INTERVIEW WITH MARTA MACCAGLIA
“I see education as the main tool for freedom. If we want a better society, we need an educated population.”
Marta Maccaglia in conversation with Veronika Lukashevich, 2023
Marta Maccaglia, the recipient of this year's DIVIA Award, which advocates for diversity in architecture, discovered her passion in the Peruvian rainforest when she moved there in 2011 as part of an international cooperation program. She established Semillas, a nonprofit architectural organization with a focus on often overlooked territories. Based in Peru, Semillas collaborates with interdisciplinary teams to create educational architecture projects and public spaces while valuing the voices of Indigenous communities. In an interview with Veronika Lukashevich, the editor of this year´s divia award, Marta discusses her unique approach, working closely with communities, the political climate in Peru, and their efforts to create inviting classrooms for children and teachers in remote jungle areas. teachers. They were also joined by Marta’s colleague and architect Giulia Perri.
Veronika Lukashevich: Building a nursery with few resources is a huge endeavor and requires a lot of imagination.
Marta Maccaglia: I learned it from my mom. When I was little, she used to create games and houses for my dolls using only recycled materials. She could make beautiful things from nothing and without any money, so, in a way, it is part of my approach. When I was in secondary school I participated in a competition to design the courtyard for our school and won. The courtyard had looked so limited, so I included some trees and a bench into my design to make it look more comfortable. Later, I studied exhibition design for my master’s degree. A museum is an expression of a moment of history, so, to me, exhibition spaces are linked with educational spaces. I see education as the main tool for freedom. If we want a better society, we need an educated population. Currently, Peru’s impoverished population is marching the streets demanding reform. The repressed groups are constantly fighting for their freedom of expression and basic rights, namely access to education, health care, and public infrastructure.
VL: How do you see diversity and multiculturalism in Peru within the framework of your work?
MM: Peru is a multicultural and diverse country. There are three micro-regions, namely costa (coast), sierra (mountains), and selva (rainforest), and we have fortyeight native languages, different Indigenous communities with their own customs and ways of thinking. So, the diversity of Peru has great potential, but it can also become a problem. People are still dealing with trauma caused by the Spanish colonization, which is palpable in the entire country. The government tries to unify the country with their policies, disregarding the different identities, which is ultimately reflected in the architectural model that aims to replicate European modernism. But the Peruvian mindset is different. This is why it is so important to become a part of the place and the people’s way of living before you start building. Semillas cooperates using a participatory approach based on dialogue. For us, the way to build common spaces is through respecting this diversity that encompasses the people’s cultural wealth, rights, and knowledge. We believe that cooperation is a possible dream and the only way.
VL: You studied in Europe. In what way did you have to adjust your way of working to the rural environment in the Peruvian jungle?
MM: What I value about my education is the tools to research, listen, and observe. But when I arrived in Peru, my architectural knowledge was not relevant to local buildings and local customs. Usually, Latin American cities are surrounded by human settlements, which have been built by the dwellers themselves, without architects. In Peru, the way people make cities is through faenas (communal work), meaning people work together for a common purpose.
Giulia Perri: The people who live in the forest or in a rural area are used to creating their own houses and spaces; they are more active in that sense. For example, putting up a column of wood helps them develop a connection to the spaces, and they become a part of it. It is not just the process of design that is important but also the process of making and capturing their identity through these spaces.
MM: With Semillas, our impact has three different layers. Firstly, we conceptualize infrastructure not only as a physical space but as a symbol of opportunity and equality, especially since a school is usually the only public building in the rural community. Secondly, our impact lies in improving the empirical communitarian process and taking it to a new participatory level as a learning process of interchange. A space where everyone can participate actively in the decision-making. The third layer of impact is rescuing the millenary knowledge and revaluing. It is about revendicating the social habitat and well-being of each society. We research the territory, the people, and their history. All parties take an opportunity to reflect: the school, the community, the parents, the “I see education as the main tool for freedom. If we want a better society, we need an educated population.” 10 Winner 11 architects, the local government. But it is important to mention that our step-by-step methodology is only a guideline, and we carefully adapt it with every project. It is a constant process — freeing ourselves from our own prejudices.
VL: The native communities in the jungle have experienced violence in the past, and still do. What does this mean in terms of your approach?
MM: Gaining trust is a gradual process, too. Usually, when outsiders, politicians, or NGOs arrive in the community, they make promises, but they do very little and only stay for a fixed period of time. In our case, we are a family. As soon as the local people understood that we do not have any economic interests, they began to trust us. I am not a charitable Italian lady — we exchange knowledge and gain something from these experiences because we learn about their culture, and they learn about ours. Another important aspect is that we involve local policy since our projects are funded through international cooperation and the local government. We designed a management system in which the forces from the local and external institutions are joined.
VL: Could you give an example of how you include the community in the decision-making process?
MM: To ensure that we respond to the community’s needs, we hold meetings and participatory workshops with the communities for the whole duration of the project. At the beginning, we do not talk about the appearance of the space but focus on finding out the feeling that they look for and the activities that they want to do in these spaces. For example, the teachers might want to play ancestral games with the students or teach them about medicinal plants and agricultural issues. After they have shared their ideas, we start to reflect on how the spaces can support these activities.
GP: In the process of building a nursery for fifty children and a community space for the Nomatsiguenga people in Alto Anapati, the teachers explained to us how they usually need a moment during the day to tell tales in the classroom. We took the time to observe them in this activity: the teacher sat in front of the class while the children were seated on the floor encircling the teacher. For the stories that were being told, it was important that the forest remained the backdrop, so we were sure to include a big window in the back.
MM: For this project, we also built an outdoor learning space called aula bosque (forest classroom). We had asked the teachers what their ideal classroom looked like, and they imagined a tree in the middle of the space with a little fence around it. This created a place for the children and the teachers to learn in harmony with nature. We also included big sliding doors to connect interior spaces with the forest. In terms of building and construction, we reinterpret and revalue local materials to create a more familiar atmosphere. In the Alto Anapati school, the objects that the community uses in their daily lives became a part of the design. For example, a basket to transport yuca, wood, or agricultural products was used to create lamps. The tapestries, made from palm trees, that the Nomatsiguenga use for sleeping or eating, were used as walls. Schools built by the government, on the other hand, are concrete bunkers. They are surrounded by tall fences, and the classrooms have high windows so that children do not get distracted. The architecture does not reflect the people’s needs to bring their identity, culture, and nature together. With Semillas, we try to create free and open spaces by breaking down barriers.
VL: I imagine the feedback from the children must be very heartwarming.
MM: When asked what they liked about their school, one of them said: “It has the color of my skin and my cushma” [the tunic worn by the native communities]. It is a source of great pride for us to see how architecture, aesthetics, form, and color create an atmosphere and a place that emanates freedom and identification.
VL: What is next for Semillas?
MM: I see our organization continuing to develop educational, communitarian, exhibition, and cultural projects in Peru and abroad while having political impact on housing policies. I also see us sharing our experience and knowledge through workshops at international universities and having a multiplier effect on architectural pedagogy at a global scale.
You can find the unabridged interview in our publication on the divia award 2023.