Cuenca craftsman and architect Juan Hidalgo uses a native Andean reed to create home furnishings
By Stephen Vargha
Because a Cuencano did not believe what he saw on television, Cuenca has a talented man producing unique and interesting furniture and furnishings.
“I went to Lake Titicaca in 2006 to see if they were telling the truth,” said Juan Fernando Hidalgo Cordero. “It seemed unreal.”
The 41-year-old architect and interior designer is talking about Totora reed (Schoenoplectus californicus), which grows in swampy areas throughout the Andes mountains and in much of the southwestern United States. That includes the large alpine lake that straddles the Peru-Bolivia border.
Totora is widely used in Ecuador for a number of purposes. In the Sierra, mats are woven from the reed. Totoras are also used to make fans and baskets.
The long history of Totora being used in Ecuador and Peru perplexed Hidalgo as to why it was not prevalent in everyday life today. It had been used by many cultures for medicine, food, handicrafts, as well as a material for buildings.
“I wondered why these materials were not more known. I remember my parents talking about it, but that was about it,” said Hidalgo.
Hidalgo wanted to apply the recent advances in wood construction to Totora. With climate change, Hidalgo wanted to demonstrate the feasibility and advantages of using wood-based materials in tall buildings.
A University of Minnesota laboratory found in 2012 that a Totora “mattress” has an R-value that is approximately eight times higher than adobe, a composite material made of earth mixed with water and an organic material. R-value measures how well building insulation can prevent the flow of heat into and out of the home.
Additionally, the university findings showed that Totora can be used as insulation on walls, windows, and doors by applying it as an external layer to new or existing houses.
The young architect’s goal was to use Totora as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the building industry by replacing high-energy consuming materials like concrete or steel, with wood and biomass-based materials.
“I figured that if it had been around 500 years with the Uros at Lake Titicaca, they were either very stubborn or Totora was excellent material,” said Hidalgo.
The Uros (or Urus, as they are called in Bolivia) people of southeastern Peru developed techniques for using Totora for building their homes, boats, and the approximate 120 large artificial islands that they live on.
“Made with Totora, the islands are artificial and float,” said Hidalgo. “The islands rot underneath, so every six months the Uros would add a new layer on top to keep it floating.”
Some stories claim that the Uros were pushed into the lake by the Incas. Others say that as the Incas encroached on Uros land, they created the Totora islands, which could be easily moved for defensive purposes.
The islands did not prevent the Incas and the Spanish from capturing them and using the Uros as slaves. Nor did the Uros give up on using the reed.
That was inspiration for Hidalgo for finding unique and new uses for Totora.
“I am diversifying the uses of Totora into more of my designs,” said Hidalgo. “I saw Totora grows in just six months and it produces a lot of material. It is like an endless supply.”
The diversification is a line of furniture Hidalgo has created as well as furnishings. Hidalgo incorporates Totora that he gets from Paccha, a mountainous area just east Cuenca, into his furniture that uses pine or manmade wood fiber (not particleboard).
“Rocking chairs are the most popular,” said Hidalgo. “My U-shaped chairs are selling for about $700.”
“My malleable table is very popular, too. Children love it. Adults can play with it,” said Hidalgo. “The table, which sells for about $250, can be customized to my customers’ needs.”
A NASA study conducted in the 1980s found phytoremediation, which uses living plants to clean up soil, air and water contaminated with hazardous contaminants, improves indoor air quality.
NASA researchers were looking for ways to improve the air quality in a sealed spacecraft, and they concluded that the roots and soil of houseplants reduced airborne volatile organic compounds significantly.
Hidalgo wants to incorporate phytoremediation into his furniture. In his backyard are two square chairs made of pine. The seat is grass. Tweaking needs to be done to the amount of soil needed for the grass to thrive and for a person to enjoy it as a living seat for years.
It is no surprise that Hidalgo chose a career in architecture that branched out to making unique furniture.
“My father is an architect, so I was used to seeing him work with his designs,” said Hidalgo. “He mostly designed houses in Cuenca but was also a teacher.”
After graduating from Colegio La Asuncion in 2000, Hidalgo went to the University of Cuenca to study architecture. His university studies involved a classroom situation that most do not encounter.
“My father enjoyed teaching and as a matter of fact, he was my teacher at the university for drawing and designing,” said Hidalgo. “It was a little awkward,” Hidalgo said with a laugh.
“I tried my best in his classes. I had to produce good work,” said Hidalgo. “In his class, I had to prove I was good enough to my classmates.”
While at the university, Hidalgo worked part-time as an architect for the Municipality of Cuenca.
Before graduating, Hidalgo had to write a thesis. The 168-page paper entitled, “Totora: Material de Construcción,” was the genesis of his work.
Upon graduation, Hidalgo worked full-time for the city. His work included the major overhaul of Mercado 9 de Octobre and renovating Plaza de Merced.
Just two years out of school, Hidalgo was commissioned to retrofit Cuenca’s airport.
“Before I redesigned it in 2009, the commercial space blocked circulation,” said Hidalgo.
More improvements to the airport are on the way. On November 13, the Municipality of Cuenca and Ecuador’s Ministry of the Interior signed an agreement that will allow the airport corporation to begin the first phase of the process of having international flights. Improvements to the current building will be made to accommodate international flights and to modernize the terminal.
Before continuing his education, Hidalgo designed Parque de la Luz. The terrain was a challenge, but Hidalgo has made the park on the north side of the city, including its modern and beautiful mirador, a popular place to visit.
After those city projects, Hidalgo went to the prestigious University of Bologna for his master’s degree. In 2016, he worked on his doctorate at Polytechnic University Madrid and finished it in 2018 at Czech University of Life Sciences Prague.
Balcones de San Sebas was Hidalgo’s latest architectural project. Along with two other architects, they built the three-story building on Mariscal Sucre, near the Municipal Museum of Modern Art. It has ten apartments, with the ground floor having three big spaces for commercial use. All ten apartments were quickly sold for around $180,000 each.
Hidalgo’s time these days is split between another project for the Municipality of Cuenca, where he has three people helping him, and creating new pieces of furniture and decorations for the home.
No doubt Totora will be a part of whatever he is working on and creating.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and photos by him.