Guest post by Joseph Vitale
The role of the architect in Latin America has taken a massive turn in recent years. In a land where the majority of people is excluded from the real state market and relies on self-constructed informal settlements, most architects today don´t take part in the cities evolving nature.
Design schools are often used to conservatory practices where the students develop criteria to meet the market’s requirements, but recently, the efforts towards understanding the city as a complex system, where every piece has an impact on its surroundings gives us a whole new spectrum to envision. Architecture students now think more ethically about the issues of public space, activities and relationships that happen in the urban space. The students now try to comprehend the users themselves, and get close to them in order to make architecture that really represents the will of the people.
Such is the case of the Universidad Simón Bolívar´s newest academic event, Micro-Utopias where architecture students decided to turn the streets of Caracas into spaces for conversation and debate, in a series of talks from professional and newcomers alike, to express themselves on the subject of building through participation, and social awareness.
The event, held between November 9th and 12th, consisted on a series of talks given by teachers, architects, and students alike, each taking place in notorious public spaces throughout the city, intending to exploit their potential as places for social encounter, knowledge and communication. As well as highlighting the importance of participation and interest in modern society.
Many experiences were shared during the week, the projects that were shown ranged from the minimal scale of urban furniture and low permanence interventions, to full scale urban planning projects, each focusing on how user communities that plays a close role in decision making, can help develop designs that portray identity and a true sense of belonging amongst the people.
The democratic aspect of this initiative is what made it so attractive. As students invaded urban squares during the event and started publicly reflecting on their roles in society, many citizens passing by, who were not familiar with architectural academics managed to get a glimse of what’s being learned in schools, proving that this kind of activities are a positive way to educate society on the logic of their environments.
However, such a drastic change in thought is not to be taken lightly, professors and students alike were filled with both doubt and wonder as they realized how the new methods started to strive on a different direction from the usual statements in practice, and for some, it implied giving up on some of the principles that they grew up with. Our usual big, commercial, state of the art architecture did not seem to be the correct answer for ours cities where an abundance of slums and urban residue had to be re-invented to be adaptable sustainable, and correctly integrated to the current urban landscape. A new city, where each individual is valued as an entrepreneur and architects could become a way for communities to express themselves.
In a certain way, grasping the concept of architecture through participation transforms the city into a laboratory where low term tests can be conducted as community projects that let us measure the impact of a building directly from the user’s experience.
The results of Micro-Utopias are just a small display of how Latin American cities are slowly becoming pioneers in social development, and architects do not fall behind.
This is an era of experimentation. As newer, more honest ways of inhabiting space arise from the interaction between the designer and the public, utopian concepts that used to seek the answers of the modern city in the most complex of matters are ironically just being found in our own streets.
Joseph Vitale is an architecture student at Simon Bolivar University, in Caracas. The event he is sharing was the “Architecture Week”, which is organized yearly by the student´s association. In 2015, for first time, the venues where outside campus.