By Gabriel Díaz Montemayor
I studied architecture in a private school affiliated to a state public university in northern Mexico. In a 5 year program, since 3rd year most of our design studios had to do with some form of collaboration with a public entity, helping these develop projects that otherwise they would be unable to conceive or pay for. All of the work was done in state, in Chihuahua. It was during those years when I got to know the Sierra Madre Occidental, then and now home of Native Americans, mining and logging industries, small scale subsistence agriculture and large scale poppy and marijuana growing. The municipalities in these mountains lack technical expertise, then and now, for the development of public projects such as parks, community centers, plazas, and other public services.
Since then, in the early 90’s, the political will to design and build these project typologies was uncertain in the best case, if not in-existent. As a student I got involved in projects of various kinds, a park around a water reserve in Guadalupe y Calvo (well inside the Golden Triangle region infamous for the presence of drug traffickers), tourism cottages in Uruachic, a Revolution Museum renovation in Guerrero (as my social service project right after graduation), soccer fields in Chihuahua City, a parish in a subsidized housing / low income area of Chihuahua, and more. None of these were built, at least, as proposed by our student projects coordinated by our professors. The projects were really used to check the box by these mayors and local politicians, but eventually vanished into the short term political timing or the mason’s will on construction sites, taking –I am sure- better informed decisions than our often naïve and underdeveloped projects.
Then I grew up, graduated, became an architect, a professor, immigrated to the US, studied Landscape Architecture, became a full time faculty member (in Landscape Architecture) and I continue to see the issues of technical expertise and the question of the origin and implementation of ALL kinds of projects (not just the student projects). The difference is that I see the same situation going on in places where I would not necessarily expect for it to happen. It became clear to me that it was not just an issue of small scale towns, but of, pretty much every city. There are places that have a local culture better suited for the success of these collaborative projects between architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture students and cities, committees, and other public institutions. There are also places where the political class and local society (if participating) are better informed, have a more technical approach, or practice decision taking not just based on political calculations (although every public project is one). But here and there, I also continue to confirm that the rate of success is low. By success I mean how much of the ideas developed -pretty much for free- for these institutions actually made it to the executed project, or to the hired designers desk, or to the mayor’s desk, influencing decision making.
This kind of projects, for us -faculty and students- in the design studio continue to be a great stimuli. The idea that what we do in studio can have a real impact on people is very attractive and challenging. It goes beyond typical preoccupations proper to the designer’s mindset, for example, narcissistic interests, and the “I want to” or “my idea” are more often vanquished by grounded realities. It is also an opportunity to embrace complexity, the real kind, while operating in a working environment more similar to an office where everybody’s got responsibilities.
In discussions with colleagues that are doing similar things -many of us do at the School of Architecture at UT as well as in most Schools of Architecture- we share disappointments and varying degrees of success (aka implementation). From my own experience and that of others there a number of things that seem to work right, or better.
In the case of the working relationship there are some basic things. Often, the projects are done at a distance, located in other countries –in my case, so far, Mexico and the US- offering the added incentive of international/national travel for students. This is good for engagement, group experience, and the relationship with the client (the city institution, the organization, and etc).
Travelling to visit is always a good gesture and it helps to the seriousness of the work being developed. Finding a way to have the client collaborate with funding is important. Normally, most of these institutions lack the funds, that is why we are working together in the first place, but, having some monetary investment in the project ensures follow up and, at least, a future plan (which might include inaction) for the collaborative project. If the client can visit the school and participate during the process: even better. And, finally, finding a way to continue collaborations beyond the ephemeral condition of leadership -your contact person- that pervades many places and institutions. I am just off a phone call with an urban planning official in Mexico regarding a future public-academic project currently on the planning phase. He wanted to let me know that he has now effectively left the institution (before his term was due, politics), but, that he will have our planned project be on the to-do list for his successor. Fundamental thing: embrace and try to manage instability and have a plan B.
In the case of the project or product there’s another set of complexity. First, raise your hand and say I’ll do it if the project is the mind of the potential client but he/she/it are still hesitant or don’t have money for it. Second, try to find a way to insert innovative ideas, educate the client and target population towards a goal, learn from them in the process, and communicate in a legible, therefore implementable, manner. And third, finding a way to design a project that provides a lifeline of communication after the semester is done. This is probably a most complicated thing to do, as I already mentioned how working relationships might not last or change very quickly.
This is never an exhaustive reflection on this subject, I feel I could go on; this is more of an opportunity for distension. I am yet to see how some projects done in the recent past evolve in time, and then, be able to measure how much of our work is left in the form of ideas, designs, modes of operation, and fundraising. My belief in this teaching, learning, research, and creative practice mechanism continues.
Gabriel Díaz Montemayor
School of Architecture
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.