We Belong: Collective Learning in Times of Crisis.

“What we are dealing with is not a design problem - it’s a relationship problem.”
- R. Lowe, CONSUMPTION a Project on Pearl Street, Philadelphia.

I am a Puerto Rican female citizen based in Río Piedras, San Juan, with a background in architecture interested in joining the conversation (invited by Noemi Segarra) of how we are addressing new ways of working/collaborating inside and out of our professional fields in the ongoing crisis context we are living in. By examining our collaborations since 2013, I acknowledge how our experience has always appointed to a collective learning process instead of individual recognition, which commonly is an ulterior goal many architects pursue.  

The way architecture is practiced in Puerto Rico and in the World in general, perpetuates the power structures that we can clearly identify as failed human relations.  Architecture is perceived as a luxury, only the few can afford.  It is still mostly white male dominated and capitalism’s perfect tool for the colonization of territory. The way it is taught does not pay enough attention to the sociopolitical impact a building has in our environment.  Let's not even talk about sustainability, since it is more of an added value to built structures then a reality we must adapt to. Architecture has been reduced to the process of designing material structures and its recognition/validation comes from the construction of permanent buildings.  

In that sense I have always felt that I do not belong to that sphere or dimension of Architecture. Granted we have a vast human built environment, what is lacking is human interaction in it. What is maybe the single biggest consumer of materials?, the built environment, which uses about half of all raw material extracts. We need to stop building and devouring our earth, taking advantage of what already exists.  In that sense, my interest has always been to question what is the social impact of a design/space and how? coming from Architecture, can I put my practice to the service of others, in order for me to do this I must also learn from others.  

3 projects: Desayuno Calle, Iluminacción, DIO Urbanism.

Aside from other jobs/projects I have done, these three projects have been in essence, what I truly consider my praxis.  They also have a very similar mode of production to Noemi’s approach with her practice as well in Cuerpo y Ciudad and Piso Proyecto. These projects consist of an exercise of human interaction with the built (and unbuilt) environment to learn from new experiences that can transform our daily isolated and disconnected habits and rituals.  We engaged in an ephemeral experimentation in public space brought forward from a collective democratic effort. In this way, we built social interaction, in a happening nature, reinforcing the sense of community, long lost in many areas by the way our city works.

1. Desayuno Calle is an ongoing tool for exchange of many sorts in diverse public spaces.  Since November of 2008, we have been inviting people, groups and communities to gather and bring food to share, among other things. At the beginning it started as an action of occupying.  In very simplified terms San Juan, mostly all Puerto Rico cities are car oriented, thus we have many unused and unattended public space. There is also a lack of consistent public life in our cities, mixed with a lack of mobility (efficient public transportation is almost inexistent), which results in an unclaimed, deteriorated territory.  Our invitation was more than just to share food, conversations, books, plants and other stuff but to raise questions of what is public space? who does it belong to? and what can we do with it?

Another realization is that by provoking these encounters we were building relationships, not only from one person with another, but by putting a moving body in a space, bridges were being built between people, the environment and relevant causes to us.

Desayuno Calle #17, 2010. Public breakfast in front of the University of Puerto Rico gates in solidarity to the student strike movement against budget cuts and an increase in tuition fees.

2. Iluminaccion was part of an open call workshop for citizens to study the limits of public space. Each participant expressed their worries and together we voted to attend one personal concern. We choose the lack of proper illumination of a street in Rio Piedras.  As an action we worked along with fellow neighbors of the area to have a self made light festival.  A petition was made and signs were gathered the night of the event. Two weeks after we submitted the petition, the light posts were lit.

Iluminacción. Self organized community light festival to bring awareness of Río Piedra’s poorly lit streets

3. DIOurselves Urbanism is an elective course I am teaching in the School of Architecture of The University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.*  This course’s objective is to expose the student to a collective learning process by putting them in collaboration between themselves and other communities. Aside from discussing Lefebvre’s the The Right to The City and the history of bottom-up city planning, I push them outside their comfort (isolated) relationship of designing something, into a direct palpable experience where they discover the path of try/fail/learn from each other that interdisciplinary collaboration brings forth. This semester exercise is to co-create a new Piso or a new platform for movement in a remanent space of The UPR’s Gender Studies Program with Noemí’s class.

Awareness exercise on site, front of the University of   Puerto Rico Women and Gender Studies Program with students from both our classes in the space of intervention.

We have and still are creating a realm where we belong.

What joins me to Noemi’s work, first, we are drawn to each other by our common interest to dissolve or deconstruct physical, emotional and psychological boundaries between our fields in relationship with others. We are women taking part in deconstructing patriarchal structures of doing inside and outside the academic field. We both embrace the spontaneous/improvisational nature of our practices as a root because it guides us to openness in new ways of doing, always in search of improving our relationship with ourselves, the environment and with others.

By confronting the limits of the profession we are formed in, we discover we do not belong. In order to re-conceptualize any practice, the first moments of recognition have to do with recognizing oneself as radically other, not of this system, not of the normalized way of being. That conceptual shift allows one to consider praxis as particular to one’s embodied standpoint, – there is no way for me/you/us to step outside of my/your/our body/bodies to create anything. We may develop tools for all of us to use, methods, codes, programs to help us practice – but what gets coded or institutionalized, what gets marked as knowledge, for what type of normative body, all that should be questioned.

We must now more than ever stand strong to embrace our praxis and ways of doing that have always fought against the oppressive structures of the neoliberal/male dominated/capitalist forces.  The colonizing powers have always been there but now become more evident and in our face with the Trump regime and in our case with the Junta de Control Fiscal.  It is the moment to speak out, come out of the shadows of comfort or individualism and understand that every single effort people and communities have historically made to fight against the feeling of not belonging must come forward to share, act and empower.  We belong to ourselves.

Piso Móvil reinstalled in front of UPR’s Gender Studies Program. Piso Móvil is a platform designed and built by architecture students in 2013/14 in collaboration with Piso Proyecto. It has traveled along way through different spaces. It is in pretty bad shape now.  As a conscious decision we have determined it will perish in this space, were a new Piso will arise as part of the collaboration between our students.

* I’ve been a faculty member for the past 6 years and have always been swimming against the Academic tide by bringing forward contemporary debates that question the profession power structures and system.

Andrea Bauzá . 3/22/2017
Professor at UPR’s School of Architecture
andreabauza.info / urbanoactivo.com