Citizen Architect – A Conversation with Sergio Palleroni

By April 6, 2020 Blog, Interview, Program

In February, we welcomed back our guest professor Sergio Palleroni to teach the seminar Public Interest Design and Development Metrics. In this seminar based on a case study approach, our students explored development and project metrics for social impact fieldwork and projects. These metrics help to evaluate and guide projects in the field that are attempting to address social inequities and impacts.

Sergio Palleroni is an architect, practitioner, educator and pioneer in the field of social impact design, who worked as a consultant for the United Nations, World Bank and the governments of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, India and Taiwan. He is the co-founder of the design-build fieldwork program BaSiC Initiative (BaSiC stands for Building Sustainable Communities) and a professor and Senior Fellow of the Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices at Portland State University.

In an interview, you once said “From the beginning, I’ve been less interested in what a building looks like than how it serves the people I’m working for. I always say that 90 percent of what we do doesn’t show in the building itself.”
You have been involved with sustainable architecture, and housing and community development in the developing world since the 1970s, at a time when few young architects were striving to work in the field of social and humanitarian architecture. Where did the interest for public interest design start, and how has it shaped your early career?

SP: I was studying sciences, mathematics and chemistry in the US, and in the mid 1970’s came to finish my thesis Barcelona. In this period, architects like Oriol Bohigas were attempting to bring architecture into the political debate of how Barcelona would develop post Franco. This insight – that architects can play a central role in shaping society – is what attracted me to the field. After the death of Franco, there were discussions on the streets, at night, on the steps of the Catedral. The Ramblas turned into a public forum, with discussions at every café table. People were talking about what the future would bring, or what that future should be. Oriol Bohigas and group of architects were talking about lifting the city out of its catharsis and 40 years of fascist history. The city had remained in a frozen state over those years, waiting to return to civic society. These discussions really resonated with me, as my family left Argentina because of the political crisis and the dictatorship, I felt many questions had been left unanswered. But here in Barcelona I saw a vision how one may as a citizen and professional be part of engaging a more civic . To me it was wonderful to discover a profession that was part of the construction of a new civic society. What is the city we are going to live in? Which would represent our values and goals? Architects were creating the framework for this discussion. And I just thought, I want to be part of this. So I changed profession and became and architect who would promote this vision of architecture as an agent of change.
Add to this my interest in the issue of sustainability, something that originates in my upbringing in Western Argentina, the Andes. The area where I grew up was very isolated and dominated by nature. We lived on a farm in the countryside. As a result, me and my brothers have all become naturalists or tied to nature. In Patagonia, we first saw the effects of human contamination – the damaged ozone layer above this most isolated place on Earth. We were the first to notice this, and I felt this was a serious environmental issue. The place we loved that was so untouched had been affected by people’s misdirected actions in the rest the world. I think I carry that environmental conscience and agenda from then on.
In the late 70s early 80s, when I trained as an architect, some people in the profession had already started to negotiate the idea of how architecture, human rights and environmental rights were tied together. In Oregon, where I returned to study architecture, civil rights were not seen as a central issue, but after Barcelona I was motivated to introduce it and people were broadminded and generous enough to accept this.

BaSiC Initiative’s Ladakh – a Research/Design/Build initiative to aid the Druk White Lotus School in the Indian Himalaya. 

You worked in Nicaragua in the 1980s and went to Mexico to assist with the post-earthquake reconstruction of Mexico City. Later on, you initiated the pioneering educational program, the BaSiC Initiative, where students step out of the classroom and go into the communities. Community-based design is also the focus of the local design workshops and international field trip that form part of our program. How did your experiences as a practitioner contribute to the start of the program? What value do you see in the integration of these practical “learning-by-doing” modules in today’s architectural education? 

SP: As I was completing my architecture education, I had become interested in the political discussion that was happening in Central America. Nicaragua had just gone through a social revolution, the Sandinista revolution, and many of people from all over the world came. At the time, I worked with Nicaragua’s Ministry of Culture on a series of internationally funded projects. A series of projects we were working on were engaging public institutions in Nicaragua in an ongoing discussions around poverty, civic society and development. One of these projects was a European funded project to restore the Casa Sandino, the childhood home of Nicaragua’s national hero. The house created a forum around culture and the debate what culture was. It was a very enlightened agenda – to restore the past in service of the future. Native people living in the forests were affected by those projects. Therefore, native rights and environmental rights, and the integration of urban design and landscape design, were some issues we were looking at. I don’t think I could have gone anywhere in the world and work with such a broad agenda and be given such latitude. To me, it constituted some kind of reconciliation – I was back in Latin America, but with a new vision of Latin America without the repression we had endured in Argentina. It had shown me a new path to the future, and I was beginning to get a handle personally on how to use architectural design process as a powerful tool to contribute to that. It happened in Barcelona and even Latin America in the midst of a period of intense repression as well.
In 1985, in response to the massive earthquake in Mexico City, I left MIT, where I was finishing my graduate studies, to get  involved in the post-disaster reconstruction and housing efforts that followed. The areas where the poor and disenfranchised had moved into within the historic center of the city had been most heavily impacted by the earthquake. This led to my involvement in an emerging discussion about how this new population – the poor – could be accommodated within the civil society and given a voice, and some authorship in the reconstruction. At the time, the mass migration of people – moving from the countryside into the city for economic and sometimes environmental reasons –  was starting to be evident in the growing informal settlement of Nezahualcóyotl to the East but also in all popular vecindades, and would accelerate over the next twenty years. This is how BaSiC Initiative came to life. Some of my colleagues in construction, at the UN and Worldbank, and I became aware that we were looking at a phenomenon that the UN and other institutions could not quite figure out how to address, much less effectively give voice and participation to our clients. But it was clear that they needed assistance, not the top down assistance that was the norm back then, but an army of architects and planners trained in listening and collaborating as equals with the communities in need. These poor and marginalized groups had no assistance, or federal or international funding and yet they  were building entire cities with little or no support. Mexico’s most densely populated municipality Nezahualcóyotl, also called Neza, was evidence of this. They had capacity and were looking for collaborative relationships, not hierarchical relations, with the design professions to make these efforts both more sustainable and better designed to address their needs.
BaSiC Initiative was born  out of this effort to support these community efforts. BaSiC Initiative became a network of likeminded professionals who worked in the different fields of development who were interested in changing the discourse of development and the professional education of people like ourselves. We knit, through fieldwork in projects of collaboration with communities in need, the efforts of different professions, drawing on an international cast of experts we had met through our work for international agencies.  It is a model for a society of experts, with the common intent to facilitate access to expertise, to create a sustainable communities globally, and a new generation better prepared for the challenges in the field, and that are able respond to the question: How do we address the people in need in these crisis situations? That we started to involve students in these efforts, became our model of an education based on the evolving challenges in the field. For myself, and other  architects for instance, we had never been trained to work with the poor, and we thought that this should be brought into the classroom through fieldwork. In the field to be effective the architect had to be sociologists and anthropologists, to have the capacity to work with other cultures, different languages, socio-economic groups, the disparities and social systems, and gender issues. Usually architects are given a very prescriptive brief and a certain amount of money to design a project. We only ever talk to the client and are never taught to sit down with the people affected, the women and children, and find out what is really needed to have a broader impact on the community. This discourse, that we now call the ‘deep conversation’ can take months. It’s a discovery process and also a way to map and situate the project within the community. It took us a while to develop these skills. Luckily, a crucial influence early on was the work of the philosophers and educators Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire, author of the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which had a transformative effect in many countries. Their institute, where much of their applied work was conducted, Centro de Encuentros y Dialogos (CED), was in what become the heart of our work in the decades that have followed, the valleys of Morelos. Their work focused on establishing a general dialogue that would help both give voice to those that never had one and construct the framework for action. Their process, with guidance from CED, became the framework for our pedagogical process in the field with clients communities. Our challenge became “How do you introduce dialogue and the understanding of culture to architectural practice and the role of the architect?” How do you cultivate a pedagogic model in architecture education around those issues – public design, human rights and environmental issues? We started the program with the University of Oregon and the local Mexican University’s in Mexico City, and then later established it as a formal program with the University of Washington, Texas, and the myriad of global universities that over the last three decades have joined our efforts. We built an entire educational model around it. It has been running for 32 years now and we have done 200+ projects in the field – from small and practical such as cheap apartment spaces or portable things to large housing projects and entire schools.

In the publication Wisdom from the Field: Public Interest Architecture in Practice, you and your co-authors write that a public interest design movement is taking shape in practices around the world, stemming from a desire to solve complex, long-term societal problems at a scale that is bigger than an individual project, thus questioning the conventional model of practice that focuses solely on the paying client. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

SP: At one point I was working in New Orleans – I was there during Katrina – and came to be connected with David Perkes and Roberta Feldman. Together with my longtime collaborator, Bryan Bell, we won the American Institute of Architects’ Latrobe Prize, which previously had never been awarded to undertake research of political or social issues but rather politically safer issues of history or practice. We proposed to study “Public Interest Practices in Architecture,”.  With the money of this national award we set out to study the needs that can be addressed by public interest practices and the variety of ways that public interest practices are today operating. We knew that the field had grown since we had all been at its first efforts, and that need in the population had grown as well, not only in the developing world but also in the developed world. We were looking at practices operating in this new field of public interest design that is emerging while trying to address a need that is not traditional. There might be no money to start out with, and our work may just be helping people to think through a problem, and to come up with a program, or systemic solution. To do this, when we come to a community, we need to determine its assets, capacities and how it can use them to address the needs and challenges faced. The assets may not be obvious from the traditional perspective of architecture, and if you look at it on paper, maybe you would say: “No way they can afford to build this school with what we have.” But they might be able to build the school by looking at a broader definition of assets, and what constitutes stakeholders and community and its assets and capacity, not just finances. Human capacity is an asset; knowledge is an asset; the natural environment and humans knowledge of how to use it wisely is an asset, and so forth. What we found in interviewing practitioners throughout the world was an incredible and inspiring range of practices all offering lessons on how to expand the practice of public interest design and design in general for that matter.
For that reason, we studied 118 practices around the world, how they operate, and the core principles at the heart of this effort. The result is the book – a survey to guide, to learn and build on, which eventually led to the formation of a coalition of networks, Design for the Common Good, connecting worldwide networks who have the same goal to promote design practice, education, and research that improves social, economic and environmental outcomes for its users and communities in general.

The social impact assessment you teach in your workshop for our program is based on the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) metric, an evaluative system for public interest design that has a “triple bottom line” approach tracking and documenting social, economic, and environmental impact. This evaluation tool goes beyond the energy efficiency assessment of well-known programs such as LEED, and evaluates the social and economic facets and impacts of buildings, neighbourhoods and community projects. How can the SEED metric assist architects both in developing and developed countries with the evaluation and review of built projects and guide future projects?

SP: The SEED metric rose out of a growing concern among a group of us to create a way to address the issue of accountability. In the public realm, the best work is the product of a collaboration between architects/designers and the clients, stakeholders, and community at large. This means that the work ends up being co-produced by both the designers and community, and not merely the product of the architect’s creative imagination. A growing body of evidence from public interest projects show that projects that are co-produced from programming to execution have greater success and impact on the client communities and remain relevant longer. So how do we help guide both the designers and community towards such success and guarantee that the voice and participation of the clients has been fundamental and integral to each project? The SEED metric process does this by offering advice and input at all stages of the process, and essentially sets up a social contract between the architects and client community to what the goals of the project will be, how the process will be undertaken, and in the end how we will measure success. It also helps inform the project team as to alternatives and to what assets and liabilities to look out for to guarantee long term success. Unlike the LEED metrics, which we used as a starting point in our thinking about our metric, the SEED metric focuses on local knowledge and needs, considering each place to have its own distinct history, culture and values. The successful projects then become case studies and examples to help inform and guide other projects.  An unexpected aspect of the SEED effort is that people globally have reached out and we have found ourselves having workshops worldwide on its application, as well as conferences and now even global awards to celebrate the best work emerging. The networks of networks (Design for the Common Good network) that we are creating with other organizations in different regions is really a product of this effort. It makes me feel like we have managed to create a global movement out of the concern to give better service to our local communities.

We already spoke about how your time in Barcelona has shaped your understanding of the architectural profession. You mentioned how architects such as Oriol Bohigas played a central part in society during the transition after the end of the Franco dictatorship, merging their roles as architects and citizens. Today, many young practitioners like our students identify with this definition of the profession. Through their work they aim to address wider societal, environmental and economic issues. Public interest design has led to a transformation of the traditional practice of architecture. What advice would you give to our students, or anyone who would like to work in this field, and do you think it can be a financially viable form of architecture practice?

SP: Not easy, but so rewarding and in the end you will sleep better. But really public interest practices are proving themselves both viable and successful, and making inroads into a broader range of services. Today, a lot of successful firms in the PID realm are offering everything from programming, financial, design and construction management and other services formerly segmented into different fields. You are playing more roles and design is more complex activity, but really also a richer experience. And in the end, it helps address the divide that often exists within architects of whether through our work we are sometimes in conflict with the values of the communities we are part of.
In retrospect, it is what Oriol was asking us to be – citizen architects. Hard to believe that it has taken me four decades to figure this out, slow, but I feel I am a better architect for the journey I’ve had.

 

Recommended Publications:

Podcast Social Design Insights with Sergio Palleroni

Images: BaSic Initiative, Sergio Palleroni

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