When people come across Casa Terracota during their visit to Villa de Leyva—a small town in Boyacá, Colombia—they immediately feel both attracted and intrigued: What is this place? Who designed such an enormous building of irregular shapes, colors and textures? Why? What is it used for? Who’s the author of it? Who owns it nowadays? How does it feel to step inside or, even, to inhabit it?
Besides from being the biggest piece of pottery in the world, Casa Terracota is a matchless work of art: It merges not only architecture and design, but also all the arts and crafts known. This happens because its designer—Colombian architect Octavio Mendoza Morales—believes that they are all key tools in the process of creating innovative spaces, where alternative standards of living can take place; friendly lifestyles not only for the building’s residents, but also for their surrounding community and environment.
Among other things, architect Mendoza’s philosophy suggests that “inhabiting a place” does not only imply occupying its interior spaces; because, he states, it also has to do with a harmonious coexistence between the people and both the building and those nearby—regardless of the fact that they are other humans, animals, wilderness, or rural or urban communities.
Thus, his construction system and its corresponding beliefs invite us all to adopt groundbreaking dynamics that transform the whole concept of what we usually call “architecture”: starting from the mere act of designing and building a space, and ending with how we make it a home to live in. This way, he states, we are able to create stronger bonds between structures, people and nature.
In order to deepen your knowledge on this unique perspective, as well as on Casa Terracota, we publish the interview that follows. It was made recently to architect Mendoza with the intention of answering all your questions and doubts. ¡Hope you like it!
1. So, architect Mendoza, ¿can you please describe for us what is Casa Terracota?
Let me see…well, basically, Casa Terracota is the main symbol of my proposal: a construction project that transforms soil into habitable architecture, by simply using the supporting help of natural resources—e.g. the other three elements of nature (air, water and fire) besides from that same soil.
The idea is to build the place in such a way that, while it is being “cooked”, functional objects that will be helpful for daily tasks are also produced. Once the construction and cooking processes are over, those elements can be either kept for the residents’ own needs or sold/exchanged with neighbors in order to recover a significant part of the investment. This exact point is what makes my proposal self-sustainable: since it does not only take into account the environment’s wellbeing (by including only natural resources in the building), but also because it triggers the creation and development of strong bonds within communities; relationships that promote socialization and collaboration among their members. It can even happen that some of this exchanges, once they become regular with time, end up giving birth to important rural or urban microenterprises.
Additional to the former is the fact that Casa Terracota is a unique space, destined not only to embody and promote my philosophy but also to spark off architectural and artistic experimentation. This means that we are always encouraging the creation of alternative proposals for the use and decoration of its spaces—all with the help of those same four elements of nature. For this we are in constant contact with artisans, artists, architects, designers and other craftsmen who are interested in helping us take the project even further.
It is because all this, and even more, that Casa Terracota stimulates the practice of arts and crafts as languages and means for living. Thus, our space has become an important headquarter where people broaden and share their knowledge and experience through workshops, conferences, exhibitions and group visits.
2. And, how was Casa Terracota born?
Since I was a young boy I saw how artisans, architects and craftsmen transformed soil into various construction systems. Some of these were what we know as tapia pisada, adobe, bahareque, or simple soil blocks. Years after, once I had already graduated from my architectural studies at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, I noticed how our cities and their buildings are usually made of millions of cooked bricks; all which constantly trigger consumption habits at very high rates as well as unconscious procedures that harm the planet. Even worse, I became aware of how that material’s shape and properties limits the way constructions are designed built and inhabited.
Several years of reflecting on this phenomenon made me conclude, then, that there must be other ways of relating with spaces and the materials they are made of. That is how I determined to make a shift in the way I used all the techniques I had learned about; and in such shift I decided to use natural soil as my main material. This way I would create versatile works of art meant for our protection, rest and/or recreation.
Later on the idea condensed itself into the concept of inhabiting one single giant brick; where everything we need for living (both structure and main objects) can be produced at a low cost rate.
3. And, after all these years of working on your project, which can you tell us are the advantages of applying your system?
Many! I will only mention some of them.
To start with, we have the fact that we make the best of the materials found in situ—regardless of the place’s location. We give shape and raise the building both with our own hands and with the help of agricultural tools, just as craftsmen make their own pottery pieces. Soil, since it is in a malleable state, allows us to take it higher and higher; right to the point we want it to be. Later on, in short time, that same soil starts drying itself, closing the construction in a way that it brings to life a beautiful structure where anyone can live a comfortable and functional life. The same kind of life that would take place in a building made out of millions of bricks, with the only (but HUGE) difference that ours only requires natural elements at a very low cost.
Furthermore, there is the idea that all of the objects produced using this system are unique and have a personalized design; let’s say that they are all “tailor-made”: for they match perfectly the inhabitants’ needs and desires, since it is built with their own ideas and/or hands. This is applies to any kind of building’s purpose: residential, recreation, worship, industry, etc.
Moreover, we have the fact that soil is a thermal element; in this way, it saves solar energy that transforms into heat that can be very useful for cold hours.
Last but not least: since this system makes the best of natural processes, it provides various options that promote a harmonious coexistence with the environment. For example, in places such as California it would be the perfect solution for the intense burnouts that affect the area. I say this because this construction system by itself makes the best of fire, since it burns the buildings from the start; thus, once a fire comes to them, they would not fall into ashes—maybe only the objects inside them—but rather become stronger structures!
Think of it this way: in desert places (which exist all across the planet), soil is perfect for this type of architecture for it would not even need to be burned; it could stay in its raw state! This means that for all those regions, a system like this could bring housing to millions of families who, unfortunately, live with very low-income rates. I believe this would make the planet not only a better place form many people, but also a more kind and fun shelter to deal with.
4. But, does the system depend on qualified people or experts be put to work?
You see, I strongly believe and have proved to myself that every human being is capable of constructing a structure following this system; despite of his/her age, nationality, gender, culture, or any other distinctive feature. I would affirm that the only thing anyone needs is to learn how to use and make the best of materials; something that can be learned at Casa Terracota. As a matter of fact, that same training has transformed neighbor peasants or workers into artisans or even artists.
Just as a doctor I knew once said: “worker is he who works with his/her hands; artisan is he/she who works with his/her hands and intelligence; but artist is he/she who works with his/her hands, intelligence and heart”.
When you give someone the possibility of excelling him or herself and, at the same time, creating through art, that person will always end up engaging his/her heart in the process.
5. Rounding up, then, would you please share with us, what is next in Casa Terracota’s life?
In spite its main structure was finished in october 2012, the possibilities offered by the creative processes that take place within it are infinite. Casa Terracota is a life-project that will never end. I, as well as the people who decide to join me, will always be able to design there new objects which will transform both the lifestyles as well as the ways of thinking of those who inhabit the place or visit us. Casa Terracota is a meeting point created for and open to all artistic, artisan and/or human manifestations. It will continue growing, developing, teaching and learning. This implies that its main goal is to be both timeless and of global relevance.