ISSUE 1. Self-Construction. Social Empowerment and the Reintegration of Architecture in Popular Culture. By Alfonso Arias M.


19 Jul

Photo Credit: Alfonso Arias M.

On a daily basis I listen to my colleagues’ complaints and concerns about the quantity and quality of job opportunities that are presented to them.  The comments go to a lamentation for poorly paid jobs, or against the colloquially called "little plan or quick sketch (planito)", they are offended by because these clients are holding unclear negotiations in order to make their requests seen as minor and as a consequence offer almost no pay, but at the same time, they want to obtain very specialized information. They want advice to carry out their project but with a superficial understanding of it. They want (without compromising in terms of fees) their problems including mechanical systems or structure, etc. to be solved.

At the same time, I hear comments from these people (clients) about being satisfied with the aesthetic results achieved thanks to their own effort and creativity. Stories of large amounts of money invested over long periods of time, on constructions that masons never finished. These “constructions” are dangerous and improvised adaptations between structural elements and mechanical systems, with a very superfluous understanding of the work from the architects. Ironically you hear great success stories where the resulting houses are exactly what the family needed, and with very few modifications that show that the comfort seems to be overrated.

I had the opportunity to share experiences with construction workers who stand in competition with the architect, their opinion about architects is almost homogeneous across the board and is that of a kind of “feudal landowners”( caciques), as people who maintain an intermediary position and go through important amounts of money (expensive service); taking a chunk of what is considered fair for their services and  for being the ones who work directly with the materials and tools, as if being an architect collecting a fee was wrong. Construction workers are pleased to be hired directly by families and not by architects, actually replacing the architect, but because of this; they also get the freedom to miss work, be tardy and careless with their services.

In Mexico there is a reality that cannot be denied regarding the construction of inhabitable spaces. There is a dynamic of a tripartite participation among builders, architects and inhabitants (client), in which each of these agents recognizes that the other parties possess certain information and play a role in the construction process, although at the same time they try to undermine each other. They keep their knowledge undisclosed, away from contributing it to the work progress, they keep it as a kind of “secret”, because they consider that their permanence in the process depends on managing the information. The architect in the role as connector of both parties ends up being generally eliminated from the project’s equation, where the masons and the clients intuitively solve the tasks that the architect would have carried out.

Based on this, it is easy to understand the controversy generated when the topic of self-construction and self-production is brought up within the architecture guild. Logically it is considered as a devaluation of the intellectual and formative property of an architect, of years invested in accruing and generating knowledge to solve technological, spatial and constructive problems, as well as developing a language that allows the architect to materialize abstract ideas, which correspond to an architectural disciplinary progress that humanity has benefited  for centuries.

The question is; how to solve this problem? How can architects be integrated into the self-construction problem? How to protect architecture against a future that will label it as unnecessary?

This situation is quite evident in the case of the construction of almost all affordable housing. It is much more complicated, but not impossible to notice this in larger scale projects. Taking into consideration that the problem is the lack of integration of the three main agents (architects, clients and builders), it becomes valid to propose approaches to combat the problem. For this, it is essential to take into account that the fundamental areas to work on are the links and interrelations between these agents, without censuring any of them.

As architects, it is within our reach to become facilitators of this integration, we need to be smarter and more flexible in order to negotiate with the circumstances and seek how to turn this into an opportunity and turn this into a win-win relationship.

For this to be possible, each of the three agents needs to be fully aware of the role that they all play, and thus be able to exercise within the parameters of responsibility and respect for each other’s tasks. Each party needs to have the confidence in their contributions, knowledge and the importance of their participation. People in general need to develop tools to assert their opinion, and consequently their agency in economic and productive terms. In other words, society needs to be empowered about their living space and the importance of trusting a professional.

To address this situation in the short and medium terms, architects can open discussion forums and generate technical content and design language to be shared with the people, communicating what our work is about. It should be done through a language that does not seek to show off an intellectual position, but rather be a bit more colloquial, so that the information is digestible for any type of person. And these exercises, translated into digital, audiovisual and printed resources, could be distributed by non-specialized media (it will not do any good to be just for architects), and to start from the most tangible elements for society.

Aesthetics is only a proposal. As architects we are theoretically able to distinguish proportions, colors, haptic perception, and materials that correspond to trends and defined architectural periods, and this is what ironically defines a "well or badly executed project". However, in the processes of self-construction and self-production, these values are argued differently. People seek to reflect more their wishes or desires, their tastes and preferences for lifestyles translated in words such as "colonial", "country", "tropical", "wooded", etc. They choose colors based on their personal preference disregarding whether they do or don't correspond with the magazine canons. They include green areas with medicinal plants or plants that “Grandma” likes. They waterproof surfaces to turn them into garages or extensions of the interior for meetings and parties. They maintain construction elements prepared (exposed) for eventual extensions, and cover the steel rods with glass bottles, because they are aware that family needs may change. They install columns in the middle of the span to make it structurally sound and more than safe, they build kitchens and laundry rooms where the home caretaker can watch the entrance and exit of the inhabitants. They install metal windows and doors with organic patterns on which they hang bird seed feeders.

This is to say; the aesthetics of self-production and self-construction is a faithful unconscious interpretation of the personality and character of its inhabitants, and this is reinforced by the verifiable fact that architecture is a reflection of the society that builds it. Given this, we are talking about a new potential architectural field for these types of projects: the beauty of authenticity, oblivious to canons and rules, faithful to their customs and traditions, the things that have been reflected in history and the traditional and vernacular architectures of each region, highly evaluated by that aesthetic that reflects its identity. Today these contexts are being transformed in the cities, communities are not the same, but we can see a permanence of these variables in terms of human intuition about living.

If we start by making people aware of this, and we become more flexible as architects to accept it, we can use aesthetics as a way to maintain an empathetic communication, and thus gradually achieve horizontality between the characters of self-construction. Actively collaborate through our technical and design advice to carry out the goals of the inhabitants (clients) to good ends, slightly reducing our aspirations for remuneration especially within jobs in social housing, but also increasing the number of people we can simultaneously advise. We need to seek a balance between investment and benefits, which in the long term allows us to have a permanent presence in the dynamics of social production of the habitat and regain agency.

There are many alternatives, but it is valuable to start trying some of them. Learn from the work that some architects have previously done with the same purpose, and make the corresponding adaptations in different contexts, but reflecting our times. With this, we can meet our professional expectations and improve the quality of life of Mexican families. It is certainly something worth trying.

Photo Credit: Alfonso Arias M.


Alfonso Arias is an architect and co-editor of AGENCIA. He specializes in issues regarding self-construction and self-production.

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