Kindred spirits: in memory of my grandfather, German Samper (1924-2019)

Architect Manuela Neu recalls how her grandfather and 'colleague' - iconic Colombian architect German Samper Gnecco - honoured not only his profession but human life too.

by Manuela Neu Published on : May 22, 2020

An image is easy to describe. I see the dining room, six wooden chairs with green cushions, and to the left, a wall full of paintings. In the back, there is the living room with a variety of chairs and sofas, some lamps and tables, decorations and trimmings that can be seen until the last available corner. I can describe the space too - double height volume, slanted roof and wooden floors. I can also see the silhouettes of the dense trees outside that penetrate through the windows, drawing shadows over the floor, dancing to the rhythm of the wind.

I can also describe its architecture. It is a typical 60s Bogota architecture of big windows, made of wooden framed openings and bush hammered white walls, where small doors act as thresholds. It is a simple image.

  • The living room | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The living room Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu
  • The landscape surrounding the architect’s house | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The landscape surrounding the architect’s house Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu
  • The house as seen from the outside | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The house as seen from the outside Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu

However, I cannot describe my grandfather’s laughter within this same image. Neither can I describe the sound nor my feelings when I recall the moments we shared over this dining table during lunch, dinner, or typical Colombian afternoon gatherings over hot chocolate and bread. Also, what I cannot describe is his echoing voice, while he sang boleros in his piano studio. I cannot find words to describe that sound, nor to evoke these moments.

  • German Samper in his piano studio | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    German Samper in his piano studio Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu
  • The late architect sharing a musical moment with his wife Yolanda Martinez | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The late architect sharing a musical moment with his wife Yolanda Martinez Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu

I have tried in the last few months, as many others have, to tell German Samper Gnecco’s story, one of the leading architects in Colombia. All those who admire him, know his dedication to our discipline. Countless books, newspapers, magazine articles and television shows have shown the lessons we learnt from each building, each book, and each drawing of his left with us.

I am certain of this because outside our encounters during family gatherings, birthdays and holidays, everyday life, field trips, breakfasts and cold nights sitting in front of the chimney, we shared a common interest - our profession as architects. In a short period, I became his colleague while he treated me as his equal. I learnt about the importance of architecture and its influence over people and their lives; I discovered that for an architect it is a privilege to share everyday life with people, to shape spaces and to try make someone’s life better. 

  • The architect’s family | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The architect’s family Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu
  • German Samper Gnecco with his dog Duna | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    German Samper Gnecco with his dog Duna Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu

My grandfather, Papapo as we called him at home, passed away on May 22 in 2019, yet he continues to teach me something on a daily basis. It is because I am aware of small details, in every place I visit, in each book I read, and especially in the work I do. I think constantly on how to reflect on his teachings and honour human life in every project that I pursue.

  • Caption | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The author with her grandfather Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu
  • The architect and his wife | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The architect and his wife Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu
  • A wall full of paintings behind architect German Samper Gnecco | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    A wall full of paintings behind architect German Samper Gnecco Image Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Neu

Professionally, his boldness goes beyond his passion for drawing. He worked relentlessly, thinking of alternatives for his diverse projects - be it a commercial or an institutional building. He would come to the studio with his perfect hand drawings and explain his ideas and design criteria to the leading architect. He would discuss his findings and doubts at the time when one would have started developing the project, for which he would come back with feedback. If one ever came up with an alternative, he would analyse it and most probably, due to his willingness to listen and approve different ideas, a new path would be taken.

An article written by Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi on German Samper for the publication German Samper, by publishing house DiegoSamper Editores | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
An article written by Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi on German Samper for the publication German Samper, by publishing house DiegoSamper Editores Image Credit: © DiegoSamper Editores; Courtesy of Manuela Neu

Yet, where he put most of his efforts was in low-income housing projects. For this, profound search for diverse plot and architectural typologies was of utmost importance to him. Based on simple architecture, he would search for spatial flexibility, and provide urban cores to improve social welfare.

Therefore, I can say that he not only honoured his profession, but the human life too. His biggest wisdom was to show the world that with the skills or resources you have, what you can do or what you must do is dignify a human life, do hard work, be rigorous, but above all, do things with your heart.

Ever since I graduated from architecture, he referred to himself as my ‘colleague’. He made me feel equal with his words. That made me feel proud and humble, and I say it with confidence that anyone who had the privilege of knowing him and working with him, felt the same way. He never wanted to be more than the others, and always believed himself to be a part of the team.

  • German Samper was one of the four architects who built the Coltejer building in Medellin, Colombia | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    German Samper was one of the four architects who built the Coltejer building in Medellin, Colombia Image Credit: flickr.com, laloking97, CC-BY-SA-2.0 (Attribution), Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Inside the Luis Ángel Arango Library in Bogota, designed by German Samper | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    Inside the Luis Ángel Arango Library in Bogota, designed by German Samper Image Credit: Crista Castellanos, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • The Avianca Skyscraper in Colombia, built in 1968 | Lessons Learnt | German Samper | Manuela Neu | STIRworld
    The Avianca Skyscraper in Colombia, built in 1968 Image Credit: Courtesy of Pxfuel

When I was a student, I blushed and lowered my head every time he was mentioned in class. It took me some time to accept that I would have to get used to hearing his name, because he is inevitable in the history of architecture in Colombia.

I could keep on looking for words to describe his laughter and voice, while I sit and find the eternal image he left at his house, with the paintings and the background music. Without any doubt I will try to replicate his legacy, his passion to improve lives at all scales and perspectives that my work allows me.

(Read more from the 'Lessons Learnt' series here.)

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