Category 1B: Design (under $50,000 construction budget)
The Ecolodge at Chalalan is located in the Madidi Region of Bolivia in the upper watershed of the Amazon
Basin. A project of an international non-profit conservation organization, it was planned and designed by the
landscape architects on a pro-bono basis, receiving only reimbursements for travel expenses. The project is
located in an extremely remote region of Bolivia and can be reached by first flying an antique DC-3 military
aircraft from La Paz to Rrurrenabque and taking an eight hour dugout cone ride up the Madidi River. Despite
its remoteness the region is a popular backpacking location at the interface of the Amazon forest and the
Brasilian and Bolivian Pantanal region.
There are no utilities within at least 20 miles of the site and no available mapping of any kind in the region (in
part because military maps of this region of Bolivia are classified by the U.S. Department of Defense as part of
the war on drugs). Although Landsat data was investigated, the available data was too coarse for use in site-specific
design. Site design therefore depended upon appropriate technologies and extensive fieldwork in the
form of two on-site charettes. Global positioning satellite units, and handheld altimeters were utilized to craft
crude basemaps. Site layout was accomplished by stakes driven into the ground. With the exception of final
documentation, virtually all of the work took place on -site.
Chalalan is the first tourist project of this major conservation organization dedicated to the preservation of
tropical environments. In addition to launching the organization’s ecotourism efforts, the project was primarily
intended to meet three goals: first, to provide the first major demonstration of the principles of sustainable
tourism in Bolivia; second, to provide access and monitoring to the newly created Madidi National Park; and
third, to provide an alternative form of employment to the residents of the nearby village of San Jose instead of
slash and burn agriculture and the harvesting of endangered tree species.
The landscape architects played four major roles in the design and completion of this project:
First, the landscape architect served as tourism planner and market researcher, crafting a financial pro forma for
the project and providing a general evaluation of project feasibility.
Second, the landscape architect served as site planners developing the architectural program for the project and
developing the site plan for creation of the ecolodge.
Third, the landscape architect served as ad-hoc architects for the project, providing simple design sketches
drawn from traditional building forms for use in the construction of all lodge buildings by local residents.
Fourth, because one goal of the project was to provide alternative employment to the residents of San Jose, the
landscape architects served as educators both extracting local knowledge of construction materials and
techniques and training local residents in the construction and management of the tourism facility. The actual
design of the facility was conducted in on-site workshops working directly with local residents and La Paz
based tour operators.
Working with ecologists from the client organization and Cornell University, a site analysis was undertaken to
determine which area of the site was most suitable for location of the ecolodge. Appropriate technologies for
infrastructure such as the construction of sustainable wetlands for sewerage treatment were devised. An
inventory was made of regional building forms appropriate to the hot, wet climate that would effectively protect
guests from significant rainfalls, animals, and insects. The selected building materials can be harvested
sustainably from the local forests and are amenable to local building techniques. As a project of a major
international environmental organization, it was essential that Chalalan was designed to demonstrate the highest
level of environmental responsibility.
Because of the challenges of the site and construction conditions, only the most functional of plans would be
workable. Construction challenges included the inability to access the site with any form of heavy equipment,
the limited (and untrained) labor pool, the sensitivity of the environment, and the uncertainty of the market. As
a result, the project was conceived as a series of small buildings individually-sited with regard to vegetation and
topography, yet clustered to reduce the overall impact of the project and to provide for ease of guest service. In
this way the project could be constructed with relative ease and phased in response to market demand and
funding. Also, by designing the project in collaboration with local residents, technology transfer could also take
place, hopefully extending the lessons of Chalalan for use by local residents in their own homes.
With the exception of a small gathering place which finds its inspiration in the traditional icon of the local
Aymara Indians, there is no landscape design of a built landscape in the traditional sense. The goal of the
landscape architects was to set the Ecolodge at Chalalan as gently on the landscape as possible with nature
providing the setting and amenity for the project. Locally designed, constructed, and managed, with a minimum
of imported materials and labor, Chalalan is remarkably fit to its context.
The Ecolodge at Chalalan is now completed and is about to begin its second summer for operation by the
people of San Jose, Bolivia. The project has significant relevance to landscape architecture, the public, and the
environment for a variety of reasons:
First, Chalalan reminds all of us that the best design is accomplished on-site with a clear understanding and
sense of the physical aspects of the site, the cultural context, and the spirit of the place.
Second, Chalalan reminds us to search for the appropriate solution to each particular situation. Sophisticated
computer mapping, CADD drawings, and design “statements” are not appropriate in all conditions.
Third, a design which involves, teaches and inspires local residents has the greatest potential for success and
offers stimulation for future acts of community improvement and environmental protection.
Fourth, Chalalan is an exceptional model of sustainable landscape
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