Salmona’s Spaces


Architect’s Structures Redefined Colombia’s Surroundings



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Salmona’s Spaces

Architect’s Structures Redefined Colombia’s Surroundings

by Gary Tischler

Renowned Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona probably isn’t a household name in the United States. But in Bogotá, Salmona, who died in 2007, is a kind of god, albeit a mortal one who built legendary yet livable creations on earth. In fact, his mark is all over the buildings that populate this city of close to 8 million people — landmarks he designed to alter the urban landscape.

You can see that landscape clearly in a well-thought-out exhibition at the Organization of American States showing his major projects and ideas, from low-income housing centers to libraries to Bogotá’s Museum of Modern Art, and finally to Salmona’s own home. “Rogelio Salmona: open spaces / collective spaces” at the OAS’s Art Museum of the Americas — the first exhibition on the architect’s work in the United States — is a layered, revealing journey through the life of this architect-artist, who sought to connect his structures to people by transforming their surroundings.

Whether things worked out quite that way is a subjective matter, given that artistic intention doesn’t always flow smoothly into the pragmatics of urban society. But you can’t say Salmona didn’t redefine large parts of the city, and the thinking of urban designers and architects in Colombia and beyond.

According to the Art Museum of the Americas, “For 50 years, Salmona was a key figure in the intellectual life of Colombia and Latin America and was part of a group of architects who, in reaction to the ubiquitous nature of international modernism, favored architecture designed with location, landscape and topography in mind.”

Brick was the material at the heart of his approach — an approach that, more often than not, avoided the use of concrete because he considered it emblematic of the more heartless, distant aspects of modernism. Salmona’s designs and buildings certainly look modern, but the closer you get to the ideas behind them, the more you see the influence of Colombian life and history streaking through much of his work.

Brick echoes in the country’s staircases, altars and native structures that go back centuries. Brick is the material de jour of colonial times and in this way, the material informs the modern designs that Salmona assayed. Salmona also referenced ancient studies, Robert Frost poems, European ideas and the wordless edifices created by pre-colonial occupants of the land. He was all about driving history forward, bringing the past into a contemporary setting.

There are lots of other ideas floating around in Salmona’s work — the notion, for instance, that structures should not only inhale their surroundings, but also stretch and change them. He excelled at the interplay between open and closed spaces to create something wholly original that all but force changes outside the structure.

In the exhibition, you can see this thinking come to life, not just in the drawings and schematics, which are always a sorry substitute for the real experience, but in photographs, models and videos.

Salmona, who was born in Paris in 1929 but moved to Bogotá at age 2, returned to Paris in 1946, when he was introduced to Le Corbusier, with whom he later studied and collaborated.

But it was back in the city of Bogotá where Salmona — who appears to have the inclinations of a poet as well as the keen, hungry eye of an artist —made his mark, quite literally. Viewers can see this evolution over 21 projects, which range from the National Archives Building to low-income public housing projects that rely heavily on open spaces and vertical ascent to make room for beauty and infringe on high-density ugliness.

Salmona created a group of high-rise residences organized around open spaces, courts and plenty of greenery — a revolutionary process meant to be organic, a kind of total vision. In the United States, this became a tool for developers to get around the restraints of density as they created high-rise structures with plenty of open space but also plenty of crammed interiors. That’s probably not what Salmona had in mind though.

Ironically, this project, instead of creating livable space for people in need of low-income housing, has become a trendy area for singles and professionals. That’s probably not what he had in mind either.

Some of his projects — a major library surrounded by open space, the renovation of an avenue that cuts through Bogotá on the route of a defunct river — all but cry out as vehicles to change the city, yet preserve its historical memory. This is the way Salmona saw himself and the function of an architect — as both a social engineer and artist.

“In today’s and inevitably our own banal world so focused on money and profit, to create architecture that serves man is indeed to continue as the last figure of humanism in our society; but also to create new splendors from possible sites and for memories preserved in an attempt to hold onto the thread of history.”

This was also a man who found in Robert Frost’s poetry an entire way of seeing space, interiors and exteriors: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know. What I was walling in or walling out.”

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Rogelio Salmona: open spaces / collective spaces through Sept. 30 Organization of American States Art Museum of the Americas 201 18th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 458-6016 or visit


About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.