"The level of innovation and civic engagement in South America continues to surprise me, or should I say impress me, since the continent is full of great initiatives, which has received far too little attention and recognition in my part of the world", an elaborated case study about the Venezuelan practice LAB.PRO.FAB (Project and Fabrication Laboratory) and their socio-cultural architectural practice. Reported by Alan Kadduri.
image source: www.labprofab.com/proyecto/plaza-maca/#
The level of innovation and civic engagement in South America continues to surprise me, or should I say impress me, since the continent is full of great initiatives, which has received far too little attention and recognition in my part of the world. While those living in welfare states are used to expect and receive service from the state, the scenario is often completely different in places such as South America. And although Latin governments have improved when it comes to public reforms and policies, change is often reached through joint efforts between communities, local authorities and other stakeholders such as private sector entities involved.
The city of Medellin, voted as city of the year 2013 by the Urban Land Institute, is maybe the best example of how a city mostly known for its social problems transformed and redesigned itself, with the citizens actively participating in the process. The effort also included the government and private sector entities, but in South America, this stakeholder constellation is unfortunately still the exception rather than the rule. However, looking at Colombia's eastern neighbour, we encounter another case of joint ventures between various actors of society, worth elaborating upon, in the following sections.
Among those who work in the field of social good and can be used as an example, is the Venezuelan LAB.PRO.FAB (Project and Fabrication Laboratory). Driven by the team of Alejandro Haiek and Eleanna Cadalso, the organization started their work in 1996 with the goal to research and develop new ways of recycle, re-conceptualize, reschedule and extend the life of the objects. Their project was named, "Proyecto Cápsula" and from 2000 it moved between Costa Rica, Philadelphia, New York and Santiago de Chile where it was present until 2005. After this extensive odyssey in the Americas, the team returned once again to Caracas. Here, they are leveraging on years of academic and practical inspiration, and are currently using this city as a testing ground for the main purpose of the project.
2. The Scope
In order to reach their objectives, the LAB works with a socio-cultural architecture approach. According to Haiek, this method can enable landscapes and artefacts to function as a supportive environment to a sequence of actions that encourage certain behaviours, social interactions and dynamics within a given community. The LAB is focusing on three aspect of architecture, namely the professional, the experimental and the academic. The projects span from establishing urban gardens and cultural parks to designing modern lofts and housing, all having the edge of recycling resources and materials, sourced and treated locally.
As Haiek expresses: "We believe in the optimization of economical, human and material resources to conciliate more efficient works...we do not only care about massive production but massive production for more people. Thus, we choose a logistic design of a chain of events instead of a massive construction project. Our itinerary includes a series of actions that seek to activate social environment"1. ***
2.1 The Process
The team's working process evokes around three main elements, as illustrated below, the objects that effect our human relations, the territory and the consolidation of urban structure and the human conditions which are subjected to the social and economic dynamics of cities and spaces.
The essence of the work is not only to deliver physical rebuilding of underdeveloped areas, but also social relations. According to Haiek, one way to build these human relations is by bringing people from all spheres of the society and provide the right ambiance and circumstances that can enable the community to jointly construct multi-purpose public spaces everyone can use. In this context, the question of accessibility is raised and Haiek presents a verdict, which is rather absent in many developing countries, where public space and service is developed for the benefit of the few and privileged.
Cities in the Global South are increasingly divided according to social and economic classes, where the contrast between rich and poor areas is constantly reaching new and disturbing levels. Powerful interest groups are controlling urban development, and areas with good infrastructure, security and economic opportunities are limited, with housing becoming so expansive, that owning a home is beyond the reach of the working middle class and their purchase power. The result is few but very sophisticated neighbourhoods, and large chunks of the cities neglected and transformed into informal settlements, with little if any urban planning and long-term visions for further development.
2.2 Case Study – Plaza Bolívar de Maca, East Caracas
The Bolívar Square of Maca is located in the neighbourhood of Petare, Eastern Caracas. Petare is known as a very impoverished and violent area of the capital, and the neighbourhood is suffering from being stigmatized as one of the most dangerous places in Latin America.
image source: http://blogs.denverpost.com/captured/2010/08/30/in-focus-venezuela-more-deadly-than-iraq/2411/
The project evolved around two main activities in the area, namely sports and culture. In order to make space for both, the project included a theatre square with an amphitheatre, which also functions as a basketball court. The basket boards can be rotated and moved in order to make space for other activities that might take place. The seating is designed in different observation scales and heights, allowing all kind of users regardless of age to enjoy the facilities. There is additionally space reserved for education activities.
The intervention on the square is not limited by its physical boundary, but aspires to change the surrounding environment by e.g. stimulate local business activities and build relations between people, local enterprises and the government. The project was designed and built in collaboration with the community living in the area. A team of architects managed the time and resources by leveraging on handcraft skills embedded in the community, and by using any recycled or donated material they could obtain. The users are eventually the very same people who built the space, as 80 per cent of the workforce was sourced in the neighbourhood.
3. Working Across Stakeholders – a Privilege or a Nightmare?
The work of LAB is not an easy task, and working across many different stakeholders can be very challenging, as the organizer has to manoeuvre between various powerful and often conflicting forces of the city. There is no best practise for this kind of collaborations, and projects with same resources and planning can be successful one place while failing somewhere else. Thus, similar context specific circumstances can be constraining and enabling, depending on the place and its social, economic, political and cultural dynamics.
image source: www.labprofab.com/proyecto/plaza-maca/
3.1 Talking to Alejandro Haiek
We managed to get hold of Alejandro Haiek, who is currently working in Christchurch, New Zealand. Here, Haiek is working independently with social actors, researches and the public sector to understand the participatory approach in the reconstruction process of Christchurch, who suffered heavily due to the earthquake in 2011. When he is not in Christchurch, Haiek is working on projects all around the world. He believes that many local issues can be solved with international experiences and vice versus. As for the case in Petare, Venezuela Haiek explains how challenging and complex the participatory approach proved to be "Although we use simple technology people can relate to, the main challenge was that when it comes to shaping public space, the community is not used to this participatory approach. They are used to rely on public initiatives and the top down approach".
3.2 Managing stakeholders
In order to bridge this gap, the LAB presented the vision to the community on every Consejo Comunal in order to get their acceptance (Communal Councils established by law in 2006, with the aim to empower citizens to form neighbourhood-based elected councils. These councils have the power to initiate and monitor local policies and projects for community development). By doing so, the LAB as expressed by Haiek "used the already existing socialist structure to engage in a capitalism activity". These meetings consisted of 300-400 people from the community that came to discuss and eventually vote on every aspect of the project. To establish a trust based relationship with the people, the LAB spend 1.5 years with community meetings and knowledge exchange. After this long process of participatory collaboration, the people embraced the concept, and it was their vote that eventually forced the government to contract the LAB. Three years after, the square was ready and open for public.
Although the process was started autonomous, the local government was funding and supporting the project, while the church played its part by endorsing the initiative. The involvement of the public authorities granted the contract and made it possible to financially arrange the project. However, this commitment did have its flaws and challenges, and exposed the mistrust existing between the people and the authorities at these latitudes. While the community was predominantly supporting Chavez, the mayor of the local municipality was from the opposition. His success at the recent elections was mainly rooted in the complete failure of the former Chavista mayor to solve the problems of Petare, thus he was chosen not because of his competency but mainly because there was no better alternative.
Due to the political situation, these circumstances made it difficult to align the expectation between the different stakeholders. For example, the community struggled with a dilemma, as they believed that by accepting the project funded by the local government, they would appear as embracing the political opposition. The same issue was identified with the local government, where the mayor opposed the community request to paint the square red. For him, it would appear as a gesture to the socialist values his party was opposing. To promote his person and use architecture for a political purpose, the mayor decided to inaugurate the square without the participation of the community. This move was not well received by the people, and the square was not used in the very beginning of its existence.
Working with the community and the government proved to be lesson for the LAB, who found itself in a role beyond architecture. Haiek and co. seized the role of mediators between different social classes, political ideologies and social structures. More controversially, the local cartel proved to be a key asset in the process. It may appear radical that illicit elements should have a say in this process, but as Haiek expresses "Local leaders, activists and syndicates had to be included because they are the ones running the favelas in all manner. For some it seems bizarre, but for us it is natural, because they are a part of the society. When we arrive to these communities, we always find complex social structures and dynamics...it is within this context that we try to develop protocols and mechanisms to engage with these open street parliaments...".
Haiek says that all their project pass this process, before they are deployed. The LAB is trying to leverage on the existing social and political structures and use these relations to establish a project embraced by all. "Our goal is to help the people...the government recognized that because it's in line with the change and strategy they pursue of more collaboration with the people...Chavistas and their ability to mobilize is amazing when it comes to this participatory approach ...there is a new movement calling for space to participate... it is a new democracy that encourages the government to work closer with the people, and force them to follow the wish of the people... you might say it is a new collective government that organically develops new protocols of governability...".
Looking back on the process and the outcome, Haiek expresses great satisfaction but also some concern "Today, there are micro economies in the areas we reactivated...we are now a part of the community, but we have to teach them the protocols and a self-sufficient system, because we cannot stay with them forever – it is demanding and takes a lot of our resource to conduct the knowledge transfer."
3.3 Building relations
"You can easily build infrastructure just from material conditions but building relations is more difficult", says Haiek2. He goes further by saying that "the challenge is to trigger the synergies between the supplier and user, and harvest the yield of that collaboration to foster diverse ecosystems rather than hierarchical arrangements". One way to build these relations and diverse ecosystems is by bringing people from all facets of the community together, and construct multi-purpose public spaces everyone can use. Surely, this approach requires that the mechanism has the right tools, and that citizens pose some level of analytical skills. Considering the level of education that can be encountered in South America, this process can be sustainable and very productive not only for the citizens but also for the academia and the industry as a whole. The same philosophy might be applied to other cities in the Global South, albeit that it is adapted to the local mechanisms.
For Haiek, "green" "smart" and "sustainable" goes beyond the physical dimension of the structure and the construction materials used "Our role is to be citizens again...as architects, we need to think of ourselves as more than merely technicians". However, he also believes that we have changed a lot during the last 20 years, and especially after 2010, many started to revaluate architecture and their role as architects.
A new paradigm emerged with space to reconsider the role of clients, governments, sophisticated machines, materials and investments. The way we perceive architecture is highly related to the way we communicate it in the media and our institutions. "The media is changing their point of view, and architecture for the 10 % is not that popular anymore...we are more aware on the issue of green washing, and even the educational institutions are starting to understand that, although they are still promoting the constructions of big malls, big buildings etc." As architects, Haiek thinks it is about time to reconnect with the world and have a global perspective. As for Latin America, Haiek advocates for a political change for the region "Today we still talk about ideologies rather that how to progress...we need a more pragmatic approach for how we should develop as society."
By leveraging on social and local knowledge and integrate it with scientific knowledge, Haiek believes that we can cultivate "new values, new models and new meanings...we need to look at architecture as a supportive platform of social dynamic, and consider our work to take place before, during and after the actual building process".
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