May 23, 2011
Letter from Ecuador
There’s a well-worn architectural truism that goes something like this: “Good clients make good projects.” The idea is that a knowledgeable and demanding benefactor can push an architect beyond his normal limits. The inverse might assert that a complacent client makes for uninspired projects. For some time now I’ve been wondering, to what extent does […]
There’s a well-worn architectural truism that goes something like this: “Good clients make good projects.” The idea is that a knowledgeable and demanding benefactor can push an architect beyond his normal limits. The inverse might assert that a complacent client makes for uninspired projects.
For some time now I’ve been wondering, to what extent does the relationship between designer and user contributes to the failing infrastructure here in rural Ecuador? Here’s the basic problem: The infrastructure, while designed scrupulously from the engineer’s point of view, be it schools, electric grids, or water systems takes little stock of the human needs or habits of the people it’s supposed to serve. This approach results in badly managed projects that break soon after they’re inaugurated, or which simply do not match the needs of the local population.
The designer-client relationship is probably always a difficult one, but it becomes more so when 1) the client is not paying for the designer’s services and 2) certain cultural inequalities exist between the two parties. In the first case, since many recipient communities do not foot the bill for charity work done by NGOs, they often feel that they have no right or authority to raise objections to the design of a project. Why, they ask, would they jeopardize the NGO’s goodwill and free money? In the second, real dialogue is often impossible when two parties don’t consider themselves to be on equal footing. This isn’t just a rich/poor distinction; between the minority indigenous population of Guangaje, and the majority mestizo population, which includes the lighter-skinned and better educated Ecuadorians from the capital and other urban areas, there are significant differences in culture and opportunity.
Back home, most public architecture involves a firm working with a prominent cultural or business or governmental group. Naturally, each institution has its own ego. The creative push-and-pull that results from the arrangement usually produces something acceptable to both.
But no such parity exists in the working relationship between an NGO engineer and his indigenous project counterparts, who are often poor and illiterate or semi-literate. Instead, the deference that poor residents assume towards the outsiders (there is not a single university trained native adult living in Guangaje) skews the relationship between client and designer in a way that hurts the final design. The engineer or architect often over-relies on his abilities to interpret and design for an unfamiliar geographic and cultural landscape. The local beneficiaries, temporarily blinded by the outsiders’ credentials, let slide key assumptions about what they need, and how those things should be designed. They don’t speak up. The engineers don’t listen. And basic information regarding everything from seasonal weather conditions and terrain, to demographic trends and usage habits, to local capacity for upkeep, is never relayed from one party to the other.
All this points to the complicated, frustrating, and time-intensive nature of the problem. The essential catch-22 is that there’s no way to improve the situation of these disadvantaged people without providing the basic infrastructure that will bring them things like water, electricity, and schooling. This lack of opportunity makes such an undertaking exceedingly difficult, since it deprives the poor of their self-esteem which, in the end, is what they need to help themselves.
My room in town overlooks a rectangle of solar panels, installed nearly a decade ago by engineers from an NGO based in Quito. The idea was that during the frequent, sometimes weekly power outages in the area, the energy generated by those panels could provide electricity to an adjacent health clinic. Even as the rest of the parish went dark, the clinic doctors could work uninterrupted and the local residents could still receive care. The panels installed, the NGO went on its way, and for a time, the plan proceeded seamlessly.
In less than a year later the panels stopped working. The health workers assumed faulty installation, but the cost and inconvenience of requesting technical support precluded them doing anything about it. In fact, the problem was a lot simpler: Nobody had told the doctors that the solar batteries needed to be changed. Today the panels remain in nearly pristine condition, functional, still much-needed and, yet, never used.
George Beane returned to New York, his home town, after graduating from college in 2008. He worked for Metropolis (writing some memorable blogposts for this site) for a year before leaving, last June, for the Ecuadorian sierra.