Emily Lowry

Oxford Brookes, 2012

Emily Lowry

Oxford Brookes, 2012

The Travel Award was presented to Emily Lowry in 2012 to fund an architectural and developmental investigation into the barrio slums of Caracas. Having studied architecture at Oxford Brookes for both her degree and diploma in architecture, she had the opportunity to specialise in Development and Emergency Practice (DEP), run by CENDEP. She completed the diploma, during which time contact was made with international architect and founder of Urban Think Tank, Alfredo Brillembourg. It was whilst working on a project proposal for the dangerous slum Petare, that Alfredo insisted a visit was in order to fully appreciate and understand the complexity of the environment.

“This provided the perfect opportunity to extend my research into a masters project and gave me the contacts I required to turn the hypothetical projects I had worked on as a group into reality. The ISA Travel Award was allocated for this project and working with local architect of Urban Think Tank, Rafael Machado and local community artist, Natalya Critchley, a fellow architecture student and I headed off to the barrios of Caracas.”

Using the development tools learnt during her specialisation in DEP, the trip aimed to discover ways in which the community could benefit sustainably through design. Caracas, Venezuela was selected as an appropriate place to undertake some participatory work and implement small catalytic design interventions accordingly. It was chosen as the city hosts a range of problems such as high levels of violence, poor infrastructure, over saturated transport systems, low standards of sanitation and hygiene, destabilised land, internal displacement and inadequate public services. These issues have emerged as a result of wider challenges including weak governance, corruption, urbanisation and a lack of opportunities to improve basic conditions.

Caracas is set within a valley surrounded by unstable hillsides, which have become densely populated by informal slums known as ‘Barrios’. The two settlements (the formal city and the informal barrios) sit uncomfortably together with only limited interaction between the two. As such, the chance to visit the barrios and undertake work within a school was an incredible opportunity, made possible only through contacts who had a preexisting relationship with the barrio community.

The selected barrio was San Agustin, a slum with unusually open areas due to the uninhabitable steepness of parts of the hillside. The approach undertaken was in two stages, one was to work within the community using a local school ‘Fe y Algeria’ known to Rafael and Natalya, in order to make contact safely with the residents and find out about their daily life. The second was to construct a programme of small design interventions which could be implemented during our visit using the limited resources available, working with the locals to alleviate some of their issues in a sustainable manner.

“The award enabled me to take my passion for developmental architecture and travel to an incredibly fascinating place and meet an inspiring community.”

                                                                                         — Emily Lowry

Basic developmental tools learnt during her study of DEP were utilised to help the children feel at ease around us and combat the difficulties faced by the language barrier. A workshop was created with some young children using paint, chalk and boxes which allowed Emily to find out about their perception of their built environment and underlying concerns they had of the living conditions.

“After spending time with some older teenagers they led the group on a transect walk through the barrio, pointing out key areas and allowing an experience which would have been completely inaccessible without their help. Disposable cameras were also distributed to various children, the brief being to take photos of what is important to you, the results identified key themes in their lives, with occasionally surprising results.“

The top priority for the majority of the boys in the school, particularly the teenagers, was resurfacing and painting the basketball court. The transect walk had demonstrated the lack of safe public space available to the children, and talking informally with them it was obvious that the school was the only source of recreational areas, so much so that the children spent most of their free time there. One of the main aims of the project, was not just to improve the recreational space within the schools, but to demonstrate what can be achieved using unused materials and inspire the school and students to take on more small painting projects using the same materials and method.

The teachers explained that the school entrance wall formed a niche along the main road, at night it regularly attracts violence as it provides temporary refuge for those involved with gun crime. This was highlighted by the bullet holes in walls, highlighting the need to make it feel more welcoming and safe. Natalya had previously conducted a painting workshop with the children. They had drawn the ‘La Ceiba’ Tree and their interpretations were translated into the large scale murals on the roof. One of the drawings was further selected to be painted on the floor of the school entrance in the playground, with the hope that the other tree drawings may follow soon after. Where possible the children were encouraged to take part in the chalking out and painting, so a sense of pride and ownership could be accomplished.

“Even though some of the initial more complicated designs were scrapped in favour of a very basic plan, the way in which the children inhabited the space and engaged with the tubes, immediately showed that what we had done, was invaluable to them.“

Initially they had discussed the idea of encouraging barrio families to grow their own produce to become more self sufficient. Due to there being no history of agriculture within their community, it was decided that this project would work best within the school environment as it could be linked to an educational programme, which would involve various classes in taking care of the garden. The children were encouraged to take part in the planting and taught about taking care of the plants. This project not only provides a sustainable source of food, but also impacts the general standard of nutrition within the barrio. Like the playground, this was not a highly designed project, it was simply making use of the scarce resources available and trying to produce something meaningful for the children that could impact on their everyday lives.

The award enabled students from the UK with a passion for developmental architecture to travel to an incredibly fascinating place and meet an inspiring community, from which the projects, however small, may in time prove significant to the community of San Agustin in the future.

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