Showing posts with label infrastructure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label infrastructure. Show all posts

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?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sao Paulo. Periphery. Diadema

I tagged along with Tatiana as she visited an NGO working in the periphery in a place called Diadema. It had become a separate urban municipality right outside Sao Paulo and much of the housing stock was informal. We were visiting an NGO called Rede Cultural do Beija Flor. ( The place was flowing with creative energy, unlike almost anywhere I had seen. Between music, dance, art, and leadership development, this place had been taking a lot of kids off the streets and offering alternatives for a number of the other kids in the areas growing up in favelas. The results were extraordinary. They had built, designed and painted an entire complex. Youth could come there and spend all day. There were art and painting classes. Graffiti and other street artists would come and give work shops. All kinds of music was explored there, even the youngest kids were playing beautiful things. But some of the more extraordinary work seemed to be coming out of the high schoolers. They had a couple of projects going on. Many of them were heavily involved in breakdancing. With a deep and obvious connection to capoeira, many of these kids understand it in a different way, both physically, spiritually, and mentally. About a month before I had been there, they hosted one of the largest break dancing competitions in Sao Paulo. The scene was amazing. Check out the incredible moves. The youth produced this video:

They were also working on multiple projects documenting and interviewing part of a community that had been living on a trash dump. You can check out some of their work here:
We went and visited a community these youth were working in. Some of the housing there was the worst I had seen. But the most extraordinary thing was the transition of the formal to the informal. In this case, it was represented by power lines. Along the road, there was a point where the municipal power line ended. And at point were about 100 lines attached to it with clamps, extending in a tangle all the way down the road, propped up by sticks and poles.
There are two words that have been on my mind much during my travels but resurfaced during this visit: CAPACITY and AGENCY. It was clear that finding unique and innovative ways to tap into people’s creativity is quite extraordinary. And while much of my focus has been on housing and buildings and how they can help increase capacity and agency, so much of the development of communities and people happens outside the realm of the built environment. Yet, it can still be enhanced by the built environment, and this was one place where that was happening.
With that said, I want to make two points. Favelas can be extremely developed and sophisticated neighborhoods with many opportunities for people. This is not the norm, but it is certainly possible. And I am not expressing my amazement with the work that was being produced here because these are kids from the favela. Well, maybe a bit, but no matter who is doing that kind of artistic exploration at that age, I find it extraordinary, regardless of class or socioeconomic background.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sao Paulo. Cidade Tirandentes & Mutiraoes

Cidade Tirandentes (source: wikipedia)
I had been really wanting see what was going on in the periphery. I could look at in Google Earth, but figuring out how to get out there and where to go was certainly not easy. I linked up with a great group, Uniao Nacional por Moradia Popular (UNMP) ( and the leader of it spent a little speaking with me. She invited me to a signing ceremony of a new housing project to move people out of some favelas. It had taken them 6 years to get to a point of signing an agreement. The big party spilled out into the neighborhood street. She linked me up with a young architect doing work with mutiraos. These were housing projects run and managed (even constructed) by the future residents. I was interested in this model, because in Brazil, under Lula’s leadership and because of the active participation of so many people in the production of their city, progressive policy has given into new partnerships to effectively transfer some power and decision making to communities and social movements. And the mutirao is one such example. The state basically gives money to local groups and communities to develop the housing on their own.
Paulo Freire Mutirao
On a cool, gray, Saturday morning, we took a long subway ride, and then a long bus ride. We passed through Cidade Tiradentes, one of the largest public housing projects in the Latin America (almost 40,000 people live there). It is quite striking. Riding past them, I am reminded of jails in the US. Of course, it has to do with the fences, the monotony, but also the tall water towers that dot the landscape. At certain ridges, you can look along in the distance and all you see is such buildings. One after another, after another. But, it is an election year, so they are freshly painted.
In this case, the state asks developers to build them. Efficiency is the key and they work hard to maximize their profit. If they can more done for less, they then they will have more profit. The result is obvious, although I wouldn’t say the quality isn’t that bad. My friend told me that the process of the mutiraos can get 14 sq.m. more (56 sq. m. vs. 42 sq. m.) with about $5000 less, with the active participation of residents to be involved in the design and construction on their future homes. And more space is critical to people. Unfortunately, with the state housing, people have been brought from many places and communities around the city and this stuffing together without much consideration has generation extensive violence here as well. My guide felt strongly that moving all such people to periphery was intentional. It got people out of the central locations where it would free up for wealthier people, and it supported large construction companies, who have many close ties to the government.
State Housing
The mutirao was an interesting project. I can’t say it was the most engaging, beautiful or innovation architectural approach. They were trying to use steel instead of brick and concrete for the structure to allow for a quicker construction time, but in the end it had sacrificed aesthetic. But to most people who will soon have a new home and community, that is something of minimal importance. But it is to us architects. The cool thing was the first thing they built in the whole project was the public pavilion, where the community could gather. They used it as a stepping off point and office for the construction of the project. For the duration of the project, the residents have been coming every other Saturday to assist in the construction. Before that, they worked closely with the architects during the design process.

The whole process is fascinating and the idea of it is really engaging. It is truly a process supported by architecture to challenge the traditional modes of production that have often created the problems that many people are faced with. And while they have a great deal of decision making power, they still don’t have money and are dependent on it coming from the state.
Unfortunately, political squabbles, budget issues, etc. leave such groups very vulnerable to delays. Mad delays. This project had been going on for 5 years, and it still wasn’t finished. But, the people I met were just as spirited, optimistic and hopeful to see the day where it would be theirs. In the face of all the challenges and setback, it is extraordinary to see the grace and strength by which such average people fight just to live a basic life they all believe in .
The whole neighborhood offered interesting context. In addition to the mutiraos and state building housing, there was also a state financed project, almost like a sites and service project. My guide described it as an “embryonic” house. They state provided a minimal part of the house and the land (two or so rooms) and the people were left to finish it on its own. I actually found the urban condition quite wonderful with the variety that people had finished off their houses. My guide was critical of it, saying the original buildings were too small and minimal.

Finally, there were favelas all around, completely self built and designed. I wandered through them, watching all the engaging activity and marveling at the textures, but also the growth and aspirations they represented.
Yet, favelas are often precarious and face the threat of destruction. I wandered upon freshly demolished houses. While I was taking pictures, a man named Salvador came up and wanted to know who I was and why I was taking pictures. With charades and a bit of Spanish, he opened up and told me he used to live there, pointing to a pile of rubble nearby. He said,” My heart feels heavy coming through here. It is like a cemetery.” He works for the City of Sao Paulo. But, the police recently demolished about twenty houses in this area. I asked my friend about it, and she said that since they had been there longer than 5 years (they had been there 8 years), they were legally entitled to the land. And so it goes……

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bolivia. La Paz and El Alto

The hills of La Paz
The place is defined by topography as much as any place I have seen. And the geography or altitude dictates the strict and deep divisions in class. The wealthy live in Zona Sur, 1000-1500 feet below the rim of El Alto, where the poorest of this metropolitan area live. In the middle is La Paz, the commercial center of this part of the country. Zona Sur resembles many American or European suburbs with large, gated, and protected single family homes. The climate is much less harsh, and as much of the water drains to this area, and it is much greener and lush with vegetation. The heart of the city is provides most of the commercial opportunities and somewhat modern skyscrapers of banks, hotels, and apartments dot the landscape. But, as you move up the hillsides, the housing becomes informal, and at times, it almost becomes difficult to distinguish between the dull brown hillsides, and the extensive self built brick and adobe houses ringing the rim of the city.

At the top of the rim is El Alto (a separate city), recently considered the fastest growing city in Latin America, with a population approaching one million people, most of whom are aymara indigenous indians. Its growth has been unchecked and blossoming for a number of reasons, partly because of climate changes that have altered traditional agricultural practices, but also shifts in mining industries that have forced many workers to migrate to the city. It is at the edge of the altiplano and therefore is flat. Consequently, unlike the rest of La Paz, there are no physical barriers for the expansion of the city. It has surrounded the international airport and steadily grown with low rise, self built houses and buildings into the countryside.

The steets of El Alto
I spent some time in one of the neighborhoods on the outskirts of El Alto. Walking through the streets of the Senkata barrio is a surreal experience. You can’t really tell if you are in the fastest growing city in the western hemisphere, or even if you are in a city at all. You can almost look down one street and see the never ending altiplano, which holds Lake Titicaca in its grasp. You feel like are deeply connected to the land still, not only because of the occasional adobe walls and buildings, but because the streets and sidewalks are still dirt. There have been curbs put in, but that is it. Essentially, the land has been subdivided, walls put up, buildings added, streets marked, water run, and an occasional cancha de futbol set aside. And there are dogs. Tons of mean ones. I have been walking around the neighborhood doing home visits with the nurse from the Consejo de Salud Rural Andino. Even the nurse has to stop and wait a few minutes, because she is scared of two dogs in front a house she is supposed to visit to weigh a child. Funny thing is that even some of the meanest dogs have green ribbons tied around them, signifying that they have been vaccinated. Good for me, but still have no interest in getting bitten.

Rural to urban (El Alto)
This change happening in El Alto is mostly on its own, yet still driven by the market. It is evident right across from the Health Center where CSRA is working. Here, the owner had built a new three story building on the street. It was weird, it looks completely unfinished. I guess the inside is nice enough. On the ground floor are stores. But, where the new building stops, the old house begins behind, with its courtyard space, adobe walls, and wrap around design. The new building towers above the intimate space shielding the traditionally strong sun. The first floor of the building is being rented as an office space, the top floor has walls around it, but that is it. No more. And it could keep going up, and likely will. But, there is no flexibility. The walls are set. It is not malleable. But, it is incremental as hell. Looking around the block, I was amazed at the amount of movement and change within every lot. Once I really think about it, it is pretty amazing what is happening there. New commercial buildings were popping up, every lot seemed to have some construction going on. But, that is just it. The whole city is under construction and not finished. And it is very homogenous just because it is so new. It has no aesthetic. Or it has an aesthetic of construction and change.
I have decided to return to this area to do some more in-depth research documenting the changes within El Alto and in particular individual houses. Stay tuned for more posts.
In the city of La Paz, 40% of the housing is illegal. Most of this is scattered along peri-urban areas that ring the canyon that holds the city of La Paz. Since 2005, the city has participated in a Word Bank/Interamerican Development Bank project called Barrios de Verdad (True neighborhoods). Focused on infrastructure and public investments, the process is also formalizing/legalizing many of the households as well. Improvements have included potable water, electricity, telephone lines, medical services, jobs, community centers, and bathrooms in every house. They are unable to do house improvements as much of the land that people have invaded is on private property.

Community Center, Alto Pampahasi
I visited one project in Alto Pampahasi, which offered spectacular views of the city. It was pretty impressive the extent to which physical improvements (community center, walkways, etc.) were giving rise to many other social programs. The local leaders were incredibly proud of the work they had accomplished, and numerous improvements in houses and other places were taking place.

Childcare (photo courtesy of Mary Alice Boyd)
We walked into a community meeting of women, and people from the mayor’s office showed up giving out eyeglasses and many other things. They all wear well-marked uniforms and are showing off a good bit. Is this strictly for political purposes? I don’t know. At least in Latin America, because the urban poor are such a substantial portion of the population, they have political power. In this context, the city government is getting things done, and that is pretty important. Graciela (the community leader) said they get together every week and do clean ups and maintenance and stuff like that. The neighborhood seems to be pretty solid socially. They installed bathrooms in 72 homes. The have child care now, which is huge, which maybe as much of a financial boost as something else. It looks very nice. Graciela said that people were grumbling before and didn’t believe anything would happen. Sometimes just getting something done like that is the most important thing.

Women's meeting in the new community center

I still have some questions about the long term effectiveness. What about money after it is finished? Who pays for the maintienance of these new facilities? Is this neighborhood at a level to which you could justify that much money into an aesthetic improvement? Can this program help generate new means of generating income for people, which is ultimately what most people are after?

Local community leaders (photo courtesy of Mary Alice Boyd)