Crossing the courtyard of the Escuela Taller Foundation, it is clear that when Alberto Escovar speaks of higher education, he isn’t referring to diplomas and awards on his wall, or earning another degree from a prestigious University. It’s about ladders and scaffolding. Sending young men up to another level as apprentices, trained to renovate decaying roofs or restore columns corroded by urban rot.
For those who know Alberto, there is a story behind his tenacity and the steps he took to create Fundación Escuela Taller. From his early days studying architecture at Los Andes to his exploring Colombia on foot and trying to preserve its historical landmarks, this “renaissance man” whose office workshop is just steps from the Presidential Palace and Mayoralty, has been instrumental in ushering in an age of restoration.
Born in 1967, Alberto Escovar Wilson-White grew up in Bogotá and with a passion for history and philosophy, he geared his studies towards architecture. While many of his generation left the country, turning their backs on the violence and looking to gain employment overseas, Alberto stayed and soon landed his first job with a prestigious architecture firm. “Los Andes is very focused on design. And that is precisely what I did.”
After two years designing luxury buildings, he saw that architecture was essentially a business which carried with it a social cost. In order to make way for large apartment blocks, graceful English-style mansions in neighborhoods such as Chapinero were being torn down, and this, in turn, generated a “displacement” among an older generation who in exchange for a modern penthouse, were being sold on surrendering their homes. After doing his rounds and talking to elderly couples who later regretted their decision on giving up a lifetime of memories for 200 square meters of modernity, Alberto realized that architecture had to be as much about progress as it had to be about preservation.
The years sitting behind a desk soon led to a “crisis” and Alberto was offered the chance to leave the building “bubble” and restore old train stations, as part of a larger government contract. “I had no idea what Colombia was,” claims Alberto. “I found another country within a country”.
Examining the conditions of abandoned train stations resulted in a unique body of work and Alberto’s first book. But the lessons learned went far beyond the physical structures and research: preserving historical buildings seemed to elevate the self-esteem of many communities who felt that the state, somewhere down the historical timeline, had abandoned them. In El Limón, a hamlet nestled along the rusting Medellín to Puerto Berrío railway tracks, an old man approached Alberto excitedly one day when he saw the architect examining a derelict building. “When is the train coming?” exclaimed the senior. Struck by these words, as the train hasn’t been running for more than 70 years, Alberto realized that he had chosen an interesting and unchartered career path. “I hadn’t been taught how to work in Colombia. This wasn’t about steel and glass anymore.”
Becoming a specialist in patrimony required years of study and many visits to remote communities. Of the 410 train stations scattered throughout Colombia, Alberto managed to restore 15; all of which, were suddenly declared by the government National Patrimony. With the train stations came projects sponsored by the then Ministry of Culture, Colcultura, to restore the Bogotá Cathedral, the crumbling ramparts of Cartagena, the Quinta Bolívar and the Congress building.
While much of Alberto’s work focused on large-scale structures and giving Colombian landmarks a much-needed facelift, it was the small towns that continued to spark an interest in the architect. One emblematic case showed Alberto why restoration cannot just be a government-led initiative, it has to stem from within a community.
December 1995 proved to be a turning point in Alberto’s understanding of Patrimony “management” in Colombia. Reading in a newspaper that the Mayor of the town of Ambalema – in the foothills of Cundinamarca – had decided to burn down the Mayor’s Office and remove any trace of the “old building” using a bulldozer, Escovar traveled to the town and started investigating the causes leading up to this surreal and “macondian” event.
According to the locals, the motives were simple: the mayor didn’t like the fact that he had to operate out of a 19th century mud and waddle house. Taking matters into his own hands, the mayor of Ambalema had successfully wiped away with two hundred of years of history in a single night as a stunned community stood and watched. “Something was going terribly wrong in the way we were dealing with our landmarks,” reflects Alberto. “ Had we gone into these communities first and explained the importance of preserving history and the potential some buildings have for sustainable tourism, we might have stopped this and other disasters.”
Getting the message out to remote communities proved a challenge for the architect, but not a hurdle. Relying on friends, Alberto developed a series of programs called “Herencia” (Heritage) for Audiovisuales, a national TV production company. Not wanting to preach or rely on an “abstract discourse,” Alberto, the architect, became Alberto, the media man. “I really have a deep-rooted panic of people who call themselves doctores or specialists” affirms Alberto. “I needed to explain to ordinary people, why I thought this or that building was interesting.” Escovar’s series won him a Simon Bolívar Award for television journalism. The research that went into the 36 programs also swooped the top prize at the 2nd Iberoamerican Architecture Biennale in Mexico. The awards starting flowing in. And so did the recognition.
With the success of ‘Heritage,’ Escovar Wilson-White managed to save many buildings from certain death, especially large parts of the Bogotá central cemetery, the Cementerio Central. As part of an ambitious urban renewal project which spanned two local administrations – that of Mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa – the architect was hired by the Corporación La Candelaria, the entity in charge of the renovation, as its Special Projects Director. During the years in which the walls, front gate and central square were restored, Escovar managed to rebuild an aspect of the burial ground that required no materials: just paper. The book “Que es el Cementerio Central?” (What is the Central Cemetery?), became an important manual of the city, and it resurrected the forgotten stories of 350 men and women whose tombs and mausoleums were in jeopardy of being demolished.
Restoration for Alberto became more than just putting bricks with mortar. After years wandering through towns and researching the lives of the forgotten and deceased, he decided to start rebuilding something so intangible that the rewards and satisfaction gained, would be priceless: the lives of youngsters.
As the founder of Escuela Taller and current Director General, the architect got personal and seeing youth without dreams or ambitions, opened the doors of his foundation in 2007. As the first group of men and women from the poorest of Bogotá’s poor communities applied to the school, Escovar’s objective was to turn them into master designers, builders and artisans. By offering youngsters a “life mission” the workshop could generate revenue for the educational facility and help subsidize transportation and food costs. After two years training many of the first graduating class have been placed in well paying jobs, including those from the cooking taller, employed as chefs in important restaurants.
Escuela Taller has also taken in former child combatants and helped them overcome war traumas. The school employs psychologists and social services personnel to work closely on special cases. Today, close to 200 students attend Escuela Taller, many traveling hours by bus to learn at the academy.
Chairs broken in fancy restaurants also make their way to the Taller. So do old tables, lamps and doors. The carpentry department is a flurry of activity, where what has been broken, gets fixed. Students also work closely on designing new products from wood. A paper processor on the second floor is operated by those who want to learn about natural fibres and bookbinding. Teams of masons are dispatched every day to work on renovation projects across the city: such as the Central Station, Estación Central, where currently members of the Taller are opening up the halls and spaces of this stately building. “This is the real restoration. The mending of the social fabric,” says Alberto.
Escuela Taller has received the attention of the outside world for its social cause and for being only one of three institutions operating in Colombia with this unique, integrated model. For the students who “must earn their uniform” it has opened up a path out of poverty. Financed by both the private and public sector, including the Spanish Economic Cooperation Agency (AECI), the Mayoralty of Madrid, Escuela Taller wants to become entirely self-sustainable. “I want Colombians to be independent” says Alberto. “The best example we can give others is to show that we can go it alone.”
For more information on Escuela Taller, visit their webpage: www.escuelataller.org