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Recently, at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas we have had two different experiences in the Architectural Design Studio, using the informal settlements as scenario and place of study. The first, “CityLab”, just finished very successfully some weeks ago. The second, “Learning from the place”, is beginning. They present an occasion to ponder about the rich opportunities for learning these places offer, but also about how, and if, they contribute to the communities.

CityLab was not, specifically, about informality. It was a project in which 12 European and Latin-American universities worked together to apply the Problem Based Learning methodology, as an alternative to traditional lectures. As the method ask for real life problems, set in real places and a close relationship with the local stakeholders, in Caracas is almost inevitable to include the informal settlements, so in Architecture  we decided to concentrate in one of the biggest, Petare. The results of an early course were reported in a past post, “Inside the Limit”.

A following course took the relationship with the local people even further, teaming up the students with community representatives, and letting them to work together,  looking for both the problems and its solutions. Organized by Trazando Espacios, a competition among the teams defined which of the  projects was be built. This project, La Ceiba, was finished and inaugurated in August.  It was the complete package: the students had  the chance of making contact with the real world, the community got a lovely new public space, and the university strengthened its ties with allies.  More than enough to get the “Relationship with Local Actors” price in the final CityLab conference in Bogota.

Here the video resuming the whole experience:

And the happy team in Bogota, representing the 69 students and 11 teachers who participated in the project:

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Immediately after Bogota we started a new, and in some  aspects more ambitious project: “Learning from the place”.  Here, three local universities: Simon Bolivar, Central de Venezuela and Católica Andres Bello with the support of the French Embassy launched a shared extension course with interdisciplinary teachers and multi-level students.  The idea is to work in three different “barrios”, again very near the community and the local actors, but setting the working places inside the settlements.  Not only going for site visits, but really working in the places. Not only talking with the local people, but having them participating in activities and lectures (and getting diplomas). In this format, the informal settlement becomes a tool for learning: a place to observe,  people to serve and to learn from, an environment to be appreciated and preserved. It is still too early to see results, we’ll have to work and wait. And I’ll be reporting in the next months.

I’m proud of the results of CityLab, and exited for the possibilities that  “Learning for the place” opens.  They show how useful and enriching these places are for the new architects,  as it was explained by Luis Diego Quiros in his post. But I am also a little worried. It seems that the students and academia get more from these experiences than the communities. Even in the most successful cases, most projects are never built.  The community investment in time and resources is huge, and their expectations correspond with their effort, not necessarily with the actual offer, or the available resources. And they need their problems solve, not certifications or diplomas.

Is it possible to learn from the informality without abusing the good disposition of its people?

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