Indigenous Cosmogony and Andean Architecture in El Alto, Bolivia


This essay applies Bourdieu’s analysis of the formation of the ‘scholastic habitus’ in medieval times—elaborated in his 1967 afterword to his French translation of Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism—to the correspondence between indigenous mental categories and architectural innovation in the Bolivian ‘rebel city’ of El Alto. The principle of homology between mental categories and building layout (rooted in a shared habitus) can be used to interpret one of the most spectacular features of Bolivia’s ‘emerging architectures’, known as chalets. The term chalet designates a hybrid structure consisting of a colorful and ornate penthouse and multi‐story dwelling erected on building rooftops. The chalets are architectural forms embedded within an economy of symbolic goods characterized by a ‘dual truth’: they are at once material and symbolic; they perform economic functions while seeking public visibility. The conspicuous lifestyle advertised by the construction of chalets can be understood by reference to the rising social power of the indigenous elites (cholos) dominating the thriving ‘ethnic economy’ of the city. The fraternities of El Alto emerge as the structural equivalent of the scholastic institution that Bourdieu associated with Gothic architecture: they are the site of production of a specific habitus, shared by native urban categories defined by similar residential locations, economic activities and forms of collective organization.