Hiding out from the gentle Bogotá rain, a cat with turquoise eyes and a black and white coat prowls along the ledge of an office hidden in the midst of lush vegetation. A large window with a wooden frame filters the light and illuminates the interior: a desk, hundreds of books, manila folders, and backlit pictures. Sitting comfortably in his chair, 91-year-old Colombian architect Germán Samper takes a pencil, presses it to the surface of a sheet of paper, and begins to explain everything he is saying by drawing for us in the most clear and simple manner possible.
Whether he's giving instructions on taking a taxi in Bogotá or explaining the recent modifications to the historic Colsubisdio citadel, Samper -- a master of Colombian architecture -- can express ideas on paper with an ease that makes us think that drawing might be very simple, but it's really just a great trick.
Perseverance is key and Samper knows this from experience. "I don't understand why architects don't draw more if it is truly a pleasure," he ponders.
After the break, a conversation with Germán Samper and a series of unedited sketches by the Colombian architect.
In a pleasant conversation in his office in Bogotá - soon to be published in greater detail - Germán Samper goes over his life: his years at university, his work in Le Corbusier's studio (initially unbeknownst to the Swiss-French man), his projects in Bogotá, his criticisms of the tendencies of the new generations of architects and reflections on his own legacy.
While we are speaking, his passion for drawing comes up constantly, threading together his discourse. It goes without saying that he wasn't born with his pencil wielding skills. In order to find the beginning of that story, we must go back to the late 1940s, in his final years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, when some European professors -- Leopoldo Rother and Bruno Violi -- arrived in Bogotá, stimulating the spread of the modernist movement.
Germán's generation became enraptured by the avant-garde ideas of Le Corbusier and, on his own, the young Colombian obtained a scholarship from the French government to study at the Institut d'Urbanisme de Paris. Settling into post-WWII France, he managed to end up working in Le Corbusier's studio from 1947 to 1952. It was there that his need to write and to draw emerged.
"One doesn't know how to draw just after graduating," Samper comments on his beginnings. He recognizes that his apprenticeship was "a great difficulty that got better little by little.” During those years, Le Corbusier emerged as a fundamental figure in his learning process:
“In 1949 when vacation time came around and we went with Rogelio Salmona to the Bergamo Congress (CIAM VII), Le Corbusier told us 'Don't take cameras, an architect needs to learn to draw'. That which attracts the architect's attention must be drawn”.
Samper and Salmona went all over Italy drawing works specifically recommended by Le Corbusier. This experience helped him to not only understand the role of drawing, but also the need to draw. By breaking things down to a geometric level, with pen and paper, they sought to interpret the architectural landmarks that they were visiting.
“Drawings are the architect's memory. He does it to learn about the building he has in front of him,” he points out. Glancing at the sketches scattered throughout his office makes it clear that this is so: construction details, panoramic views of public spaces, interior perspectives, floor plans on wax paper, hand-written reports and concepts. All of them possessing the coarseness and the imperfection that is the imprint, the personal seal that each one of us leaves when confronting a blank page.
Works That Don't Fit in a Photograph
What does Germán Samper see when he draws? “I find it interesting to draw a Gothic church to learn its structure. One must first make an analysis of its geometry. Practice has made me search for and achieve drawings that couldn't exist off of paper. One could leave out one part of a street to see the other completely. So one can play around wonderfully and do things that are impossible to do with photography."
In his many sketches drawn on his trips around the world, the Colombian's hand obscures some facades to make others stand out, it fixes its gaze like a sniper on specific details of a suspension bridge, recalls the typologies in the streets of his beloved Colombia, unfurls entire blocks like rolls of paper. He expands his field of vision in order to recreate medieval squares and achieves perspectives as though he were clinging like a gargoyle to the cornice of some historic building.
When he visited Le Corbusier's chapel in Ronchamp, Germán realized the advantages of drawing in situations where photography just wasn't enough:
"The priest at the church told me 'I haven't been able to portray both chapels that are in the back at the same time using photographs. I've gotten some magnificent photos of one and then of the other, but maybe you can do it for me.'. I made a sketch and then the old priest was left 'descrestado' (amazed). I gave it to him, and later made a copy for myself."
Samper kept all of his drawings. According to his calculations there are 5,000 of them. All of them born in the warmth of his travels: The United States, Europe, Latin America and of course, his native Colombia. With the help of one of his daughters, they've begun to arrange and organize his collection. That is how the first three volumes of Croquis de Viaje (Travel Sketches) emerged, an extensive compilation of his work. Currently, there are more than thirteen volumes, and those that he keeps in his office, inside of which he saves notes, clippings of various texts, page markers and new sketches.
Thinking of his legacy, he says he will donate the collection of drawings to the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, which he himself designed while working in partnership with Rafael Esguerra y Álvaro Sáenz. Now -- just as he insists throughout our conversation -- he believes he can help the new generations of architects not to forget to draw. Don't let them ever be tempted to.
Energetically and without letting go of his paper, he relays to us an oft repeated warning: "You have to grab the pen, and you can't ever let it go.” And he smiles.