Architects and builders in Bogotá were using sustainable building techniques long before sustainability became a buzzword.
After all, natural light in the city is prevalent, ventilation is simple (just open the windows), and the scale of buildings is smaller. “About 90% of the buildings we do now are very environmentally friendly,” says Daniel Bonilla of Daniel Bonilla Arquitectos and design director of TAB, or Taller de Arquitectura de Bogotá (Bogotá Architecture Workshop).
“I’m not saying we don’t need to do anything to be sustainable. We do need to do a lot of things, but by nature and by common sense we have been very conscious about the environment,” Bonilla says.
The country’s dense population, for instance, requires architects to use small plots, which makes for smaller buildings. That, in turn, contributes to occupant health. “If you make a big building, the distance between the person and the window is very far. Here you don’t have that. Here windows are close. And by common sense, we put windows in every single space.”
Spaces are well ventilated and, because Bogotá has no seasons, the temperature outside and inside is very similar to human comfort. Where Bogotá—and many Latin American countries—need to improve, Bonilla says, is in the area of waste and properly disposed materials. “Waste has been a problem in this kind of developing world.”
But apart from the issues of waste and pollution, the city has been conscious of the environment, Bonilla says, partly because it had to be. “A lack of money makes you have to be very resourceful and makes you think deeply about how to use the money to build, how to get the most out of everything.”
Colombians have long built using simple resources and simple techniques, Bonilla says. And they’ve been very skillful in reusing and reshaping things.
The Evolution of Architecture
For many years, the country had one architect doing phenomenal work, Bonilla says, and that was Rogelio Salmona. “If you arrived at the airport 20 years ago and you asked, ‘Who is the best architect?’ even the security guard in the airport knew,” he says. “That didn’t happen in any other country.”
Salmona left an indelible mark on the Colombian capital. Brick and natural shapes like radial geometry were defining elements of his work, which you can see all over the city today, from Torres del Parque—three residential towers with curves and stepped balconies and a park in the city’s center—to the Virgilio Barco Public Library. His work had an incredible impact on the next generation of architects, including Bonilla. “I grew up with that legacy and I learned from that legacy.”
While in Salmona’s time there was essentially one way of thinking, Bonilla’s generation includes many architects doing vastly different work. Few Colombians studied abroad before Bonilla’s generation, and the novelty of travel also impacted the country’s architecture. Bonilla himself studied in the UK and has taught in the U.S. Then, of course, came the internet, which cast a tremendous light on work being done all over the world. “It happened by chance. Internet makes communication so easy.” Before the internet, few people knew what was happening in Latin America, for example. And Colombians often didn’t even know what was happening in Ecuador or Panama. “Communication was so bad,” Bonilla says.
The rise in study abroad and the boom of the internet also shone a light on what was happening in Bogotá itself. “Since we grew up we were always very curious about what was going on around us, but nobody was very curious about Colombia because the political situation was very complex and it was very difficult to come here,” Bonilla says. “But now people from the Northern Hemisphere have become curious about what’s going on here.”
A Rise in Competition
The city has also benefited from a rise in competition. Where politicians in years past may have passed building contracts off to friends or family, today’s projects are more likely to be done by contest. In the early ’90s, architects pushed the idea of public competitions, and the government agreed. Bonilla’s generation was young but suddenly started getting commissioned work. “That didn’t happen before in the history of the country,” he says. “You had to be a very mature architect to get a public commission.”
He says officials began to understand that buildings done through competition were better quality. Most of Bogotá’s public buildings are now done by this process, which also contributes to variety in architecture. The transparent jury process also helps ease any worry about who’s the best person for the job. Currently in Bogotá, there are more than 100 public competitions and 30 to 50 private, Bonilla says. “It doesn’t happen anywhere else in Latin America.”
Open Public Spaces
María Elvira Madriñán, Salmona’s widow and chair of the Rogelio Salmona Foundation, says architecture in Bogotá continues to change, with an increased commitment to open spaces. The foundation awards Latin American architecture that promotes community and interaction, a point Madriñán says is especially important considering a long history in the city of closing buildings off with fences.
More and more she says people want to enjoy public spaces, where 20 years ago that wouldn’t happen. “That’s the new essence of the city,” she says. “It has been a fundamental change.”