More From the Notebook of Sergio Palleroni

This month’s issue of Metropolis features a multifaceted look at design activists in Public-Interest Architecture. A discussion with Sergio Palleroni, co-founder and director of BaSiC Initiative is included as a sidebar in From the Notebook of Sergio Palleroni, but the conversation with the architect—which we present to you here— included more information on his involvement with the UN, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and the important role that women play in his work.

How did your involvement in social justice issues and education start?
I had gone to Mexico City in ’85 to work on the reconstruction after the earthquake as part of the World Bank. But before that, I had worked for the UN and the governments of Nicaragua and Colombia. My work had been very hands-on with communities, trying to figure out ways to preserve native cultures. When I was invited to teach in a special fellowship at the University of Oregon in the late 80’s, my students said, “We want to be doing what you’re doing.” So I invited them—actually, they invited themselves—down to Mexico. My ambition was sustainability, but in a cultural sense: sustaining cultures that were in danger of disappearing culturally or politically. The issue of expanding to environmental sustainability began to occur in the late 80s as we began to realize that this was both an environmental and economic issue, because the poor tend to live in the most environmentally degraded places. So we combined both missions.

When did the program start?
Basic Initiative started in 1994. The original work started in the 80s when I was at the University of Oregon, and then at Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México, the big monster university in Mexico City. It was a combined project. We became a formal program at the University of Washington. The university saw it as the kind of social outreach and service learning program. That school and Stanford were pioneers in realizing that their students needed to go out and engage the world. Half the learning of the university is in the field. You can’t create one kind of knowledge without understanding the other one, if you’re going to create good citizens. And I think that’s what’s been at the heart of what we’ve been trying to do—create a sense of citizenship, a sense of responsibility, and the empowerment that comes with citizenship, and impart it on the students through projects in the developing world.

How do you structure a typical Basic Initiative project?
The way we work it is that, depending on the project, we’ll create a team by recruiting different students. Sometimes it will be purely architecture students. There’s always architecture and engineering students because that’s where we’re initiating it. But we just did the Alley Flat Initiative for the University of Texas. That had business and public policy students, because we were asking: how do you scale this low income housing model up?

How do you find projects?
I wish I could say there’s a discrete, written policy for it. Initially, they came from projects that I knew about through the UN. There were many projects that weren’t to the scale or to the interest of the UN. They were either too small, or didn’t involve political groups with much influence with the national government. UN projects had to be signed off with the national governments. So I began to pick up the projects that I thought were of merit. As our reputation has grown, we’ve had the luck in the last few years to be invited. We now have a backlog of 50-some projects. God knows how we’re going to get through them all, but they are all of interest.

What’s the next step?
Then the next step is actually a process where we put together a team of faculty. It can either be within one institution or cross-institutional. Let’s say there’s going to be a big policy component. So we put together teams with that expertise. We put an offering at the university saying: this initiative is going to have X,Y, and Z projects coming up, and if you’re in these disciplines and interested in this, please sign up. Then we ask the students to make a 2 year commitment to the project. The commitment doesn’t mean that every course you take relates to this project, but it means that you become part of a group who prepare for a year for the experience—prepare a semester or a year before you have the experience. That means research, putting together a programming phase. It means flying a representative group out to the site, to meet the people who understand the project. I should mention that we don’t do projects without a local not-for-profit partner. We feel like we can’t stand in for local political process. I don’t want to play colonialist and come in and tell them what they need. Of the 55 projects we have done—which range in scale from libraries to housing programs—over 90% are with women’s groups in the developing world.

Why is that?
The last 25 years the most measurable large-scale movement has been among women in these communities around issues of health, children and family. You see that in the Grameen Bank and the guys who won the Nobel Prize for micro-credit lending in economics. Women have shown a capacity to organize themselves along the lines of a community rather than a political process. They’re always representative of a community. It doesn’t mean we exclude the men. We include the political leaders, we try to include everybody, but the people who seek us out and always then become the backbone of these processes tend to be women.

What kinds of projects are currently in development?
We have the Alley Flat Initiative which is in central Texas. It’s sustainable housing for people of low income. And then we’ve had a project with David Perkes’s center in Biloxi. We have two emerging projects with Arup. One of them is in northern India, on the border with Nepal. We have a project in Tunisia with the UN and women’s agriculture groups to create the first women’s center in northern Africa. That’s going to be in Al-Fez, the old city where Hannibal came from. So that’s going to be a center for women who live in agriculture communities to come for technology, organization, things like that. And it’s also going to include a water center.

Let’s talk about the particular cultural moment we’re in right now. The American pavilion at the Venice Biennale dealt with social issues; Bryan Bell’s book was recently released; and last year the Cooper Hewitt had “Design for the Other 90%.” What’s going on? Is there a movement afoot?
Definitely. I can give you a series of different perspectives. In the academic there was a real sense about ten years ago that universities had become disconnected from our communities. And that was coming back to bite them, because communities were voting no to tax increases, and universities were beginning to feel the pinch. They were realizing that they needed to connect more with the communities. And of course, it’s had a tremendous success. It became very popular; students wanted to become more engaged in issues. At the end of the studio process, we ask our students to reflect on everything, because our end goal is actually to create reflective practitioners. When I talk to my students, the thing that they love about these programs is that they feel like what they’re doing has meaning. They see a lot of problems in the world. They feel a certain frustration not being able to do anything about it, and so the programs offer them an opportunity to see how their roles as architects or economists could be of use to affect change.

Today it seems like every architecture school has some kind of community outreach and hands-on design/build program attached to it.
Yes. Part of it is maybe it’s the flavor of the season. But it’s also driven by the fact that these projects provide a rich experience in all the things that make architecture unique. It’s not just about the pure things that you do on paper, which can be extraordinary, but it’s also about community relations, talking to the client, figuring out the site. The other thing that’s driving it is the environmental crisis has made us rethink the way we do things. It’s about local culture. In the end, it’s teaching us that, yes, we may look at it globally and say, “Oh my god, we’re screwed,” but so many of the emerging solutions are local. That’s kind of empowering but also paradigm-shifting. Because it’s making us rethink the way we approach problems. The environmental crisis has created a new kind of activism.

You talked about tying the social and economic component with sustainability long before the SEED (Social Economic Environmental design) idea. For a long time a lot of these movements ran on parallel tracks; they’re now converging. Why?
The divisions between economic development, social disparities and environmentalism were created by the fact that 20-some years ago, all those camps were led by visionaries who were trying to get their voices heard. Now a lot of those people have been heard and their work is beginning to get built. But people are also recognizing that no single person or movement offers the solution, and if you pull on all the threads you realize they’re all connected. That becomes clear to my students the first day that they spend living in the squatter communities with our clients. You see that if you make these people better off economically, but they maintain the same waste cycle, they can be just as badly off down stream. Or if they don’t have the economic means to engage change, there’s not going to be any environmental change. We flush our toilets 20 times. That affects somebody else who can’t afford the clean water that we’re using to flush our toilets. It’s all interconnected.

You’re training the next generation of architects. How do you want them to look at the world after having been through the Basic Initiative experience?
If I can get people out the door who reflect on their actions—as citizens, as members of their communities—then I think we’re going to be producing the kind of people who will be able to address problems that we can’t even imagine the world will be facing. Secondly, I try to create a kind of microcosm of society in each of these projects. You might find yourself next to a law student, or a medical student. Our studio labs have a lot of medical students, because their idea of health is so fundamental to them. The Hippocratic oath is a much more hardcore set of values about how to serve communities. It’s always good to present architecture students with that. And having students collaborate across disciplines now will lead to a society where disciplines will not be divided along these boundaries but instead will join forces to solve problems. Because one of the issues today is that solutions are so thin often because disciplines don’t collaborate enough to make them profound, broad-based, and long-term. I’m hoping to instill that kind of transdisciplinary exchange and collaboration in their minds so that in the future when they are confronted by a problem, they will seek each others’ help out.

Categories: Cities