Student Reflections: Inna Birchencko - La Paz

Architecture of La Paz

1. First impressions

Our plane landed in the bright early morning of November 21st. The airport is a few miles away from La Paz, so we took a bus to get to the city. We eagerly looked through the bus windows; at first we saw a vast fenced fields with llamas grazing dried grass, than small buildings started to appear. But it was not La Paz, only its suburbs.

The bus moved downhill along a meandering road. There was a steep slope on the one side of the road. Red-brick houses with very big, almost wall-wide windows were crammed on the hillsides. They were cube-shaped and had flat roofs. Terraces of buildings hung up on the slopes, their concrete bolsters almost too thin to support them. Sometimes not constructions, but eucalyptus trees grabbed hold of sliding yellow soil.

After one of the turns on the other side of the road - deep down, in a huge depression sieged with mountains - we saw La Paz. The city was gray-pink in the light of the morning; the downtown skyscrapers and historical buildings gathered on the very bottom of the bowl, adjacent mountain slopes were covered with cubic brick houses.

2. The downtown

We lived three blocks from the downtown, in the part of the city with old elaborated buildings and churches. Their architecture mostly bear Spanish influences, however, Baroque and Gothic (especially in cathedrals) stiles are also evident. The streets in this neighborhood are narrow and paved with stones, so the resemblance with medieval European architecture only increases. Moreover, a few markets are located right on the streets, which is a typical feature of many Old World cities.

Banks, embassies, movie theaters and the most expensive stores and restaurants (but also McDonalds) are located along the central street, Plaza San Francisco. Its median is planted with trees and flowers and has a few monuments. The traffic on the street is just frantic, cars and small taxi vans are trying to slip into every opening gap, drivers constantly honking. The greatest source of noise are taxi driver aides: they shout out routes, next stops and prices - although there are signs on the vans' front windows, it looks that most of the people are not literate to read them.

One of the most incredible buildings I've seen in La Paz stands at the end of the Plaza. The Iglesia San Francisco is a huge cathedral, its front adorned with innumerable sculptures and ornaments carved from sandstone. The church is more than 450 years old, but is still used to carry out ceremonies and masses.

3. The suburbs.

The further from the downtown, the smaller and simpler are the buildings, the steeper and narrower are the streets. Countless steps crudely wrought out of limestone run down the slopes: I try to imagine people spending their entire lives climbing up and down to get water or groceries. The houses are very rarely plastered, and almost never painted. The reason is unclear - it may be lack of money for finish, or simply a conventional practice of residents living in a mild climate.

The homes' roofs are also peculiar; usually they are covered with corrugated plastic sheets, some of the sheets are semi-transparent. Since there is no ceiling in these homes, sunlight comes not only through windows, but also through roofs. This improvement is particularly useful for buildings situated on northern slopes.

Sometimes along the roads can be seen people selling mattresses. Unlike our usual mattresses, these are made from straw and plastic mesh cover. Their stacks look very colorful, so they were funny to envision. Unfortunately, I was not inside of an ordinary home, and I do not know whether the mattresses are used for sleeping or for insulation needs.

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