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Barbara Palmer, News Service: (650) 724-6184,

Students design campus for Guatemalan street children

A blizzard of drawing paper covers the big table in Room 219 in Encina West on Mondays and Wednesdays as the 11 students enrolled in Civil and Environmental Engineering 137 -- an architectural design studio -- produce flurries of floor plans, site designs and scale drawings for their course project, a residential and institutional campus.

But in the words of Jeff Luney, a local architect who's serving as a design critic for the course, this is more than "paper architecture." Students are wrestling with the demands of a real site -- a hilly, irregularly shaped, 3-acre plot cut by a deep ravine -- and the needs of a real client, Estela Solis.

Solis is the founder of Center for the Restoration of the Multitudes (CEREM) in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, which provides shelter, drug treatment, counseling and occupational therapy for former gang members and prostitutes. Solis, a counselor, founded CEREM after witnessing the condition of women and children living in a garbage dump in Guatemala City.

Solis' foundation, which houses 20 to 30 individuals and treats dozens more, currently is based in a rented house, from which residents operate a bakery and a cafe. Solis plans to expand the program to include a residential campus on a site 20 minutes outside Guatemala City, where former prostitutes and street children could safely live, go to school and work.

It's the design of that campus that students are creating, with the help of architects Luney and David Nieh, lecturer and architect Marga Jann, and other lecturers and faculty who serve as visiting design critics. In addition to group-home­style residences, students are designing classrooms, spaces for small businesses, a church and a retreat center. Solis, accompanied by Guatemalan architect Alberto de Leon Escobar and a CEREM resident, will travel to campus next Monday for a design review of the project.

The course is titled Architectural Design of Individual Buildings: Ethics, Community Service and Social Responsibility, and students, drawn from backgrounds including medicine, history, urban studies, human biology, and civil and environmental engineering, take an interdisciplinary approach to the project.

Their designs, which use Guatemalan vernacular architecture and textile art as a springboard, address residents' needs for privacy and community, recreation and security, along with the need for square footage. "I love how architecture combines art with functionality," wrote Ben Palmquist in a description of the course project. "It takes into account everything from psychology to structural engineering." "It's not just a place for kids to eat and sleep," added senior Luis Trujillo, a 21-year-old history major who brought the foundation to Jann's attention and serves as a board member. He has conducted research on education, poverty and street children.

The project is a rare opportunity for students and far different from more typical architectural projects that address problems like "How many offices can we fit into this space?" or "How many cases of Coca-Cola can we push out the back?" Luney said.

Their designs for the campus are imaginative, with curving walls and vine-shaded patios, rendered in a rainbow of colors. Yet in their critiques, architects Luney, Nieh and Jann keep students rooted in prosaic realities like drainage and sewer systems. "Are we using septic tanks? We have to think about the utilities," responded Nieh, after Palmquist presented a site plan sketch.

Students also are working to identify funding sources and are creating a business plan to generate income through the manufacture of clothing. The older residents will design and sew skirts, to be sold through organizations like the Fair Trade Federation, and class members are hoping to help CEREM to begin exporting Guatemalan crafts and tapestries, Jann said. (Students will take orders for Guatemalan textiles at the June 2 design review, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Wallenberg Learning Theater. The design review is open to the community.)

A project like the CEREM campus has a lot of constraints, said Jann, who has previously worked with student designers to create blueprints for a residence at a Mexican orphanage, now under construction. The project is ambitious and has little funding, and the student architects, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, are amateurs, she said. On the plus side are the students' commitment and ability, she said. "They are really motivated and are hard workers."

"It's not really even a class," said Palmquist. "It's a real-world situation. Most of us plan to stick with the project after the class is over."

The class receives support from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Center for Social Innovation at the Graduate School of Business, the Haas Center for Public Service, the Institute for International Studies, the Program in Ethics in Society and the Program on Urban Studies.


By Barbara Palmer

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