IN001B.19 Interview of Marialuisa Borja Lopez | member of Al Borde team

Interview of Marialuisa Borja Lopez | member of Al Borde team
Name: Marialuisa Borja Lopez
Profession: Architect
Interview to: Angelos Psilopoulos
Transcript and proofreading: Antigoni Kolokitha

Marialuisa Borja Lopez is an architect member of the team "Al Borde" in Equator. Al Borde faces the practice from its multiple complexities and finds the gaps in the system to operate. They mix it up without any embarrassment, resilient by nature and reluctant to the dogmas. Their way of thinking has been developed on daily basis with hands on work. They are quite far off from theory and highly attached to the local reality. Their projects are always seeking to enhance local development and have a high component of social innovation.

Marialuisa Borja Lopez was invited as a keynote speaker at the Interdisciplinary Conference with International Participation "Children’s Spaces or Spaces for Children? When education intersects with the everyday life in the city’". When the treaty of learnings and education intersects with the everyday life of the city" The conference was co–organized by the Departments of Architecture and Preschool Education and the Interdisciplinary Program of Postgraduate Studies "Total Quality Management and Innovative Applications in Education" of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in collaboration with the Architectural Schools of the NTUA and the Polytechnic University of Crete and the Pedagogical Department of Preschools University of Ioannina. The conference took place on Friday 19 May 2017, at Amphitheater I of KEDAA. of the AUTh. The interview was given to Athens in June 2017.

AP: The first question is about the meaning behind your group’s name, “Al Borde”, because it obviously signifies something, right? I mean, something that suggests your way of working and your personal outlook on architecture.
MBL: “Al Borde” in Spanish means “on the edge”, it’s an expression, like you could say on the edge of the road, or on the edge of a cliff, or on the edge of a moment; it’s always like ‘on the edge’ so that’s what it means. In fact, when we came up with the name we sent it to some friends to give us an opinion on it and they told us “That name, nobody is going to go to your office with that name; architecture is supposed to give confidence and trust to the client because it’s about a building… It’s crazy, people are going to go there and ask you to stop!” and we thought: “Ok then, maybe this is a good name” [laughs]. Maybe that’s the point we want to reach, we didn’t realize at the time that the name was going to be in the literal sense. All these years architecture has been more like a tool for us, to take ourselves more to the limit and question our way of life and our way of design. We could have studied any other thing and we would do this with another tool –but we studied architecture and we ended up using architecture like… almost sometimes like, an excuse to explore this world on our own terms, so I think that the name has to do with that. We find ourselves talking about being on the edge and many of the people I admire, and also other colleagues I admire, are always on this search too. So, it’s like a mood sometimes, this ‘being on the edge’.  

The Team

AP: But how would you define this edge? Because for some, architecture is like a formalist or a technological experiment, or for others it’s a social experiment…  
MBL: No, for us it’s more like an attitude; like if you are in the border of something and you don’t know what to expect, that makes you feel fear but also interest, because you have the curiosity to go farther but you don’t have a clear path. Thus, it’s about going after something unknown, more or less like researching is in an environment of its own. In Spanish, “Al Borde” doesn’t stick to a technical or a social meaning; it’s an expression like being at the edge of something, as if you are almost ready to jump from that edge.

AP: Do you consider your practice as attached to your specific culture, or do you think it’s the other way around, addressing a wider audience by being more agnostic to the particularities of where you come from? Because you did say that “Al Borde” has a special meaning in Spanish, right? Everybody says that they’re on the cutting edge, but it looks like it’s got a more particular meaning for you.
MBL: Yes. It’s particular because every time it’s a very personal search for each of the four of us. In every project that we develop we try to look for the way of having fun in designing or making that project, but we really have fun, not just a little bit, so as to learn a little bit and to criticize ourselves about what we did in the past. So, for us it’s very personal, and I feel that every project integrates a part of me, like it can talk about who we are. Eventually, that’s what I think we’ve done in the international architecture where we design. Of course, there are always international and national references in a project, but when we discuss about the projects it’s more like discussing very personal stuff, like the problems we face, the things that bother us in our environment as architects or as people, so it’s a very particular context there. We live in a small city in Ecuador, in Latin America so you already have a lot of variables which are very different from other places.

AP: Picking up on what you said about ‘looking for a way to have fun’, I’m tempted to ask you what does ‘fun’ mean to you?
MBL: It changes with time. For example, when I graduated from University I really–really–really wanted to do something with my hands; like, I have this obsession of drawing while I didn’t like it so much doing it with the computer. I prefer to draw with my hands because I understand the things I draw and I have better memory of them this way, contrary to reading or any other tool.
So, [when I first started off] I wanted to do something with my hands; and I thought of what I was going to do in Ecuador, which at that time was still in crisis and simply nobody thought that they would have a good job [on their own] when you graduate as an architect –sometimes, if you were lucky, you would find some place in an architectural studio. The fact that I didn’t want to look for a job, and that I was looking for other options like playing and experimenting with the materials, was very stupid for my parents. But I thought: “Well maybe it’s not a job in terms of having a salary or earning money for what I’m doing, but for sure there are a lot of things to do like that in Ecuador because we haven’t explored all the capacity that my country and city can offer”. There are a lot of problems to be solved, and I’m sure architecture can solve these problems. There is a lot of informal settlements, there are a lot of people with no houses; I mean, you can find a lot of programs where architects can get in –there just isn’t so much money involved. I didn’t care, because for me it was very interesting to find a way to get into these problems and see what happens.

AP: So, what’s your selling pitch?
MBL: That’s a really good question.

AP: I mean, it looks like for you architecture is a way to solve problems, and that’s basically about designing a strategy using architecture as a tool. So, to me it seems that the question comes down once again to how do you position yourselves in the field of architecture?
MBL: Well the other thing is that we try not to have any dogma. For example, at one point we already designed three houses for particular clients, and then the fourth came in; then we asked ourselves: “Why we are doing the fourth house? Why is it interesting for us? Is it enough motivation just to do one more house, or is it something else? What if we add something to this fourth house, so it is not just a fourth house?” This time, we were working with an abandoned house, experimenting with recycled materials etc. and, in fact, some people – in particular, students – came in to help us. In this kind of exchange, we proposed to the owner that this fourth house could be used as an opportunity for architecture students to build and learn how to construct, given that in the school of architecture in Ecuador this is something that you don’t learn much about, you are not too close with the construction.

AP: More like ‘paper’ architecture…
MBL: Yeah. It was a big discovery for me when I started building, and I really like it. So, since there were students that were interested in this, we said maybe this could be an opportunity. We discussed this with the owners, and the owners felt comfortable with that. So, this fourth house was not just about designing a house, but also about having this other component of doing workshops there for the students to build. In that case, even the builders could teach the students, even though they normally don’t have an equal position to architects in Ecuador. It was something nice because the builders know a lot about construction so they were teaching them how to make a wall, and the levels and so on.
It was a nice experience. We couldn’t do it alone and we didn’t want to grow as an office –we are four and we work with four interns so we become eight– but, in this project we had to, because we wouldn’t be able to manage all the stuff. We decided then to work with a young architecture collective that recently got graduated, and when they were at university they published an architecture magazine while also taking care of all the logistics to make it for free to the students. For me, that’s a very difficult job to do, to research and look for funding together, so we thought: “Ok, we think they are perfect for logistics, let’s work with them”. So we teamed up with them and together we did the logistics and the construction workshops.
We ended up having three workshops with the students in the house and it was a very interesting experience for all of us, I think. So, we have this way of thinking all the time, like for example, in the schools we built at the coast –The Projects of Hopes–…

AP: The “Esperanzas”? [referring to three schools that were built for the rural community of Puerto Cabuyal, Manabi, Ecuador—ed.]
MBL: Yes. When we finished the second one we questioned the first one a lot, and when we designed the third one we questioned both the second and the first, because we needed to ask the question: why are we going to make the same thing again, or why do these people still want to work with us even though they know how to build or how to design. So, for the first one we came up with a design, [but] for the second one we focused on a construction system that basically is a scaffolding system with trip–ups, which the people there use for building houses. We thought that we could copy the trip–ups not as a scaffolding system but on its own, just make a lot of trip–ups, follow the system and discuss with the residents which is a good place for building these platforms. Our issue was that we were in Quito [this is the home base of the Al Borde practice], in an office, and we had to design a part of the school in a rural place which has no electricity, and we didn’t have internet or too much communication with the people there. And we were only going to go [there] once, to build the thing, so we had to be efficient and make the most out of the resources that we had even in the office. So, we tried to come up with a system that we could share with the people there, and the people can decide [on how to develop the spaces, as/when needed—ed.]. If we had a full design, then we might travel there but if they didn’t like it we would have to go back, redesign and so on repeatedly. It was going to waste a lot of resources we didn’t have, because we didn’t have too much money to go back and forth and so on. That’s why we came up with a system instead, and it was perfect. We designed the system, we decided where the platforms would go on the spot, we built it in one week and then when the people, the community, needed more space they did it themselves on their own –and they keep evolving the space.

Esperanzas under construction

Esperanzas in use

AP: And, the third one?
MBL: The third one was a surprise for us, because after the second one we said: “ok, so the system is already the more simple and minimal way to interfere on a place like this”. And then they come and tell us that they need a nursery, and a guest house for the invited teachers –because it is a very secluded school and sometimes the teacher there invites other teachers to teach the classes of theatre, music etc. So, we asked why should we there go one more time, since the people know how to build –they have built their homes all their lives.
So, we were like, discussing, and going around, and we noticed a fisherman’s house that was almost a hexagon. People used to build their houses in a more quadrangular or rectangular way, so when we saw this hexagonal house, with a kind of “double height” …

AP: … like a mezzanine level?
MBL: Yes. It was a very weird typology, as if the guy made that up. So, we say: “If they are interested on experimenting – and that’s why they are calling us – then ok, maybe we can teach them tools for experimenting”. So, we tried to summarize them into four steps, like the steps we use ourselves when we design: the first was to be aware of the reality [i.e. the actual conditions of the problem and the site —ed.], then to summarize this reality into objective and subjective ideas, then turn this into architectural concepts and finally see how technology and materials can solve these architectural problems. We realized that that people already knew about the first and the last steps, about being aware of the reality and knowing about the building technology and materials. So, we decided to teach them the two in the middle: synthesizing ideas and transform them into architectural concepts.
And that’s what we did: we went there for almost a year, once a month, three–four days each time, because it’s so far that you have to stay, sleep there and eat there and all. It was very interesting, because we had students from fourteen years to seventy years old –some of them didn’t know how to read or write because it’s a very isolated community of fishermen. They [also] don’t manage too much money, they do a lot of exchanges instead. But money is not so… [important], like, they don’t have stores with things. They are fishermen, they also do some agriculture sometimes, the money they have is because they sell the fish sometimes, but they have the wood from the trees and they build their own houses out of this wood. So, the dynamic there is completely different from the city. So, we decided to teach them these practices, and we used the nursery as an excuse for doing these architectural exercises on how to do that. It was very nice, looking at all the models they did and discussing… because they are the builders of their own houses, so they did the models as they would build them in real life, let’s say. In the end they built the nursery, and then they built the teachers house, and that was the end of the project. This was the third “Hope”. 

AP: Obviously you blur the lines between teaching and designing; at one time you design like regular architects, then you implement student workshops on the design process and then you use teaching to empower a whole community to design for their own settlement. I believe you also teach several programs in various universities, so I wonder how do you come back to a regular classroom and teach your students in a school of architecture. On the same note, had you always been architects and teachers simultaneously, or did that come later?
MBL: No. They had always been parallel.

AP: So, did you evolve at all in your teaching, as you evolved in your architectural practice?
MBL: Yeah, I think so. For example, when we taught the construction workshops, we also had a lot of discussions. We talk a lot. We spend more than half of the time in the studio discussing. I remember I had these questions on my mind: “How am I going to teach if I don’t know all the stuff myself?” or “If I knew all the technologies that exist in the world, how am I going to teach them?” And I remember that while we were discussing on this topic, we came up with the idea that the nicest thing is to have this spirit of wanting to learn. So, maybe we teach somehow a methodology or a strategy for the students so that they can learn by themselves, you know what I mean? I also believe that in this case there is more responsibility on the student than on the teacher –which is a thing that relieves me a lot [laughs]– even for small things. Like, for example, if we need to climb high to build a roof, the students who are not so comfortable with height they won’t climb up, just the ones that feel comfortable. If somebody has fear –for example me– and wants to go up then it’s okay as well, but it’s also a responsibility…

AP: …to decide
MBL: Exactly. I can teach them how to drill, or other stuff like that which I also learn at the same time, how you make a roof with tiles and stuff like that. But they have to know that this is just an excuse for something [else]. And what we want is to promote this way of designing, thinking or making architecture. That’s why now in the university where we teach, three hours away from Quito, we ask our students to find a problem or even a dream, which they have to solve through architecture. They have one semester for designing and building and they decide everything: if they want to pay somebody to build, they can do it; if they want to spend the same amount of money they would spend, for example, for printing projects, they can do it; if they don’t want to spend anything, they can do it. But they have to figure out how.

AP: What the problem is…
MBL: Yeah and how they are going to solve it. So, if you don’t want to pay maybe you build it with your friends, or you make a thing that is very-very simple using only the resources that are available in your room. There are nice examples there, once there was a guy that built a small hut…

AP: A hut?
MBL: Hut, yeah, in a rural area. Because he comes from a rural place and he wanted to study there and visit; so he built a hut with the materials of the surroundings, which were wood, recycled glass, earth. There is a material in the highlands that is used in a lot of constructions in rural areas –we call it “baja”– so he made the roof with that. It was a place for him to play the guitar, draw, and look at the view. But his family helped him to build it, so he actually didn’t spend any money. Or, there was this other guy who made rap songs and he wanted a place to record his music in his room. So, he designed a very basic and simple system of paneling –just two walls, because he wanted to place it in the corner. And then he actually got to record his CD, and he got published in a local newspaper, and then he went to Panama to have a concert or something! So the progress was very interesting, and we are really happy when these kinds of things happen.
The University of Quito invited these students to give a lecture to the other students on how they made those projects built. And it was very interesting, to see the students standing up, explaining to the other students their projects and so on. You know, they were very personal projects; I remember a girl that said “My dream was to have a place where I can breathe, I can see movies and I can write and draw without my parents, because I feel a lot of pressure when my parents are around. So I have to get out of there” –she used to live with her parents– “and have a space just for me.” This is a very hard thing to share in a conference or a lecture, and she was very nervous and all… But I think that this is a good experience for them: standing up, learning how to present a project, making the power point, learning how you can be more rigorous with the images you are using. It’s like a tale that you need to be specific with, so that people are able to understand what you are talking about. So, everything is like an excuse for learning something, somehow. That’s the point where we are right now. We even wanted to make a book about these projects, and we are actually designing that right now.



AP: Well that’s going obviously against the idea of having to teach your students a certain expertise, meaning a lot of specialty knowledge, as well as a certain structure in education that will be useful to the market or consistent with the established way of doing things. Do you think that the crisis that you mentioned before, in your country, had any influence driving your reasoning about teaching?
MBL: I think what we learned from the crisis is to have less fear of experimentation, and to see it more as an opportunity. Because, when I graduated from university –and I mentioned nobody had a hope of finding a job as an architect– I had nothing to lose. I was trying to get a job which I didn’t find so interesting, maybe to have some money to sustain myself; but speaking personally, I didn’t feel comfortable with this. I felt more comfortable in trying to experiment and do other things. I thought: “Well, if I have to wait until I have money for experimenting, maybe I will die before I even have the opportunity to experiment.” So, what we are going to do is use whatever means we have available at this moment. It is interesting, because we question ourselves on how good or bad we are as designers at solving problems, at figuring out our way, or our solution for a client or community issue on a given moment. To my mind, if you can do this when you are in crisis, when the general feeling tends to be that of fear or to being precocious, then maybe you can do that also on other several levels.
I think that in many ways you can face these feelings by facing yourself: “Am I feeling nice or good doing this? Or do I have other interests, and maybe I want to pursue these interests and search a little bit more into this world on something that catches my attention more, somehow.” That’s what we want from the students, to realize what catches their attention. I think that when they start doing that, then they can use other tools or other technical stuff, depending on the project. Personally, I got more interested in learning about structures when I started to implement them, and I didn’t remember exactly what they taught us about that subject in the university. I learned structural knowledge when I started designing and building the projects. In result, I got interested, for example, in wood, and how the Japanese are using this material. So we found architects in Japan, and studied their style of wood joints and so on –these people are crazy, they are amazing. I didn’t learn something like that in the University, or maybe they mentioned it and I didn’t catch it. To me, motivation is like the way of trying to reach all these things to learn, so I am opting to teach the same strategy to my students. If they are interested in something they want to build or design, and they search the best way to solve that problem with a more critical view, they will then feel the need for knowledge, asking around, or going to the library, or travelling, or for anything will aid them in absorbing this knowledge that is going to, of course, be a part of the background in the design and building process.

AP: Are you afraid of getting labeled at all? I mean, it’s becoming trendy, to deal with designing strategies instead of buildings, and ‘being sustainable’ by making use of the minimum amount of resources available. At the same time, practices like Foster + Partners are still resilient –if not still pertinent– designing buildings like the Apple headquarters and doing the technologically driven, cutting edge, ultra–expensive “one percent” type of architecture. [we are referring here to the global economic elite, as it is known by this characterization —ed.]
MBL: We have an expression in Spanish, “I don’t go to the war for anybody” (“No voy a la guerra por nadie”). We would never want to choose a certain direction. We are always changing and we like that mood, because for us it is also an exercise. Because, maybe today I have certain a way of looking at my life and thinking about what I’m going to do, and yet tomorrow we may be sitting on a table having lunch, discussing something completely different, something which is completely on the other side, extreme. I like that kind of conversations in the office, and I think all of them fulfil what we do even though most of the time we don’t talk about architecture but about other stuff. So yes, we are afraid of being labeled, because then people filter what you do with that word or with that tendency. That happens all the time –I mean, even our parents labeled us…

AP: Do you look for a particular type of client? I mean, is it always this community type of stuff that draws your attention, or do you also like to do more ‘conventional stuff?
MBL: No, no, no. About the first question, we actually still work with private clients, we design houses for them; it’s very hard for us to say “no” when the clients come to the office. Right now, we have a house project under construction, which is our field of experimentation and design. It’s an old house. During our discussion with the owner and we proposed this: “Ok, you don’t have money to make, to rebuild this house and we need a space for the office. What do you think if we design and build this place with the materials we have at hand, and you let us stay here for a period of time without paying rent?” and he agreed. So, we kind of ended up designing a system so that we can both feel good with the amount of time and work that we would have to put in this project. We consulted with an economist because we had no idea how to start. So, the economist did some research about how much a square meter would cost in this place and how much it would cost if we did the project, and if that would be a good investment for the owner of the house or not.
Every decision we like to share with the client and come up with a solution that both parts agree on. So, for us this system is very important because I think it’s the base of the work. We work now in this place and we think it is very interesting that we invite the clients there and explain what happens at the site. So, they can see, more or less, what we do. We say all the good and the bad stuff at the beginning and we don’t have to deal with uncomfortable moments that happen sometimes are between clients and architects. For example, we inform them that we will take a very long time for designing, most of the designs take up to six months to complete, which is a lot. In Ecuador, architects normally ask money for building, not for the design alone. That way, you end up designing in one week and then you start ‘earning’ the money, while sometimes you charge design as a percentage of the cost of the construction. What’s more, at the beginning we spend a lot of time talking with the clients and we don’t talk about architecture. We talk about their lives, about how they met, about their plans for the future, because we want to get to know them.

AP: Looks like money isn’t a big issue with you guys!
MBL: We have built houses for clients that have money, let’s say a middle–high class, middle, and lower–middle, and people without money as well. Because when there is no money we can find another way for them and for us. Like an exchange of other things.

AP: Do you change your strategy depending on the type of client that you’re working with?
MBL: No, we tell them the same things. Actually, a lot of times it’s more difficult to work with people that have money. For instance, we are now designing a house which is in an “upper-middle class” neighborhood. We are building with recycled wood because the client has access to it at a low price, and we are also going to build with recycled glass. It’s very possible that the people in the neighborhood will get angry, maybe they will consider the house as “Frankenstein”. It’s interesting though that the client wants this and they are happy with this process of experimentation, which is what we are trying to explain. To us, this is the nicest part: the process. So, if they also like this process then we end up working together, otherwise they will come for one time and then they won’t come back anymore. To us this is ok because they first have to choose to meet us, which is then followed by the first meeting. It’s a relief.

AP: What about communities?
MBL: We have never looked for a community to work with, but there are communities that have somehow looked for us, or for our work. I would like to point out that a thing that’s happening a lot at this moment in Ecuador is to see this kind of work as community work, like helping poor people. I respect a lot their organization and I think that it’s one of the most difficult things to reach. This kind of people motivate me a lot to work with them, I start dreaming like: “Ah! I would like to be their architect, and, I don’t know, build something for them because they have such interesting projects and ideas!”
In these projects, we normally start with a conversation to see how that community is organized, and we test if we are a good match. If there is enough confidence and trust between the two parts, we start the process. The process is very similar between communities and private clients, but the communities’ environment is way more complex. Firstly, there are a lot of experts that we work with: anthropologists, sociologists or psychologists. Having experience on working with a lot of people and having to manage a group as well as the work, we know that absorbing information alone isn’t that important for the architectural design. We aim at obtaining agreements from all of the community. This is very different from absorbing information, because when the fights start you have to get agreements while also having disagreements. Let’s say that for one group maybe the nature is more important while for others a road or something else is more important. They have to agree, and they have to do it within a week or two –because I am not going to stay there for long. I am the architect, the one who is going to resolve their problems once they know what the problem is. Architecture is still a very subjective thing, even with this kind of projects. So, we do we speak about architecture, but even more so about ideas or feelings that move the people. For instance, there is this community in a neighborhood in Quito, whose residents come from rural areas; some of them have the feeling that for them there is already a country side there. They mean the mountains, the trees, the water and running around free, that’s a point. So, we don’t talk about needing soccer field because...

AP: … they are running around.
MBL: Yeah. It’s easier to agree on these ideas and then convert them into architecture, than to agree on architecture. So, more or less I would say it’s the same process, but it takes longer with communities and we need more experts to manage these groups. There is a lot of talking, and when you have a lot of people sometimes some of them are shyer than others, in which case you need other tools to communicate with them so that they can take part in the conversation. We work using methodologies of theatre, drawings, sculptures, depends on the case. Since we don’t know, we get advice from anthropologists or sociologists, who know which tools to use depending on the group.

AP: So, how do these experts help you come up with a very concrete outcome? Can you afford to experiment at this level?
MBL: I mean an anthropologist has worked with people and the base of their work is working with people, the same goes for psychologists. It’s not so easy sitting and having to manage thirty people. You think “What I am going to do now? How do I start?” I remember when I was a bit unexperienced I didn’t trust the anthropologist that much when she told me that we are going to do a game called “The sculptures and the People that make the sculptures”. She explained to me that is going to be faster than talking because as I told you, there are shy people or people that are not for example the president of the community or the vice president, people very used to speaking. We have to hear these people as well. Therefore, in order to be democratic, I thought that we should have a very objective and full view of what is going on. My first thoughts were “I don’t know, but let see what happens, no?” She created two groups, and she then explained the dynamics, this was in an informal neighborhood in the periphery of Quito.

AP: Informal meaning…?
MBL: Informal, people build it by themselves.

AP: Ok.
MBL: Yes, sometimes it’s illegal, but it’s also very complex municipality issue. So, she explains the methodology and people start. The idea was that one group was like the Clay and the others were the Artists. For example, the (Artists) would change the arms or the legs (of the Clay group), and the others would have to stay in position. Afterwards other people would explain what they see there. When I saw the performance, I thought that it was nonsense, something very basic, I couldn’t see anything. Then she said “Ok, now we will start talking, so what do you see there?” As a result, they started saying a lot of things like that the neighborhood is very dangerous, that the women are always afraid of walking, and I wondered, I thought that “I don’t see that”. Later she explained to me that this exercise is an opportunity for the people that don’t see a problem at first, to solve it themselves by projecting it on others, thus making discussion on it much easier. In fact, there was this woman from a minority group in Ecuador, which is Afro–Ecuadorian people, who said this: “I see a woman there, and she’s feeling very sad because she is isolated and nobody wants to talk to her”. I thought again “How does she see that there? She talks about her feelings obviously,” but indeed there was a woman that didn’t speak at all before, during or after the game. She was sitting at the corner being very–very quiet. I thought (about the anthropologist) “Ok, I will give you credit for that exercise because…”–

AP: They open up.
MBL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

AP: That’s a very interesting experiment.
MBL: But you know, you must have the right personality to be able to do it.

AP: So, what happens afterwards? How do you get things built?
MBL: The first part is getting as much information as we can, and then we filter it, we ask the people what are the main ideas that they have in common. This could be applied to a couple or a community. We have those ideas and then we ask ourselves “How are we going to solve these ideas with architecture?” For example, in the case of this neighborhood in Quito, there were three basic things that came out of this discussion; the main one was the connection. Connection at three different levels: Connection with themselves, connection between the neighborhoods, connection between neighbors, and lastly, at a larger scale, the connection between the neighborhood and the city. This neighborhood is informal and illegal, hence its quantity of problems, for example they do not get the garbage picked up by the municipality, and they do not have running water or electricity. They have to make a lot of improvements in order to get the municipality to accept them as a formal neighborhood. That’s the solution that the municipality has found for legalizing all the illegal areas which are a lot, in fact more than the formal city. Being in this procedure we had to synthesize the main points and ask ourselves which of those points would respond to these necessities or these problems that we want to solve. One of them was the connection between neighbors, the place where the people would meet and talk about their problems that they have in the neighborhood. They built somehow a community center which had a lot of structural problems, not even a roof. So, we thought that it is one thing that we have to solve. They also have a soccer field, and soccer field for them means the connection between this neighborhood and the other ones, because they make championships between neighborhoods. So, they already have the place for the soccer field, while they need the “lozarcos”, the goal posts and stands for the viewers. Its men that mostly play soccer, while the wives and the kids are around, so they could meet with the other neighbors. And the last project was focused on the buses stop, because this neighborhood is very far. It is in the very south of Quito which means that people that take normally two hours from this neighborhood to go to their works, while the buses do not pass frequently. This is a very irregular phenomenon if you live in the consolidate area, but it is very normal if you live in the periphery. So if they have to wait for a long time for a bus, the bus stop is a place where you can sit, where you can get covered from the rain. So, that was the connection between the neighborhood and the city.
So, we ended up making these three projects and the communal house actually became two projects. One of them was designing a playground for kids, because parents an eye on the kids when they meet, so they needed a playground close to the community center. In a second semester we divided the house into six groups. This way, each group, consisted by the students and the community, would focus on a specific place; for example, one would design the structure, one would design the walls, and another would design the bathrooms and so on. It was indeed easier. Both the students and the community would search on the logistics and on the materials. In the meantime, we were also designing plans for a building, and so on. Organizing at this point helps us a lot, having sorted out the groups, we then divided the tasks and each group knew what they would have to do and the priority order of the work. That helps us a lot in getting the projects built.


AP: And what about children? –and please, let me clarify. I see two aspects in that question: working for children, and working with children. How do you integrate them? Did you ever have them participating in the type of experiments that you seem to like to do so much? And if so, have they surprised you at all in comparison to adults?
MBL: Well, it depends. We have worked for children, for example in the project of the Esperanzas, and we have worked with children on a project that was never built, but was interesting to work on. The Esperanza project would be working for children. After discussing the issue with the teacher, we resolved to creating some basic stuff such as building a small classroom. This classroom was in the middle of the beach, it was covered with natural roof and had a big wooden window that created problems because of the parents, who would stare inside the window and check on their children telling them “No, no, no, no. Don’t answer this” or “No, no, you are doing that” You know? One of the things he told us was that the school had to be a place where the children can concentrate and have no distractions. So, we leveled it up, we put a door, and it still has a window, but now it is for watching the sea; no people can come look inside and distract the children. Additionally, this alternative pedagogue proposed a hexagonal shape, as it would be better than other forms. So, in that way was interesting, but it was for children. We have worked with children too, but we also need people who know how to deal with them.

Esperanzas: Working with kids, for kids

AP: So again, expertise.
MBL: Exactly. And I think that I couldn’t do it alone, because I don’t know how to manage children. I have a niece that was born last Sunday and I questioning myself “What I’m going to do with her?!” I don’t know to deal with that– children, but I feel much more relief when somebody that knows works with me. And in that way, they have always surprised me, yes of course. But I think we also have to be rigorous and take seriously the kids the same way we take seriously the adults. Sometimes we tend to say “Ah, they are children, let them draw, or they should be at school or whatever”; this is not necessarily good. I mean this is not what we do with adults, so we are not going to do it with the children. So, taking this case seriously leads me into doing it with a professional since they know of course, otherwise I would have become a teacher and then implement methodologies for kids.

AP: What are your impressions of Greece? Have you found any similarities with Ecuador? Have you even been to Greece before?
MBL: No, it’s my first time.

AP: So, what’s your real impression of Greece? [laughs]
MBL: Well, I feel very happy to be here because you hear a lot. I mean Greece is present in many ways, even in the most remote places – I think people from here probably don’t even imagine it. The other day I was at the Parthenon observing the columns, and I was thinking “What if the people, who built or created, designed these columns realized how much of an impact this design would have. In Ecuador, in 2017, people build using the typology of columns of the Parthenon. I think that the people, who designed the columns, couldn’t imagine the impact they would have for two thousand and seventeen years, or maybe more.

AP: Are you saying that people will build in Ecuador from the same matrix?
MBL: Yeah, in such a remote place, in another continent, with so much difference of geography, weather, culture, you know? To me it was a very impressive thing.
I also found some other similarities, and I just asked an architecture professor from Greece who we originally met in Ecuador: “Sometimes I forget that I am in Greece. I feel so comfortable that I even talk to people in Spanish and then realize that this isn’t Ecuador, this is Greece”. I don’t know why though, maybe it’s the environment. It’s not because of the architecture is like this way, or the people are like that. So, I don’t know what it is, but –to give you an example– yesterday we were having dinner with some artists and the architect next to me he was telling jokes. The way he told the jokes made me feel like I was in Ecuador. So, it’s not a certain thing, you know what I mean? I have a lot of questions; I wish I could spend here more time so I could have a more objective view, not just the tourist or the architect one.

AP: Has anyone asked you if you know about the crisis here? Do you know about it?
MBL: Well, in Ecuador we don’t hear that much about Greece, but we know that there was a crisis here, as well as in South Europe like Spain and Portugal, but I don’t know the details. So, yesterday while I was discussing the subject with some architects I asked them “I hope I didn’t get into any themes that made you uncomfortable”. Because, sometimes we tend to do that: ask too much. I asked them about the crisis, about dictatorships and about the war, stuff like that, but I didn’t see them feeling uncomfortable. They were like telling me stuff.

AP: So, in the end you felt comfortable about this discussion?
MBL: Yeah.

AP: Do you see yourself taking up a project in Greece? What type of project would you like that to be?
MBL: You make difficult questions [laughs]! Of course, we never say no. What type of project? I don’t know, could be anything; but if you want to talk about how, maybe we have some strategies we can use. For example, we did a project in Pittsburgh in the US. It was an exhibition called “Building Optimism Exhibition” and it was about the public space in South America. When they called us we told them: “This is nice, thank you for inviting us, but what if the exhibition could be transformed into an actual, real life public space in Pittsburgh?” They were interested, but then we thought: “Ok, now what do we do? Maybe we got ourselves into trouble!” So, we start discussing, and being sincere with ourselves we concluded that we were never going to know the reality of the United States better than the people in the United States. What would our role be there? Maybe we would be more useful if we joined an already existing process with a community that is organized and doing activities –since there are people doing such things all over the world.
Indeed, in the case of Pittsburgh the museum was already working with one community that was doing a lot of activities, so we joined them. In fact, they already had an ongoing activity: they were trying to recover an old park. They called it “Recycled Park”, it used to have a playground but it was falling apart, it was very abandoned and it was part of a kind of problematic neighborhood in the periphery of the city, called Bradford. It used to be a very important neighborhood because it had a steel mine which was very important for the industry at some point but, same as in other industrial cities, many people had left when the mine stopped working, so a lot of houses are abandoned and most of them are falling down. Therefore, we had the resources of these houses that were falling down such as their bricks, we had people organized, we already had made discussions; so what we ended up doing was grabbing all the information they had produced and systematize that with the people, in order to see which were the priorities. So, we talked about the problems they have, the dreams they have, the resources they have, trying to understand the roles of all the people that were participating there, and how this stuff could become a strategic concept design. We noticed that people needed lighting pillars for climbing walls, swings and a place for rest. We had at our possession bricks, a map of the park, the connections, the problems, hence we could start getting organized and start building. We were also lucky to find some guys with an amazing group of work. It’s called “Project Green”, and it is an organization that works in different angles. One of the angles is that they’re architects. These architects teach architecture at the university, but they also have this big place where they keep all the machines and all the toys that an architect would dream of, for cutting wood, cutting steal, building etc. They collect a lot of recycled materials too. And the other area is that they focus on teaching ex–convicts how to make wall bricks, so that they can find a better income when they come out of jail. They were perfect, because they all worked with bricks, they worked with university, they worked with recycled materials, and they have been working with the community for a long time. Right now, they are teaching the students to make models and they are experimenting with the bricks in the class as a part of the subject of the university, and at the same time they are working with ex–convicts on how they build, making models with them too and trying to see how they can use the brick for round shapes etc. It’s a very nice experience since it’s the first time that students and ex–convicts work together, and we hope that all this work will ended up being an archetype.

Building Optimism Exhibition: Braddock Recycle Park

AP: That’s great! When was that due? When is it going to be done?
MBL: We don’t know yet. Right now, they are experimenting on the university with the students according to the plan that they had. You see, we left; and because of that they are now working on their own. But the idea is that they would first start by building a small prototype in the place with the community. We already made a workshop with the community, and the community saw how the people are building with bricks, and they became familiar with the building and the rest. We want the community to be very much a part of the process, it has to be present on the construction, because it has a particular characteristic: it’s an African–American neighborhood that the people are trying to connect with, and vice versa. Even for the people that are trying to make this connection, it’s the first time that they do something like that so they really don’t know how to do it. That’s why they wanted to build a prototype first. From my past experience, I knew that it’s best if the people engaged more in the construction rather than just receiving a building. So that’s why we wanted to participate on the building, trying to ask and see how it works, more or less.

AP: Ok, great, I think we can wrap this up. It was really nice talking to you.
MBL: Thank you.