Colombian artist and architect Santiago Pradilla captured my interest through his many passionate pursuits—he has dedicated as much of his life to traveling to and working within small, rural communities and as he has to producing architecture that tells the rich history of Colombian cities.
We discussed the relationship between academia, auto-construction, and rural living as well as the exploration of other artistic disciplines. We even breached the topic of the importance of heritage and projections about the direction of Colombian architecture.
Fabián Dejtiar (FD): During our brief encounter in Bogota, you mentioned a post-university experience that gave you a different perspective of the role of an architect. You were in a community in rural Colombia. Could you tell us more about this experience and how it revealed the gap between your academic training and your actual work?
Santiago Pradilla (SP): By traveling to and living in these small, rural communities in Colombia, I realized that many of the concepts taught to me in university proved useless in these places. My extended stay in these places ultimately made me unlearn things that I once held as absolute truths. The incredible thing about these experiences in Cupica, Guanacas, and Bojayá is that they made me delve deeper into other issues of humanity that, 20 years later, I take into consideration with every project that I undertake.
My obsession is essentially unlearning and reinventing the idea of "progress" and "diversity" or the importance of "pre-existence." A resident of one of these country towns told me 15 years ago:
Architect, I understand your way of thinking. We too grew up with the story of the Three Little Pigs--we don't consider the ones that build their house of straw or wood successful. The person who builds their house with bought materials is 'progressing'.
This is why I especially value the projects that build in accordance with the surroundings and become one with them--even if it means going unnoticed. I admire the architecture that pays homage to the pre-existing structures and foregoes the obsession with "originality" and even more so when it teaches the lessons of both folk architecture as well as the grand masters.
FD: Rural spaces are your principal focus, especially in the context of the ongoing climate crisis. Only 2% of the planet's surface is dedicated to cities and it seems as though we've forgotten the other 98% that includes, among other things, the countryside. For many rural residents building their own homes is commonplace. Can you give us your thoughts on this topic?
SP: My interest in rural living is connected to an interest in working and promoting diversity. Colombia is an especially diverse country thanks in part to its geography and every place has a culture with its own practices and codes. Rural life, honest and simple, speaks of the landscape, of the territory. But, as we all know, it also tends to homogenize itself and pursue the same old idea of progress.
There's a lot at stake, especially in a country like Colombia where the armed conflict has prevented tourism from transforming these small communities and now the big question is: are we prepared for the post-conflict? The issue goes beyond building with traditional materials since it's not about conserving architectural styles out of pure romanticism. It's about making viable a way of life that synchronizes consumption, the environment, and the landscape.
FD: In this sense, do you think that your relationship with other artistic disiplines, like sculpture or photography, help you to rethink your architectural practice?
SP: Art, in general, is a fundamental process that fuels my growth as an architect and as a person. Constructing a building takes a very long time, which can often be the killer of spontaneity; however, art, when applied to short term projects, allows me to act on my restlessness and be more in the moment.
After the experience with La Garza, a fascinating initiative that we undertook in the Las Cruces neighborhood, I'm especially invested in getting more artists involved in the city's planning and construction.
FD: You were given the 2019 National Architecture and Urbanism Prize for an economic housing project that recuperates the urban area while simultaneously maintaining its style. Can you tell us a little more about this project and your focus on maintaining the connection with Colombia's history?
SP: Receiving the National Prize in architecture is an immense honor and I loved seeing all of the ideas that we came up with while working with Sebastian [Serna] from El taller de (S) firm materialize with Paisajes Residenciales ("Residential Passageways").
It's of utmost importance that we recognize a place's pre-exisiting structures and that we adapt to and enhance them; pay homage to their history. This makes us work by intermediate scales and to recognize the part that every small building plays in making a city and to realize that a cluster of small, individual buildings is much more interesting than a city made up of one mega-project.
Working by this scale allows us to realize how to implement multi-use living and commercial spaces, allows us to see about disincentivizing the use of cars and investing in consolidated sectors. It also allows us to work with deteriorated but historically valuable structures. It allows us to construct apartment buildings where every living space is unique. It allows us to explore other realms of architecture and act on our own personal obsessions like experimenting with different materials, manipulating lighting, or perhaps putting our own twist on concepts we learned our predecessors.
The Pasajes Residenciales project, comprising of the construction of three distinct buildings and the revitalization of the Garza fountain, is a project that weaves itself into the urban tapestry by bringing together social housing, art, and history.
FD: Many of the new housing developments seem to ignore the concept we discussed of respecting the history of a place. What are your thoughts on this?
SP: Architecture is transforming and I feel like it continuously demands that architects actively participate in the planning and building of cities. This means not limiting ourselves to only offering solutions to a client or builder's plan but working actively from the start towards building structures that refine how we live.
For example, let's suppose that an architect takes charge of designing social housing on a pre-determined plot of land. In the case of Bogota, the building will naturally need parking, a concierge, gates, gym, and a grilling area among other things and the architect is left to figure out how to make this happen. After all, the calculations and dimensions have already been decided so it's up to the architect to make the project work with the pre-existing surroundings.
It's completely different when the architect, someone dedicated to studying distinct neighborhoods, layouts, and people, aims to enhance what is already there and maybe asks themselves: What if we forget about the parking or the concierge?What if we move closer to the city center? What if we take out 3 parking spaces or the spa area and instead give every apartment a terrace?
The options are infinite and many will be valid but it's important that we "distort" some of the housing develops in order to bring them in line with the collective need rather than totally focusing on their profitability. We need to keep in mind the history of a place and make sure that any new constructions respect it as well.
FD: What are your predictions for the future of architecture in Colombia?
SP: I am an optimist and there is much to be done. I believe that, right now, Colombia and Bogota are full of opportunities.
On the one hand, I am interested in Colombian rurality and specifically what the post-conflict period looks like in a rural setting. Throughout my entire professional career, I have studied the architectural diversity of our country. I wanted to return to these traditional constructive styles and apply them to housing.
In the urban environment, what we need is architects with the ability to propose and self-manage. The more architects there are, the better for everyone. Many small buildings go unnoticed while quietly keeping to and enhancing their surroundings. For me, the best way to build a city is striking the balance between a collective construction style and variety.
FD: Do you have any advice for the young people who are looking to become architects?
SP: In Colombia we are at a crossroads. We need to understand this post-conflict period in both an urban and rural context. There are thousands of opportunities and I sincerely believe that the most important thing is to look at our country's history while also building its future by adding to and celebrating what we already have.