The Colombian Architect Who Reimagined Modernism for a New Era

IN THE YEARS before his death in 2007 at the age of 80, the Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona would guide students through the house that he and his second wife, the architect María Elvira Madriñán, had built for themselves in the rural hill country north of Bogotá. From the top of the gently sloped 6.3-acre lot, they would follow a wide brick path under a canopy of native chicalá and guayacán trees to its end at a solitary brick lintel hung with dangling ferns. Through the threshold, they would enter the first of the house’s three courtyards, square enclosures staggered along a diagonal and sutured together by a brick canal, a furrow in the ground’s otherwise flat pavers, and ending in a fountain. In the second patio, they would climb a staircase that spread to a roofscape of catwalks and barrel vaults, eventually descending to the final terrace and out again into the garden that Salmona and Madriñán, now 67, had spent more than a decade planting before they laid the house’s first brick. Only after circumambulating the 1,625-square-foot house, named Casa Río Frío for the stream that bounds the property to the east, and only if his visitors insisted, would Salmona take them inside for a perfunctory tour of its monastic interiors: its two baths and three bedrooms, its kitchen and living room and studio, built in concrete, granadillo wood and, most of all, brick.

By the time the house was completed in 2000, Salmona had been reshaping his nation’s architecture for more than 30 years, during a period of Colombian history marked by persistent violence — perpetrated by guerrilla armies and, starting in the 1980s, state-supported paramilitaries — that, one hopes, will continue to recede under the leadership of Gustavo Petro; elected earlier this year as the nation’s first leftist president, he’s a former member of a rebel group who has promised “total peace” with the last remaining militants. Salmona likewise was a committed leftist — his output, largely concentrated in the capital, included private homes but also social housing, museums and cultural centers, a vast public library complex and Colombia’s General Archive of the Nation.

Río Frío’s dining room, with floors of granadillo wood and a barrel-vaulted ceiling.Credit…Rafael Gamo
The inner courtyard of Bogotá’s Casa Altazor (2004), its brick pavers laid in a pattern inspired by woven tapestries.Credit…Rafael Gamo

Throughout, he fostered what Cristina Albornoz, a 55-year-old professor of architecture at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes, describes as a “universal repertory” of influences and inspirations, “a global attitude of respect for place, of respect for tradition, of learning from other architectures and mixing them with what’s from here.” His buildings drew on the vitality of the German architect Hans Scharoun and the warmth of Finland’s Alvar Aalto, both of whom he admired. He was inspired, too, by the Maghreb’s labyrinthine medinas, which he visited on his early travels around the Mediterranean; by the ruined cities of Mesoamerica that he saw for the first time in the late 1970s; and by Bogotá’s sprawl of informal settlements. If he’s relatively unknown outside Colombia, that’s perhaps because his work is difficult to categorize, distant from both the pure rationality of high Modernism and the historicism of his postmodern contemporaries.

Above all, Salmona was recognized (at least among his peers) for his career-long experiments with the formal, structural and decorative possibilities of brick, an artisanal material produced abundantly along the city’s periphery from 1950 to 1980. He used bricks to clad soaring towers and laid them in geometric patterns across public courtyards; he devised shapes to channel rainwater and embedded them in walls as brickwork mashrabiyas or, in the patios of Río Frío, like the friezes of Mixtec pyramids. Bogotá today remains a city built in Salmona’s shadow, a vast expanse of brick spreading outward from the high green wall of the Andes that bounds the metropolis to the east, like a rust red lava field eroded by the city’s frequent rain.

The primary bedroom at Casa Toscana in Tabio, completed in 2000 for Lucía Madriñán — a sister of Salmona’s wife — who preferred natural light to enter at eye level, not from above.Credit…Rafael Gamo
The habitable roofscape at Río Frío emerging from the garden that Salmona and Madriñán planted over the course of 14 years.Credit…Rafael Gamo

Yet reducing Salmona to brick makes as little sense as essentializing Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer or Mexico’s Luis Barragán to curves and colors. Salmona’s work explored expansive concerns well beyond materiality: Madriñán, who has spent the years since her husband’s death completing his unfinished projects and beginning new ones of her own, says he “tried to make an architecture that, in private homes as well as the city, would allow contact with nature and generate places of congregation.” Through those spaces, he hoped to connect homes and neighborhoods, drawing links between the turbulent present and an emotionally rich past. Each building, private or public, modest or monumental, was an opportunity, Madriñán says, “to propose his ideas of what a city and a society should be” — not cloistered or afraid but open and free.

Altazor’s living room looks out over the surrounding hills and, on clear days, the Bogotá savanna below.Credit…Rafael Gamo

BORN IN PARIS in 1927 to a French mother and a Spanish father, Salmona came to Colombia at age 3 and spent his childhood in the upper-middle-class Bogotá neighborhood of Teusaquillo in a house organized, like Río Frío, around three patios. As in most Latin American capitals at the time, the city’s population was growing rapidly. In 1947, at the invitation of Colombia’s delegate to the United Nations, Le Corbusier visited Bogotá for the first time with the aim of developing a master plan that would, local leadership hoped, both modernize the city and manage its expansion. While there, the Swiss French architect met a young Salmona and suggested he come to work at his Paris studio, an offer that Salmona hadn’t initially intended to accept. But the following year, the assassination of the former Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán sparked devastating riots in Bogotá’s historic center. The Conservative Party had recently come to power after years in the opposition and, after the riots, further tightened its draconian reprisals against dissidents, initiating what would later be known as La Violencia. Salmona abandoned his studies and, encouraged by his father, fled to France, not to return home for nearly a decade.

The dining room in Altazor, with pigmented concrete walls.Credit…Rafael Gamo
The brick-paved central courtyard of Altazor is surrounded by glass panels.Credit…Rafael Gamo

Shortly after arriving in Paris, Salmona entered Corbusier’s studio and, in 1950, was assigned as a collaborator and draftsman on the Bogotá master plan. Typical of Corbusier’s urban designs, his concept sheared avenues through the city center and clear-cut the Tudor-style brick houses of the architect’s beloved Teusaquillo. “Drawing proposals that destroyed 90 percent of the city of my childhood, the city of my memories, was not easy,” Salmona would say at a 1992 conference at the Universidad de los Andes. “Bogotá was a tangible reality for me, it wasn’t an abstraction.” In those years, Salmona met his first wife, the Tunisian sociologist Micheline Clément, and came under the influence of the French art historian Pierre Francastel, who viewed art and architecture as essential expressions of cultures and societies, imbued with ideas and feelings. From Corbusier, Salmona learned the rigors of his trade; from Francastel, he learned to look backward.

The architect returned to Bogotá in 1957 as the democratic institutions crippled by La Violencia were being tentatively restored. According to some estimates, 180,000 had died in the preceding decade; rampant insecurity in the countryside drove waves of displacement and migration. Bogotá struggled to keep up with the sudden influx, and Corbusier’s plans were never implemented. At the same time, informal settlements exploded across the capital’s south even as stolid concrete prisms, after the International Style, rose alongside a handful of broad avenues, some of which connected the historic center to the booming north. Salmona and several of his peers, most notably Dicken Castro, Guillermo Bermúdez, Hernán Vieco and Fernando Martínez Sanabria, looked on that imported idiom with suspicion. They sought instead a modernity “more sensitive to place, to the quality of labor, to the materials produced in the region,” says Madriñán.

The garden at Río Frío.Credit…Rafael Gamo
Altazor’s principal staircase, which connects the house’s public spaces with the private.Credit…Rafael Gamo

They turned to cheap, durable brick in a deep oxidized red, and to the generations of bricklayers who had mastered its use. With sharply inclined rooflines, delicate curves and complex floor plans assembled from load-bearing brick walls, the architects’ new buildings were at once bold and anachronistic in an age of pilotis and glass. They demonstrated “how an artisanal material, a material worth almost nothing, could reflect our modernity,” says the 57-year-old Colombian architect and scholar Tatiana Urrea Uyabán. These buildings did not float above the city. Instead, they sprang from its soil.

THROUGH THE 1960S and ’70s, these dueling visions of modernity vied for dominance in Bogotá. Then, in December 1980, the newly opened Centre Pompidou in Paris mounted an exhibition of Colombia’s brick architecture with Salmona’s monumental Torres del Parque apartment complex, completed a decade before, at its center. A trio of brick-clad towers spiraling skyward like the ventricles of nautilus shells, the project rises among a sequence of paved patios punctuated with gardens and seamlessly integrated into the surrounding neighborhood. If the Pompidou show helped to confirm brick as Bogotá’s emblematic material, then it was the Torres del Parque that made Salmona, as one French journalist put it in Le Monde, “the most visible man in Bogotá.”

A reflecting pool at Altazor. The interaction between built space and water was crucial to Salmona’s work.Credit…Rafael Gamo
The dining room of Casa Toscana, built for Salmona’s sister-in-law in 2000. The interiors of the building are an expansive variation on Río Frío’s.Credit…Rafael Gamo

Then came the backlash. “In the 1990s, it became important to separate Colombian architecture from the name Rogelio Salmona,” says the 38-year-old landscape architect Diego Bermúdez, whose grandfather Guillermo had been the most prominent of Salmona’s predecessors, and whose father, Daniel, rebelled throughout the ’90s by building public works in concrete. For his critics, Albornoz says, Salmona “became too much of a protagonist, which meant he obscured other figures. Others, she says, were surprised by the poetic, at times ornamental, brickwork in his later projects and, eventually, his widespread use of concrete.

But Salmona’s deeper interests had never wavered. From the earliest stages of his career, he aimed to reconcile the genius of Corbusier’s modular floor plans and constructive rigor with his own belief that buildings shouldn’t stand in isolation against inhuman expanses of open space — like, for instance, Corbusier’s Chandigarh Capitol Complex (1961) in India or the Unité d’Habitation (1952) in Marseille, France. “Rogelio was interested in what weaves buildings together,” says Ricardo Daza Caicedo, the 57-year-old director of the Leopoldo Rother Museum of Architecture at the National University of Colombia, “hollow spaces, patios, circulation.”

Bougainvillea pours over a courtyard wall at Toscana.Credit…Rafael Gamo

Salmona was also interested in what weaves buildings into their surroundings. In projects from the last two decades of his life — among them Río Frío and the nearby Casa Toscana, built in 2000 for Salmona’s sister-in-law Lucía Madriñán — he continued to explore the apertures created by complex geometric arrangements while also embedding his buildings ever deeper in their environments. Salmona and Madriñán designed several versions of Río Frío, eventually placing the structure in the spaces left amid the garden they’d spent 14 years raising from sapling and seed. Inside, Salmona cut windows to frame the vertical shoots of epidendrum orchids and the horizontal boughs of chicalá trees, which burst with yellow flowers every year; even the house’s meditative interior directs the gaze outward. With its manicured lawn and larger proportions, the 2,153-square-foot Toscana declares its presence more forcefully, yet it, too, seems almost excavated. Built from the same pale ocher brick as Río Frío — its color another of Salmona’s innovations — huddled under the same barrel vaults and disarticulated around the same sequence of patios, Toscana is “a variation on a theme,” Madriñán says, a hillock as much as a house, made, like the pyramids that Salmona found so moving, less for shelter than for ascent.

OVER THE COURSE of the past decade, Colombia has begun the slow work of restoring the peace that slipped away back in 1948 and never really returned. Salmona wouldn’t see the beginning of a fitful, still-ongoing peace process, nor the election last June of President Petro. Despite this, he maintained a stubborn, if tentative, optimism until the end of his life. “Not even in the worst moments has Colombia lost its capacity to sing, dance, write, paint and build,” he said in his acceptance speech for the 2003 Alvar Aalto Medal. “Architecture … is an example of perseverance.”

The view from the primary bedroom at Altazor.Credit…Rafael Gamo
In his design of Altazor, Salmona explored the possibilities of concrete in the same way he had, for decades, with brick.Credit…Rafael Gamo

In his later years, Salmona persisted with material experimentation. Among his final projects was Casa Altazor, designed for the family of the writer Claudia Antonia Arcila, on Bogotá’s northern periphery. Completed in 2004, it perches more than 9,800 feet above sea level, in a mercurial place where banks of fog scatter under sudden bombardment by the Andean sun. Built from a pigmented concrete as lustrous as travertine, the 2,470-square-foot house consists of columns and slabs, terraces and windows, all set at right angles, as if in homage to Corbusier’s late-career concrete villas, many of them built during Salmona’s tenure at his office. Exposed to the elements, the house isn’t fragmented like Río Frío and Toscana. Instead, it turns inward, like Bogotá’s colonial houses, to embrace a central patio paved with concentric squares of light and dark brick, woven together like a tapestry — a gesture toward ancient craft. Though formally and materially distinct, Altazor, like Río Frío and Toscana, seems to emerge from the terrain, as if it were a rock formation laid bare by a landslide.

In the years after Salmona’s death, it’s become clear that neither brick, with its exhaust-belching kilns, nor concrete, responsible for untold environmental harms, will build a sustainable future. But Salmona knew all too well that no single material could solve the world’s problems: Throughout his life, he watched poor migrants build precarious brick homes on Bogotá’s periphery while the rich barricaded themselves in luxury apartment blocks, cut off from the street by walls and barbed wire but sheathed in brick as a facile gesture toward vernacular context. Still, in their affinity for the ground, Salmona’s last works, both private and public, share a certain kinship with the rammed earth buildings now at the vanguard of ecological design, an architecture that, like Salmona’s earliest experiments with brick, aims to recuperate skills and materials long scorned by modernity. They speak to the fundamental insight that Salmona cultivated through a lifetime of work — that no building, not even a house, stands alone.

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