Their first work was white, mostly; a series of small apartment buildings crowned by raw ceramic roof-tiles and grey crushed granite chips, plastered under the window sills as accents for the facades (rendered with a rugged, extremely abrasive finishing known as “pearl-ite”).
My parents met each other in architecture school, and later ran an office that designed its own projects and then built and sold the results. Their first commissions came from friends and family, and included these, very similar four-stories with a vernacular twist, and some even simpler and whiter small blocks where they omitted the gray and relied on steel black window frames and doors as the single medium of contrast.
I later learned to appreciate the importance of this contrast. Atop the Andes, in Bogota (where I lived in my youth), the sky tends to be intensely blue. At such heights, the air turns thin and the firmament shines with unprecedented, almost Greek-island splendor. Architects measure themselves against such a sky, and have discovered that the intensely orange brick produced locally is strong enough to challenge the brightest of indigoes.
Cali, on the contrary, is lower down the cordillera, and its sky is therefore milky and dull. As if a white, cotton bed-sheet had been laid upon the firmament, during most of the day the light is even, and the heavens quite prosaic. The little sense it makes to try to confront such a pale sky is compensated horizontally by vegetation and a violent transformation that occurs in the late afternoon.
Plants are greener than green (I know, this is hard to explain..) and appear to be everywhere. Cracking the sidewalk pavement, hanging from balconies, crawling up the hills and mountains and defining the margins of the river, trees and bushes and low and tall grasses fill the place with greens that range from the bluish hues of the cautchoc to the fluorescent yellows of fern.
At five, I say, while the Brits sip their tea, Cali is crowned with a cotton candy cloud that gallops in from the west, carried over the mountains by the Pacific winds. The sky turns intensely pink then, and stays so for some time, before fading into the dark of nights full of delirium and madness.
In the face of such colors brick turns mute, lacking reflective capacity. White, instead, establishes a lively contrast with the green, and reflects the pink of the evening brilliantly. Perhaps enthused by those delirious afternoons, at some point my parents took a leap of faith and, leaving their whiter times behind, chose to paint one of their projects pink – a decision that earned them a few enemies among the still parochial and very conservative public of the city, in the seventies.
My first memories, from those seventies, are colorful. After living for some time in a small apartment the young architects had sliced from my grandparents’ house, we moved to a brand new flat designed and built by the couple. The interior of this apartment was all plastered white, with (fashionable for the time, maybe) hexagonal orange ceramic tiles on the floor. Inner light-wells had hanging ceilings, made with a translucent turquoise plastic they used to call “marcolite”.
My bedroom had a thick, almost psychedelic carpet. Having spent so much time on the floor there – I must have been three or four – I perfectly remember the vibrant blue and green strips of yarn from that carpet, and the mustard yellow bed I have already described here. Even more beautiful, though, are memories of the living room, on Sunday afternoons.
Being on the top story, we had a direct view of the mountains (greener than green, remember…) through a window that literally covered the whole facade. From above, the filtered turquoise light came in and faded into a pale carpet. Bright orange curtains had been rolled to the sides and a strip of intensely yellow marble paved the gallery around the perimeter, between the window and the room proper.
At some moment, when the fresh breeze from the ocean managed to overcome the mountain range; against the image of my father holding a tumbler full of ice in his hand, the miracle occurred: following the music of Joan Manuel Serrat (playing from the turntable), the sky turned pink.
With time I became an architect, myself; and at first was also (now I understand) awfully scared of color. It appears one must first fear what will later (and slowly) learn to love.
Looking for work in times of distress I moved higher in the mountains where the sky is bluer and cities more prosperous; and with my first projects found an easy way out of the color-problem, by replicating the canonical brick tactic and assuming the sort of as-found, stay-true-to-materials (with a rather lazy, moralistic comfort implied) posture that is usually the safest of bets. But something in me remained unsatisfied, and felt that the sky was not my only measure, perhaps being so earth-bound or missing the more mundane horizontality that is usual in my hometown.
So after a while I decided to paint things white too, and then felt free to introduce some color, strangely enough choosing for an almost shocking yellow I have never even liked, but which appeared to cut very nicely in public buildings planted in the most depressing neighborhoods of that broken dream that is Bogota.
Slowly I started to understand that, being torn myself, I could slice my projects into pieces, and ask them to confront several responsibilities at once; brick to face the sky shamelessly, white to establish a serene dialogue with nature, and a touch of bright color, hoping to bring back the memories of those pink Sunday evenings, in which my innocence allowed me a first taste of bliss.
Jorge Mejia Hernandez