words@bld50 monthly talks


Thursday 6 August 2009, 7.00pm :. The art of architecture in making community, presented by Silvia Acosta

At RMIT bldg 50, Orr St (off Victoria St), Carlton
Silvia Acosta, architect and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in the USA, is a visiting academic at Monash University's Department of Art + Design in August. She finds opportunities for student engagement in practice-based projects, and values a “hands-on” approach as a way of doing. Investigation topics are often developed in relation to issues of community and the public realm. Silvia has undertaken community-based design-build projects in Mexico, Costa Rica, Japan and the USA.

Silvia says:

"Collaborative efforts often outweigh work conceived from a singular or individual point of view; working jointly on a project is one way of forming “community.” In making community, everyone involved leaves marks without being concerned about whose handprints are in the work. Collective decisions are made through different points of view, yet these diverse outlooks share a common ambition to make something contributing to the greater good.

Architectural practice is often collaborative—involving many minds and hands, an ongoing exchange of ideas and crafts. While a kind of art form, architecture is not an isolated art; it is bound to a multitude of intersecting circumstances. Part of one large human art, it tries to understand the physical world, shape it and make room for living in it.

Our quest as artists and architects is to discover and articulate what we value. We seek out situations where a contribution might be made in an attempt to improve the lives of individuals, or the qualities of a place in some way. The work we make as architects comes from us, mirrors our reflections and longings, and yet, it is never ours; when finished, it is given away to others. So, how can we propose guidelines for a work of architecture that induces active exchange among its makers—a sense of community among the people it serves?"

Entry by gold coin donation, refreshments provided.

(Images from Silvia's community-based work in Mexico, Japan and the USA)


Anonymous said...

I attended a lecture last night - "The art of architecture in making of community" - that was very disappointing. It should have been titled "Design students learn from different cultures". During the lecture, slides were shown of 14 architectural students who travelled to various international countries, such as Mexico and Japan, to design and build structures intended for use by either individual families or a community. No previous meetings had been held with community groups to engage the students with the community and with some exception communities were not engaged with construction.

Her example of what her students accomplished in Kyoto, Japan, as a demonstration of “The art of architecture in making community” was the use of wood pallets to construct under a viaduct a platform for fishermen to keep dry above damp ground while cooking and eating. She said she did not know whether the fishermen used this architectural creation.

In answer to my question of how the she – the lecturer, Silvia Acosta, architect and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in the USA - understood how a community is made, she replied that she understood her idea for the ‘making of community” was an intention that may be realized in the future. She went on to say that her students’ and her efforts were intended to help those visited communities, hopefully at some time.

Such naiveté. I wondered how could a professional architectural educator devise such an amateurish academic involvement. It strikes me as incredible because we have an extensive social science literature on the nature of communities and their physical development as well as an architectural literature (see Hassan Fathy (1976). Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, University of Chicago Press; also see John Turner, etc.). Besides this we architects have a history of proactive architectural involvements in communities and their development. Back in the ‘60’s, in Philadelphia and numerous other American cities, architects initiated community self-help centers where professional services were offered pro-bono. As a personal example, I, myself, worked as a street architect in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighbourhood of Morton for 18 months aiding families with their housing problems and, as I became knowledgable of their community’s problems, I was their advocate to alter the inappropriate redevelopment plan prepared by the City’s Redevelopment Authority.

I mean to say that it is naïve to think that in a month’s time anyone can understand a community let alone “make a community.” As one of many dimensions of the complexities that should be understood before interfering in a community’s life, any community has factions, has people who differ in their beliefs, values and priorities for what should be done for their advancement. The lecturer made no effort to introduce her students to the complexities of the communities they visited, to the political context, the various social groupings or to their economic possibilities. They dropped in from the sky - innocent strangers (or are they strangely innocent?). And besides, just think of the carbon footprints this academic is creating flying herself and 14 others to and from Japan, Mexico, etc.


Professor Louis Sauer, BA, MA, FAIA

Eleanor said...

Thanks for your comments Lou. Sorry to hear that you were disappointed with the talk, but as a big part of our aim at words @ bldg 50 is to promote critical discussion and debate, I think we can take your reaction as something of a success!

I agree that Silvia's approach often appeared not to allow for an extensive community consultation process. However, my understanding was that in each case there was a contact person or group to serve as a link, with a pre-existing relationship with community: eg the Casita Linda organisation in Mexico. To me, the lack of community consultation was primarily a function of the short time frame in which the projects shown were undertaken; that being a constraint in part presumably of the university semester. The projects were not, however, conceived in a vacuum - they were informed by observation of the existing conditions and engagement with local building materials and construction techniques. The longterm success of each case has admittedly not been tested, but in the case of the community in San Miguel de Allende, the local residents have already responded positively to the first mud brick house constructed by the students with 20-odd additional similar houses, at their own hands. The 'innocent strangers' (Silvia and RISD students) in this case helped in some small way to restore confidence in a vernacular building tradition that had been virtually usurped by introduced, costly, climatically inappropriate and unsustainable concrete block houses.

I think to focus on the shortcomings of this approach (ie lack of consultation, training and empowerment of the local community) is to lose sight of what was actually achieved by Silvia and her students in each project, in a very short space of time and with limited resources. In short, a sensitive, functional piece of architecture, very much of and for its place, and likewise the people of that place.


words @ bldg 50

Anonymous said...

My comment is specifically directed to Ms. Acosta's tile and thesis for her talk "The art of Architecture in making community." I am not addressing the qualities of the students design and construction - I am addressing its intention. Her talk did not in any way address 'making community'. It only discribed what her students did. It did not discuss 'community'. Were her aim to be for her students to consult and to work with a community to effect changes in their social life, I should expect a suitable time frame to be established for this ambition.

Beatriz said...

While I would generally agree with the concerns regarding lack of community consultation in ‘live’ architectural design studio projects, I think that in this particular case some of the critique in the above comments is not deserved—at least not in the extent expressed here. Although I agree that the use of community in the title of the presentation may be a bit misleading.

While ideally all architectural design studios could involve actual projects, real clients, sites and consultation—so to assist relevance and meaning for all parties—it is also important to acknowledge the limitations that live projects present. The presentation by Silvia Acosta made us aware of these limitations and discussed them. For instance: community distrust of outsiders (for a number of possible reasons); time factor (4-6 weeks to complete the project); resources, knowledge, distance and of course local perception of what is appropriate (status issues that often contradict material realities). From my understanding, part of the objective of the exercise was to expose the students to a more sophisticated way to understand (through practice) these complexities.

In spite of these limitations, at least one third (from memory) of these projects managed to offer the community alternatives to the way things were done. The studios seemed to have tapped into existing needs, projects and a somewhat organised community—rather than imposing their presence. In one instance the ‘pilot’ project not only became a very attractive house for one of the neediest family, but it also became a model followed by the next 20+ houses built in the village. This particular house offered many valuable attributes (design, ecology and social) which, as Silvia noted, the locals were happy to embrace. To me this is a measure of success.

Reflecting on what was in the 60’s and 70’s in terms of architecture and community is extremely valuable for those who, like myself, have had little or not exposure to other ways to study or practice architecture. However, Lou, I believe you are referring to your practice as an architect not as a student or educator. It is also important to recognize that for the 2-3 decades, architectural education has become inward looking and disengaged from the larger social and political decisions affecting social and urban development. Under these conditions I don’t think that we can expect a sudden educational change or improvement of architecture’s relationship with society. An incremental and hopefully improved way to reengage with society may be the way to go about this. I view Silvia’s work and others who take on these types of projects as an attempt to do exactly that.

Travelling to poorer countries to undertake studio projects presents us with yet more issues—worthy of another great discussion night at words@bld50.

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