Friday, July 25, 2008

Design Altruism Project

Back in Fall of 2007, David Stairs, a professor of Graphic Design at Central Michigan University visited our studio to talk to us about what he has been doing and to offer some comments about our projects. David began the Design Altruism Project which is a part of Designers Without Borders. When David visited us he spoke of some work he did in Uganda (the FDNC one) which was quite inspiring. While I was trying to determine what exactly to do for thesis as well as after thesis, we had some good conversations. When I completed my thesis proposal, David agreed to read it and offered suggestions. In return, he asked that I write an article about this past semester. You can find it here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Experience has Ended

The end of July has come, and so has my stay in Monterrey; for now at least. Briefly, here are some thoughts that I had on the way home.

As a result of this past semester, remaining in Monterrey for part of the summer to continue working on some of these projects, and the search for a way to make a living I have many thoughts about what design and education should work toward. For the people who realize the need to be socially, globally, and environmentally responsible in our work, moving beyond titles and occupations is necessary. For architects, the norm is to become registered and continue to doing quality projects, ideally with repeat clients. However, being aware of local realities beyond the common architectural projects is a step that must be taken. The firm that I repeatedly interned with in Indiana is an expert in school construction. Recent cuts in the state budget and new guidelines in the way state funded projects will come about has caused the market for schools to "dry up." Predictably, the firm is looking to other markets and other states for more work to take the place of the void created in the local school market. But a socially conscious designer would look further than the obvious void in the usual workload. The lack of funds for schools has many roots. I do not claim to know them, but I am aware of the fact that there are about 8,000 abandoned houses in the downtown Indianapolis area, there are about 2,000 homeless people in Indianapolis on any given night, and there are many students at these schools who are classified as homeless. I know that a large scale low-income housing project was completed in Muncie, IN, but that the architect had trouble being compensated for the work and a similar project is not likely to be undertaken in the near future. I know that Indiana is a destination for many immigrants from countries to the South and that there are many inequalities that the people must deal with. I know all of these things because I search to know this information, and others have done the same. But what will this architecture firm, and others like it, do? What will students who are aware of these problems and would like to work in their home state be able to do to address these problems while still making a living?

In Mexico, the world of the common architect and the common person are very different. At ITESM, the university I attended, all students are required to complete about 400 hours of social service before they are allowed to graduate. But many of the students who have the opportunity to go to this school have jobs lined up for them when they graduate, often stopping the pattern of social work.

Ball State University architecture department has options for students to study and learn about global social issues. The CAP Asia program and the NASHCC program, which I participated in, are two examples that provide excellent experiences. But only a handful are able to participate in these each year. Several times I have had people say to me how so many people are talking about a paradigm shift in design education and the design professions and that it is great how I am doing something about it...but I still feel like I am just talking about it. The education system is full of factors that create so much impatience. In a world that revolves around four month semesters and grades, I strongly believe that it is past the time for education to not be in the forefront of socially responsible design work. It simply is not proving to be sustainable enough ("sustainable enough" sounds like an oxymoron, but I digress). However, doing something while being in the education system is one of the best learning opportunities there is, and these programs should be expanded by 1000% at the least.

To close, this thesis was something that theses should be moving toward: a personal learning experience that is more than a summary of the education process and is something that is much more than results based, especially in terms of images. And most importantly, making a change to do something you feel strongly about is not as hard as it appears and is very rewarding.

Now that school is over (until that doctorate study, maybe) I'm off to find some work. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Friday Night Excitment

I had a memorable Friday night experience on July 4, 2008.

The old section of town, Barrio Antiguo, is known as the area for nightlife. There are some really nice places that we sometimes go to. One of which is called Akbal. It's a cool place with a lot of nice stuff on the walls and ceilings (chandeliers and such) but no cover and good prices. We're there for a few hours and it gets to be about 2:30 so we ask for the check (there were 6 of us). We are also on a patio on the second floor.

All of a sudden one of the servers opens the door to the inside and tells everyone to come inside and be quite. Puzzled, I ask why we need to keep quite to a friend and he says he doesn't know, perhaps because of the police. So I'm the bar doing something illegal that we didn't know about? Is there a noise complaint for the bar? Is that even possible? Also, Friday was the day that my visa expired, so if cops are involved, I'm wondering how long I'll be in jail.

So we go inside and we sit down on a couch and I start to tell myself that worrying is only going to cloud my thinking, so I start looking around trying to find out what is going on. After a few minutes, there is a loud crash from downstairs, some people scream, and a server runs up the stairs and tells us all to get against one of the walls. At this point I'm sure that the SWAT team has just busted out the barricaded door and the bar workers are trying to prepare us for a search. But this thought lasts only for a few seconds as I immediately recognize the smell of Kerosene, and it's thick in the air. I mention this to my friends and step away from the wall looking for a way out. Just then two servers run up the stairs with fire extinguishers, and even before they said a word I had put my shirt over my mouth and headed for the stairs. Sure enough they told everyone to exit the building as quickly and as calmly as possible. I was the third person down the stairs, being very selfish and expecting that everyone would make it behind me.

The downstairs was quite smoky, but I could tell that there was not a fire in the immediate area. As I stepped into the street, I looked at the neighboring restaurant and saw smoke pouring out of the windows that had been broken in the explosion (the crashing noise from earlier) and saw a faint reddish light inside. There were only pedestrians on the street, no cops or firefighters. I met up with the rest of the group (I found it humorous that all the girls were coughing loudly because their outfits didn't provide any clothing for covering the airways for smoke avoidance). Two of the girls were freaking out and said we had to get out of there immediately. My hand was grabbed and we literally ran to the nearest taxi.

I have no idea what happened to the building or how big the fire actually was. What I do know is that we each got a few free drinks from the excitement!

Also, if you are keeping up with photos, there are several new ones. "Photographs of Monterrey 2," "Visits to Rural Mexico 2," and "Studio Project Context" have been updated, while "Photographs of Monterrey 3," "We Climbed a Mountain," and "The Day there was Rain in the Desert" are all new.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Most Memorable Visit to the Desert

On Thursday, July 3, I again visited San Felipe to do some documentation of the village so that we can have accurate information for the work we are doing and also to show the design proposals of the prototype house for feedback. But this visit was the most memorable one thus far for one simple reason: it was raining. It rained all day and I was there, a very rare coincidence. The rain brought good things, obviously, in that the tanks that collect the rainwater from roofs were able to be filled up so that drinking and washing water will be available. Also, the fields were able to be watered. But the rain also brought some bad things. It began raining the night before and two walls in two different houses collapsed. The first house was the house that demonstrated the loss of knowledge of how to build with traditional methods. The walls did not meet the roof very well, and in one room there were several centimeters separating the roof and the top of the wall.

The wall was not tied to the rest of the house well. The water from the rain simple took out the mortar of the poorly built wall and it slowly collapsed during the night.

The second house was a very well built house completely made of traditional materials and methods many many years ago. The owner of the house had died several years ago and it has been empty and abandoned ever since. This rain and wall collapse was simply the first step of the house falling down.

I'm surprised that no one has occupied and maintained this home, but it is interesting to me to see this process (since architects have such an infatuation with ruins). After several hours of being in the village and trying to write, sketch, and photograph in the rain I secretly wished it would start raining--a wish I'm sure was not shared by the people who live there.

Besides the rain, there was another interesting event that took place. The graduation party for the elementary school students was to take place in the evening. At about 5 PM, people from other towns and ejidos began showing up for the party. I always like being in the rural areas where there are large groups of people because there are so many styles that people have, especially with hair, cars, and dress. Most member able were some blue cowboy boots that a boy was wearing.

Since I return to the U.S. in just over a week, and my future is very much up in the air, this may have been the last time I visit San Felipe for awhile. But I'm glad I got to see rain in the village and see a glimpse of how the community comes together for celebrations (we had to leave before the party really got started).

Continuation into the Summer

At the end of April, May 21st was a dark and looming date. That was the day I was to leave Monterrey and return to Indiana. I was not ready to leave Mexico for good. I was not ready to leave Mexico for more than a few days. I wanted to stay and keep working on projects and keep working on Spanish. After a long search, I finally was able to receive some funding to continue working on the design of the prototype home and strategic plan of San Felipe, the small ejido village that I have written about several times. So after a brief trip to my home state, I returned to Monterrey on June 1 and have been here since then.

The work I have been doing has mainly been focused on finishing the details of the prototype home so that construction can resume. This involves the design, determining which materials will be used and the amount of the materials, and figuring out ways to construct the house. This has been very interesting for me. In the semester of Fall 2007, I had a studio project which was to design a medical center for a rural part of Nepal which was very far from any major cities or building supply areas. The traditional walls of the area were stone and earth. I had the layout part of the design covered, but even after 5 years of school I could not understand how the thing would actually be built. These were materials that I had never worked with and had no idea how a wall made of such materials would actually stand up. Today the situation is different. After many visits to the village and after speaking with people who have worked with such materials, I can honestly say I know how 90% of this building will be constructed (there are a few more details that I will be working out this coming week). I have never been so confident in my knowledge of the constructibility of a building I have been working on as now. It has been very rewarding taking all the things I learned from working with details at Schmidt Associates in Indianapolis for three internships and applying that knowledge to new materials.

The second part of the summer work involves a strategic plan of the community in the next 10 years. My job for this is mainly to put together images which will start the process as five weeks (the length of my extended stay) is too short to do the construction details and a completed strategic plan. So this is what I have been up to since I last wrote many weeks ago.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Much ado about property

The topic of property has been a back burner interest of mine throughout this semester. It began while I was reading Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth and continued with various experiences throughout the semester. First a brief discussion of what Shadow Cities says. There are three quotes from the book that really got my interest when I read them a couple of months ago. First Neuwirth mentions a quote by Joseph Proudhon, a French socialist who wrote in the middle of the 19th century. Neuwirth writes "[Proudhon] suggests that there's a difference between property and possession. Property turns land into a commodity: people own land not to use it or because they need it for survival, but simply as an investment. Possession guarantees personal use and control rather than profit. For Proudhon, property, not money, is the root of all evil" (page 289). Henry George, an American egalitarian theorist, is discussed with "Simply put, he argued that the things of the world were truly created by labor and could be bought and sold, while land was created by nature and therefore should not be turned into an economic value. 'The equal right of all men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breath the air. For we cannot suppose that some men have a right to be in this world and others have no right'" (page 290). Finally the work of journalist Ambrose Bierce in Devil's Dictionary is mentioned. "'The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living'" (page 290).
These interesting quotes were floating in my head, coupled with the facts that I was labeled as a micro-communist last semester as well as my interest in putting the environment above human interests. So I was generally under the opinion that the idea of property had gotten out of hand. Then an interesting quote was made during a discussion in studio. Our project is in a housing subdivision named Colonia Hector Caballero which is largely composed of indigenous decedents that initially settled illegally in the Monterrey area and were moved to this neighborhood by the government. In recent years people have moved to the outskirts of this neighborhood and have illegally set up meager houses. We were discussing whether to focus on the housing needs of these illegal settlers or to take the bigger picture and do a neighborhood redevelopment program. During the discussion, which was in English (a little rare, but I was thankful), a classmate stated "why should we help the people who have settled illegally? Why should we give them a free ticket when they are breaking the rules?"
I found it very interesting that the approach taken to this problem was not the unfair economic circumstances that people face, or the fact that traditional agricultural practices are becoming nearly impossible due to development and disappearing resources, or the fact that these indigenous migrants probably did not speak much Spanish. The question instead focused on the concept of property. The idea that the system was above the human. I did not think of this at the time, but later I thought why do architects question helping out situations such as these but have no problem designing for a large corporation or factory which might harm the quality of adjacent properties or even practice shady business operations? Architecture rarely uses the word property, at least in the educational sense. It is always "the site" and property lines are simply borders with which to enforce or lessen. But in this instance property became the focus.
Changing gears, another property related observation I had was the types of housing that are in certain areas of the city. First was the stark difference between houses on flat, level, easily divided land and those on the rolling small hills that run throughout the city. The houses on these hills, which are a bit steep to develop, are covered with houses of the poor. They are similar to the favelas in Brazil that are described in Neuwirth's book and in the films Cidade de Deus and Tropa de Elite. These hills were first inhabited illegally and over the years have been developed with one house or wall, or roof at a time. I assume that most of these residences are legal now, but I'm not sure. The point is the stark contrast between the communities on these hills and the communities that surround the hills. Most people would never go up on these hills due to the perception that they are unsafe. Along the same lines are houses that inhabit Cerro de la Silla, the landmark mountain of Monterrey. On the side of the mountain that faces downtown, campus, and most of the Monterrey metropolitan area, basically the areas that wealthy or middle class people and tourists see, contain expensive houses. Building here is difficult and the land is expensive. And the houses are usually interesting to look at. Travel around the other side of the mountain, just a few kilometers away, and it is a completely different story. In earlier posts I have talked about 10x10 work that has taken place in a very poor community. This community is on the exact same mountain, but out of view of the downtown area. This side of the mountain is obviously less valued than the other. If this is the case then that means the view of the mountain from the Guadalupe and Benito Juarez municipalities is less important than the Monterrey, Santa Catarina, and San Pedro communities. This closely echoes the sentiments of the quotes I first mentioned.

Now, I agree that property has benefits. For example, in the sense of control and entitlement, it encourages people to make their property look attractive. Many housing communities even have rules which make each owner keep their property in an attractive state. But there are also many problems that come from property. When the property line ends, so does the care. Parks, streets, rivers all have a very good possibility of collecting litter and pollution because it has no definite owner. The lack of property creates a sense of disorder, which derives from the order of property. A few weeks ago I drove by a river and saw some people washing their clothes in the water. This same river is probably used as a dumping point for a factory and a runoff point for storm water. This shared property is used for good and bad, by rich and poor. To take it a step further: one Saturday I helped in collecting rocks from a dry river to be used as a patio for a project. Did the fact that this was no one's property give us the right to take those stones? They technically belong to everyone, why did we have the right to take them? In regards to property, we sometimes ask why should we help those who take property, but we have no problem taking resources from collective property to use on private property. (Technically the project was a community building so the project was still community owned, but the principle still applies).
One more aspect to look at. In Mexico there are different types of property that I have experienced. First there was the property of my host family. This was what I was used to, a family owns the land they live on and they control what happens to it. Next was the property of the school. The school is completely surrounded by a 10 foot tall metal fence to keep people out. A very exclusive property. A third is the apartment I currently live in. None of the residents own the property, but it is some off site owner. Small amounts of litter line the walkways occasionally and it takes awhile for it to be picked up. All of this was familiar. Then came the ejido, the place where the rural village is that I have written about previously. The ejido concept was set up in the 1930s in Mexico as a response to land reform needs. The land is owned by the federal government, but the people who live on it use it collectively. No one owns the property, but there are clear definitions of territory with fences. In the two months I lived with my host family, not once did I speak with a neighbor or did I see my family speak with a neighbor. In the apartment building we occasionally see neighbors and have brief conversations. In the ejido, where there is no property, but rather the concept of possession, there is interaction galor. Yes it is a small village, but people communicate vigorously. What is even more interesting is the fact that ejidos occasionally get together to have parties. Our neighboring apartment complexes do not get together to have block parties.
After writing all this I still don't know if it was worth it to anyone to read, but I feel that it is time to at least put it down in writing a description of some thoughts and observations I have had. Is there a real question I have to ask? I don't think so, but the idea of property is so quiet in architectural education, when it is precisly what we deal with. It is odd that I feel so out of my element trying to write about it logically. I feel I must come to a conclusion, but I'll leave that for another time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

To build with your hands, you must first use your feet

Edited on April 18. Pictures added at the bottom that illustrate the adobe block making process.

Wednesday, April 9 was the latest visit to San Felipe, the small village in the desert where I am documenting traditional and non-traditional building methods as well as participating in the construction of a prototype house that makes use of traditional materials and methods.

The current progress of the prototype house

This visit included members of a class I am in with Pedro entitled Materiales y sistemas alternativos en construccion.

We arrived and we took a tour of most of the village with some of the residents, which was a good review for me as each time I hear things presented in the village, I understand more as I am able to comprehend a little more Spanish each time I go. Somehow I even saw a building I have somehow never noticed before. It turns out it is the church, but it is not Catholic, therefore it is not used much, from what I understood. Many of the houses have Catholic paraphernalia (is that the right word?) in several forms including portraits, beads, and even a poster of the former pope. One brand new thing in the village that we came across is a new resident. A U.S. American woman is moving into San Felipe as she has married a man from the village. Currently the woman is living in a tent and has her supplies set up around the tent.

The homestead of the newest resident

I did not get a chance to talk with her this time, but I will on the next visit. I can't wait to hear what she has to say about leaving her old life to live here and what their future building plans will be.

After the tour we headed to the prototype house. I have not had a chance to do any work with the prototype house as work just recently resumed, so I was anxious to do something, as Pedro had told me we would be doing some work. It turns out that the plan was to make some adobe blocks. I became very excited.

First I must explain the preconceptions I had about the adobe block making process. From discussions I had overheard, I knew that to make one row of the prototype house that six wheelbarrow fulls of soil were needed. I also knew that there was a master mason being paid to make the blocks and he hired some additional helpers. I had also witnessed all the modern technology that is being introduced into specific projects in the village, such as water collection tanks, a solar panel to power a water pump, and advanced agricultural methods. I envisioned some sort of a mixing bin to combine the soil and water and then some sort of a press to make the blocks. I was wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Damasio, one of the head men of the ejido, was the local expert to show us the adobe making process. He is also the man constructing the "competing" prototype house that will use concrete for the main structure and roof because he believes it is the correct method for future construction. Damasio filled and his son, Salvador (who graciously gave me his bed the last time I stayed the night in San Felipe) filled up a wheelbarrow of the topsoil and indicated we would be making about 4 or 5 blocks. After he filled up the wheelbarrow, he proceeded to dump the dirt onto the ground. Suddenly a bucket of manure appeared and was dumped onto the dirt pile. I immediately identified the poo as coming from a horse since I grew up in a part of the country where some people use horses and buggies to get around and leave the evidence on the road and in parking lots. At this point Pedro said we would take over the work. Pedro looked at us, the students, and said that we were no different than the residents that live here and that we are going to make the blocks the real way, and started taking off his shoes and socks. It was apparent we were going to be using our bare feet to mix the dirt, water, and horse manure. At this point I chimed in and asked Pedro, "is this really how they make all these blocks, with their feet?" To which Pedro gave an emphatic "of course." Now, I'm not opposed to troucing around in dirt, I recall going to my cousin's farm many times as a kid and walking barefoot in cow manure (quite warm when it's fresh). However, I was caught off-guard by how labor intensive this process was. It immediatly became clear why so many people in the rural areas are using concrete block to build their houses. Just as I often talk myself into paying using my car to get around instead of riding my bike for free or even order Jimmy John's after a stressful day instead of cooking my already-purchased food I can see why people would pay more to haul in concrete blocks instead of stomping dirt and water to make their walls. (Horrible comparisons for examples, but it's all I could think of at the moment. I hope the point is made.)

So after this initial mild shock of reality, I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pant legs, and joined the mud mashing party. All but one of the students joined in the work--earlier she had a cactus spike go through her shoe and puncture her foot, so it was excusable. While we were stepping here and there, trying not to slip and fall, Pedro would say "make sure you smash in all the brown clumps so they get mixed up." The brown clumps were the horse manure, so he was really saying "make sure you step on every single piece of horse shit you can find."

Soon the mixture was good and the time arrived to place the mud mixture into the wooden frames. The wooden frame was a simple 40cm x 20 cm x 10 cm rectangle made from 2x4 (inches this time) pieces. The frame was placed on the ground, the inside edges primed with water, and the mixture placed inside. Soon our hands and feet were covered with the mixture, which was cool until it started drying and the flies started swarming and you remembered what the mixture was made of and why the flies liked it so much.

In all, we constructed 5 blocks.

The five blocks we made

We then rinsed off our feet and hands with the water. The water comes from a pond near the village. The pond water is not suitable for human drinking or cooking, so it is ok to use for this instance. The pond is used for animal water and has some contaminants that make humans sick. Before rainwater was harvested, the residents would drink some of their water from this. This water is very dirty, so in addition to the contaminants, health was not good during this time period. While we were rinsing off a chameleon came to watch us. Either he wasn't very good at chameleoning or he just wanted to make his presence known. Either way, it was cool.

It was good to briefly see the process behind adobe blocks. It added a new level to understanding the tradition within the community I have visited several times. I am returning in just over a week to spend the whole day working, which may involve more adobe making or the actual placing of the blocks, or something I don't even know of yet.

The spot where we stomp-mixed the mud with the other students and Pedro in the background

The water barrels

And if you're wandering, the fibers used in adobe blocks are not added in. They come from the horse manure. That was another big surprise to me. I felt like a dumb city kid several times on this visit.

Mixing the adobe mixture with out feet

Reforming the pile

Forming the first block

I help to make a block with the form

Making the surface smooth before removing the form