Rogelio Salmona | Columbia

Medal Awarded: 2003

Jury 2003

Kristian Gullichsen, Chair, Finland
Harri Hautajärvi, Finland
Aimo Murtomäki, Finland
Pekka Pakkala, Finland
Peter Zumthor, Switzeland
Louisa Hutton, United Kingdom

“Rogelio Salmona is one of the great names of South American architecture along with the Mexican Louis Barragan and the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer. To Rogelio Salmona, the essential pillars of the architect’s profession are ethics and social responsibility. His modern architecture, which seems to have a timeless quality of its own, is warm and human, and has at its heart an awareness of community spirit and the dignity of Man. Salmona’s architecture has an important message for the present day, when too much emphasis on individual ‘star’ architects and a focus on showy ’WOW’ architecture is all too typical.”
An excerpt from the statement of the jury.

  • Virgilio Barco Public Library Bogotá, Kolumbia / Colombia 1999–2001

Rogelio Salmona (1929–2007)

Rogelio Salmona is an internationally recognized architect and one of the most highly esteemed great names of South American architecture. Although he has done most of his work in Colombia, his work is known all over the world. “In addition to a humanistic approach, what unites the work of Salmona and Alvar Aalto, is the skillful treatment of form, material and light in architecture. Salmona’s career is one of uncompromising persistence and sustainability in a time when superficiality and a lack of vision tends to be a dominant trend even in architecture”, the jury states in its statement.

“One needs to let the eye wander slowly so as to allow time to take in the essential elements that make up the impression of the place, to measure them and to etch them into ones mind, and to store them in ones memory for future reference, to memorize the scale of things, the resonance and echo of sounds that characterize the place, and then later, guided by emotion, one can draw from them to create a work of architecture, amazing spaces, places for gathering, an entire city.” – Rogelio Salmona

Salmona was born in Paris in 1929 and went back there as a student after his studies at the Universidad National de Columbia in Bogota got interrupted in 1948 due to political upheaval. He spent the following ten years in Paris, where he worked in various offices including the studio of Le Corbusier and the office of Jean Prouvé. There he had the opportunity to collaborate with Le Corbusier on a number of projects between 1948 and 1957, as well as to widen his profesional experience by working on the design and construction of the metallic structures for the National Center for Technological Industries (CNIT) under the direction of Jean Prouve. In Paris Salmona also met Alvar Aalto.

During his stay in Paris, Salmona continued his academic foundation, took certain technical classes at the School of Arts and Crafts and studied History of Modern Art with Jean Cossou at the Louvre. Most importantly, during this ten-year period, he took part in the Sociology of Art program directed by Pierre Froncastel at the Sorbonne’s Ecole de Hautes Etudes where he was made Student Chair in 1953. Salmona’s professional and academic experiences were further enriched by study-related travel throughout France as well as several Mediterranean countries in Europe and North Africa. It is important to mention also the magic and beauty of pre-Hispanic architecture that Salmona discovered later during other travels.

At the end of 1957, Salmona returned to Colombia, where the majority of his projects were built. In his work we perceive the architect’s assertion that architecture is ”an intelligent synthesis of experiences, of readings, passions, of fistfuls of nostalgia.” The materials aspect of Romanesque architecture, the delightful quality of Islamic architecture, the spatial richness of pre-Hispanic acrhiutecture, the sensitivity towards traditions and materials pertaining to a given place, as well as the characteristics of the surrounding landscape, make his architectural and urban projects a unique response to ”the necessities and desires of the society to which I belong”, as Salmona himself articulates.

Clear, democratic and public spaces where people could gather were of essential importance to Rogelio Salmona. In his urban planning projects, he sought not to leave unaddressed the spaces between separate blocks of flats, as often occurs in modern urban construction. Rather, he favoured an open city model, where the spaces between buildings are taken into consideration as well. His emphasis can also be seen just as strongly in institutional buildings, where he created new types of common spaces for the users’ benefit. For instance, in walking on a roof, one experiences a building in a new way. In detached houses, everyday activities are focused around a central yard.

Although Salmona’s architecture is based on Colombian tradition, it also reflects the general history of architecture. His references suggest accumulated affinities for spaces born in various eras and places, some of them very distant. His professional image was based on the view that creating architecture is merely the renewal of humanity’s shared knowledge, shaped over millennia, as abstracts tied to certain times and places. Instead of the ephemeral, Salmona aimed for sturdy, sustainable architecture that is rooted in history and that will someday, in time, fall into ruin, be covered by ivy and return to its original form.

The goal of Salmona’s innovative urban planning was a more democratic city, one that offers public spaces where people can gather, create a sense of community and crystallise their shared knowledge. As migration brought ever more people to Bogotá after the mid-twentieth century, the city’s accelerating growth led to marginalization, unemployment and housing shortages. The city’s land area expanded rapidly, buildings were renovated randomly and endlessly, the unity of the cityscape urban splintered and the historic city centre became a jumble. Salmona had an opportunity to tackle these issues through his work in the 1960s. His urban projects, which were firmly connected to his architecture, continuously questioned the conventional urban planning practices of the day. Salmona emphasised social responsibility, revived traditional handicraft-based brick building methods and made use of the professional skills of Bogotá’s builders.

In their design language, Salmona’s urban projects developed in the same direction as his architecture. Salmona was deeply convinced that they were essentially the same: a city is built through architecture, and architecture is part of a city. Public and private areas both express the same Latin American way of urban living.

As Salmona saw it, when working in distinctly challenging societal conditions, it is the ethical duty of an architect to work on behalf of a more dignified way of life – and to create a sense of community by designing buildings that are open and democratic in the broadest sense of the word.

© Alvar-Aalto Medal 2019