For 15 years, architect Juan Casillas has produced constructions with straw bales and other residual or recycled materials.

Empowering Indigenous Communities Through Architecture

Dominique Godrèche

The International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is currently underway in Venice with an exhibit titled Unfolding’s and Assemblages in the Mexican Pavilion through November 27.

The exhibit presents 31 projects from rural and Native communities of Mexico and is curated by Pablo Landa, an anthropologist from Mexico City and researcher at Princeton University. According to Landa, the exhibition looks at architecture as more than just a building process.

“It shows how it also involves a social process. Architects have a lot to bring to the communities and so do the communities. It is important to recognize local forms of knowledge. We learn from them, and they learn from us, without any imposition,” Landa says, “We selected positive experiences, where traditional and professional knowledge are compatible, like building with bamboo, or adobe instead of cement, and projects impacting social dynamics, like Adobe for Women, for women in Oaxaca, who became builders for the first time.”

Juan Manuel Casillas Pintor is an architect who has been involved with rural and Native communities for the last 16 years. He is a professor at the IberoAmerican University of Mexico City. His shelter for the Raramuris of Ciudad Juarez is part of these innovative collaborative projects. He coordinates the classes dedicated to building, bringing his students to the communities where he teaches ecological techniques, solar energy, bio climatic design and constructions of earth.

“I like to build with my hands,” Pintor says. “But it is not only about building, it also addresses the production of food, working with children: sensitizing the students to Native communities, who are exposed to serious problems.”

Pintor recently took time to speak with ICTMN.

How did the Raramuris project start?

Two years ago, a group of youngsters, the Chopeke Collective, asked me to help them build an emergency shelter for Raramuris single mothers, in Ciudad Juarez. I designed a house made of mud and straw, in the outskirts of the city, and gave a workshop so they could finish it. We worked for five days, and they ended the construction on their own. Since then, the Raramuris kept on building more shelters like this one, teaching others. Many people do not read, so our manuals are visual and graphic.

What are the specificities of those constructions?

In Chihuahua, I used blocks of straw, because they are thermo resistant, and adapted to the high temperatures of the summer, and low in the winter, so the constructions are comfortable... In Oaxaca, I combined traditional and modern techniques: instead of coconut shells, I used plastic bottles as a building material to fill the gaps, by placing them inside the wall, which I covered with dirt and sand to make it resistant. We transformed a polluting material into resources.

Pablo Landa says vernacular architecture implies “learning from and for”: what did you learn from the communities?

We learn with every project, and the process is reciprocal: we teach them, and we learn from their history, customs, to combine their traditions with a contemporary design, for a durable project that they can reproduce. I try to save the traditional techniques, abandoned by the communities, (because they consider them restricted to poor people), and I mix contemporary architecture with a traditional approach, using natural local materials: when they see that the houses do not look poor, though not made of cement, (which they think will level up their status), they realize that traditional materials can be used with a contemporary design.

Is this architectural trend common in Mexico?

The sense of responsibility for climate change, pollution, social development, is a global trend. But aside from the ones exhibited at the Mexican Pavilion, there are not many more in that field in the country, we are still just a few followers who consider architecture as a tool for ecology and social change.

How did those projects change their life?

Ciudad Juarez [once widely-known as] “the most dangerous city in the world,” and the Raramuris are very marginalized: their land is destroyed by the narcos, who use it to cultivate drugs and traffic. So they move from the mountains to the outskirts of the city, to beg on the streets. Or they try to leave for the United States to find work, abandoning their families and traditions. This disintegration of the family happens in many communities. The Raramuris philosophy teaches that they don’t own the land – it belongs to everybody – so they leave easily, thus are endangered, because they lose their traditions by leaving Chihuahua. Or they get involved with the dealers, because if they don’t, they get killed. So this project empowered them and made them happy: they discovered they can build their homes with their own resources in a durable, and beautiful way. And they kept on building: a church, more houses identical to the first one. Those are small, but powerful changes: as most important,  beyond the architectural object, is the empowerment we create.

And what did you learn working with Native communities?

I discovered traditions, the strength of women building houses, a special relationship with the earth, the natural world; and humility. And mostly, I learnt that working with the communities is a profound process to understand the importance of architecture for society; and how it represents a tool for change.

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