•Border Report•

BorderStudio/REPORT April 31 2011/PeterTLang

Founded in 1992, Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio opened an alternative front in American architectural education. For Mockbee architecture had lost touch with its primary goal to improve the common good.  The discipline had been set adrift, ignoring a sizable amount of the general population architects are supposedly dedicated to serve.

Writing in Architectural Design Everyday in 1998, Mockbee noted, “Architecture, more than any other art form, is a social art and must rest on the social and cultural base of its time and place. (…) As a social art, architecture must be made where it is and out of what exists there.” * For Mockbee, the challenge for today’s aspiring architects is precisely to understand what to collectively make from a neighborhood community. His is a better way to gain a community’s consensus, to make lasting partnerships that will better serve the interests of the people.

Mockbee’s approach to architecture and society is not something gained from standard textbooks. Though we are trained to act as enlightened architects and to have an unrivalled ‘command’ of esthetic skills and professional expertise, we cannot simply assume that a single standard of practice prevails for all.  And this is where we meet our biggest impasse as architects. For one, it’s hard to treat diverse social challenges if one has little experience dealing with different kinds of individual situations and living conditions. In other words, how do we deal with an enormous segment of the world’s population living in these unregulated urban settlements that remain, like their inhabitants, largely undocumented and outside mainstream institutions?

A view of Las Lomas from the Colonias Unidas Community Center.

Strange as it seems, making wax candles, the objective of the first design studio assignment called “MicroProduX” https://arch406spring11.wordpress.com/micro-produx is in fact an excellent illustration of this overall approach to working with border communities. To begin with, this was an initiative proposed by the well-organized cooperative Colonias Unidas, based in Las Lomas, an extended informal settlement with a population now around 3100. Their cooperative, founded in 1989, has managed to overcome many of the problems that frequently plague these unincorporated communities along the US side of the Rio Grande River.

The Colonias Unidas leadership had asked us in November of 2010 if we could look into helping them with researching different methods for wax candle manufacture, in order to come up with ways of building back their funding base that normally went to staffing their community center and providing basic activities to keep their kids out of trouble after school. Our Texas A&M students were charged with learning the art of wax making from scratch, but keeping to the most economical methods possible, with the emphasis on how each of the creative processes they developed might be presented in a public workshop. Some of the eventual creative byproducts of this exercise ranged from organic based wax tiles to wax light bulbs that could be screwed into the sockets of discarded lamp stands. The students illustrated their individual strategies, through 30 second “shorts”—videotapes featuring each student’s project and personal descriptions tracking their successes and failures. (see https://arch406spring11.wordpress.com/%E2%80%A2video%E2%80%A2/ )

Cecilia Giusti, a specialist in micro economic practices from A&M’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, pulled together the workshop at the community center by arranging for the students to present their work to the Colonia’s leadership and to Marlene Rodiguez, a Senior Loan Officer from the NGO Accion Texas. Not only did the Colonias Unidas community recognize the many variations to making wax candles from recycled candle wax collected through the local churches, or leftover fat from the butcher shop for that matter, but they could also review different methods of making unusual shapes by using plastic cookie packaging or plastic water bottles for molds.The locals truly appreciated the immense creativity the students brought to their investigations. Cecilia later grouped the participants together to discuss financing strategies to launch a first line of wax products.

So what has this do to with learning about architecture? A lot, if you consider that this assignment behaves like a microcosm for a more universal human challenge, connecting the interests of a social group to a set of creative skills that builds towards their greater well being. A design for a community building can only reflect the true creative spirit of a community if we share their aspirations and values. A lot of what the students got from the Wax workshop was that the people of Las Lomas were truly enthusiastic about some of the most creative designs presented, and were eager to get started themselves. Just because a community may lack basic resources, it does not mean they do not value good aesthetics and well functioning solutions.

The workshop that we conducted down here on the border, from April 30 to May 1, produced two other significant milestones, or if you like, architectures. One was a wall mural, a full scaled work featuring original “fish monsters” as part of a series that began in the Spring of 2010 with the first Border studio, and that contributed to visually enclosing on the opposite side the large concrete paved plaza area that doubled as playground, open air theater and movie house. The wall mural, spanning some 75 feet in length, required a late night collective effort to use the darkness to project onto the white primed walls the outlines in full scale of the figures and slogans, designed for the smallest kids in the community center. This year’s student most innovative contribution was to introduce ‘black boards’ within the mural composition, enabling the teachers and councilors to chalk up outdoor lessons.

The other planned building event was a 8 foot by 8 foot Gazebo, designed with a graceful parabolic trellis and two benches, to be set in the children’s garden area. This effort, an all day installation, brought students together with a half a dozen of the community’s local builders, carpenters and skilled workers. With expert advice provided by John Nichols (Professor at the Department of Construction Science), who was joining the border workshop for the second year running, the crew of A&M students and local builders overcame stifling heat and hard terrain to complete the freestanding project. The Gazebo will be the first in a series of mini projects that will be created for the Colonias Unidas, that will include for next fall a joint design between the departments of Architecture and Construction Science for a new children’s play set as well as a self-sufficient off the grid modular shelter to serve as a home base for the A&M field researchers.

Some might still try to dismiss these efforts for not being the stuff of full scaled architecture. But this attitude completely misses the point. Gaining the trust of the locals to join in—to the point that they bring of their own volition even their most valued construction tools—or trust you with their kids—guarantees everyone has a stake in the project. The advantage over arriving as the all-knowing “expert” is that the locals are not talked down to. Instead they can join in a conversation that gives them a significant role in the process, and pride in the collective effort. One of the local carpenters who joined our effort in making the Gazebo that day told our students that he would assure them that the structure would be maintained while we were not there.  Isn’t it part of every architect’s concern to create an environment that brings the community together, and improves, even through the smallest gestures, the quality of the local’s daily life?

Which leads me to conclude that working with a border community such as Colonias Unidas, regardless of their individual incomes or collective wealth, is not an act of charity. We are not donating advice unilaterally, nor imposing one way of life on another’s. Nor are we stubbornly ignoring the community’s hard won improvements and their politically savvy achievements over the years to offer this neighborhood ‘advanced’ know-how and or facilitate their technological dependence. Quite the opposite, each of our projects are cooperative efforts from the start, initiated by and large by the community itself, and responding to specific issues that are deemed most critical to improving the way they live in their environment. We as students and faculty learn a lot in return, on how to live by wasting less, making the most of local resources, and in greater communal solidarity. In our age of frequent natural disasters and abundant man-made follies, we, the so-called experts, are in fact growing to respect and admire how a good portion of the world’s population lives more frugally and efficiently.

The success of our 406 studio owes quite a lot to our extremely cooperative arrangement with highly devoted and well organized local community leaders. As one of the propelling forces behind the Colonias Unidas, Blanca Juarez, speaking to our group at the end of the day, described working all together in Las Lomas as a “give and take” situation, where everyone, students and “Valley” locals equally stand to benefit.

That’s how I see our program moving, and where I hope in these coming years we can establish, like Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio, a Border Studio where we can contribute to enacting real changes in the lives of the population living in Las Lomas as well as the lives of our faculty and students.

*TEXT REFERENCE: Samuel Mockbee, Architectural Design Everyday, http://samuelmockbee.net/work/writings/the-rural-studio/

The mural done by last year’s border studio.

“Visiting the Las Lomas community was a good experience. It was great to be able to do a real project for real people. Their excitement about the things we designed was infectious! While there, it struck me that everyone, no matter where they live or what they do for a living, has a creative spark.”

Elizabeth Tschirhart

    Colonias Unidas Community Center                                        Texas A&M students and professor speak to locals

“I was most involved in the aquaponics experiment. I have kept a fish tank for the past few years, so I was familiar with the workings of an aquaponic system. I knew the fish would do their part, but I was unsure about how well the plants would do in a soil less system. The system performed a lot better than expected. It had growth from both existing plants as well as new seeds. The cucumber plants did the best, growing from seeds to 12 inch plants. These results gave me encouragement to believe that an aquaponics system on a larger scale could be very beneficial to communities where natural farming is not possibly or impractical. Las Lomas seems to be a good candidate for this system. The area does not get much rain. An aquaponic system uses 20% of the water traditional farming uses. The reception in Las Lomas was positive, but I don’t think the community realized the full potential of the system. Perhaps if the community kept a small scale system, it would gain some insight into how easy and productive aquaponics could be.”

Trey Rice

Chris Dilworth, Danielle Davis, Southern Ellis, Daniel Senning, Josh Wilson, and Heriberto Rodriguez Valenzuela unload materials for the gazebo, wall mural, and aquaponics projects.


Blanca Juarez, Ombudsperson Office of the Secretary of State, Rio Grand City and Co-founder of Colonias Unidas (Colonias Unidas was founded in 1989)

Priscilla Martinez, Executive Director, Colonias Unidas:  Community Advocacy and Education

Leticia Morales, Colonias Unidas -volunteer,

Aide Villarreal Board President of Colonias Unidas and co-founder

Marlene Rodiguez Accion Texas

Spring 2011 workshop Professors:

Peter Lang, Ph.D, Associate Professor Department of Architecture

John Nichols, Ph.D, Associate Professor Department of Construction Science

Cecilia Giusti, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning

Consulting Professors:
Pliny Fisk Associate Professor Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, co-founder of CMPBS Austin
Logan Wagner, Assistant Professor Department of Architecture
Marcel Erminy, Senior Lecturer, Department of Architecture

and Nicholas Boyarsky, James Dart, Stealth Unlimited.

PARTNERSHIPS:  London Metropolitan University Department of Architecture and Spatial Design GB, Design Royale Milan Italy.

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