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Handel Guayasamín

A Good Education Is a Transmission of Stimuli

From Guayaquil, Ecuador, ESE Colectivo talks with architect and professor Handel Guayasamín (Guayaquil, Ecuador, 1951), known for his architectural work and ideas, which invite thought and exploration of non-rational languages. Guayasamín talks about his political experiences linked to academia, the poetics of architectural creation, and the role of architecture today.

His work encourages a reconnection with the land, to be critical of architecture, and to transform it with a sense of Latin American belonging. Guayasamín is currently executive director of the Network of Latin American Architecture Biennials (REDBAAL) and the Oscar Niemeyer Award for Latin American Architecture (2012-2016 and 2018 to date). He has received awards such as the National Prize for Urban Design and the National Prize for Architecture (Panamerican Architecture Biennial of Quito, 1990 and 2002, respectively).

ESE Colectivo: Handel, we wanted to start with a story you wrote, which is part of your book Historias que parecen cuentos, and it’s called "La buena educación" [The good education]. It portrays your high school years in the 1970s, which you describe as "the most unpleasant experience," especially alluding to an inconsistency with a motto taught in this institution: ‘Here we teach and tell only the truth.’ What is the danger of such a motto for an educational institution?

Handel Guayasamín: It seems we begin this journey in an intense way, evoking complex memories. Undoubtedly, the six years of secondary school were torture for me. I studied in an institution that bears the name of a Spanish conqueror, "Sebastián de Benalcázar." This character was a donkey muleteer and a genocidal man, whose urge was to dominate these lands and conquer everything in his path, eager for the gold and fortune that would—let's say—swell the coffers of Spain. In this school, that motto was transferred onto us as a stigma because we were supposed to learn only the truth. But it was a truth disfigured by an education that turned you into a sheep of the system, and the closer you were to that goal, you obviously got the applause and the high grades. But if you were rebellious or your attitude was not in line with those educational norms, even from your looks, you were definitely punished. So, of course, I was the kind of piece that did not fit and had too many confrontations. That is why this story speaks of the great lie that is an education that does not give you values but rather survival mechanisms in the face of a system reproduced by the school itself.

That is very interesting because, during the years following your graduation from school, around the 80s, you were linked to social movements and popular initiatives with very strong political activism in the Latin American context. So, within this conception of institutions that see it as necessary to punish people who are rebellious or who do not conform, we wonder if there was a correspondence between education and a political position. How did you come about the issue of education from that strong political position that you developed throughout your activism?

Well, I think that everyone is responsible for their actions and we all have infinitely diverse backgrounds. I came from a rather liberal family, from a thriving lower middle class with progressive and socialist thinking. But in this, the power lies in the secondary and university educational systems, which offer visions that are a little broader and closer to our realities. If you have a minimum of sensitivity, you have to choose, you have to start making decisions. I imagine that those who come out of religious schools come out with faith, but we came from public secular education and our faith was different. Because the relationship with social issues was increasingly intense, from school, participation was more in protests and then at the university, almost all the time. I did not study architecture but political militancy.

The Faculty of Architecture, Design and Arts of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (FADA-PUCE) was the second school of architecture in the city, and you were involved in it from the beginning. What was its aim? What were you looking for as an alternative to the Universidad Central?

This was a private option, but the model emerged from a reflection on everything that happened to us as students, and later as professionals, at the Universidad Central; very few of us had experiences abroad. So, this reflection led us to create a model that I would call very flexible and dynamic. In addition, it was a proposal in which education would be handled more horizontally, because although the Central was a secular state university, professors were unreachable figures there; there were clear differentiations and distances. Here, we tried to create a much closer environment and assemble a group of faculty members that came from different backgrounds. I believe that this flexibility and the possibility of innovation were the distinctive characteristics of the FADA in its early years. It did not last long though, more or less until 2000, when a very strong rupture occurred. Let's say that the school was not only successful academically, but had also become profitable for the university. Therefore, the Jesuits took over the management, and the FADA was inserted into the scheme of the Universidad Católica as a whole, complying with its internal rules, which entailed many problems such as excessive bureaucracy and difficulties for academic projects to unfold.

And did you see any particular results in the students in the beginning?

With all my years, I am convinced that education—a good education—is a transmission of stimuli; the other one is nothing but set parameters, norms, and information. But the stimuli that are oriented toward the rational, toward the spirit, or toward the diverse kinds of memory that one has—corporal, affective, etc.—are the stimuli you have to transmit. I believe that a good education, in this case, has provoked some interesting generations. If you look at the first cohorts of the Universidad Católica—which began to graduate around 2001—and you make a kind of mapping of these young architects who received the first injection of all this adrenaline and experimental spirit of the beginning, you will find a very valuable generation. Then it becomes more sporadic because the model of learning by doing has prevailed at the Católica. It is not only about theorizing, we have to go to the problems, face them, and develop the projects there; and that has remained.

Going back to ‘only the truth is told and taught here,’ it is very interesting that, at some point in this quest for experimentation, you start looking for not one but many truths. I think FADA-PUCE was always looking to open this field to many ideas and many truths. It seems that this is where the seed is, in the conflict, in the clash, that is where you start to see the most interesting things.

One has to value diversity. At this point, I believe that no one can close their eyes to this. It is a vital need, and those who don’t see it—either for religious, moral, ethical, or whatever reasons—fail to see the bigger picture and contribute to the sectarian vision that does so much harm. That does not build a culture of peace, because the culture of peace is based on respect for the other who is different. How can you build a minimally balanced society if you teach from childhood to compete and to be successful? In such games, you end up trampling on others around you in the quest for being successful, not respecting them. I believe that this is precisely the big difference and, at this point, after so many years of being active in the field of education, particularly in architecture and urban planning, it seems to me that these visions should be strengthened, fostering more diverse thinking. Obviously, there are boundaries and limits to what is unacceptable; for example, you cannot have a fascist in a teaching staff because you would give space precisely to the darkest sides of the human condition. So boundaries go along that line.

The paradox of tolerance. It is only possible when you do not tolerate what cannot be tolerated.

That word offends me. People are educated under the paradigm of tolerance, but if you dig a little, you realize that power is the only one that tolerates, which is to say, it sets the limits and says, 'This is as far as it goes.' I think we have to change tolerance for respect because society has a lot of things that are forbidden, but then you find, for example, museums of tolerance: you are putting on a pedestal something that comes from beneath; it is wrongly raised from the very origin, it is not that way.

Going back to the ideas of FADA, horizontality also aligns with this mantra of 'learning by doing.' You had many experiences teaching different subjects in the Faculty, do you believe that everything can be learned by doing?

Well, life is learned by doing. So when you orient this concept, which is a methodology, towards architecture, I certainly believe that you are getting closer to something that you can see in the very evolution of human beings, in the species. You see it when you have children, how they learn day by day by doing, there is no other way, and if they make a mistake, they learn. Because you don't always learn by making everything perfect, you have to make mistakes a lot of times as part of the teaching and learning process. I value very highly the learning by doing because I was wrong many times, but in the end, here I am. I don’t come from a linear training. I did not want to be an architect, to begin with: first, I wanted to be a musician, then I wanted to be a doctor, and in the end, I became an architect. Even so, while studying architecture, my fundamental study was not linked to the main referents, who were all imported. Here, teaching is dependent from beginning to end; our referents are still, to this day, modern architects, that is, all the -isms: organicism, functionalism, postmodernism, constructivism... and none of those -isms recover the original architectural production of our peoples.

I would say that there are still huge gaps. The university, in general, in the world and particularly in Latin America, in a country like Ecuador, does not teach you to work with informality, which is the largest percentage of reality. They teach you to work with the formal percentage, with companies, with professionals or families that can afford someone to design their homes or buildings or pantries or whatever—that is what they train you for. But to work in areas where 80 or more percent of the population is, no one teaches you. So, how can we pretend to change our realities if we are not acting upon the areas where most of the reality in our countries takes place? Learning by doing would imply that the schools of architecture had—and there are schools in the world that do—workshops where you go from the idea to the model, from the model to the prototype, and then you have to learn how to install it, release it, etc.; that is, to see whether your idea is executable or not. We still have a long way to go; although some steps have been taken in this direction, there is still a lot to do.

Fabrizio Gala has also reflected on these issues; he points out that one of the problems is that the training of architects is retroactive. That means that, first, a profile of what an architect is ideally imagined to be is sketched out and, from that, a pedagogical and theoretical apparatus is built to support this profile. Perhaps this idealization of the architect is the first mistake?

Well, I think this criterion is wrong because, to begin with, on the one hand, you have to start from pre-existences that are thousands of years old, and some, not all, but some are referents, in the sense that they are guides. But at the same time, if you look at the immediate surroundings, you will discover that there is a reality that you dismantle every day, that is transformed, and that affects architecture in the production of the architectural fact, which is a collective social construction, it is not this idea of the genius. We have to give a good kick in the shin to all that thinking because it has generated unattainable egos in architecture. Of course, we must also recognize the value of the individual, but understand that it is inserted in specific realities and contexts; these people don’t come out of nowhere. Behind many of these individualities are many others who are absolutely honorable and tremendously humble and authentic. They have made their way and have been able to do what they did because they have an intensity of life of their own. This profession has a marvelous capacity to bring together ideas with affections and emotions. And that occurs with a connection that comes from an ancient DNA, which is transmitted the moment you are sketching, from the heart, the brain, the pen, and the pencil to the paper. The poetic part of architecture is not so obviously stated, but there is no doubt that a good architect has to go into that search because without poetry, there is no architecture, without geometry, there is no architecture; there are many elements that are part of this profession and they enrich you.

I find it very beautiful that you talk about architectural creation as a poetic moment because it implies that a certain sensibility is required to feel, to appreciate a place. Is sensibility necessary for creating in a context like ours, where most of the construction is done informally?

Of course. If you look at the data, there must be around 20,000 architects in the country. If you go into those numbers to see how many of them have steady employment, work as teachers, or are in bureaucracy, or work in companies or whatever, you will see that there is a large number of architects who are possibly driving cabs, in other words, they are on the edge of survival. If that is the reality, why aren't those architects working where the highest percentage of the population that needs them is? Because they did not learn to work there. So we must establish new links, make changes in the university, train them for these other things.

Of course, because in a way, informality also gives you opportunities to develop architectural work, as well as ways to disseminate and reflect upon architecture or to pass on knowledge.

What you mention can also be seen in the fact that many professionals in our countries value the architectural production and the conditions of architectural production in the first world more highly. They fail to see that architects in the third world have greater freedoms and potential. To practice architecture in the first world, one has to deal with a ton of procedures and obstacles, tuition, costs, etc.; it requires a lot of money and paperwork. But besides that, if you want to do something minimally experimental, it costs you an eye and half of the other; here, you do it every day.

The idea of weaving networks, not only within architecture but also with other disciplines, to enrich each other and to be able to integrally develop and work seems pertinent. Regarding education, how do you see this attempt to make connections with other disciplines?

Unfortunately, it does not yet seem to go beyond the discourse that sometimes explicitly says that education must be transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary. I believe those of us who have been able to cultivate bonds with artists, poets, mathematicians, philosophers, or whatever, and bring them into this soup so that some architectural product comes out, we are enriched. But schools should also have this as part of their practice because visions are diverse. For example, if you go to a site to make the first sketch, the first outline of what could be the work on that site, and you go with a biologist, they will give you another reading. And that perspective must be present in the process. You have to incorporate it and be able to not believe that you own the truth because there are other truths, so I think it's good to listen.

Handel, from your experience as an educator in events that disseminate architecture, if we want to pursue this formation of a transversal architect, one with tools to adapt to things, isn't this a challenge for systematization?

Well, some elements can be systematized, others cannot: those that leave a mark on the soul, and that is where the imprint remains. How can you systematize, for example, the night when your friend recited Neruda to you? However, I believe that, in the process of making a workshop, you collectively build ideas, processes, designs, etc., and it is good to systematize that. For example, when working in popular neighborhoods, you must have a minimum legacy from those who have already worked there and passed on some of their experience to you: look, don't make these mistakes, you can't go about the first day offering this and that, keep quiet, and so on... These are things you have to systematize because there are so many mistakes. I think there is a lot to learn. We have technical elements for mapping the city: there is information, urban cartography, you can locate the areas where you can build and where you can’t, where there is water, where there is no water, electricity, schools, services, where the architects are in Quito, everything. What do you do with all that information? How do you translate that into interventions that effectively change the quality of life in a city? So that is where the biggest challenges lie, and it is not a very complicated matter, it’s decisions. We have to move away from demagogic discourse toward transformative practices and venues.

It takes a lot of empathy. Now, going back to education, along the same lines, don't you think that the elitism of education plays an important role in this?

Unfortunately, in this country, the best education is private, and when a scholarship program for postgraduate studies opens, it's not precisely those from public universities or from public schools who win them. It is deterioration. So, governments have to commit to public education, the cities have to commit to public transportation, to the public space, where we are all equal human beings, yet different. We cannot continue to be childish in the sense that only those who have money do what they want. Fortunately, in Latin America, we have a lot to do, and since this is one of the youngest continents on the planet, with perhaps the youngest population rate, we have an immense path ahead of us. It is a wonderful region; it has sites and landscapes in all styles: in this country, for example, you can go from the eternal snows to the rainforest in a 4-hour drive. It’s unbelievable. And yet, in this madness, in this fertility, we do not value what we have; we have wonderful people, with millenary cultures, in destitution. It is the Indigenous peoples who feed us, and we treat them not badly but abominably, and we prevent them from demonstrating when there have been marches. So I think we have much to shake, not just the floor; we have to change that way of thinking that is sometimes so offensive, racist, and discriminatory.

We have to be uncomforting.

The challenge is to be uncomforting with ourselves: the day you do exactly the same as every day before, you are killing your ability to innovate yourself. For me, the pandemic was a breakthrough moment, it caught me at a mature age and it was the first time I had time. And it turns out that time is the most vital resource that all humans have, but we don't know how to decide what to do with it. Then suddenly, you begin to discover that it is as important to be alone as it is to be in good company and also, to have time to do the simplest things in life. I had never made rice before, but now I know how to make rice. I think these kinds of things are truly enriching elements.