombian home, to ascend to his own piece of heaven. Here he joined an elite pantheon of other architect greats. Throughout his life, and by his own admission, his sense of architecture, as well as that of his life had been influenced by multiple synthesise: These were drawn from direct personal and cultural experiences, as well as his more obtuse passions and nostalgia.
Four years earlier in 2003, he had been the first Latin American to receive the highly prestigious Alvar Aalto Medal, being recognised as Colombia’s most significant living architect. His life’s work was recognised as a labour of love with immense empathy and loyalty shown towards his adopted home of Bogotá. Here, over a long career, he came to add his modern slant to Colombian city architecture. His was a new urbane vernacular, that crafted humanist city spaces and places for a distinctly Latin American way of living.
Salmona was born in Paris in 1929 to a Spanish father and a French mother but moved to Bogotá with his parents as a child. However, despite being educated in French schools, he always identified himself as Colombian. In 1948 with his Colombian studies interrupted by political upheaval, he had to return to Paris. Here, over the next nine years, as well as completing his professional and cultural education, he also worked at the eminent studios of Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé. Notable projects included working with Le Corbusier on his masterplan for ‘City Beautiful’ Chandigarh, created as part of Nehru’s vision for India, post-independence.
Whilst still in Paris, Salmona also joined the Sociology of Art program directed by Pierre Froncastel at the Sorbonne. As a subfield of sociology, this subject investigated the social worlds of art, technology, as well as other shared aesthetics. Fed by his experiences and influential mentors, Salmona’s education was further informed by his travels around France, Mediterranean Europe and North Africa. Here it was that the seeds of a passion for the materialism and spatial richness of Romanesque, pre-Hispanic and Moorish architecture were sowed.
Ironically whilst Salmona was away, Le Corbusier had been invited to be the Bogotá ‘Plan Director’ in 1950, and stemming from this a 1951 Pilot Plan, and a 1953 Regulatory Plan had been produced in anticipation of an expected rapid growth to the city. Some similarities existed between his Chandigarh and Bogotá plans, and not least of which was the framing of the city by a lush mountainous backdrop (the Shivalik Hills for Chandigarh and Mount Monserrate for Bogotá). As things transpired, there was a limited uptake to this bold urban plan. There was also a reported disillusionment with the uncompromising designs of his mentor by Salmona himself.
From 1957, on Salmona’s return to Colombia, he was to spend the next 50 years advocating for his own unique design code for his adopted country: One with a much stronger sense of cultural belonging and interaction among neighbours. He began to explore a new artistic ‘composition’ of architecture that could be perceived with all of the senses and not just the visual one, and included the contrast and appreciation of complimentary elements such as materials, water, luminosity and shadow.
Whilst teaching architectural history at the University de Los Andes, he also set about confronting head-on urban planning conventions and began advocating for social responsibility, and a revival of the arts and craft of local brick construction. The use of brick became his signature style, but also made better use of Bogotá’s materials and local builder skills. It helped shape a whole new Latin American vernacular, that also included Islamic references to such elements as surface relief, pierced screens, walled gardens and water channels. All these gains made to a new local urbanism and architecture transcended a grim backdrop developing simultaneously. This was linked to the growing drug and crime syndicates of Colombia, and an era of turbulent conflict known locally as La Violencia.
From the 1970’s onwards, Salmona lived in Torres del Parque (1970), his remarkable residential complex design, which is still today seen as a key part of Bogotá’s modern cityscape. His vision presented to the city a series of jagged sandy escarpments and ledges, constructed from his much-loved brickwork detail, but contrasted on plan by softer embracing curves and landscaping, as well as by the classic brick drum of the adjacent Santamaria bullring.
Rogelio Salmona once said that the test of time would tell if he had held any validity as an architect. “Good architecture will become ruins. Bad architecture disappears…” he also said, “…but for you to know it is a ruin, you have to wait a lot of time”. His expressed hope was that his monumental towers of Torres del Parque would not become ruins just yet, but in a thousand years from now. If so, it would be nice to think it might befall the same fate as the romantic ruins of Colombia’s ancient ‘lost city’ of Teyuna.
In the present tense, Salmona believed that an architect’s ‘time’ should not be unduly coveted or saved as some form of precious ‘gold’. It should he felt, be used, employed and enjoyed in equal measure. “Time is Life. I am interested in living it” he concluded. Architects he maintained should memorise the scale, resonance and echoes that characterize any place, and drawn from their collective subliminal experiences, then set about creating an architecture of amazing places tor gathering an entire city together.