It is midday in the Jardín Botánico de Quito. In a dense, knotty patch of vegetation, somewhere between the orchid house and the bonsai garden, shaman Taita Shairy is talking about ancestral knowledge. Bathed in the equatorial sunlight, he radiates a piercing dignity that would stir the soul of the most stubborn agnostic. His message is simple and powerful: ‘We are connected to the trees and the mountains and the soil. This is where our ancestral wisdom comes from. We don’t have gods. Our spirits are our ancestors, and nature is where we find our wisdom.’ And despite the noise of the traffic shrieking through the downtown district of La Carolina, ferrying Quito’s 2.8 million bodies back and forth down the corridor of volcanoes, we hang on the shaman’s words, suspended for a moment in time and space.
It’s hard to cling onto this soothing message of oneness with nature when standing in the Jesuit Church of La Compañía de Jesús in Quito’s Old Town. Completed in 1765 after 160 years of construction, the Spanish Baroque interior glistens under seven tonnes of gold leaf. At the entrance, a vast painting of hell – El Infierno (1620) by Hernando de la Cruz – warns sinners of their fate, cleverly positioned before the wooden confessional boxes that line the length of the nave.
La Compañía is a spectacular paean to Catholic devotion, but the atmosphere is oppressive and witchy. Among the usual saints and biblical scenes, there is a statue of a monk converting an indigenous man on his knees, eyes closed and arms folded. To feel silenced here in the 21st century is a small but important reminder of the far bloodier silencing the Spanish delivered in 1534 when they took Quito from the Incas, subsuming the indigenous peoples and cultures into their own. Today, the postcard charm of Quito’s colonial Old Town still feels oddly alien set against the dramatic backdrop of active volcanoes. Unesco noted this juxtaposition in 1978 when it declared Quito a World Heritage Site, the first city to be designated such.
It doesn’t take long in Quito for someone to tell you that it is a city of contradictions. And that there is a city here at all is unlikely. At 2,850m above sea level, it is the second highest capital in the world (only La Paz tops it). Wedged into a narrow plateau of land in the Guayllabamba river basin, Quito snakes between the Pichincha volcano and the steep Tumbaco valley, stretching around 60km north to south and just 6km east to west. The volcanic topography of the city is such that it spills in and out of 192 ravines; walking here at high altitude is tough on the lungs but good for the glutes. People will also tell you with a relatively straight face that at this height you are closer to heaven. You are certainly closer to the weather, which lends a distinctly surreal and cinematic quality to the urban experience. Clouds cast direct shadows as they skit across the sky, clearly defined on the buildings and pavements below in a cartoonish fashion. The sun burns the skin with surprising speed, at odds with the relatively cool air temperature. And when the heavens open, rain descends with a thundering force, turning streets into streams in a matter of minutes.
Standing in a new penthouse apartment, overlooking the messy cityscape, architect Tommy Schwarzkopf describes the speed of transformation that is taking place below us. Quito became Ecuador’s largest city only recently (overtaking the port of Guayaquil) but the rate at which it is growing is a consistent topic of conversation. Schwarzkopf is the founder of Uribe Schwarzkopf, Quito’s leading developer. In 46 years, he has built around 200 projects in the city. ‘In the early 1960s, around the time that I graduated, the population here was 350,000. In a few years it will be three million,’ he says. ‘Quito is a complex city and the factors shaping its development are a rapidly growing middle class but a stagnating economy, and chaotic sprawl at the fringes of the city, from poorer communities settling in the south, to the wealthier Quiteños escaping to Cumbayá in the Tumbaco valley.’ Schwarzkopf believes the solution is clear: ‘We need to densify the inner city, create neighbourhoods and provide better transport infrastructure to allow people to move.’
Schwarzkopf is developing more than just property in the city; he is also introducing a different kind of lifestyle to Quito in the shape of high-density apartment towers designed by Philippe Starck, BIG, Marcel Wanders, Moshe Safdie and Jean Nouvel, among others. These are impressive projects in scale and ambition, largely sold off-plan to young homemakers, seduced by the promise of rooftop pools, party rooms, cosy cinemas and giant gyms. Their inhabitants will soon benefit from the opening of the Metro de Quito, too. Billed as the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history, the metro will whisk Quiteños 22km across 15 stations, from El Labrador in the north to Quitumbe in the south, in just 34 minutes – three times faster than current surface travel on the equivalent clogged bus routes. With high rises above ground and fast trains below, Quito is poised to take up a new position as a dynamic and progressive Latin American capital, at a time when political and civil turmoil is sweeping across so much of the continent.
That was the plan anyway. In October 2019, Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno introduced a series of austerity measures to boost the country’s credit in a deal with the IMF. These included the removal of a fuel subsidy that overnight doubled the price of diesel and increased the cost of petrol by a third. Transport unions led protests on the streets that quickly escalated, bringing Quito to a standstill. Moreno declared a state of emergency, deployed the army on the streets and moved his government to Guayaquil. Conaie – the powerful representative body for indigenous groups – reportedly seized Ecuador’s main oil pipeline and threatened to incite greater violence unless Moreno bowed to their demands. After two weeks of civil unrest and eight deaths, including that of an indigenous leader, the government and Conaie agreed to talks. Moreno climbed down, abandoned the IMF-backed deal and committed to joint discussions for new measures to ease the country’s financial deficit. Major crisis was averted, but Quito had still witnessed the worst violence on its streets in decades. Its population remains shaken, and only superficially healed.
The cancellation of fuel subsidies might have ignited the October uprising, but there’s a palpable sense in Quito that transformation is creating a wider crisis of identity, dividing the old from the young. Rómulo Moya Peralta is an author and editor, and director of Trama magazine, a title devoted to Ecuadorian architecture. Though Argentine, he has lived in Quito for decades. His relative detachment as a foreigner, together with his focus on architecture as a lens through which to view society, means he speaks with measured distance and sharp clarity on Quiteño identity: ‘One of the interesting developments in recent times here is that young people who left to study and work outside the country and continent are returning to make Quito their home,’ he says. ‘For a long time, we tended to place more value on foreign culture and goods than on our own. I find that the younger generations have greater pride in Quito and Ecuador. They are asking important questions: who are we, and what is ours?’
Answers to these existential wranglings crop up across Quito. Ambitious young chefs reinvent staple ingredients into recipes with a modern flourish (confit guinea pig, anyone?). Co-working venues that double as start-up incubators are nurturing a new generation of home-grown entrepreneurs; breakout success stories include an energy drink made from caffeine-rich Amazonian plants, and an air purifier for cities that uses an algae-based solution to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Large murals in public spaces all over the city depict indigenous myths and legends, bringing Quito’s rich street art subculture into the open, telling stories of an ancestral past that aren’t taught in schools. Activism abounds in environmental, feminist and LGBTQ groups that make their presence felt in posters, fliers and daylight gatherings. ‘The complexity of Quito’s pre-Columbian heritage and colonial past runs deep in older generations, who are cautious, conservative, and fearful of change,’ says Moya Peralta. ‘Our current times of transition are believed to be positive or negative, principally depending on the age of the person you ask.’
Ángeles Ortiz is a young Quiteña designer and curator, who studied at Fabrica in Treviso and the RCA in London before returning to Quito three years ago to set up a studio. ‘When I started my studies at Fabrica, the design industry celebrated superstars. Students tried to emulate their success,’ she says. ‘While I was there, I was asked to explore my Ecuadorian heritage and I found myself googling to learn about the customs and traditions of my own culture.’ Ortiz has since made up for lost time and is quickly becoming a torchbearer for a new generation of designers who understand their role as cultural guardians with a social as much as commercial purpose. ‘With Quito’s rapid development in the last decade, in the rush to embrace all things new we began to leave behind important aspects of our cultural heritage. One of the positive consequences of globalisation has been a reappraisal among younger people of local identity. We are reclaiming our identity and finding out who we are and what makes us special, right here.’
Younger people here feel a greater sense of pride in where they come from. It’s so easy today to be global, but a sense of local belonging makes you feel rooted’ — Margara Anhalzer, artist, designer and entrepreneur
Ortiz is assembling an intriguing installation she designed for Cuyana, a US Ecuadorian clothing and accessories brand. It was made with the Sigsig community further south in Ecuador, near Cuenca, and consists of 164 woven toquilla-straw discs, which would normally become Panama hats. (Incidentally, an unfortunate misnomer; the style originated in Ecuador but took its name from a 1906 photograph of Teddy Roosevelt wearing one during the construction of the Panama Canal.) Ortiz collaborated with the Maria Auxiliadora Association, which supports female weavers who work at home. Typically, men buy the hats and go on to sell them at a vast mark-up. ‘There are a lot of women in this piece,’ Ortiz says. ‘This is their story – I am just the storyteller.’ She plans to start a foundation preserving, protecting and promoting regional crafts under threat. ‘These skills define us. They have a powerful message about where we come from, who we are. We need to embed them in our culture.’
Ortiz’s project is not without precedent. Olga Fisch was a Jewish Hungarian artist who emigrated to Ecuador in 1939. Having studied art in Düsseldorf in the Bauhaus era, she travelled extensively in Ecuador, building relationships with local communities, learning, commissioning and collecting craft in the process. Her home in Quito became a destination for travellers, including a former director of MoMA, who catapulted Fisch and Ecuadorian craft into the limelight. ‘Her rugs were bought by Rockefellers, Kissingers and Kennedys, the Met and MoMA. The Ecuadorian government even donated one to the UN headquarters,’ says Margara Anhalzer, Olga’s great-niece and custodian of her legacy today. ‘She was driven by a social and anthropological fascination. Perhaps because she had emigrated, identity was important to her. She would always tell the craftspeople she worked with: “Don’t lose your identity!”’ Anhalzer oversees three Olga Fisch stores in Quito today, and maintains relationships with around 500 artisans in Ecuador. ‘We have a social obligation to keep Olga’s mission alive,’ she says. She also notes that her market is increasingly local and not just tourist-based: ‘Younger people here feel a greater sense of pride in where they come from. It’s so easy today to be global, but a sense of local belonging makes you feel rooted. It’s fair to say that you need to think, understand and act locally in order to be relevant globally.’
Fisch was one of several Jewish emigrés who fled Hitler’s Europe and made their home in Quito, establishing a legacy that would significantly shape the cultural development of the city. Two Czech architects, Otto Glass and Karl Kohn, are credited in particular with introducing the principles of modernism to local architecture, through buildings and education. The Vera Kohn House, built by Karl for his wife, was blessed by Galo Plaza, the president of Ecuador at the time, receiving the Premio al Ornato prize in 1952 for best new building in the city. Vera was a pioneer in her own right, credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to Ecuador, and founding the Centre for Psychology, Meditation and Yoga in the 1960s. Her house remains virtually untouched today as a modernist gem of proportion, light and materials, cared for by Kohn’s daughter Katya, an artist who splits her time between Geneva and Quito. ‘My mother said, whatever you do please don’t make it a restaurant or a brothel,’ says Katya, over quinoa soup and fresh pineapple juice from her farm outside the city. Katya hosts meditation sessions every Monday evening in the basement for whoever turns up, continuing her mother’s legacy. ‘Quito being Quito, the energy here is strangely spiritual,’ she explains. ‘I’ve noticed that there’s a hunger today for people to connect to a spirituality that is older and more fundamental than the church.’ Katya says she receives everyone at her classes from politicians to teenagers.
Modernist architecture flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, spilling out of the domestic realm and into the public sphere, as Karl Kohn and his cohorts attracted and educated generations of young practitioners. Among them was Milton Barragán Dumet, a graduate of the Central University of Ecuador and one of the more prolific and successful in developing a specifically Quiteño architectural identity. His buildings are monolithic concrete sculptures, feats of both engineering and craftsmanship that punctuate the bland urban landscape, echoing the dramatic volcanic habitat. Barragán Dumet is 86 and now sculpts more than he builds. ‘Nobody commissions me today,’ he chuckles. ‘I suppose it’s only fair that the youngsters have their turn.
One such youngster is 35-year-old Daniel Moreno Flores, who studied at the Catholic University of Quito before completing his master’s in Buenos Aires. He credits his seniors with introducing an architectural creativity and formality to Quito that previously didn’t exist: ‘These buildings are like seeds,’ he says. ‘They are important to us because they paved the way for architecture to be celebrated as a cultural response. They continue to inspire. People recognise when a building has a dialogue with its context.’
‘Nobody commissions me today. I suppose it’s only fair that the youngsters have their turn’ — Milton Barragán Dumet, architect
As almost every architect claims, it is context that drives Moreno Flores’ approach. What is notable, however, is his desire to develop an Equatorial language of architecture based on resourcefulness and integration, and shaped by a social impetus. He works with recycled materials and cites Arte Povera as a principal source of inspiration. Moreno Flores admits he works largely outside the formal restrictions of architecture, inspired by the playful possibilities of craft and construction, more than CAD and engineering. But two projects for the public sector – the Psychiatric Hospital of San Lazaro and the Mirador Shalalá – bear testament to his vision for architecture that is definitely rooted in local context in material and form, while answering a greater social mission. ‘Seventy per cent of the city was constructed informally without restriction, based on the need for basic housing and shelter,’ he explains. ‘How do we integrate the informal vernacular with the formality of urban development? As a city and a community, we need to value our sense of place, our culture, traditions and the potential for architecture to memorialise our identity.’ It is surprising to hear an architect talk about ancestral knowledge, but Quito’s younger generations speak fluently about their heritage and optimistically about opportunity. Meanwhile, discussing the country’s prognosis with older folk usually leads to grumbling about Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy and frustrating politics.
Quito is just 20km from the equator, where there is a monument that marks the meridian line, discovered here by the French Geodesic Mission in the 18th century which measured the circumference of the globe for the very first time. At this point, you can balance an egg on its end, and stand with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the South. It is just one of several surreal idiosyncrasies that are embedded in daily life. You hear stories of property sales teams conducting ceremonial rituals over building foundations, and witness limpia cleansings with nettles and eggs taking place in the streets, just metres from the church steps. Herds of llamas, with their eerily glassy eyes, trot around in formation. It’s not rare to see men in suits wearing red threads on their wrists to ward off bad energy. There is a compelling soul in Quito that is bigger than politics and older than colonialism. ‘Ancestral intelligence is a fundamental part of the fabric of our society. When we face rapid growth, part of it gets left behind, but what stays?’ Moreno Flores asks. ‘It is the mix of ancestral and modern that is contemporary. It feels appropriate for us, in this place at this moment.’ Nobody bats an eyelid as shaman Taita Shairy strolls out of the botanic gardens and climbs back into his car. §