Set on a mountain plateau over 13,600 feet above sea level, the city of El Alto, Bolivia, is the highest in the world. Most of its 1.6 million residents live in raw brick houses, but over the past decade, an array of one-of-a-kind, futuristic buildings have sprung up across this fast-growing urban center, piercing the sky with sharp roofs that are pitched at steep angles. Painted in bright colors and packed with bold geometric forms, these multi-story structures are the creations of local architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre, whose firm has erected over 60 such buildings since 2005.
Last year, German photographer Peter Granser captured a selection of Mamani’s visual splendors in a format whose careful construction echoes the rigid and deliberate lines of the complexes. Originally commissioned by The New Yorker, his images now also appear in El Alto, a beautifully designed photobook recently published by Edition Taube. The tall, large-format title is slim as a pamphlet but bursts with dynamism: each page sets Mamani’s multi-hued buildings against brightly colored backgrounds that enhance the vibrancy of Granser’s images.
These buildings, which house both private apartments and commercial businesses, are often referred to as cholets: “a pun on the words ‘chalet’ and ‘cholo’ — a dismissive racial epithet that cholos like Mamani have proudly embraced,” as Judith Thurman writes for The New Yorker. Mamani, who is self-taught, is part of the indigenous Aymara population, and his practice celebrates that identity in fresh form. His buildings incorporate motifs from Andean textiles and ceramics that zigzag and curl their way across looming facades, framing huge, glossy window panes that reveal nothing of the interiors. Painted entirely in eye-popping hues from emerald to tangerine to electric crimson, the compounds are exuberant; Mamani clearly strives to be playful, at times even adorning his buildings with massive serpentine creatures that serve as architectural dividers.
The majority of Granser’s photographs focus on these busy facades, capturing the massive jewel boxes head-on. Each image is void of pedestrians; his scenes are incredibly still and removed from any context (aside from a brief essay by Winston Hampel, El Alto is text-free). Even the couple of images of interior settings are uncannily quiet for their glaring and ostentatious appearances. In one, blinding chandeliers dangle from a chromatic ceiling above a massive, mirrored banquet hall, where lavender chairs, each wrapped in a saffron bow, anticipate guests. Granser’s framing amplifies the luxury and self-assured nature of Mamani’s designs; the photographs exemplify the buildings as visual assertions of cultural pride.
Only one image reveals the environment within which these dreamlike complexes reside: Granser’s final image, a wide view of the region, shows a cluster of cholets amid the relatively drab brick houses spread around El Alto. The gleaming boxes seem almost digitally transposed onto the otherwise muted landscape of mountains and sky. Their conspicuousness hints at the possible developments the city may witness in the coming years, and insists on cultivating visions free of restraint.