Joseph Aranha spent five weeks in Mexico as a Fulbright Specialist and two weeks in China working on projects with international students.
In many parts of the world, architectural heritage is rapidly being lost due to forces of change such as unprecedented urban growth, economic pressures, war and natural disasters. The result is that unique buildings and neighborhoods are completely transformed and local or regional building traditions are forgotten or no longer sustainable.
Fulbright Specialist Joseph Aranha, a professor in Texas Tech University's College of Architecture, specializes in traditional, non-Western architecture. This summer, he was invited to Mexico and China to work with faculty and students on architectural design studios that addressed architectural heritage in the face of change.
On Sept. 19, 2017, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake rocked Central Mexico, killing 370 people and leveling buildings exactly 32 years after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake killed 10,000 people and left the region in utter devastation. One Mexican state deeply affected by the earthquakes was Puebla.
In response to reconstruction and redevelopment efforts, the Department of Architecture at Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP), located in Cholula, Puebla, launched an effort to involve its faculty and students in finding ways to help small towns and rural communities in the area to repair and rebuild.
It also used the disaster as an opportunity for local communities to initiate sustainable and affordable re-development that would bring back pride to small towns that have been generally neglected by local governments and where population migration to larger urban areas, and even to the U.S., has been contributing to deterioration of once significant and unique towns.
As part of this effort, UDLAP proposed an architecture design workshop, “Resilience Beyond Emergency – Heritage and Development,” and applied to the Fulbright Specialist Program.
The Fulbright Specialist Program provides funding for an institution to host a specialist who offers assistance with a special research or academic project that can benefit from collaboration and exchange. UDLAP sought someone with global teaching experience and expertise in issues connected with vernacular and traditional architecture.
“If a host institution wants someone in particular from the Fulbright Specialist roster, then they can request them as the project specialist,” Aranha said. “UDLAP knows me. I've taken Texas Tech students to Puebla many times since 2003 to do collaborative design studio work and to give lectures. I also have organized visits of UDLAP faculty and students to participate in design reviews in the CoA and architecture study excursions in Texas.
“They asked me to go there for five weeks to collaborate with one of their professors in directing a summer design workshop focusing on resiliency and heritage, because reconstruction and re-development after the damage from the earthquake was an opportunity to also address the loss of architectural heritage being experienced by many small towns in Mexico. The goal of the project was to show how a local community in a small town could rebuild in a sustainable way without losing its architectural heritage.”
The town chosen for the project was Tochimilco, situated at the foot of the active volcano Popocatépetl, Mexico's second-tallest mountain peak. That region of Mexico previously built walls from adobe, clay that's fashioned into sun-dried bricks.
“Over the past several decades, using concrete block and reinforced concrete columns and slab construction has become a cheap and common way to build in Mexico,” Aranha said. “Over the years, use of these materials in haphazard construction for residential and commercial buildings has resulted in a loss of architectural heritage and regional character in towns such as Tochimilco. To add to this, victims of natural disasters, such as the earthquake, are given a certain quantity of concrete blocks by the Mexican government as aid for rebuilding. The result is that more and more traditional adobe buildings are altered or replaced and architectural heritage is lost.”
As the project specialist, Aranha worked with 14 students, with the help of Melissa Schumacher, an UDLAP architecture faculty member, and the local community, to propose ideas for resilience beyond emergency in which architectural heritage played an important role. The students chose to focus on sustainable re-development proposals for the town's main plaza.
“The objective of the studio was to propose design interventions that would not just solve the immediate problems of the damage or destruction from the earthquake, but which would also help in the future development and growth of the town,” Aranha said. “That's why we focused on the main plaza instead of individual houses. The project to work with the main plaza was viewed as an opportunity to bring back hope to people who had lost a lot through interventions that would involve community participation, foster awareness and pride in local architectural and act as a catalyst for new directions in future economic and community development.”
One of the goals of the student proposals was to revive the use of adobe construction in a place where self-construction is still a common practice and where there is an abundance of clay well-suited to adobe construction.
“To use earth in construction in a public place such as the main town square would hopefully demonstrate that this traditional material was still a viable building material that was not only affordable but also beautiful,” Aranha said. “Hopefully the use of adobe and other traditional materials or architectural elements in the proposed new central market and plaza will encourage more economic activities, visitors and, most of all, revive and perpetuate a dying building tradition in Tochimilco.”
At the end of the workshop the students presented their ideas to local officials in a public presentation.
“The project, while focusing on re-development, also was focused on reviving the art of using mud for building construction,” Aranha said. “Hopefully the people of Tochimilco will see how learning from their own architectural heritage has value, and maybe they will re-learn how to use mud and then continue to use it and not lose those architectural traditions.”
Aranha also participated as an invited guest in a workshop on resiliency hosted by the architecture school at Tecnológico de Monterrey at its campus in Puebla for architects, educators and various stake holders.
Ten days after returning home from his trip in Mexico, Aranha traveled to Shanghai, China, for a two-week international summer design studio organized by Tongji University's College of Architecture and Urban Planning. The organizers of the summer program at Tongji University also were aware of Aranha's name on the Fulbright Specialist roster, but requested him after he had already committed to the project in Mexico.
“A few days after I accepted the Mexico project in early May 2018, a professor from Tongji emailed and said he would like to propose my name as a Fulbright Specialist to participate in an international summer architecture workshop on Heritage and Urban Transformation because of my expertise in nonwestern architecture,” Aranha said. “I told them I was honored by the idea and would be delighted to participate but I couldn't do so via the Fulbright Specialist Program since I had already accepted the invitation to go to Mexico. So, they offered to pay for my stay there if I could pay for airfare, which would normally have been part of the coverage provided by the Fulbright Specialist Program.”
Fulbright Specialists are allowed to participate in only one Fulbright project every two years, which is why Aranha was unable to accept the China project at first. When Tongji offered a way for him to still participate, Aranha reached out to Bill Dean, president and CEO of the Texas Tech Alumni Association and an associate professor in the College of Media & Communication, who agreed to have the Alumni Association help him cover his travel expenses.
“Bill Dean has been very helpful in supporting faculty initiatives, faculty travel mostly,” Aranha said. “This was a special opportunity not only for me, but also for exposure for Texas Tech in China. Tongji University is highly rated among universities in China. That's the reason I think the Alumni Association was willing to help. It's good that it helps faculty in this way, and I am grateful for the support.”
The workshop, “Rehabilitation of Built Heritage in Urban Transformation,” focused on two different water towns near Shanghai, Lianshi and Nanxun within the regional government jurisdiction of Huzhou City in northern Zhejiang province. These ancient water towns, many of which are now in ruins or transformed by modern urban development, were once part of a network of canal side trading cities around the YangtzeRiverDelta.
Over the past few decades, China has been building new towns and replacing old neighborhoods with multi-storied, high-rise housing blocks. This building boom has transformed many historical towns in many parts of the country, and has consequently wiped out a large amount of urban architectural heritage.
“Many Chinese cities have changed rapidly because the Chinese government has not hesitated in demolishing buildings and neighborhoods to build new high-density, high-rise housing,” Aranha said. “Now, the Chinese government is realizing they are losing a lot of their architectural heritage, and that it is time to reverse this trend. With this in mind, the regional government of Huzhou City launched a competition to get ideas for heritage conservation and reuse of heritage buildings in two of its last remaining water towns. This sparked the theme of the international summer school.”
Thirty-four students from France, Italy, Australia, Czech Republic, the U.S. and China participated in the workshop funded by Tongji University and the government of the local region.
Working daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., students conducted field research by surveying the assigned project sites and interviewing residents in the two towns. In addition to their diverse cultural and academic backgrounds, the students in the summer school ranged in level from doctoral and graduate level to upper-level undergraduate students.
“Once the program started, it was 10 days non-stop,” Aranha said. “We worked through the weekends. We started on Aug. 5 with a formal reception and multi-course Chinese banquet and went through Aug. 15 without any breaks. It was an interesting and challenging experience to work intensively with such a diverse group.”
The students were divided into 11 groups and worked with six international faculty from China, Germany and Spain and a conservation expert from France. The teams were distributed among four different project sites in the two towns. Aranha, along with a professor from Tongji, assisted three groups in Lianshi, where the task was to propose ways to convert and re-use a group of historically significant rice storage silos and storage buildings, along with crumbling, canal-side houses.
“The area had become an industrial zone and nobody had taken care of the canal-side houses for decades,” Aranha said. “People had moved out to new multi-storied housing blocks and only elderly people, or people who are very poor, now live there. As a result, the neighborhood had deteriorated. Many areas like this in other water towns like Lianshi have disappeared because of that. Nobody looked after those canal-side houses.
“Hopefully, by considering the ideas proposed by the students to restore and reuse the rice silos and storage buildings, the local government can find ways to allow the town to remember and celebrate its history as a center for rice production and distribution, and the canal side residential neighborhood can be revitalized and become a very special place for the local people to enjoy as a place for living and recreation.”
During three days on site, the students studied and got to know tier-assigned project sites through drawings, photographs and group discussions. They also talked to local residents and attended a series of lectures given by each of the faculty on vernacular architecture, heritage conservation and related topics. They then returned to the Tongji University campus to work at the architecture school for the remaining time.
“Heritage conservation is not only about repairing an old building and using it for something new, but it also is about conveying how those buildings were used and the role they played in the community,” Aranha said. “This is an issue of growing importance in conservation architectural heritage reconstruction in China today.”
For Aranha, working with such a large group of students and faculty with various levels of fluency or experience in spoken English was an interesting exercise in communication. However, any shortcomings in spoken language were more than compensated for by the excellent architectural drawing and free-hand sketching skills of the students.
After the end of the 10-day workshop, each group presented its ideas in a formal presentation.
“They were given 7-8 minutes to present,” Aranha said. “It was quite a lot of work done in just 10 days while also collaborating with people they had never met before. These students were from different cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds and of different levels academically. For them to organize themselves and work as teams, reflected their enthusiasm, motivation and competitiveness. Their proposals will be submitted to the design competition launched by the regional government and winners will receive awards.”
Aranha also commented on the opportunity he had to experience two scales of cities in China.
“Shanghai seems to have embraced every technology to function efficiently despite being one of the largest cities not only in China but also in the world, with 24 million residents,” Aranha said. “Then, to see the small water towns where there's still a hint of the ancient culture mixed in with new construction was really interesting.”