Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bolivia. El Alto. The Professional

I was able to link up with an NGO called Red Habitat doing housing work in both La Paz and El Alto. In El Alto, they are doing much more technical assistance, both in design and also microcredit. Once people come and ask for assistance with money, they can also get the assistance of an architect to help with layout issues, material issues, and labor issues. Sometimes people want it, sometimes they don’t. Almost 70% of people in El Alto build their homes themselves. The other third use some sort of professional help. Often, this help is in the form of ‘albaniles’, or craftsmen. They can be masons, painters, plumber, or electricians, or all of the above. One of the challenges Red Habitat has in improving the quality of housing here is that the status quo stays the same. People don’t really know any other way, so that is how things get done. Plus, most of the albaniles are pretty proud and don’t really like to be told how to do things, especially from an architect. But, they have never really been formally trained, the training is more just passed down through generations. So, most of El Alto looks the same.
One day I went around with an architect working for Red Habitat to do some site visits. I have been very influenced by the community based health care system my parents helped to set up here. Instead of getting people to come to health clinics and hospitals, the program was set up to train local health workers to go directly to people’s homes and engage them there. In Senkata (El Alto), I have been on a number of home visits with health workers here. Doing these kind of visits made me feel like architecture is irrevelant for most of these people. Why would they care about space for expansion, a warm wall, good natural light, and the proper foundation when their kid has diarrhea, is losing weight, and the father left home six months ago? When there is no bathroom, no sewage line, and three small adobe rooms, there are still many basic things that need to be worked out. And while basic health care is one of the most important things people need here, it has become more evident that architects can a play a significant role in improving people’s condition as well. The problem (???) is that most people intentionally bypass any professional help (even though it is the law) because of the cost and hassle. Where are the architectural interventions most critical and how can you incentivize them to make people value their use?
Another day in my neighborhood, I stopped in a shop that had a sign with the word ‘Arquitecto’ on it. There was a woman inside who had a variety of services to supplement her work: pay phones and photocopying. She said many people come to her with basic ideas. I need a store here and an apartment here. And I like this building. She actually designed the one across from the subalcaldia (district council). I didn’t really think about it, but it has quite a presence. Because so many visit the subalcaldia for various reasons, many people will come to her and say, “I want my building just like that. Just like that.” Or sometimes someone will say, “Come, there is another building and I want it just like that.” Regardless, the frame of reference is few and far between. When people keep referencing a few buildings, the cycle will build upon itself and keep reinforcing the “matchboxes” of buildings she described. She kind of asked me why I was there, as all the buildings are just like matchboxes, what could possibly be interesting architecturally about that? Some days, I did ask myself the same question. In a place with such vibrant colors in dress and cultural traditions, why is it that the housing is so colorless?

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