Blueprint for Change

By Angie Davis

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USF’s fast growing Architecture and Community Design Program trains students to use architecture as a tool for social activism, improving communities through sustainably, affordably, and equitably built environments.

Dozens of illegal settlements have sprouted on the outskirts of Leon, Mexico, with dirt roads, no running water, and little city support. In one of these neighborhoods, known as Lomas de Guadalupe, residents are building houses on eroding land, the dirt roads wash away during the rainy season, and a three-room health clinic struggles to serve 3,000 residents. With no clean, running water or proper garbage disposal, people use the river to both bathe and wash clothes, and the area is strewn with trash.

This summer, architecture students from the University of San Francisco spent three weeks studying and working in this neighborhood. Their goal was to devise a plan for a functional community, complete with permanent housing, businesses, a community center, as well as an expanded school and health clinic.

“Besides the fact that there is little infrastructure or public amenities in Lomas de Guadalupe, it is one of the nicest locations to build a house in all of Leon,” said junior architecture major Max Gladisch. “It lies next to wilderness and rivers and has the best views. Planned communities that we saw in Leon were cold and impersonal compared to Lomas de Guadalupe, which has grown organically. Something wonderful happens to a community when the people living there have chosen their plot of land and developed it. Through this project, I hope to understand what the residents want in a community and provide that for them rather then have them adjust their lifestyle to our way of building.”

arch_jumpThe USF group, led by Assistant Professor Seth Wachtel, was in Leon as part of a joint project with architecture students at the Jesuit Universidad Iberoamericana Leon. At the end of the three weeks, the students presented 10-year urban development plans to a panel of faculty, community members, and city officials. The students are continuing their work on the project with a Web-based exchange of plans and designs with their Ibero Leon peers.

“The trip gave students a grounding in issues like the sociology of housing, jobs, and schools that will inform the integrated package of assistance we are putting together,” Wachtel said. The plans and designs cover everything from housing prototypes and a town square, to streetscapes, a water system, and garbage disposal. “The goal of the students is not to present what they think the best solution is. They interview the clients, study the culture, evaluate the problems, and then design solutions based on these observations.”

For USF architecture students, class projects are more than style over substance. Students are learning how the discipline can be used as a practical tool for sustainable and equitable community development. The 4-year-old major, which graduated its first class in May, is among the fastest growing on campus, and has carved out a niche as a program that puts architecture to work for social change.

“Architecture students will have a major influence on society and have an opportunity to make change in the world if they put their talents to work and if they can be inspired early on to make a better world through better urban design, regional planning, and appropriate affordable housing,” Wachtel said.

The Architecture and Community Design Program began in 2003 with two adjunct professors and 20 students. Today there are three full-time professors, 12 adjuncts, and 85 students.

“We could have many more students, but we capped enrollment because we simply do not have the studio capacity,” Wachtel said from his office in X-Arts, a warehouse-like space of art studios and faculty offices on the ground floor of Fromm Hall that is home to the university’s booming visual arts department.

As he spoke during the first week of the fall semester, Wachtel fielded phone calls from colleagues trying to finalize class sizes and studio time and counseled students who popped in and out of his office, many hoping to add architecture as a major. “Students search out USF because word is spreading about the unique approach to architecture that the program takes. This is a pre-professional program with all of the basic requirements, but it is grounded in social justice.”

The hallmark of the program has come to be the hands-on community design outreach courses in which students are assigned real projects with real clients. In addition to the design work underway for Lomas de Guadalupe, students are partnering with the nonprofit Casas Loyola, led by alumni from the Universidad Iberoamericana Leon, to help indigenous families who move to Leon looking for a better life. The USF students are designing houses for these families, incorporating cultural ways of living.

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