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Last week I was involved in the penultimate critique for a 4th year design studio. I love participating in critiques for the shear volume of creative outcomes I get exposed to. It’s always inspiring to see, and relearn for myself, how the design process works. It’s like you become the nerve center for the world around you drawing in disparate elements gleaning the valuable from it and synthesizing something completely new to the world. A thing an idea, an intervention, a solution that existed before but only as molecules of those gazillion inputs you encountered along the way. It’s so exciting to reorganize bits of ideas and artifacts from all around you into something new and unique. I’m sure you’ve all gone through that. The excitement of design.

That project I got to jury for was a remodel of a local county library, which got me thinking about how I connected with the notion, the physicality, and the mission of a library for my own thesis project.

Biblioteca Pública da Rocinha: Masters Thesis Project

Biblioteca Pública da Rocinha: Masters Thesis Project (Original Image: Christian Petzold: http://www.tourdechris.com/data/la.htm).

My own thesis project materialized through research I was conducting the year before, and which I finished about the same time as I completed my thesis. The research was on the urban morphology and day-to-day function of a favela: how a favela behaves. My thesis idea came about because I became acutely aware of what favelas typically lack but that they could get a lot of real use from. Right on the top of that list was civic buildings, specifically, a library. The library project deepened my understanding of the favela as an entity, after all, how can we set our design skills to use without first, and increasingly throughout the process, truly and deeply understanding the world wherein we would place our design product?

The series of outside spaces connect the library to the community and forest.

The series of outside spaces connect the library to the community and forest.

So here are the first three (there’s much more, of course) things I learned from designing for a favela. These lessons presented themselves as specific to informal development but I believe their significance transcends favelas and applies to the built environment at large. Some of these items I may have posted on before and others I may post on more completely in the future. Here they are:

1-A healthy institutional-individual push pull is critical. Each person is a critical participant in her world, and the world around us affects us is crucial and inevitable ways. The ignorance of this fact is as damning as the acknowledgement is and freeing.  Just before my first research trip to Rio, heavy rains had provoked massive landslides and as many as 600 homes and many lives were lost. This was a direct failure of the individual-institutional reciprocity. Codes were ignored because homebuilders had been forced off the mainstream radar screen. The individual had been ignored and thus the institutional protections against deficient building practices never even came into play. This is the same in crime, or education or employment—nearly any human endeavor imaginable. When the group is truly severed from the individual or vise-versa no good can result.

The library's auditorium could serve as a civic and performance space to express connection between individuals and the greater civic community.

The library’s auditorium could serve as a civic and performance space to express connection between individuals and the greater civic community.

2-Education is a key to connection. When we learn we draw connections. We notice out own connection to someone (an author perhaps, or a character in fiction or history whom we can relate to) or some thing (how methodically ants construct their communal living, or how birds can camouflage their eggs to preserve their young), we learn our connection to our place (how my bit of plastic trash could make its way from my watershed to the ocean). The first two reasons I chose to intervene in a favela via a library  were captured in 1) Caetano Veloso’s song “Livros “ (“Books”)And a quote from Joilson Pinheiro, founder of Beco Poema a favela literacy program:“It is very easy to show up in the so-called “asfault,” you know, in the wealthy neighborhhod of any city this isn’t just in Rio de Janeiro, and you see already a kid there with a book under her arm. But in the favela it’s different. So what we need is this: to awaken in children the habit of reading… You may not change the world but at least on your street, in your neighborhood you will manage to iluminate some brains.” That illumination is captured in a quote so often passed around among literati, expressed here by Jonathan Safran Foer, “Books make people less alone. That, before and after everything else, is what books do…”

Library rendering expressing the link between books, people, and their world.

Library rendering expressing the link between books, people, and their world.

3-Our built environment has the power to alienate or to reconcile us in relation to our world. Some communities suffer from the concrete jungle effect in profound and permanent ways. Watersheds are canalized or run amok, flora is decimated, fauna can be chased off. This of course makes the natural world seem aloof and strange, if considered at all. This also applies in the civic sense. Residents of gated communities grow in distrust of those outside the gates, those in informal communities retain in their way of being, in varying levels of consciousness that they are outside the norm.

The library's auditorium lobby acting as an ecotone between the forest and the building.

The library’s auditorium lobby acting as an ecotone between the forest and the building.

Now that I’ve shared all of that, I would love to hear from you. Since writing for favelissues I’ve been in contact with students and professionals about their own projects. Do you have a thesis, studio, or other project involving informal development? An intervention in a favela? A project inspired by but not directed at informal development? I’d love to hear it. Please contact me through the comments and we can arrange for you to submit up to three images and three lessons you learned from informal development that have enriched your design repertoire, and hopefully your understanding of the world. So let’s hear it, I would love to see what you’re up to and I’m sure everyone else would as well.

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