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Portable Studio: Lessons and Uncertainties in Latin American Architectural Practices

04/20/2024

by Nicolás Valencia

Within the richness of realities, interests, and approaches that contemporary Latin American architecture offers, there is a line of young architects interested in collective knowledge and diluting hierarchies, with a balanced inclination towards process and results. To them, the geographical, economic, social, and cultural traits of their contexts are merely working conditions, not problems.

Chilean architect Fernando Pérez Oyarzún, director of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (2019-2023) and recipient of the 2022 National Architecture Award, stated the following in a recent interview:

“I have always made an enormous effort not to separate theoretical discourse from the experience of construction and the project. The experience of the project is one of virtual construction; it is an anticipated construction.”

FERNANDO PÉREZ OYARZÚN: Teaching is a virtuous combination of enthusiasm and rigor.

In his case, his will is materialized in his colossal book series Arquitectura en el Chile del siglo XX and in the construction of works such as the School of Medicine and the Biomedical Library of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile alongside Alejandro Aravena, winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2016. 

Whereas for those emerging architects in different parts of Latin America, who exercise a healthy dose of reality and pragmatism, their theoretical vision is conceived as a result of their construction experiences, as Pérez Oyarzún defines them. Therefore, the registration, analysis, and reflection around its processes are key to structuring its theoretical vision.


In Cuba, Albor Arquitectos, Infraestudio, and Ad Urbis Arquitectos are part of a contemporary wave of private offices seeking to work under a format called construction by own effort – a type of self-construction allowed for small-scale and low-budget works that surge from the timid economic aperture of the Castro regime starting in 2010. 

Albor Arquitectos combines research and practice through the design and construction of single-family housing units, the most common playground for architectural experiments. Their interest in “diluting hierarchies” seeks to promote “a dynamic based on the multiple readings of a problem and the constant re-thinking of possible answers.”

This hierarchical dilution is not simply goodwill, but rather a tool that allows for a more efficient realization of projects. This is how the team explained it:

“The condition of parallel or alternative work generally ended up blurring the conventional labor boundaries, as the processes were displaced from their traditional locations—studio—and developed in a practically nomadic way, with the studio on the shoulder, in itineraries that alternated  [places].”


Another common element between these offices and practices is the presence of collective wisdom that doesn’t only include the knowledge of all the architects involved in the project, but also that of the clients, workers, the benefited community (if applicable), and ancestral or vernacular knowledge regarding constructions in their ecosystems. 

In this scenario, collective intelligence is not equivalent to citizen participation, since the latter is a set of observations, knowledge, and background about the intervened place by those who will benefit from a public outreach project and who will later also influence its outcome and some aspects of its development.

Here, collective intelligence is understood as the possibility for these designers to recover low-cost historical (or ancestral) building solutions in contemporary architecture under new codes, uses, and aesthetics.

Under this umbrella, we find offices such as the Ecuador-based Natura Futura, ENSUSITIO and Al Borde; Italian-Peruvian architect Marta Maccaglia (Semillas); Paraguay-based Oficina de Arquitectura X (Nicole Jaquet + Felipe Ramírez), -=+X- Arquitectura (Sonia Carísimo + Francisco Tomboly), Mínimo Común, Equipo de Arquitectura (Horacio Cherniavsky + Viviana Pozzoli); Colombian office Ruta 4, and Costa Rican office Entre Nos Atelier.

Inauguration celebration and handover of the space to the community. Traditional dancing of the Colombian Pacific culture and fashion show by the young people of the Plumón Alto community.

Courtesy: Ruta 4.

A great example of this idea is La Cabina de la Curiosidad, a French-Ecuadorian duo made up by Marie Combette and Daniel Moreno. Much like David Barragán (Al Borde) and Carolina Rodas (Rama Estudio), Moreno is part of the Ecuadorian generation formed by Spanish architect José María Sáez, “the conceptual trunk of the brutalism of subtraction,” as defined by Ana María Durán, a fellow 2023 guest scholar of La Escuela___.

Since their association with Combette, the duo has emphasized the interest in "collective intelligence in solving specific everyday problems; we are stimulated by ancestral knowledge acquired over time with the mastery of natural materials; explorers, botanists, naturalists from other eras have amazed us and helped us understand the place where we live."5

The offices mentioned are in a constant learning process, embracing uncertainty, as they are as interested in processes as they are in results. "For us, it is important that materials are what they are, with their tears, flaws, and intrinsic characteristics," wrote Combette and Moreno.6

Archive of social struggles – La Cabina de la Curiosidad, Pablo Ayala, Silvia Vimos, Andrea Zambrano and Fernando Muñoz Miño. Courtesy: La Cabina de la Curiosidad.

However, not all practices have condensed that knowledge and experience into documented theoretical discourse yet (or at least not in a consolidated and consistent manner), opting instead for various formats, including a very popular one in Latin America: the workshop. This format allows for rapid implementation, visible physical results, and is also financially profitable in most cases.

The greatest exponent of this format is the Taller Social Latinoamericano (TSL), a workshop directed by the Latin American Coordinator of Architecture Students (CLEA). In the TSL, architects and students analyze, design, and build public equipment with a community and social focus on impoverished sectors of Latin America, where the construction experience is also a pedagogical experience.

Multidisciplinary exercise is also highly valued by these offices and designers who invest time in both the search for references, pedagogical and aesthetic conjunctions, and the optimization of material and economic resources in the construction of their works.

As readers, we are used to linear narrative structures about constructed architecture—the public display of the development and materialization of a work: the architect receives a commission, the architect presents a proposal, the client gives feedback, the architect updates the proposal, the client approves it, construction begins, work is completed, work is documented.

Linearity is one of the tools we humans have to give coherence to chaos.7 However, real life is far from linear. Coincidentally, this group has a greater interest in processes and their searches. In fact, documenting processes can become projects independent from the constructed work, as is the case with the mentioned Ecuadorian offices and one of the most avant-garde and experimental architects in Latin America: the Chilean artist Nicole L’Huillier, who explores sounds and vibrations as construction materials. She defines it herself in these words:

"During those years, I was able to devote time and energy to the possibilities of creation, reflection, dialogue, learning, and collaboration through experiments, errors, questions, relationships, improvisation, and paying attention to processes rather than results."

From art, L’Huillier has developed what she calls techno-illogical apparatuses: "[apparatuses that] are difficult to categorize; they are very inefficient in terms of results, but tremendously generative in terms of processes, relationships, and searching for new questions."

"In concrete terms—writes the Chilean artist—there are many ways a project can be set in motion. Some require long periods and well-contained and organized processes; other ideas emerge from spontaneous dialogues and collaborations."


Nicole L’Huillier: “La Orejona Records” (2023). Drumming Session. Akademie der Kunste, Transmediale, Berlin. Photo: Elisa Balmaceda. Courtesy: Nicole L’Huillier.

This is reminiscent of La Cabina de la Curiosidad, when they suggest:

“We have done architecture through eternal dialogues, we have drawn processes on infinite rolls of tracing paper, [...] we have done territorial explorations to understand reality, [...] we have done activism through architecture and urbanism [...]. We have worked with material systems, we have made poetic acts as described by Jodorowsky, we have made devices for people to move their space and make it dynamic, so that architecture responds to living movement.”

This diversity of commissions, formats, and results is valued and encouraged in architecture because, as Beatriz Coeffé and Felipe Corvalán state:

“Architecture, compared to other fields of knowledge, presents codes and procedures that are different from the common reference mechanisms of science. Normally, the production of knowledge requires the incorporation of previously developed theories, evidence, studies, and experiences, these being the ones that define progress on a given subject. In other words, new ideas or findings are not possible without recognition of the path already taken by others.”

Coeffé and Corvalán also highlight a common practice in architecture: the omission of sources. They argue that "the open recognition [of sources] could be interpreted as a sign of weakness or lack of originality and creativity."

These offices and practices are precisely shedding that mask and explicitly mentioning their references, without fearing their works could be considered plagiarism. This happens mainly because they resort to imaginaries from other non-constructing disciplines (La Cabina de la Curiosidad, Albor, Nicole L’Huillier) or because their production is not based on historical authors or geniuses but on ancestral construction techniques, on collective knowledge without a surname, as is the case with earth construction in contemporary Paraguayan architecture, as highlighted by Melina Pekholtz, from the generation of José Cubilla, Solano Benítez, Gloria Cabral, and Javier Corvalán.

In conclusion, the landscape of contemporary Latin American architecture reveals itself as a complex and diverse fabric, where a constellation of emerging architects share a vision that goes beyond mere physical construction. The will to merge theory and construction experience, dissolve hierarchies, and leverage collective intelligence stands out as a common denominator. These professionals embrace the multifaceted reality of their environments, assuming it as an enriching working condition. Through various practices, from community workshops to the artistic exploration of sounds as building materials, they demonstrate a commitment to constant learning, uncertainty, and the appreciation of processes as much as results, challenging linear conventions and promoting architecture rooted in collaboration and adaptability.

The development of this still-young generation raises new questions for the future: How will their theoretical vision evolve? Will they continue to develop it? Will they maintain the characteristics described here as the size of their commissions (or their own offices) grow? How will they react to the characteristics of the generations that follow them? Will they maintain their visions as they mature and, perhaps, solidify?