Collaborations between a School and a Continent

Jorge Silvetti

As the chart of Latin America-related activities since 1980 on the next pages makes abundantly clear, the Harvard Graduate School of Design has had a long and rich history of engagement with architecture and urbanism in that region. In fact, much of this began long before 1980, especially under the deanship of José Lluís Sert, whose professional work was intensely involved there. All this is not surprising since the School has always been the world’s most international institution for design education. What I would like to argue here is that, building on the model of the GSD’s most successful collaborative project in Latin America in the past three decades—the social-housing project Elemental S.A.—the School could and should expand and deepen its presence in Latin America to effectively contribute real urban and architectural interventions.

How has the GSD been engaged in activities associated with Latin America over the past three decades?

My argument is that we should diversify the School’s efforts more intensely into applied research—investigations that identify, study, and propose design interventions that not only help advance our discipline but also result in actions that positively address specific problems and affect actual conditions and places. While the many enlightening lectures, exhibitions, and conferences; prominent or promising visiting faculty; and exceptional courses listed on the chart have undoubtedly changed careers and broadened intellectual horizons for hundreds of people—and we must continue to build on these conventional academic models—too often and unnecessarily their effects have stopped there, short of directly improving the physical fabric of cities and the lives of people.

While unquestionably successful and impressive, our engagements have been somewhat opportunistic, isolated, and temporary; in general, they were not able to build momentum and follow up on some of their achievements, even when opportunities were available.

A complementary model should be to pursue some projects over the course of several years, concentrating in one city or country on a related set of issues with consistent groups of Latin American collaborators. A primary goal of this would be to lead “on the ground” engagements —via policies, guidelines, or physical interventions —in joint research programs with local entities and individuals. This implies an expansion of our operating time parameters, which now mostly act in sync with students’ career rhythms, to include the rhythms in sync with faculty research programs.

What have been the major elements of the projects the GSD has had in Latin America?

Thus far the overwhelming model used at the GSD has been the “sponsored option studio” in collaboration with Latin American universities and municipalities. As a result, over the years we have established a collaborative network of friends, many of whom are former GSD students and teachers. On other occasions, Latin American municipal leaders—mayors and planners in particular—have approached the GSD to study design and planning issues, in collaboration with local design schools, after talking with local academics about the possibility of working with us.

We have learned that Latin American schools and municipalities can seldom financially support this collaboration, so that backing has often come from private corporations or donors and from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. We have had to actively seek or help obtain such funding. 

Also and very importantly, it is common for academics in Latin America to contact us directly when they hope to consult with us about setting up academic programs or in the hope of establishing student exchange programs, and this has posed questions that remain unresolved or unaddressed: While we are, so far and in principle, unable to establish exchange programs because Latin American design studies are mostly concentrated at the undergraduate level, we could better and more frequently bring Latin American university teachers to Cambridge in exchange for members of our own faculty going there, which would allow our common interests to be advanced.

How did the Elemental S.A. project provide a model for future collaborations?

As some readers will know, Elemental S.A. is now partnering with the Chilean oil conglomerate COPEC and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) to design projects of public interest and social impact. It is widely recognized for developing a model of very inexpensive housing for the poor that leaves spaces for occupants to design and build on their own.

But it did not start as such. It started as an academic endeavor with a clear goal of affecting practice but with no clear model of how that would happen. For us, it all began in the year 2000. I had served as juror of the international Mies van der Rohe Prize for Latin American Architecture, and one of the designs that impressed me the most was by a young, unknown Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. I was chair of the Department of Architecture at the time, and I invited him to be a visiting critic at the GSD. His Chilean colleague Andres Iacobelli was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School, and shortly after Alejandro’s arrival, they met with me to see if the GSD might want to help them launch Elemental, then a vague but compelling idea. I found their incipient concept very intelligently conceived and plausible, and I thought the GSD could be a part of it. We agreed that for the next two years Alejandro’s studios would be pedagogic/research laboratories and vehicles to refine some of the parameters for social housing that would become part of the Elemental international competition guidelines. 

As department chair I went to Santiago on various occasions to present these ideas to the minister of housing as well as to business groups and the PUC. The timing was right, since Chileans were well aware of the utter social failure of the formulaic housing programs they were building and would continue to build as the government spent even more money for housing. They realized that they might as well spend it on something with fresh potential. And Alejandro, I, and others convinced them that architecture needed to be brought back into housing. It was wonderfully reassuring to see this positive response to our proposals from government, private agencies, and business groups.

It is doubtful that Alejandro and Andres could have gotten these audiences without the GSD validating their brilliant and promising ideas. Let’s face it, Harvard opens doors and gets attentive ears at all levels in the public and private sectors, and we should know when to use this ability to advance our research programs and our mission while helping others advance theirs. 

Some other conditions were very favorable to the Elemental initiative: It helped that I was a founding member of Harvard’s Rockefeller Center, which was at that particular moment trying to establish its first “outpost” in Latin America. Its choice, luckily, was Santiago, and when Elemental came up as an attractive project with broad public, private, and academic appeal, the center jumped at the chance for active involvement, seeing the merit of having a project of such potential impact as its first official activity in Latin America. The Center was crucial to the success of the project. 

It is also true that working on this project required someone with more time than a GSD full-time faculty member would ever have—and that person was our visiting critic Alejandro Aravena. His studios at the GSD constituted the basis for what the group already working on the organization of the international competition—Andres, Pablo Allard (GSD PhD student and Chilean architect), colleagues in Chile, and I—needed to generate the guidelines for the major competition for housing design launched in 2003. This call generated worldwide attention, and we received 730 registrations. Ultimately the jury reviewed 520 entries, divided equally between those presented by architects bidding for one of the seven prizes and commissions and those from students competing to become members of the teams. By the time the competition was taking shape, Pablo Allard became the liaison between Harvard and our Chilean partners, and eventually executive secretary of the international competition.

I assembled and chaired the international jury for the competition, which included GSD professor Rafael Moneo, Paulo Mendes da Rocha of Brazil, and Luis Fernández-Galiano of Madrid, and others.1 After the competition was over, Alejandro became manager of the winning projects and established the seeds for the organi zation that is now Elemental S.A. All the components of Elemental (the competition format, the financial concept, the user’s design input, etc.) have since become models widely followed or reworked in other parts of Latin America and the world.

In short the GSD promoted an idea that produced knowledge that allowed different groups to move forward in research and application. This required the structured platform of a series of pedagogical exercises at Harvard and at PUC to define the problem and how it would be presented to the public. The final goal was clear from the beginning, but the academic exercises—which tested the ideas and goals and changed, refined, and added new parameters—together with the GSD’s firm and steady presence in Chile during this period, shaped Elemental in its first incarnation. Elemental S.A. (of which we are not a part) is now pursuing in practice the ideas elaborated in those initial moments and evolving based on its continuous experience.

What are the implications for future collaborations between the GSD and Latin American municipalities?

First, we must seriously study the realities of this moment in Latin America and its potentials. I am sure that we will conclude that the momentum for these kinds of efforts now exists in many countries, particularly Chile, Peru, and Brazil. Even Argentina and Colombia have growing economies and have shown their democracies to be well established and effective. Not surprisingly, as we speak, President Obama is in Brazil, on his way to Chile and El Salvador, extolling the exemplary processes that these countries are following and abandoning the United States’ former patronizing attitude for one more attuned to partnership—a guideline appropriate for us to follow in academia. These countries are growing in ways not terribly affected by the global economic crisis, and I know they would welcome our initiatives eagerly. And we can find a lot of specific, important initiatives or research issues in all of them. Take, for instance, Quito, where the government is about to make huge investments in its infrastructure; or Brazil, with its major urban interventions for the World Cup and the Olympics; or the emerging research interests growing out of awareness that in an area shared by Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay the largest reserve of freshwater in the world exists. 

So the GSD should be proactive and reach out to municipal leaders and government agencies to identify their needs and suggest collaborative studio or research projects rather than wait for them to contact us. We should also clearly and quickly identify what possible sources of funding exist to support our efforts. In my experience, there is not a well-developed culture of philanthropy in Latin America as there are in the United States; there are not readily available sources for grants from foundations. And at the same time government agencies, even in the midst of economic expansion, are not bureaucratically prepared for this support either. Thus we need to not only identify design problems, but also to understand the economic, financial, and cultural mechanisms that would help us create a culture for fund ing research in the agencies. It goes without saying (but just in case, I am saying it) that for all this GSD faculty will need to be given extra support and time off from other duties.

Ultimately, I am convinced by our experience, even if it has been somewhat limited in its ambitions, that the GSD could be a voice for good design at all scales and that Latin America could be a very productive and fruitful zone for experimentation and collaboration.

1 The others were Jaime Ravinet, Minister of Housing and Urbanism of Chile; Mario Navarro, Director of Housing Policy; Fernando Echeverria, President of the Chamber of Building Construction of Chile; and Jose Ramon Ugarte, President of the College of Architects of Chile.