Octavio Mendoza Morales: Man of Earth
Octavio Mendoza Morales defines himself through the earth. The connection he has with this element determines his beliefs and life vision, acting as the foundation and raw material upon which he lays his work: Casa Terracota, the largest piece of pottery in the world.
An informal conversation Octavio once had with one of his nieces was the trigger to his idea of creating a non-traditional house; one where all his knowledge and experiences could intertwine.
Her question to him was simple: if he was able to make pottery piece and, at the same time, was passionate about building houses, could he ever build one of them out of that same material?
Hands on to such wonderful challenge, that same instant his creative mind started working on the blueprint for the idea. Today, 20 years later, the project is a house that responds not only to a call of nature and the characteristics of organic materials, but also to structures and symbols that become works of art.
Here you can listen to the Architect speaking about the project, or read the translation.
I was not born in Villa de Leyva, but I’ve been coming since I was very young. Perhaps when I was days of birth. Ever since, especially during my childhood and youth, the town was preserved in a state that could be called in ruins, but still standing ruins.
Those ruins were constructions made by the Europeans who came to America. They founded this population and built with the systems they had learned from the Muslim states, during Spain’s occupation for over 800 years. From them they took not only the construction system with adobe, but the stepped wall that we know, and that later was derived in the bahareque here in Colombia. But specially they brought and taught to make the brick and the tile to native Americans who weren’t familiar with them.
The Europeans built towns of great architectural value with Spanish tradition. Curiously, the centers of the great Colombian cities founded in the sixteenth century, such as Bogotá, Tunja and other towns near Villa de Leyva such as Chiquinquirá, were built with those systems.
Later came the tourist colonization of Villa de Leyva, and although General Rojas Pinilla in the year ’53 or ’58, decreed Villa de Leyva as a protected national monument so that there was no such destruction, the law was never applied. Then little by little they started destroying it, and currently Villa de Leyva has very few or no buildings like the ones I’m talking about, which were the originals of the main frame of the Plaza Mayor and some surrounding blocks.
As this destruction came, I was very sorry to see how these houses came to the ground, by the hands of new owners who began to buy and turn the village into what it is today. There are no longer peasant houses, built by them with their few economic resources, made with adobe or earth, the material that is their own, which is what we are. We are earth, water, we need air and we also need fire. But the four elements, raw, uncooked construction systems.
With the proximity of Villa de Leyva to Ráquira, which means village of potters, from remote times, previous to the Spanish colonization, the inhabitants of these valleys, survived making pieces of clay, such as pots, plates, pans. They are small pieces of “terracotta”, which means cooked earth, passed by fire, so that it resists water and the passage of time.
The earth gives us the color, the earth gives us health. Sleeping or living in a house built with the raw earth element is much healthier than living in a building full of iron in its bowels, full of concrete. It is proven that you live better, more healthily, in a construction made with earth than with the other construction systems, because they are not our element.
Sleeping in an earth house is plenary. The earth, as an element, has several qualities. It collects the energy from the sun during the day, retaining it and releasing it little by little during the night. When one lives in a house of earth, if it’s cold outside, when entering one feels the warmth without lighting the fireplace. That energy that the earth walls and covers have received, is retained and released little by little. It is thermal and that is why it is much healthier for human beings.
The peasants, especially the Cundiboyacenses (peasants from this region), who live in climates as cold as Tunja and its surroundings at 3000 meters, build their homes with earth, with small windows and scarcely a door. This is the way to protect themselves, and to feel warm when coming inside.
When you build a house or any type of architectural construction as an architect, curiously, you need thousands or millions of small bricks, or adobes, or mud, to be able to construct a building.
But what is a brick? It is a little block that has a measure that the human hand can handle, between 7 centimeters in thickness by 12 or 24 in length, so that with one hand or both hands it can be manipulated, placed and be able to lift the construction that you are trying to build. That is the origin of the brick.
Casa Terracota is the same. It is “terracotta” which means cooked earth. It is a construction made with the hands of man, with agricultural tools like buckets, pikes, and wheelbarrows. Little by little the structure is built, and then, as happens with sand castles that are made by children, it is cooked so that water or climate change won’t destroy it. So that cooked earth is strong enough to sustain itself in time, like a small brick.
The vast majority of people confuse things because, first, the house was not cooked with the sun. The house was cooked with “coke” coal, which is much better and ecological than coal from wood. It was cooked or burned like a piece of pottery. The only thing the sun did was to dry the different layers of raw earth that were placed little by little, and that were dried with the help of the sun and the air.
This house has been cooked or burned for very long seasons. When a part of the house is burned, like a room, it takes thirty days burning and thirty days cooling. Then the best thing that could happen to the Casa Terracota is that it burned down, because that would give it greater resistance. The more it is burned, the more resistance it acquires.
The walls inside are so thick, that the heat does not penetrate more than 7 or 8 centimeters. If one digs Casa Terracota, it is a cooked sandwich from the inside and the outside. Inside you will find raw earth, because the fire cannot reach there.
The house was made to be lived. I wanted to live here. But as it began to attract attention and Villa de Leyva became so tourist, it was too difficult to inhabit it. People came to visit without permission, so when I went to the bathroom to shower, I ended up meeting with a troop of visitors who wanted visit Casa Terracota.
Little by little the house shifted from a being a home to become a tourist attraction. Where we are talking right now, which I call “The artist’s house”, is a minimal house that I built to isolate myself from those visits, and be able to sit down to talk.
As professionals such as myself -an Architect- we have been taught that there is a normativity that comes from a long time ago. Universities graduate professionals dedicated to construction who do not know how to build with earth, nor know how to use those systems that we inherited from our indigenous ancestors or from the old European visitors who brought us this technology.
It is very rare that today an engineer or an architect dedicated to building with earth. There are few, we are relatively few. There are some builders in France where there is an experimental center dedicated to this.
Black Africa is practically built with raw earth; in the Arabic peninsulas and countries in North East Africa like Yemen and other republics, the inhabitants burned down houses so that they do not fall and protect themselves.
I think I have contributed with the knowledge I’ve gained after all the experiences I’ve had building many houses for the commission of some people who believe and trust in this type of systems. Casa Terracota is an evolution of that stepped wall that has been cooked.
My grandmother’s house for example, is built with raw adobe, and it still exists. This is a magnificent system. Cement, which contains lime, is a product that is not very ecological, is very expensive and very polluting.
In the cities that produce cement, its inhabitants usually die of cancer, because they live absorbing particles of that process. Lime damages the respiratory system, and people end up dying. These materials are still used, and now we find reinforced concrete that comes from the combination of iron and Portland cement, contains lime that is mixed with gravel or stone. These are the materials our modern cities are built with.
If we see old towns or old frames of cities like Bogotá, the Candelaria neighbourhood and the main frame of the square of the city, it is built with raw earth in adobe or stepped wall. And it is all still standing.
When I talk to students, I try to show them this other possibility that exists for a friendlier world: one that is more ecological, more economic, and more environmentally friendly. Because the earth lets you work things much more organically and much more artistically, there are millions of possibilities that we have not yet discovered. Much remains to be done.
The person who has an artistic vein, has a very particular perception of the world without knowing why. This sensibility can rarely be acquired. Maybe an art critic can learn a lot from art history and can start criticizing. But the true artist is born.
Here we try that the project Casa Terracota as such today, is not only the house. It has become a small center for people who want to talk about a trade or talk about art, and where people can receive lectures on different topics from experts.
Also, we receive guests at the Artist’s House. The idea is to invite an artist every year, who in exchange for living and knowing Villa de Leyva for a while, the artist can leave something of what he or she did during that period.
In Casa Terracota there is always something to be done. We are working forge and metal, we recycle the garbage that goes to Villa de Leyva, be it glass -which is basically earth- or metal, and we turn it into objects such as a small lamp, or any utilitarian element. But there is always something that is being done and will continue.
On the one hand, that you can achieve anything you put your mind to. And on the other hand, that we inhabit a planet that is made up of so many usable materials that we are wasting and is destroying for no reason.
The reflection would be more or less that: that anyone who comes to Casa Terracota knows it and asks whatever he or she wants in order to apply it to their homes, or hopefully, build their own rural house.
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