Monday, January 12, 2009

New Orleans. Rethinking Poverty?

Started, but unfinished
And that opportunity after the storm to rethink and tackle poverty in America in a new way? Ummmm. Yes, it is a catastrophic failure on a national level, but on a local level as well, with endemic corruption that could probably rival many places I have visited within the last year. Consequently, for a city that was almost completely inundated, New Orleans is being rebuilt piece by piece with heroic efforts from tons of people.
Local business in Lower 9th ward that serves some mean chicken
But, zooming out and thinking about this form a larger scale, is this really the best we can do? Is Global Green and Make it Right the best we have to offer? They make look, sound, and smell different, but at the end of the day, they seem like more of the same. Cost overruns and excessive technologies bump up the initial costs of housing for those who need it the most. High profile figures do their best to give money and wield their influence, yet at the end of the day, all of this is being subsidized and built in vulnerable areas. Housing was not the only thing destroyed, livelihoods were as well. If the housing is built, but the means to support those are not redeveloped, then the pattern of New Orleans will be repeated all over again, this time without a storm. Ronald Lewis, who is a lower 9th ward resident is fairly critical of the Make it Right project precisely because it is happening from outside the community. And because it is happening from outside the community, it stifles many possibilities for the community to actually take action and develop something that is of their true direction. It reminds of something someone described as ‘New Democracy,’ where people and communities are actively engaged in participation, they are asked their opinions, they are listened to, but at the end of the day, the end result is still the same, determined by those who set up the process in the first place.
The replacements of the public housing projects are reinterpreted in areas such as River Garden, built and defined by a prescribed notion of style, space, and livelihood made to look like a nice neighborhood under the mantra of HUD’s Hope IV program. Typically, these are mixed income, and the math NEVER lines up. Poor people get displaced, not only from housing units, but neighborhoods and networks as well.

River Garden
So, how then, do you really help jumpstart a community such as the lower 9th ward, and then allow it go on its own? Still working on that one.
But, there are many small scale efforts that are trying to get to the point. One of the projects within the Make It Right project was the Kieran Timberlake house. One of the architects described a much more holistic intention and approach with this particular model. The house is a prototype designed to transition from stick built construction to off-site fabrication, where a self sustaining local industry of component fabrication that could be maintained after the 9th Ward and surround­ing areas are rebuilt. Integrating broader social fabric and conditions into the process is a pretty good way to think about. And allowing the house to be easily customizable to allow the project to grow quickly seems like a good approach as well. This project seems to offer interesting ideas, but I have a fear many initial principles had been lost and it may remain as a one-off project?

Kieran Timberlake's Make it Right project
Another innovative example was the Project Home Again. This project is buying up people’s old flooded homes as they are and then selling them affordable new housing. As a group having the capital, they are able to invest more money into the houses and then resell them once there may be a demand in the area. Otherwise, most homeowners in this neighborhood would not be able to afford renovating their houses, much less be able to sell it.
Project Home Again
Tulane University has been very actively involved in the rebuilding, offering great bits of fresh thinking and young, idealistic, and hopeful creative minds and bodies to get down and dirty. Their work through the City Center has provided a number of wonderful examples and additions to contribute to the new identity of New Orleans. And there are countless quiet heroes working tirelessly on the ground, often in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds. My host and good friend, who is a Rose fellow, is working hard to ensure that green can be affordable and accessible and understandable to not only low income residents, but low income housing developers.
So, while much of my commentary about New Orleans has been very critical, I do leave very hopeful, because this was one place where I felt that some of the problems we are now facing are going to change. This old guard, this old way of doing things, this status quo that has messed up things so bad as in the case of New Orleans, won’t last forever. And having met tons of young, energetic, optimistic, creative, and critical young minds and doers gives me great hope for what is to come. And I think the election of Obama was the first major step in that transition. And, as in many other places I have visited this year, the most vulnerable people persevere, move forward, and shape and build their environment to the best of their abilities, in spite of all the shit thrown in their faces. It is much easier to write and think about these issues from a distance, than trying to solve it and address it on the ground, everyday. I just basically looked and listened. So, mad props to all those quiet people DOING, trying so hard to offer new solutions.
Throughout the Lower 9th Ward, there are many signs that say “Roots Run Deep Here.” I finally really understand it. After seeing Trombone Shorty at Tipitino’s and dancing down the streets of Treme Sunday in a Second Line, I have realized how special this place really is. While I returned to back to my home country, New Orleans still felt like as rich and engaging city as any in the world.
Roots run deep

Second line

New Orleans. Green Washing Machine

Here, it seems the whole green thing has gotten a little bit out of whack. It is kind of interesting how little I have really thought about green and sustainable stuff on my trip. It was kind of a shock to return and be bombarded with the word, ‘GREEN.’ In returning to the Gulf Coast, I am reminded how green is all the rage, not only here, but in the entire country.
While it has always been at the back of my mind, it is just not that relevant in most of the projects I have been looking at. There are so many more fundamental things that are important, like having a home in the first place. Land, electricity, water, plumbing, opportunities, human rights, education, and the ability to leave a better life for the next generation. All these seem much more about sustainability (economic, social, and environmental) than the word, ‘GREEN’, just because it seems to get isolated and represent the latest fad. It almost seems like the rest of the world’s homes are more sustainable precisely because they are incremental. So, I don’t even think that green is even an issue in most of the world, but sustainability absolutely is. Architects need to get the basics right and since people in most of the world don’t consume so much, they don’t talk and care about being green, although that is quickly changing in places like India and China.
One of the more high profile green projects is the Global Green house in the Lower 9th Ward. The spaces are really nice, the scale is good, and it is attractive. 1300 square feet, the volunteer on duty told me it was about $200,000. It does the basics pretty well (south facing, shading, high ceilings, clear story windows, natural ventilation). But, it also has all the bells and whistles: paperless sheetrock, low VOC paints, a dashboard (computerized control system monitoring all the energy usage), water collection cisterns, energy efficient appliances, piping to use rainwater as greywater in the future, (if codes ever allow it) solar panels, small green roof, and hopes to eventually put turbines in the Mississippi River right next to it. And, it is a LEED Platinum building (the highest green rating a building can get.). Great, right? Sort of.
Some guys from the adjacent neighborhood walked in while I was there and one said to the other, ”It looks like it is from…..California.” It was actually designed by people from New Jersey. And while it is a demonstration project, it seems to go overboard, a bit, especially in terms of providing solutions that average homebuilders can employ in helping them rebuild and improve the efficiency of their homes in the 9th Ward. I was talking to another architect, and she was saying that some friends working on the project, gave a price more like $400,000-$450,000. Daaaamn. That would put it around $325/sf. Okay, it is the first one, right? Well, still, too much and too excessive. Like so many things in our country.
In many ways, we wouldn’t need to pushing such crazy technologies and issues if we didn’t consume so much in the first place. Of course, there will always be a need for renewable energy sources such as sun and wind, but a lot of this other stuff still helps us feel better and not so guilty about the lives we have been leading for so long. Our country is one of the main reasons we have such a problem with climate change in this world. Our consumption per capita dwarfs that of everyone else. But, you can’t just change the systems by which energy is delivered. It takes a lot time. And the infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. But, for me, that is where the government can come in a provide the much needed funding and incentives for change to take place. The true free market will not ultimately work where it needs to. Look where it has gotten us now. I suspect there are certain areas where it won’t adjust itself and energy seems like it might be one of those areas.
And now, we create products to help solve the problems we have created. I guess it is not that bad, at least. The improvements we have done in building design in terms of energy efficiency have been incredible and the LEED rating system has done an amazing job. But, much of this stays in the commercial sector (where companies have to have capital to invest in these things) or in the middle to upper class portions of the residential market. I am interested in how these ideas and technologies can make it down to lower income people and how it can truly make such housing more affordable, and not vice versa. Right now, a lot of the green stuff is not really addressing such issues. And houses like Global Green just address reinforce the notion that geen is expensive and is a just a bunch of toys that architects like to play with and can’t really reach a broad spectrum of people. The Home Depot Foundation invested $5 million into the Global Green project. I guess they have an incentive to make it work. More sales for them….Corporate responsibility? Who is funding and paying for the rest? How much do people actually pay, and how do the mortgages tie into all of this?
The same thing is happening down the road with the Make it Right project, but not quite on the same scale. Both projects have Brad Pitt’s fingerprints on them. The MIR project is working to build 150 houses in the Lower 9th Ward, of which they have currently built 5. The website says each of them costs $150,000 but people working closely on the project, say they are well over $200,000. The forms are a little funky and a bit off base, and there are some scale issues developing in that process. People talk about one of them as a McMansion. But, it has solar panels. So, in many cases when high profile architects get involved and green comes to forefront, the affordability goes out the window.

New Orleans

Lower 9th Ward

Lower 9th Ward from the industrial canal levee


Gym in the lower 9th

Unfinished house in the lower 9th

Public housing in upper 9th ward
On my stop back in the US, I headed to the Gulf Coast to see how things were progressing after Hurricane Katrina. My first stop was New Orleans. One of the more telling things about New Orleans is that now, there are some areas of the city where you can’t really tell if it had been flooded or not. Some parts that had been flooded are back and in good shape, and there are neighborhoods that had never been flooded that look worse than those that have been flooded. The word decay was constantly popping up in my mind. Yet, while decay is very present, growth is very present, with the building industry booming, one of the few places in the country. New projects are popping up all over the place.
Part of what makes this time and rebuilding interesting is there are areas which have been completely razed. Driving across the Inner Harbor Canal and dropping into the Lower Ninth Ward, you almost lose your breath by realizing how empty the whole area is. Except for those new modern houses as part of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. They are strange and almost foreign forms of a new type of growth sprouting from a devastated neighborhood.

MIR house designed by Graf
But the wide open swaths of land waiting to be redeveloped aren’t only in the Lower Ninth Ward. The Central City feels like a ghosttown, and a good chunk of it was hardly even flooded. It also holds a couple of New Orleans’s largest public housing projects, all of which are in the process are being redeveloped. Each of these offers a wide open land within the city for new projects and possibly new identities to emerge. The timing, context, and redevelopment of each of these projects present a lot of interesting conditions. Many of them were already in the process of demolition even before Katrina. But, after the storm, protests grew into outrage as many people struggled to understand how the city could be destroying so many units of good housing that had been relatively undamaged by the storm. I guess it really doesn’t make much difference whether a neighborhood is now completely bombed out because of Katrina or because of years of social neglect.
Central City
One example is the Make it Right project and since it has been spearheaded by Brad Pitt, it is gaining the most notoriety. Having a blank slate in some areas should offer new ways of thinking about housing. But, the history and context here is strong and established. My initial gut reaction to this project was, “Damnit, here go architects again.” But, for a place like the Lower 9th Ward, getting people into homes is pretty critical, and strong formal moves may not matter that much to people there. They just need to get into well built homes soon. And that is what Habitat for Humanity did with the nearby Musician’s Village. They are all the same. But, they are getting built and people are living in them.

Musician's Village

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bolivia. Leaving.


The rim of El Alto

I went back to El Alto drawn to a city, an indigenous, self built city, that had served as a space of resistance against so many things wrong with the world. The now infamous gas wars, when Altenos prohibited natural gas destined for the US from leaving the Senkata Plant in 2003, brought down three presidents. There is an effective civic structure that can mobilize tens of thousands of people instantly. I saw it with my own eyes. But, I am not going to make it out to be the romantic notion of collectivity that I wish it was. It is not. Many people are aspiring, making money, figuring out this capitalism thing pretty well. Others are remaining poor, but trying to better themselves. Some people are financing all of this through the banks, and many others are doing it on their own. Class frictions are growing everyday, as some of these indigenous migrants are hitting a gold mine within urban commerce and real estate, while exploiting others in the process.
Life is hard for children
The quest for size, space, and status has become intense. A local housing activist was telling me how hard people have to work just to maintain such a large home, and that they often sacrifice other things (food, health, sanitation) to build a bigger house. It is a hybrid and confusing mix of everything I could imagine. Urban, yet deeply rural: Six story buildings sit next to empty lots where potatoes are grown and sheep graze. Collective, but now more and more individual: Social networks are deeply entrenched and established, but people are living their lives behind walls. Traditional, yet deeply influenced by the products and desires of the modern world: The yatiris (spiritual healers) using coca leaves leaves to tell fortunes and llama fetises for sacrifices are right across the street from internet cafes with kids playing the latest games. Dependent on La Paz, but wielding tremendous power over La Paz: While a majority of people depend on La Paz for their livelihood, they can shut down access to the entire city instantly.
Llama fetises
I left El Alto on November 5, we had just elected Obama. I felt a collective sigh of relief from people around the world. It is something so many of them have dreamed and hoped for. I walked to the window and watched the arrival of AA flight 922 from Miami. I thought about my country, its opportunities, its hopes, and dreams. And specifically, what that airplane represents to so many people. It is a ticket out of here, it is a connection to a new and different world, it is a dream. I am overwhelmed with emotions, as I gaze out upon this hard, tough vast city. All the people that have been asking me how much it costs to get to the US. Leon was always wanting to know how he could get a Visa. After giving his family some money to put their roof on, I went back to their place a few weeks later to say goodbye and see if they had finished their roof. Leon was gone, hardly any work had been done on the roof, and even though early in the day, his wife was already blistering drunk.
AA flight 922
But, I also think about Eloy, who is carving out his space here in El Alto, building a future for his kids, with no reason to go to the US. He has Evo. He has hope and a solid foundation and future ahead for his him and his family. It is very inspiring to me, as many people can build their future with their own hands and wealth and strength and initiative, in spite of all the things stacked against them. At the end of the day, however, I am not going to get to crazy about this reality in El Alto and what is represents. It is a harsh.
In some ways, I like to think that the election of Obama is the real reach of our country, that can still affect little people in deep ways, well beyond the markets and products that we offer so wonderfully to the rest of the world. I still can’t help but think and relate our feelings of new beginnings to those of the campesinos here in Bolivia with Evo Morales. They have fought, been raped, pillaged, taken advantage of, and stomped upon. Now, it is certainly not a rosy picture, but the country has fundamentally changed in a lot of ways. Bolivia has so much to offer because it is really different. The greening of the world is taking place in the forests and jungles here. A new movement of indigenous, and predominately poor are taking hold and pushing new power and changes. So much of the changes have symbolically come against the interests of the US and the predominant world order. And in El Alto, the people are working hard, busting their ass, building the city by themselves. In many ways, the urbanization of El Alto is no really different than what is happening in most other places. The form here is a bit different and very homogenous. It feels like a sense of solidarity among people, even as people build bigger, and put single family homes on top of these buildings.
As for design, I came back hoping to find a clear space where I could exercise my wonderful skills and architectural knowledge gleaned from around the world to apply to the many problems there. But, it began to sink into me, that once I again, I didn’t understand the issues. And while people kept aspiring to be modern there, one of the jokes in La Paz was that Altenos would build these big houses, but not have a bathroom. I understood it after getting to know some folks there. While the current older generation has moved from the country to the city, they are still very much bringing with them their rural lifestyles. So, they still cook in one room, go to the bathroom outside (or in a rudimentary space) and many people sleep together in one room. It is one of many ways they negotiate this shift. But, they all seem to be thinking about the future and their children. And these children growing up in El Alto will know and expect a very different world from their parents with more modern comforts. But, in a weird way, El Alto is one place where becoming modern may not come at the sacrifice of everything traditional and indigenous. Time will tell, especially with all the convulsions that have been going on politically.
As an architect, I can’t force people to live a certain way. If I design them a sweet bathroom, integrated into a passive solar adobe building with a tight envelope that is uniquely beautiful, are they going to feel at home in such a space? It very much depends. But, the issue of future change is one of the most striking here is the notion of future space and flexibility. People are building with what they know from each other, or from TV, or from Zona Sur. These tastes and styles will probably change in the future. But functions also change. Unfortunately for Remijio and his family, they are all crammed into a small dark space that is supposed to be a store. A little planning could have designed a much higher quality space that could function as both a store and a living unit, to give the owner more flexibility while maintaining a higher quality of space.
El Alto, overlooking La Paz
But, I do know a couple of things. The home very much allows people to stake a claim, keep that claim, and improve upon that claim to the city. Each home in El Alto is an incredible economic engine, allowing many people to not be so dependent on the markets and opportunities in the modern metropolis of La Paz, as well as the global economy. People are able to build new and bigger houses only because it happens ‘poco a poco’ or little by little. Each step in the building process allows them to fund and support the next step. Rooms get rented out. Stores are built. Pay phones are installed. Candies are sold. Photocopies provided. Shoes are sold. Bedrooms added. Kitchens are built. Hot water is installed. Walls are stuccoed. The house remains unfinished. People live and move forward. This is the world home.
The unfinished home
I returned to the US, a very different landscape at a very unique time.

Bolivia. El Alto. The New House

The new living room

I had told Eloy that I would return in the evening to take a photo of his whole family in the new, almost finished apartment. I ran a little late, trying to catch up with everyone in the city. I caught a cab in El Alto, just because I was running late. It was the most beat up car I had been in a very long time. My window was entirely tape. You could feel every bump, it felt as if the engine was going to stop immediately, and then going over the speed bumps…..I felt them in my feet, scraping the underneath of the car, almost as if it was going to break in half. I think it even had an 8 track player. But, this guy didn’t give a damn. It was his livelihood, and he drove it just like a new one. I then piled into a minibus at Cruce Viacha. I still find these minibuses some of the most extraordinary parts of El Alto. I always like climbing in them. I always feel safer, and it is always a collection, of rough and tumble, hardworking people trying to move forward with their lives. And I never cease to be amazed about how they pile in there. Late at night, people trying to get home. We were full when we stopped. They piled four more people in crammed in all around everyone. People were half standing all over each other. No one said a word, about letting them in. Not a word, not a complaint. It reminds me of the trains in India. We are moving forward and we all need a little help.

I arrived a little late to Eloy’s place. The store was already closed. I knocked for a few minutes, then heard a young voice asking who it was. I said, Lucas, and then there was a bunch of scurrying. Pamela then opened the door and let me in. I quickly noticed she had a dress on. She looked beautiful. I made it into their room, and saw Erica as well, and she was dressed up as well. I realized they had been waiting for me to take a photo. The room again struck me, just because so much happened in that one room. There were two beds for four people. Actually five. It wasn’t until later that I realized the grandmother was sleeping in the bed I was sitting on. After making a bunch of racket, I half joked if there was someone sleeping under that hump. Sure enough, it was the grandmother. What a trip. But, how cramped was that space. The girls had their desks at the window.

I gave them the new pictures of them I had printed. Eloy and Maria were most proud of the picture I had taken of Eloy with his Alacitas building in front of their building. He admired it for a very long time. It seems that people can be proud of the physical manifestation of something so different, it is tangible and it is there, it doesn’t matter if it is different from someone else’s or has a beautiful color.
The dream
It was only when we went upstairs into their new building to take a picture that I realized what an incredible thing this was for his family, and how different and new everything was going to be. Their living space will increase probably by 6 times. They have hot water in a shower. They have beautiful tile. They have natural light, they have wood floors. They have an indoor kitchen. I don’t really know how much Eloy and Maria will really, really be into all that stuff, but rest assured, Eloy is building a future for his children. But, it will be an interesting future because these are children that are learning both Aymara and English in school. The care with which the house is done is striking. It is immaculate, even now. There is a flame that will burn as you enter the door. There is a soap dispenser in the bathroom. He wants the best. And I can’t wait to see it.

The next generation

Friday, January 2, 2009

Bolivia. El Alto. Eloy and Family

Eloy and his family

Current living quarters

New house next to old house

Eloy and his wife Dona Maria lived down the street and ran a store on the corner. I got to know them very well, as their store provided much needed staples such as yoghurt, bread, telephones, and chocolate. Half of the time, their two daughters, Erica and Pamela, when not in school, were running the store and listening to my phone conversations.
During my time there, they were living out of basically two rooms. One room was the bedroom and everything else. Within that one room, all four of them slept along with Maria’s mother. The kids studied in there as well. Outside was the kitchen and a rudimentary toilet.

They bought the plot of land in 1998 for US$10,000 and through the pooling of family resources, was able to buy two plots together (320 m^2). They moved from another part of El Alto because there were no real transportation options and places to run a business. He now believes the land alone has doubled in value. He first built the one story house in the back. They lived in a total of three rooms. Once they decided to open a store, he had to rent out one of the rooms to help pay for the costs. Once he had completed the first floor in 2002, he was able to run a store and rent out another room as a pharmacy. This income helped pay for the second floor, which he is now close to completing. It will be a two bedroom and one study apartment with generous living room, and nice tiled kitchen and bathroom. This will be a huge step up for them, considering their living conditions. In one year, he plans to cover the fa├žade in a cement coating. This will give it identity as well as protection from the rain, as the bricks do leak moisture. His mother and wife’s sister live in two rooms in the attached house in the back and they run a store right next door.
Albanil, master craftsman
Eloy designed the house himself and drew the plans. He is the architect of the world. Not necessarily a barefoot architect, but a real architect. Although he is right across from the Subalcaldia, he did not go through the municipality because he said it was too expensive. He basically decided to spend that extra money on tiles to make the kitchen and bathrooms sing.

There is a festival here called Alacitas, where each January, people buy up things in miniature that they hope the gods will bless them with. I even still have miniature bricks, cement bags, and wheelbarrows from my childhood in Bolivia. One day in Elhoy’s store, I noticed a miniature building sitting on the shelf. It was their wish. And they were having it granted.
The dream almost fulfilled
I honestly had a hard time understanding how different their two worlds were. This was an indigenous Aymara family that had moved from their village in the Altiplano to El Alto. And they were moving from a rural two room house to a new modern 6 room house that certainly rivaled many in the US in terms of quality. And they did it all by themselves on the same plot!