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Editorial Review

A Towering Figure in Red Brick: Colombia's Rogelio Salmona

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

The red brick buildings of Rogelio Salmona, the preeminent Colombian architect of the past century, don't pop off the walls of the Art Museum of the Americas like the reinforced concrete fantasias of the museum's most recent major architectural exhibition, devoted to the Brazilian visionary Oscar Niemeyer. Unlike the Brazilian cool of Niemeyer's bold and alien structures, Salmona's work is wrong for swimsuit ads, wrong for new-wave movies and wrong for mid-century chic magazine layouts. He was a craftsman who wanted to make buildings that add without subtracting and serve without dominating.

But his works speak to architects in Washington in a powerful way, in part because Washington is brick city. If you can set aside the desultory effect of Washington's contemporary brick architecture, the ghastly, oversize office structures clad in a preposterous drag of brick veneer, there is a powerful material connection between our local Victorian craftsmanship and the endlessly inventive brickwork that Salmona pursued over the course of his career.

Brick makes mud and earth mathematical; it parses the most basic and sturdy of substances into something that can be repeated and varied into infinite patterns and shapes. The standard-issue Victorian house of a century ago, the archetypal dwelling one finds on Capitol Hill and throughout the District's older residential areas, is enlivened by bricks that form grill patterns, fan shapes, complicated corner joints and elaborate ribs and bands that give individual houses rhythm and variety, and tie together whole blocks with a common family resemblance.

Salmona, who died in 2007, incorporated many of these same techniques into a very different vernacular. Like Niemeyer, he worked with the great modernist giant, Le Corbusier. And like Le Corbusier, modernism for him was a mission, an impetus to Utopian thinking, a mandate to build transformative buildings that bettered the lives of those who lived in and among them. Unlike Le Corbusier, Salmona seemed aware of the dangers of modernism, its power to disconnect the architect from place and tradition, its frequent contempt for the local and dismissive neglect of long legacies of material knowledge.

With brick, Salmona could reconnect 20th-century architecture with the architectural traditions that spanned centuries of Colombian history, from the colonial era back to monolithic stone structures left by the indigenous peoples of South America. It appeared in his architecture throughout his life, sometimes soaring into the air in brick-clad high-rise apartments, such as the Residencias el Parque (1965-1970), or nestled into the earth in low-rise but sprawling geometric complexes. Brick gave substance and energy to his walls, and it defined the linked chains of courtyard and plaza spaces that tie together his residential and cultural buildings. He used it vertically and horizontally, and was fastidious enough to design his own bricks. The details of brickwork were integral to his designs, not left to the whimsy of builders.Salmona's brick isn't always easy to love. In structures such as the 1988-1994 Archivo General de la Nacion, brick latticework, ornamental banding and sophisticated window surrounds make a large, squat building feel like it's wrapped in a taut, geometrically patterned textile. But large expanses of brick are hard to lighten, even with Salmona's refined and orderly designs. A middle-income housing project he designed in Bogota in the mid-1980s, the Renovacion Urbana Nueva Santa Fe de Bogota, feels heavy and forbidding, with incongruous metal railings attached to windows and ridiculous round cuts through exterior walls that look like an ornamental afterthought.

As you explore Salmona's achievements, it's a relief to see him working occasionally in stone. In photographs, his most charismatic structure is a large, elegant government guesthouse built on a peninsula near the historic city of Cartagena. Like the neighboring city, a colonial port ringed with what were once the most powerful fortresses in the New World, the guesthouse was built with coral stone. Sloped stone pathways recall the ramped fortresses nearby, elaborate courtyards remind one of the small city squares of colonial Cartagena, and pools and trees connect the complex to the natural world.

But it's the texture of the coral stone that is most striking. With its more irregular joints and porous surface, it is a powerful relief from Salmona's usual material, and it helps him achieve a more genuine and organic connection with historic building traditions. The house feels both ancient and modern, rather like the best of Louis Kahn's flirtations with monumental masonry styles.

Photographs are kinder to Salmona's smaller-scale architecture, especially the Casa en Riofrio, his own country house, which joins together small, vaulted structures and open courtyards at irregular angles, softened by the lush natural growth on all sides. Photography is less kind to his larger, urban structures. But seen in their proper context, the heaviness of brick often disappears. The Gabriel Garcia Mrquez Cultural Center, completed after Salmona's death, is a large but low-key presence in the historic Candelaria neighborhood near Bogota's central square. With slender columns supporting open terraces, it follows the line of the street and respects the height of historic structures nearby. It isn't (from the outside) a beautiful building, but it is a remarkably well-integrated and lively presence in an old and dense neighborhood.

Salmona isn't a sexy architect. And the massive solidity of his architecture, with its pre-Hispanic references, isn't an obvious fit for a North American city. It wants a more dramatic landscape, mountains or ocean, to frame it, and it needs something lush -- a garden or encroaching forest -- to soften its edges. In Colombia, his architecture has echoes of ruined buildings and lost people it would never have here. But in its detail, the way two angles of brick come together, or the definition of a window, or the arcing lines that trace through the brick paving of a courtyard, it offers inspiration to architects working in very different milieu. It proves there is life in old brick yet, if architects commit to using it as something more than weatherproof wallpaper.