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Marta Maccaglia

Practicing Architecture Through Cooperation


Marta Maccaglia

with Ariadna Cantis

Italian architect Marta Maccaglia has lived in Peru since 2011, working on architecture and cooperation projects. She is the founder and director of Asociación Semillas (2014–) and co-founder of the office PLAN A 0-100 (2019–2021). She has taught at the University of Sciences and Arts of Latin America (2015–2023) and has provided consultancy to the Ministry of Education of Peru. Her work encompasses research projects, academic activities, and architecture projects within a comprehensive development framework.

Ariadna Cantis: What was your training in architecture before coming to Peru?

Marta Maccaglia: I was trained as an architect at the University of La Sapienza in Rome. There, I also completed a master's degree in exhibition spaces and museography. After the schooling cycle, I went to Madrid on an exchange program, where I developed my thesis. It was about remodeling a women's prison to transform it into an exhibition space. I had the opportunity to do my internship at Carlos Ferrater’s office in Barcelona, where I participated in an exhibition project by the artist M.C. Escher at the Alhambra in Granada. Both the artist's exploration and the museum installation were deeply inspiring for me.

What have been some of your influences?

In 2010, in Terni—my hometown—there was an architecture festival for the first time: the Think Town Terni. My city is very small and usually not many things happen. On this occasion, I participated in several workshops, such as Guerrilla Gardening, Terni 24 hours with Izmo, Urban Crossings, Stalker with Francesco Careri, Urban Drifts with Resistant Cartography. This event was an important source of inspiration because it was something very different from what I had experienced during my school years and up to that point in my career. I was fascinated by the various ways of approaching the city, the urban drifts, and public space interventions as a form of political activism.

Another project that influenced me is Giancarlo de Carlo's Barrio Matteotti, also in my city. This project was approached from an interdisciplinary perspective with the participation of architects, sociologists, community mediators, and citizen participation in the construction of social housing for the workers of a metal production factory.

I also traveled to Brazil, to São Paulo, to get to know the architectural work of Lina Bo Bardi, a great master and inspiration.

When I arrived in Peru and became involved in the architecture of educational spaces, my interest in pedagogy really began, not only from architecture but from pedagogy itself. Understanding the readings I was doing and the pedagogical methodology applied to space, also helped my architectural reflection. Authors like Paulo Freire and Maria Montessori, who are great masters of pedagogy, compelled me and I was fascinated by their political discourses on education as a tool for freedom.

Arriving in Peru: The First Schools

How was your arrival in Lima? How did the construction of the first school happen?

At that point in my life, I was certainly looking to explore various facets of architecture. I must say that, before traveling to Madrid for my study exchange, I had never been outside of Italy. But when I did, I understood I wanted to know other places and cultures. So, in 2011, I applied to the Italian civil service with the NGO CPS - comunitá promozione sviluppo, which is a project of the Italian government that offers young people, aged up to 28 years, the opportunity to participate in international cooperation projects or peace missions. This project was not related to architecture, but I was interested in pedagogical work and also in the possibility of traveling.

It was a children's tutoring project in Huaycán, a human settlement in the outskirts of Lima. I was supposed to work as a teacher in a kindergarten, but when I arrived in Peru, it turned out that this school didn’t exist. So, my host organization in Huaycán, the association Solidaridad Esperanza Anna Margottini, proposed that I design and realize the school.

Moving from the material design work I was doing in Madrid and Barcelona to working in Huaycán, where design and construction were closely linked to actually making, was a very interesting learning experience for me.

Alto Anapati Kindergarten.

Photo: Eleazar Cuadros. Funding: Fly Help and Municipalidad de Pangoa. Courtesy: Asociación Semillas para el Desarrollo Sostenible.

How was the process of building this first school?

Generally, people hire construction companies in Lima and there are also small companies in charge of this in the human settlements, but in 2011, there was still not much formality, so we built this school with the neighbors of the community.

In Latin America, cities have been built without support from architects. In the case of Huaycán, it is a planned neighborhood that emerged in 1984. It currently has a population of more than 180,000 inhabitants. It welcomed people who migrated from rural areas of the country to the city, hoping for a better life and economic development. They came allured by the idea of “progress”—the concept of progress and modernity that actually we sold them.

But reality shows that the quality of life in the outskirts of the city is not at all better than in rural areas, considering that the periphery lacks water, sewage, and electricity services, and the cost of living is much more expensive. I found myself inserted in this context, where there is no water, no electricity, and there is a lot of dust and no greenery because, in addition, Lima lies in a desert.

This first school was built with the neighbors on a lot donated by the organization. The process was managed in a very collaborative way because there were no funds, so it was done through contributions from the community and donations from acquaintances and the NGOs involved. Stepping into a self-management system and building with the neighbors was a great learning moment for me.

At this point, I needed to prepare the blueprint documents, assemble my 3D, consult with engineers... I felt an enormous responsibility because I had never directly managed a construction process before. The project was designed with low-cost materials, using what was available and easy to obtain and build with. I sought to give meaning to the space by asking and interviewing the school teachers and the community. It turned out to be something difficult and magical at the same time.

How long did the construction take?

This first project took us five months. Later, I worked there with the children as a teacher.

Was it during the construction of this first school that the idea for Semillas came up?

Not really. You see, I planned to spend a year in Peru and then return to Italy; I hadn’t planned to spend my life here but now I feel that my life is in Peru. It's a country I love and hate, like one of those passionate loves where you find a reason to fight. Ultimately, we’re all looking for a reason in life, aren't we? I think this makes me feel good and I’m happy here. In my first years in Peru, I was able to travel as a tourist through the Andes, the jungle, and I was quite fascinated by the different ways of life, the cultures, and I understood that there is much to learn here, much to contribute, and also much to do.

How did the construction of the first school in the jungle come into being?

In 2013, a friend who worked in a coffee company, Volcafe, invited me and three other colleagues—Paulo Afonso, Nacho and Borja Bosch—to participate in a Costa Foundation fund to build a school in the jungle. So we visited the jungle once, saw the building site, and developed a project from Lima. As it turned out, we were awarded the fund.

I set out to live in the jungle, as it was in a native community and I was interested in understanding their culture and architecture. I loved researching other constructions and I’m also very interested in anthropology and understanding different ways of life. So, I moved to the jungle in 2013 to pursue this first project, the Chuquibambilla school. Semillas did not yet exist.

From Lima, we designed the typical little school out of the imagination of a foreign architect who exoticizes the jungle and makes a typical wooden construction with thatched roofs and raised floors. That was our imagination of jungle architecture. And when the time came to build it, we decided to rethink the project entirely because its cost exceeded four times the budget we had at our disposal, and we also had to comply with the regulations for public schools. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion that we have to know and feel the place from within to be able to propose an architecture that is coherent with the spirit of the place. This immersion in the local environment was very revealing and fascinating for me; I learned a lot.

This first experience in the jungle marked a strong milestone in my training and our way of proposing architecture. A locally thought and built architecture, which responds to the climate and the needs of the people, placing value on local resources, both human and material.

The result was quite beautiful and everybody was very happy and excited: the community, Volcafe—the promoter—and the Costa Foundation—the project financier.

Unión Alto Sanibeni Kindergarten and Elementary School.

Photo: Eleazar Cuadros. Courtesy: Asociación Semillas para el Desarrollo Sostenible.

The Emergence of Semillas

The Costa Foundation and Volcafe were encouraged to support three more projects the following year, 2014: the Los Angeles del Eden Elementary School, the Mazaronkiari Multifunctional Classroom, and the Santa Elena High School.

It was then that I said to myself: I love this, I love the jungle, I'm staying here! I was very motivated and felt it was my dream work.

So you were working on these three projects when Semillas came up?

Yes... actually, it was for logistical reasons because an organization was needed to be able to receive the funds to complete the ongoing projects. So I said to myself: This is my dream work, even if I have to live humbly, I love it, I really like this.

That's how I founded Semillas in 2014. And since 2016, thanks to the links I had with the Italian NGO CPS, Semillas became their local partner for receiving volunteers from the Italian civil service. Since then, I began to have a team, with usually 2 to 6 architects coming each year to participate in the projects we develop in the jungle.

During 2016 and 2017, we developed the project of the Jerusalén de Miñaro elementary school. Thanks to the work team that was coming together, we systematized and applied all the lessons and dreams we had gathered. We did participatory workshops from diagnosis to design and construction; we hired and trained local workers; we used local materials such as wood, bamboo canes, and handmade clay bricks; we exchanged knowledge and dialogued with the community throughout the process. All of this works as a mechanism and a way of operating in close connection to the surrounding territory, not only with the material resources but also with the people of the community. For me, it was like a dream come true, being able to put into practice all those lessons learned and seeing how this kind of project can really have a strong impact on people's lives. In the Jerusalén de Miñaro school, the atmosphere of happiness is the most valued, appreciated, and palpable attribute. It is a minimal, simple architectural design with a spatial generosity that connects the interior spaces with the outside, the pedagogical spaces with nature, proposing a new model for rural schools in Peru.

Santa Elena Students' Residency.

Photo: Eleazar Cuadros. Funding: German Ministry of Development, We Building. Courtesy: Asociación Semillas para el Desarrollo Sostenible.

The Teaching Project: Taller 3 at UCAL

What is your position on the teaching of architecture today?

I see the classroom as a seedbed and a space to transmit the reflections I have gathered with Asociación Semillas to students. I’ve been teaching at the University of Sciences and Arts of Latin America (UCAL) since 2015 and participating in international lectures and workshops since 2014.

At first, I taught a workshop on exhibition spaces in the School of Interior Architecture at UCAL, and from 2017 to 2022, I joined the teaching team of the Taller 3 AL BORDE workshop, at the invitation of architect David Barragán.

This workshop has the ambitious vision of training students to become transformative agents in the city, leading them to develop real projects through research, design, and participatory construction. In addition, the course proposes an integral work methodology enabled—in the specific case of the project we’re currently developing—through cooperation with different institutions, such as the NGO CESAL and the community of Nuevo Amanecer. All this support has been fundamental for the sustainability of the project.

How is the conceptual organization of the workshop?

The workshop is based on five conceptual pillars. First: dealing with reality is a bet on social transformation from the academy. This means proposing a learning process that overcomes the pedagogical inertia of being confined to the university walls and generating a direct and concrete impact on the surrounding territory through architecture. Second: learning by doing. Knowledge grows through experience and exploration, trial and error, analysis, execution, and construction. Third: working with what is available. This goes from using the materials at hand to the economic resources, to seeking creative solutions through design and management. Fourth: the role of the architect. We have the challenge of training architects who are committed to a socially engaged professional practice.

Fifth: cooperative learning. This is an exercise in co-responsibility in the classroom and with the community. Various actors contribute with their possibilities and knowledge to nurture the process. Participation here is a means to listen, understand, design, and build together a common dream.