We recently caught up with former student Carolina Collignon (1987), an architect from Guadalajara, Mexico who completed our program in 2017. Since graduating, Carolina has been applying her knowledge of emergency architecture, participatory design and development to improve the lives of affected communities in her native country. As an entrepeneur, she also set up a concrete manufacturing business with which she hopes to facilitate projects led by marginalized women through the design and manufacture of decorative objects made of concrete. Read her interview below.
Name: Carolina Collignon de Alba
Occupation: Architect and entrepreneur
Location: Guadalajara, Mexico
Area of interest/specialty: Social Architecture & Urbanism with Gender Perspective / Rehabilitation and recycled materials / Socio-Spatial Integration
Professional goal: To merge my various occupations, working on specific projects and doing research for emergencies and development areas with manufacturing of concrete elements for recovery and reconstruction processes
What have you done since graduating from our program?
After finishing the program, only two months before I came back to México in September 2017, two earthquakes damaged the center and the south of the country. So as soon as I got back to Guadalajara, I started working on a housing reconstruction project with an interdisciplinary group of colleagues from the ITESO University (Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education). Later on I was invited to collaborate on a UNICEF research project focused on the mental and physical effects of the recent earthquakes on children and adolescents. The third project I’ve been contributing to is planning the syllabus for an “Architecture for Emergency” course at Tec de Monterrey (Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education) starting next September.
Temporary market outside the original market in Juchitán, Oaxaca, that collapsed during the earthquake.
Home reconstruction project in San Mateo del Mar. Photo by ISTMO reconstruction team
Tell us about your current job. How did you land it?
Right now I am working as a consultant for UNICEF. I was invited to collaborate by a friend who works for an international consultancy firm. We submitted the methodology proposal for the research and got the contract 4 months ago. We have already made fieldwork visits to a couple of municipalities that were severely damaged by the earthquakes. The main objective of the research is to give UNICEF recommendations about how to improve effectiveness and efficiency on their efforts and resources in similar situations. Right now we are analyzing the findings gathered through mapping activities and focus groups, and we are just about to finish the document.
In parallel I also work at EN.CONCRETO, a business that I started 4 years ago. I go to the workshop everyday to manage the manufacturing of the items that we are producing while looking for new collaborations and projects.
Mapping activity for UNICEF research
Tell us about a specific project you are working on.
The housing reconstruction project that I’m working on in San Mateo del Mar in Oaxaca State is in one of the poorest indigenous municipalities of the country, where the earthquake damaged 60% of the housing.. The objective is to build 200 houses for people who for multiple reasons were not beneficiaries of the government’s official programs. Today 10 houses and 5 kitchens are being built as a pilot program, under a tequio system, where families help each other, building together the first house, and then the second one, and so on. Participatory design methodologies were used to decide materials and design the spaces. Families also attended various workshops to increase and improve their knowledge of construction techniques. My role has changed according to the necessities of the project; first I started working on the methodology, then I became more involved in the participatory design with the beneficiaries, and now I am contributing with architectural drawings.
At the same time, at EN.CONCRETO, we are trying to close a deal on a project involving the Food Bank in collaboration with CEMEX (a very large cement company in Mexico). It is a proposal for creating productive projects led by marginalized women through the design and manufacture of decorative objects made of concrete. We facilitate the process of design and marketing of the product through the channels that we currently have in operation. The idea is that women can have an extra income with flexible hours and work close to their homes.
Participatory design process at San Mateo del Mar
Narciso, a beneficiery of the housing project in San Mateo del Mar
In what ways did the master program influence your professional life?
The master made me see a broader picture of the urban challenges we face and the ways in which architecture can contribute to them. I found myself motivated by the numerous options for developing my profession. It also made me more critical of socio-political issues and their influence on the way cities develop. Besides that, sharing the classroom with people of different nationalities and cultures helped me grow professionally, it challenged me to be receptive and learn from our differences to find a common ground.
Tell us one of your most memorable experiences related to your work.
When we were doing research for UNICEF we visited a municipality in Oaxaca called Juchitan and another one closer to central Mexico called Jojutla in Morelos. It was difficult to see the devastation left by the earthquake in a already vulnerable community. But for me it was even harder to see the immense gap that exists between theory and practice, and the role that corruption has in all of this. The most memorable thing is that despite the injustices and disorganization, people continued their efforts as a real community, supporting their neighbors and friends. They still have hope that reconstruction will bring a better tomorrow.
Damage to homes in Juchitan
Temporary school in Jojutla
Are there any mistakes you have learned from?
Several. I think that with each project and experience you learn what could have been done better, faster, more thoroughly, more professionally. One example is in the dynamics that we apply at the focus groups with children. If I were to repeat the research, we could probably adjust them by making them more dynamic and better adapted to their abilities. At time it was all too technical for children to understand. Another example is in the reconstruction of houses in San Mateo del Mar. We were confident that the local materials would be easily obtained and they were commissioned almost when it was necessary to place them, but it turns out that it takes much more time than we thought. That delayed the work and put our credibility with the community at risk.
Activities with children as part of UNICEF research
What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of your job or of working in development in general?
I think that the presence of variables like personal and political interests particular to each project is what I found most challenging. In the end you depend on many actors and situations that are beyond your control. Learning to respect the times of these processes and also the different positions of the actors involved is always an exercise of professionalism.
What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path?
It has worked for me to try different branches of architecture and urban planning to feel a little bit more confident. You never finish learning but I believe that expanding capabilities gives you more opportunities to have a better reading of situations and be able to reach a better solution. And one more thing. I think we need to seek out opportunities, not just wait for them to come to us. Usually that is just not going to happen…unless you are very lucky!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.