Design in the Tropics
It was the inauguration of the Dungga Classroom building, the first completed project of Foundation University’s Design Build (D B) program, Estudio Damgo. My speech that day, as the cofounder and program manager, answered three questions that I had been asked again and again. 1) Why am I here? 2) Why Foundation University? And 3) Why this project in the remote barangay of Malaunay? My answers to these questions help to tell the story.
“Why are you here?” This is a question many Filipinos asked incredulously – specifically referencing the decision to relocate from the USA to Dumaguete City, a small capital city in one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines – Negros Oriental. Similar to other “brain-drain” situations, the normal pattern here is for Filipinos to work hard, get educated and leave the islands or move to the big city to search for better incomes and the Western lifestyle.
Being born to Filipino parents and raised in the USA, my decision was a personal one. I came to the Philippines to discover more about where I came from. I had the chance to observe the state of architecture in the Philippines during my thesis at UW, but it had always been a dream to live in my parent’s homeland and hopefully, learn more about why I am the way I am. I was also searching for an opportunity develop skills – leadership, community outreach, and decision-making – that I had not used since graduation.
“Why Foundation University?” The vehicle for this self-realization was a teaching position in the Department of Architecture at Foundation University and the challenge of starting the country’s first Design Build program. Foundation University is a small private institution founded by the Sinco family 64 years ago. The current Vice President of Finance and Administration is Victor “Dean” Sinco – a 1980 B.S. Architecture graduate of the University of Washington. It was Dean’s vision to bring the hands-on training of a Design Build program to his school and I felt this opportunity was exactly what I was searching for.
After relocating in October of 2011, I quickly realized the challenges of implementation. Architecture education in the Philippines has not changed over 25 years and has always had a technical focus. This was most evident in the first design studio I taught at the University. I found that my class of 4th year students were able to render and use software programs flawlessly, but when it came to the process of designing – there was a huge gap. Students were not able to comprehend the importance of developing multiple options or performing design studies to solve design problems. Instead, their typical design studios focus on “analyzing data”, “making computations”, and at the end of the semester one final “design translation”. The studio instructor critiques by writing down comments on the final submission (i.e. no design reviews) and that’s it! Having come from a different model of education, Dean wanted to change this and a D B program would be an important part of the transformation.
“Why this project?” The pilot project is a daycare and kindergarten classroom in the remote mountainside village of Dungga. We chose this project for a couple reasons. In December 2011, Typhoon Sendong transformed this community when the river flooded, washing out the two bridges that connected the village to the provincial capital and leaving its inhabitants without power and water for two months. We knew we could have a huge impact in this volatile environment and felt this project would set the tone for what the program is about – everybody should have well-designed spaces, not only those online casino who can afford it.
Another reason was the chance to critique the prototypical concrete classroom by providing a feasible alternative. In the Philippines, architects are rarely involved in the design of public buildings like schools. Instead, engineers produce prototypical plans based on durability and cost that are applied nationwide. Direct results of this practice are buildings that have little regional variation and lack site-specific climatic solutions.
In the end, my student’s final design differed significantly because of its incorporation of local materials like bamboo, thatched roofing, rammed earth and clay. These materials are common for nearby residential structures, but with the perception is that these are “cheap” materials that will not last. Students were able to quell these adverse reactions as well as other user concerns by presenting research and developing designs in a series of community meetings.
“Tambayayong” is the local term for the act of doing communal work. Although the idea is ingrained in the culture, starting up a D B program from ground zero was a huge challenge. Navigating local politics and working with the cultural tendencies to respect hierarchy, act communally, and communicate indirectly were major adjustments.
Fortunately, Foundation University community embraced the program and provided all the support I needed, the community client remained committed throughout the project, and funding was achieved through soliciting private donations. It was exhausting work, but very rewarding.
The name, Estudio Damgo, translates literally as “Dream Studio”. It is a kitschy name but quite appropriate considering the impact these projects have in the community. In a poor country like the Philippines, these projects represent the dreams of many of the participants. For our students, it means a better education and job prospects. For our clients, the project represents their history and culture, the present needs of its residents, and the future aspirations of the people that will use it. It is an example of the power when communities work together to find solutions. Impressed by the design, the Department of Education is considering opportunities for replicating the concept in other locations.
Due to family obligations and the birth of my first daughter in April, my wife and I are heading back to the Seattle, thus ending our time in the tropics. You could say we are waking up from a vivid dream that we will always remember. In my speech on inauguration day, I proposed a more cheerful notion. Next year’s senior class – who will be under the excellent guidance of my fellow UW MArch 2007 graduate, Anna Koosmann – has already started making plans with the community client for next year’s project. Design will begin in June 2013. This makes me incredibly happy to know that the journey continues. And I am so glad that I was there for the beginning.
If you are interested in joining Foundation University as an instructor for Estudio Damgo, please send your resume and questions firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com