ECO-system over EGO-system & Other Learnings from Design Forum XV

At the recent AIA Virginia Design Forum XV: South is Up! event Hanbury Design Director, Rob Reis, participated in an evening and full day of thought-provoking discussion and knowledge-sharing from an exceptional line-up of visionary designers celebrating Latin American architecture and design. Speakers gave an intimate look at their body of work which questions, explores, and redefines “spaces that respect and celebrate their urban and natural ecosystems and their rich cultural contexts.”

Read along as Rob shares key takeaways from the program below…

Juan Luis Burke, Ph.D. | Moderator, University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation | Welcome and Opening Remarks

Juan was an incredible find as moderator. He teaches design studio, as well as history and theory of architecture at the University of Maryland. His research revolves around the history and theory of the architecture and urbanism produced during the period ranging from the sixteenth century to the present, with an emphasis on Latin America—particularly Mexico—and the connections between this region with Spain, Italy, and North America. He holds a Master of Architecture and a Ph.D. in architectural history and theory from McGill University, which has been the source of several previous Hanbury Summer Scholars.

Juan opened Design Forum XV with an overview of Latin American architecture and architects—a broad net to throw—and he concluded his introduction by requesting of us: “Let us avoid the pretension of encompassing the totality of this region… let us avoid the pretension of encompassing the totality the people, the place, their work, by a definition that ignores the spirit, ingenuity, and ‘Latin’ identity so critical.” In other words, pause both our [North American] preconceptions and our egocentric tendencies; a notion becoming ever more present in discussions of equity, inclusiveness, and simply understanding the experience and reality of others.

Smiljan Radić | Estudio Palma, Chile

Mainly known outside of his home country for his design of the 2014 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, architect Smiljan Radić is one of the more prominent figures currently in Chilean architecture. With a distinctive approach to form and materials, and particularly attuned to the natural setting, Smiljan primarily designs small- to medium-sized projects that flirt with the notion of fragility. Working at these scales allows him to use artisanal production techniques and avoid mass production.

Smiljan draws and sketches extensively and gets inspiration from both the written and visual world. He’s probably best known for this 2014 Serpentine Pavilion, which was inspired by Castle of the Selfish Giant imagined by nineteenth-century author Oscar Wilde. We typically render and make models resembling the final built work, in this case, Smiljan wanted his “pavilion to have the qualities of a giant hand-made model.

From the outside, the pavilion is a fragile shell suspended on large quarry stones. The shell—white, translucent, and made of fiberglass—is raised above a ripple in the landscape allowing an open patio but also lowering the ground plane and creating the sensation that the entire volume is floating.

Radić’s sources of inspiration range from randomly serendipitous (seemingly) to exacting. One constant though evident in his work: the conversation between his interventions and the landscape, “between a known and a strange (new) artifact - which are often disparate objects (Serpentine Pavilion). It’s like the shadow of a relative that you don’t know.” Ok… think about that for a minute. Regardless, his work is amazingly varied and beyond simple categorizing.

Check out –

Prism House + Terrace Room

Teatro Regional del Biobio

House for the Poem of the Right Angle

And the dome for Alexander McQueen's Spring Summer 2022 show space 

Each work is truly unique and an invention of his inspiration. Juan Luis Berke commented “Smiljan’s work ranges from displays of clear tectonic principles to more ephemeral inspirations. Often simultaneously.”

Cazú Zegers | Cazú Zegers Arquitectura | Andes Workshop, Chile: Mondo Nostro: The 21st C Urgency

"We need to go back to the land and understand it as sacred. We need to elevate ECO-system over EGO-system." In these opening words, Cazú Zegers essentially shared her design philosophy and her approach to architecture. In a design and teaching career intimately related to Latin America, its territory, landscape, and traditions she has proposed new ways of understanding and inhabiting the territory—with a properly Latin American language—giving shape to strategies for a variety of peoples and cultures to inhabit space without overtly imposing themselves, but rather entering into dialogue with the environment and inhabiting, while leaving nearly no mark and being a kind addition to nature. With a poetic reflection on the way we inhabit the landscape, she inspires a "light and precarious inhabit" of low-tech architecture that exudes a high experiential impact. A "low-tech posture is proposed that learns from local processes and their ancestral techniques."

Cazú’s low-lying Hotel Patagonia "melts with the land and sea" illustrating an almost submissive response to place and space, employing local processes and depending upon the materials, construction, and detailing that has worked here through time.

The Hotel Patagonia—as well as other projects by Cazú—'melts' in another way. But first the question 'why Latin America'?

Latin establishes the connection to Europe, and in that light, Cazú stated "the 'Territory'—the vast expanses of nature and landscape—is to Latin America what the monuments are to Europe." The 'Territory' harmoniously preserved and protected is the equivalent of the achievements that European monuments suggest. And while the Territory also represents the strength, achievements, and success of its European counterparts, the Territory represents respect and harmony, too. Cazu added, "…from the Chilean poet N. Parra: It's about cherishing the greatest patrimony of Chile and Latin America – its territory: "Before being a country, Chile is landscape."

'Melting' then suggests harmony with the landscape and between people and is what distinguishes Latin America not only from Europe but also from North America. In the 'south,' the Europeans arrived and over time 'melted' with the original indigenous people, whereas in the 'north' the visitors rather quickly began displacing (conquered, dominated, exploited, and essentially discarded) the indigenous, resulting in disharmony – with the place (nature) and the original people (spirit). Diversely different paths led to dramatically different outcomes, likely affecting forever the relationship between people and place.

A theme prevalent in Hotel Patagonia, Andes Workshop (the design school established by Zegers that’s focused on inhabiting lightly and precariously), and other Cazú Zegers projects is harmony—between landscape and intervention— melting, as good work should.

Viviana Peńa | Viviana Peña Taller de Arquitectura, Medellin, Columbia: Architecture as an Instrument of Transformation

Viviana Pena splits her time between studios in Medellin, Columbia, and Madrid, Spain. She's known primarily for smaller projects—houses such as Pajarera House in Catalina and three kindergartens in Medellin—but also for the expansion of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (MAMM). A 'museum for the citizens' and within view of the crowded impoverished neighborhoods of many in Medellin, these terraced "slums were a model to convey both the massing and complicated experience of the patrons." As such, a nod to the city’s circumstantial ad hoc assembly in its flexibility and form while simultaneously serving as an indelible anchor for the arts.

In the context of Medellin, having transformed from one of the most dangerous places in the world as the center of the international drug trade and controlled by the cartels in the 1990s, Viviana referenced case studies of the above projects in a transformed and more prosperous Columbia, identifying the 'Mechanisms' that inform her work. Here are a number of them:

  • M1: Understanding teaching and learning. Education transforms.
  • M2: Inclusion and citizen participation.
  • M3: Public competitions. Instruments of timeliness.
  • M4: Think of the project more as a community garden than a nursery.
  • M5: Explore a multiple (varied), inclusive and diverse structure.
  • M6: Design non-standard series (leverage repetition creatively).
  • M7: Inhabit and plant roofs.
  • M8: Putting ourselves in others’ (the users) shoes. Literally. Sit on the floor as a child, enter the museum as a citizen…
  • M10: Art and culture as tools for alternatives to conflict.
  • M11: The museum as an institution promoting debate and inclusion.
  • M15: The public building as a mechanism to create public space.
  • M17: Architecture as a means vs an end (recall community garden vs a nursery).

When asked if what has worked in Medellin could be applied to the US Viviana replied: "None of these measures and solutions are a 'formula.' We always need to study the local context. The people, the place, the conditions, the values… we can learn from these lessons but should not simply replicate."

Alberto Kalach | TAX Architects, Mexico

Alberto, the final speaker, founded the firm "Taller de Arquitectura X" in 1981 with Daniel Álvarez, with whom he worked until 2002 when Álvarez left the firm. Alberto continues to direct TAX, though in 2002 his interests turned to the urban planning problems of his hometown, Mexico City. He founded the community "México: future city." His lake concepts were significant in solving existing water supply problems in Mexico City and participates in the "Recovering the City of Lakes" project.

Final Thoughts

Design Forum XV was about far more than design, or architecture. Themes of responding creatively and specifically to each client, place, program, and client were underscored by more than just sensitivity to the environment and wielding a light touch, but a call to connect more deeply, authentically with landscape (the territory), to respect and include indigenous interests, and to aspire to harmony in these things. We are called to go back to the land and understand it as sacred, elevating ECO-system over EGO-system, and more specifically to avoid the pretension of encompassing the totality of Latin America and instead embrace the equity, inclusiveness, diversity, and creative spirit of Latin American design.

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