After a stint working for the United Nations, Palleroni joined the faculty of the University of Washington where he met Jersey Devil founder Steve Badanes. Together they worked on community-based projects, formed the Design/ Build Mexico Studio, and began working in squatter communities around Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Combining Badanes's experience in consensus design processes and hands-on construction savvy with Palleroni's international grounding, they formed an approach to a field design studio that integrates cultural and physical resources.
Palleroni's educational philosophy grows out of a belief in culturally based design. Large-scale relief efforts by international organizations, even when spawned from good intentions, often overlook cultural traditions as well as locally available materials and building methods. In contrast, Palleroni asks his students to immerse themselves in the local culture and work with community members throughout the process as partners rather than "clients."
"BaSiC programs are focused not only on the capacity of these buildings to help alleviate urban problems, but also on the reaffirmation of architecture's role as a cultural product for mutual collaboration and exchange," Palleroni says.
Teacher and students faced great challenges in working in Cuernavaca's squatter colonias, which were tolerated but not allotted services by local governments. At times, roads had to be constructed for access to the worksite. One project was delayed when the students discovered that the layer of garbage on the site was only the top of a huge dump that took weeks to remove.
The lack of bureaucracy in the colonias also has advantages. Because construction is ignored by the authorities, there is no red tape in submitting plans, allowing projects to continue fluidly as in a kind of field laboratory.
Yet the quality of design in the Studio-at-Large projects is impressive. In spite of meager budgets, limited project time, and the fact that the work is largely done by students and locals, the designs successfully mix regional vocabularies, innovative sustainable strategies, and fresh design ideas.
Environment for Learning
The studio's first Mexican project was a school for Colonia San Lucas. The students began preliminary design studies in a makeshift space and pinned their work on the wall of a tortilla mill at the center of the colonia.
The locals seemed pleased but didn't react with any apparent commitment to the project. But then a sign appeared on the prospective site, reading: "Aquí construida una escuela" "A school will be built here." This subtle gesture of trust marked the beginning of an engaged collaboration between the community and the students.
This first project served as a proving ground for the Design/ Build Mexico concept. The siting revolved around local traditions: Aztec teachings that stress working with the natural environment. Rather than flattening the rocky topography, the site was left in its natural state; volcanic boulders and depressions were left as educational tools and as a playground.
Escuela San Lucas also demonstrated the potential for designing sustainably. Simple moves were incorporated into the overall aesthetic of the building such as opening it to the north and providing overhangs on the south for shade and generous daylight. Because the project wasn't initially connected to city services, a biodigester and a cistern were built on site.
Palleroni speaks of cultural sustainability as being as important as physical sustainability: "If the people you are building for and building with do not understand, use, and take ownership of the building, then the project is not successful or sustainable for anyone."
Another benefit of the school's construction was that it established legitimacy for the whole colonia. The government had resisted providing funding for the school, not wanting to be obliged to provide other services for the community as well. But once the school was built, the local authorities had to accept the existence of the colonia as a legitimate entity. Several projects followed in Cuenavaca including a library, clinics, and more schools.
Building off the Grid
The Global Community Studio has also worked in Cuba, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. In a diversion from working with strictly marginalized communities, the studio took on a project for a group developing an intentional community called Auroville in Tamil Nadu, India.
They hoped that a structure built completely off the grid would serve as a model for further development in the poorer areas nearby. The project presented an ideal testing ground for several regional sustainable building strategies including rammed-earth construction.
The "U.S. Pavilion" at Auroville will serve as a dormitory for visitors from North and South America. The students' design used the metaphor of the overarching canopy of a banyan tree. Out of this metaphor grew the concept of a superstructure roof sheltering indoor and outdoor spaces.
Under the great steel roof sit four rooms, each with its own thin-shelled ferro-cement hyperbolic parabola cover sweeping up to increase ventilation. The resulting forms are an elegant array cast in the warm hues of rammed earth and brick.
The students designed systems that captured rainwater from the massive roof in a cistern. They also incorporated composting toilets for human waste and water filtration reed beds for gray water. A donated solar array keeps the building completely off the grid. The site is punctuated vertically with a water tower sweeping upward on a cylinder of thin brick legs.
Closer to home, Palleroni's BaSiC Initiative has built migrant worker housing in Washington state and several housing projects with native American communities throughout the western United States experimenting with refitted shipping containers and straw-bale construction.
Now at the University of Texas at Austin, Sergio Palleroni continues his BaSiC Initiative with collaborations such as the Katrina Furniture Project. This is an effort to generate businesses to build furniture in devastated areas around the Gulf Coast, using the massive amounts of wood laid waste by the storm. A studio project in Nicaragua has students participating in the design of a new rural village for displaced farm workers.
Regarding the students' cultural immersion, Palleroni states: "Away from familiar sites, we find students become more reflective, both in their view of architecture and of themselves as practitioners and world citizens."
On the global scale, their tangible results are relatively small, but if we are to change the current course of the building culture, there may be no better way than to open the minds of future architects to the potential of global, sustainable communities.
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Michael Cockram is an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. He is the director of the Italy Field School Program.