Students head to Chile for a fresh perspective on building

Patricia Guaita, third from the right, with students during the workshop. © Alain Herzog /EPFL

Patricia Guaita, third from the right, with students during the workshop. © Alain Herzog /EPFL

From 29 July to 16 August, around 20 students from EPFL and ETH Zurich will take part in the Open City Research Platform on Chile’s west coast. In this hands-on workshop, they will analyze both the technical and human aspects of architecture and construction. This cross-disciplinary research program, introduced in 2014, is held every year at Ciudad Abierta – an architectural pilot site near Valparaíso.

On 27 July, around 20 architectural, civil engineering and environmental engineering students from EPFL and ETH Zurich will fly to Valparaíso, Chile, where they will spend three weeks helping to construct the Pórtico de los Huéspedes (“Guests’ Portico”), in association with students from Chile’s Escuela de Arquitectura y Diseño de la Pontificia Universidad Católica Valparaíso (e[ad] PUCV). The Portico is located at Ciudad Abierta (“Open City”), some 16 kilometers north of Valparaíso on the Pacific Coast. You can follow the students’ progress on EPFL Out There, the blog covering EPFL research expeditions and projects abroad.

- EPFL Out There blog

A supplement to classroom learning
Before heading to Chile, the students spend the week of 8 July getting ready for their trip at EPFL. The goal of the program is to expose them to rudimentary building methods and an approach to architecture that is focused more on the humanistic aspects. “EPFL began working with Ciudad Abierta six years ago, after we put together an exhibition about this pilot site,” says Patricia Guaita, an architect and scientist at EPFL’s Design Studio on the Conception of Space (ALICE). Since then, she has been taking a small group of EPFL students to the site every summer so they can pitch in with the construction work. The students are selected through an interview process and obtain credits they can use towards their Master’s degree.

“This ‘summer school’ is intended to supplement what the students learn in class by giving them hands-on experience with concepts related to construction and the use of space,” says Guaita. “The Portico is being built through a cross-disciplinary team project, and we hope that through our program, students will see how its construction is the tangible result of knowledge built up over the years. That will give them a fresh perspective on the construction process.” This year students will be testing out a new method for concrete form work.

Accommodations at the site will be basic, with little or no internet access. Does that worry the students? “Not at all! It’ll give us a chance to get back in touch with the real world, after spending years behind a computer,” says Annabelle Thuring, a Master’s student in architecture. Pablo Grunig, a first-year architecture student, adds: “I immediately liked the idea of building something on the other side of the planet, in the middle of sand dunes, and being completely immersed in the project.”

A once-in-a-lifetime experience
“This program, with its unique living and working conditions, will show the students that construction work must not be limited to technical considerations but should also take into account the human and material experience associated with the site and its occupants,” says Guaita. David Jolly, the e[ad] PUCV professor who supervises the EPFL students every year, agrees. “The timeline for building the Portico is not dictated by school calendars. Students have been building a section of it every year for the past five years. The central role in this project is thus not played by students but by Ciudad Abierta. This workshop offers a unique platform where the students’ work, education and daily life meld. In working on this project, EPFL students don’t just help build a portion of the City, they also build up a part of themselves. What they are constructing today will last, in terms of both the building they construct and the unique experience they gain.”

An avant-garde artistic approach
Ciudad Abierta was created in 1970 by a group of architects, poets, philosophers, sculptors and painters including Chilean architect Alberto Cruz and Argentinian poet Godofredo Iommi. Little known by the general public, the City has always fostered avant-garde thinking in a variety of arts and disciplines.

This year, the Open City Research Platform is sponsored by the EPFL Institute of Architecture, the EPFL Architecture Section, the Design Together program and the ETH Board. The IKEA Foundation also came onboard, as an external sponsor.

The EPFL Institute of Architecture has been leading the Open City Research Platform for six years. The Avina Foundation supported it during the first four years of its existence as an external sponsor.
The project includes the Design Together teaching program since 2016.