This past June, the inaugural workshop for the INSITU program took place in Medellin, Colombia. The week-long, intensive workshop was offered in collaboration with the Pontificia Bolivariana University Medellin (UPB) and barrio Manantiales. Coordinated by James Brazil and Nicholas Waissbluth (uAbureau), and Fabio Lopez (Blokcad Lab + UPB), 24 students from the UPB Architecture and Industrial Design programs took on the task of designing, fabricating and installing urban furniture for the developing housing community, Manantiales.
The workshop touched upon many subjects from advanced digital modeling to CNC fabrication, as well as how to use a nail-gun to learning fundamentals of creating and pouring a hybrid concrete mixture. Above all, there was a social environment that was new to all the participants. Whatever the students were going to design and build, it was not going to be exhibited in a gallery or shown-off on the university grounds but used everyday by the inhabitants of the barrio. For this reason, the workshop began as a series of questions to the participants: “If your client is one who lives in a barrio, what would you make for them? Is it simply a seat, or can it function in multiple ways? Is it light, is it heavy, should it last for a long time, or should it only be temporary?”
Barrio Manantiales lies on the hills between the municipalities of Bello and Medellin, a region of the city that was once at the center of the drug-trade conflicts between organized crime groups and guerrillas. Recently, the local government has taken the initiative in attempting to calm the conflicts and connect the barrios to the city of Medellin, hoping it creates more job opportunities and better connection to education for its inhabitants. Several infrastructural and cultural projects were put in place to begin the process, most importantly the completion of the cable-car system (connecting Medellin, which stretches through a valley, and the housing communities on the upper hills) and the well-known Parque Biblioteca Pública España by Manzzanti Arquitectos in 2007. Since then, displaced families have settled into the hills creating new housing communities, one of which is Manantiales, a barrio with over 1,500 families and nearly 3,000 children living in homes built with found materials from all manner of discarded objects. Though illegal, the barrios, which cover the hills of Medellin, have benefited from the cities shifting urban development policies and social projects. The rate of change is one that amazes any visitor taking in only recent development in the region; it will not be surprising if we see new community and civic centers being designed by some of the best local architects of Colombia in the coming years. INSITU is the first initiative to work directly with the barrio as a whole, and during the June workshop, the experience of collaborative design and bringing something new to the community was a learning experience on both sides of the table.
To simultaneously layer design and construction parameters creates a cyclical process between “3D modeling – CNC fabrication – assembly.” Whether doing the computing manually or through advanced software, the process allows a designer to see their design from both an inside and outside perspective. This parametric thought process has many benefits, and for INSITU, the key issue is to investigate how this web of information can help in the reduction of material waste. It is all too common to see fantastic designs from students and professionals nowadays, yet the fabrication process is sometimes ignored, and these designs create a great deal of material waste. During the workshop, participants had the task to explore the link between a design and the efficiency of materials used to create their project.
To the participants in the workshop, the process introduced by the tutors was a new way of looking into design and fabrication. On one level, you have to design a product, but the next stage is to create a negative design that produces the original. Merging this process with the idea of always keeping material usage to a minimum was a new way of thinking for most participants, as it required working back and forth simultaneously. For this reason, a lot of the design process pushed the students to communicate through digital and physical models, as well as a lot of freehand sketching. To our surprise, with all the computational knowledge in the group (from students to the tutors), it is great to know that the chalkboard was still the central tool in communicating and exchanging ideas during the entire week.
The group of 24 participants was divided into six groups, each producing distinctive designs and ways of creating a mold. Four of the groups focused on the children of the barrio. One group created wave-like forms allowing the children to play with canicas (marbles); another designed a slide and tunnel; the third designed a canchita (miniature goal used for soccer); and the fourth created a set of seats in the shape of a caballito (miniature horse) allowing the children to play and interact in many different forms. The remaining two groups explored specific issues; one group was interested in the way the women of the barrio cooked sancocho (a chicken stew normally made on Sundays), and the other group explored a modular seating system integrated with landscape elements.
The last three days of the workshop were held onsite in the barrio where the participants cast and installed their projects. Before any of this could start, the group had to create the actual mixture they were going to use. Blokcad Lab, the Medellin-based company that developed the mixture, with support from the group and a few local inhabitants of the barrio, crushed the pieces of brick and concrete that the students had collected earlier in the week. The unique process and mixture was developed by Fabio Lopez and Bernardo Chaves, who in 2006 started collaborating by looking into fabrication solutions for in-roof constructions investigating both MDF and plastic paneling systems. The idea was to create a laminate of different materials that would be held together with a paste mixture. However, during one of their visits to a barrio, they stumbled upon a large deposit of construction waste and were shocked to learn that nothing was being done with it. Leaving the idea of the panels behind, they concentrated their efforts in the “paste” and the partnership quickly branched into creating a company that specialized in using construction waste. In 2012, Bernardo and Fabio created Blokcad Lab and developed a mixture that is today being used to create new ceramic-based products from recycled material waste. Because the central component of the mixture is to crush materials, it is an integrated process that can be done in almost any location and allows local inhabitants to participate in the construction of their community.
“The designs respond to the realities of the barrio – they were not built outside and simply installed, but designed and built in the community” (David del Valle)
“Our project focuses on cooking outdoors. We observed that in the barrio it is integrated into their daily rituals and more importantly, it is an activity that brings the community together.”
The issue of material waste in the design and construction industry is becoming more important by the day. Whether in a developed or underdeveloped city, it is a central component that affects all sides of our industrial and social environments. In an emerging country like Colombia, where the architectural construction industries are developing at an incremental pace, there is an opportunity to develop processes where the consumer can work directly with a designer and manufacturer. The rise of DIY and open source information has helped in fueling these new relationships and has brought computation and automated fabrication techniques to a level where non-traditional modes of construction can help create a more affordable built environment. This framework is not for everyone and won’t function in every community, however in barrio Manantiales, the INSITU workshop demonstrated how this process can work.
The small-scale interventions installed in Manantiales is only the first phase of uAbureau, Blokcad Lab and UPB’s relationship with the community. The following project will investigate how to bring a more accessible staircase into the barrio. The informal high angle walkway has many challenges, and for the participants of this project, it will bring innovation in design and fabrication to a whole new level.
The INSITU team is working hard to bring similar workshops to other cities, and if you would like to stay informed or would like to join us on our next workshop, please let us know. In 2013, we will be in Colombia, Venezuela and Ethiopia.
“The installation of these projects has been very important for our children. They truly enjoy the park, and it has been a real success.” – Luz Colombia Carranza. Founder of Comedor Comunitario
Fabio Lopez (Blokcad Lab + Pontificia Bolivariana University Medellin)
James Brazil (uAbureau)
Nicholas Waissbluth (uAbureau)
Don Antonio Murillo
David Del Valle