Degrees

Ph.D. (Architecture) – University of California, Berkeley (2012)
S.M.Arch.S. – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2005)
Arquitecto – Universidad del Valle, Colombia (1998)

Teaching philosophy

How does one engage with the teaching of architecture within a liberal arts context? This is a question that deeply resonates with me, as it brings to the forefront the issue of interdisciplinarity, both with its challenges and opportunities. Interdisciplinarity is a central aspect of my work. I rely upon social science theory—predominantly anthropology as applied to the field of development studies—not only for my teaching of architecture but also for my architectural research and practice.

Why is this both a challenge and an opportunity? It is a challenge because the agendas of architectural practice and critical theory can be easily in conflict. If we consider that architectural practice is solution-based (as architects, we start a project by looking for solutions to a given problem) whereas critical theory may be instead problem-based (as researchers we identify problems that might not have been noticed or acknowledged before), then it is possible to understand how the interests of the practitioner and those of the critical theorist could be easily at odds.

As for the opportunities, being both a practitioner and a theorist I have set out to bridge that dichotomy through teaching, or more exactly through the act of mutual learning. The best way to describe the process is practice as research and teaching as practice. That means, I use architectural practice—in particular the act of designing and building—as a field of inquiry; I approach that field very tentatively, with more curiosity than prescriptiveness, and more questions than answers. In my classes I explore those questions with students as opposed to only asking them questions. Thus, I aim to learn with students as opposed to seeking solely to teach them. With that, I seek to position myself as a facilitator in learning processes, and a co-learner in such processes. Since I see the process of education as learning together more than simply educating others, my love for teaching is ultimately a celebration of having learned.

This is how the process of parsing practice through research involves learning as a central component. This process goes in an endless loop, since any newly gained knowledge nurtures practice again, but soon enough new questions will emerge that keep the process moving further, which implies that through this process, practice and research can perpetually expand.

Having made this approach the heart of my teaching philosophy, I have learned how research, teaching and practice can coexist, and how they coexist best in an interdisciplinary setting. What emerges, through a process of intellectual alchemy, is a new conceptual universe that is full of opportunities.

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Courses I teach

Inter-disciplinarity is then the key element underlying my teaching, scholarship, and practice. For me, architecture is most beautiful when it hybridizes with other disciplines. I am particularly interested in that third spacethat emerges in the interplay between architecture and social sciences.

My classes explore different interdisciplinary perspectives through seminars, studios, and field courses. Although architecture is the theme that structures the discussions, these classes are fully accessible and open to students from any field. A typical class of mine enrolls students from majors as varied as Computer Science, Mathematics & Statistics, or Psychology. The contribution by this diverse body of students is crucial because they often find innovative ways to think about architectural problems in light of perspectives from their own field. For everybody in the class, including myself, this is an extraordinary learning opportunity.

Presently I am teaching four classes at Amherst. In the Fall semester I am teaching The Language of Architecture, which is an introduction to architecture’s dealings in both theory and practice, and Architectural Anthropology, a seminar that explores the emerging interdisciplinary field that combines the theory and practice of architecture and anthropology. In the Spring I teach Housing, Urbanization, and Development, which is a seminar devoted to exploring the theory, policy, and practice of low-income housing in marginalized communities worldwide. I also teach Sustainable Design: Principles, Practice, Critique, a seminar that offers a theoretical basis for a critical engagement with the notion of sustainability in the architectural design field.

Practice

My architectural practice is deeply connected to my research work—I write on the basis of lessons learned from what I encounter as a practitioner. Both are in turn deeply connected to my teaching in the loop described above. The question of the role of learning is the common thread that unites the three. I am deeply invested in challenging a key assumption regarding the issue of learning in professional architectural practice. In architecture school we are taught that architects must educate their clients in what is more convenient for the latter—that architects know better is almost a mantra in architectural practice. In response to this architect-as-educator dictum I ask instead, how about the architect as a learner?

Although my main clients are organizations that provide funding for very low-income people to have access to housing (especially indigenous rural villagers from Latin American and Caribbean countries), ultimately however the clients are the villagers themselves. In my view, and this is what I convey to the founding clients, villagers should be the ultimate agents with respect to deciding how they want their housing to be.

Thus, I pursue the goal of removing myself from a position of educating the other, which is a position of power, and instead aim to learn from and with others, in a general spirit of education as a shared experience and a conversation of equals—education as the ultimate act of democracy. This poses a personal challenge because it means doing away with deeply ingrained notions about the role of the architect.

The results, however, are quite fascinating. One example is the Guyana Hinterland Housing project. This project started in 2009 as a housing project catering to over two hundred indigenous Guyanese families mostly from the Arawak and Macushi ethnicities. Later on, the project was expanded to also families from the Wapishana and other ethnicities. Historically speaking, these indigenous groups constitute the poorest in the country overall. From the beginning I proposed that this project be carried out as much as possible by villagers themselves, limiting my involvement as the project’s designer to being a facilitator and an advocate of locally driven processes by which people would start to reclaim their autonomy over their living conditions. This was a conscious statement in response to popular architect-centered and ego-bound approaches to working with underprivileged communities.



The main premise of this project was to carry out an architectural intervention that placed the highest value on human agency. That is, an architectural intervention that would be dictated by the villagers’ own terms, even in instances in which their terms did not agree with architectural design wisdom. For example, at some point in the community design process I believed certain design decisions that villagers were making might not work from a climate comfort perspective. These were for instance decisions regarding the height and roof pitch of their houses. We were expected to build with tin roofing because of affordability issues, but also, and more importantly, because the villagers did prefer this material over their traditional materials. However, the immediate concern in architectural terms when using metal roofing in the tropics is that this material increases the temperature inside the house.

Considering that, I mentioned passive design solutions such as raising the roof by building taller walls and also increasing the roof pitch. Yet, villagers found that proposal a bit too excessivefor their personal taste; they did want a conventional house form—not too architectural so to speak, not too highly designed. In their search for conventionalism, they seemingly downplayed my concerns about the temperature inside the house.

Motivated by respecting their decisions but also with great interest in learning, I supported their decision regarding the walls and roof. Very surprisingly, temperature-wise the prototype house turned out to be quite comfortable. As villagers kept those conventional features, they were also careful to orient the house towards the predominant breeze, and had located enough doors and windows for the structure to actually attract a fresh breeze that would ensure that the house would be still comfortable inside. This challenged professional wisdom about climate conditioning vis-à-vis materials and dimensions, and made me realize how in architectural practice we canfall into thinkingin terms of the parts (height or pitch in this case), while missing the whole, or how these parts come together and interact. Our thinking as designers is that each separate part must work perfectly, but this could be an over-expectation in some cases. The whole might work efficiently, even when isolated parts might not work.

This is an example of the lessons that I learn from an architectural practice that is based on learning from others more than engaging on the grand project of educating them. Ultimately, the beauty I look for in architecture is the beauty of mutual learning. With that, it is the beauty of mutual understanding.

Scholarship

I am currently working on a monograph on the topic of sustainability in social design. The field of socially engaged design (or simply social design) is one of the most popular fields in architectural practice today. Social design transpires everywhere in this practice, through design-build projects, school programs, conferences, exhibits, publications, and awards. Indeed, along with LEED (the green building standard), the movement of architects going en masse into the area of poverty alleviation is arguably one of the most important developments of the last two decades of architectural practice.

Attesting to the great relevance of this subject, there exists a large body of published work on social design. About 40 major publications have appeared in the past decade, from Design Like You Give a Damn(Metropolis Books, 2006) to By the People(Cooper-Hewitt, 2016). Notably, however, the overwhelming majority of this literature is laudatory. Critical literature on social design is comparatively scarce, and this is especially true in the case of book-length critiques. In fact, most of the social design debate has taken place online—for example, through blog posts such as Bruce Nussbaum'sIs Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism? (2010).

My book takes a critical outlook at one of the paradigms of social design practice, which is sustainability.In particular, I study the paradigm of bringing sustainability to rural impoverished populations in Africa, Latin America, and other places.I explore the main criticism that has been raised about social design: that it is an imperialist practice. The basis for such argument is that social design projects often recall the purportedly do-gooding interventions of colonial times in so-called Third World settings. European and American designers often arrive with a comparatively high degree of power to places with which they are unfamiliar, and, indifferent to this unfamiliarity, they make decisions that deeply affect local communities, which often are vulnerable ethnic communities in conditions of dire poverty.

As a way out of the imperialism issue, both critics and apologists often propose that the practice of social design be left to local architects. For example, Nigerian or Colombian architects should be in charge of the social design needs of their own countries.My book, instead, makes a case for regarding class privilege as the most important factor for social designers to bear in mind, observing that the issue of designers’ inherent power over vulnerable populations equally affects the work of both so-called imperialist foreign designers and the presumably more sensitive local designers.

To support this argument, I carried out an extensive field study of several highly celebrated and very ambitious locally-run social design projects. In the book I analyze these projects’ limited and sometimes even detrimental outcomes on the very people they intended to redeem. I notice how often in these projects sustainability was actually invoked to justify the designers’ imposition of a privileged viewpoint on poverty alleviation, one based on beautification and the celebration of the designer’s individual genius. However, acknowledging that privilege is something that we as designers cannot easily do away with, I conclude the book by proposing an alternative approach to social design. The approach, which I call ethnoarchitecture, is a culturally relativist approach that deeply embraces the perspective that beneficiaries bring from their own experiences to the process of design.