The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1849] Los Recuerdos del Barrio (The Memory of the Barrio)

United States

I grew up hearing stories of a place, that exists now only in memories. It was a barrio, or neighborhood, called El Hoyo, meaning "the hole" because the neighborhood was built in a depression that had once been a spring. The barrio was located in the downtown area of Tucson, Arizona. But to speak more generally, it was located in the Sonoran Desert, which is the wettest desert in the world. This has led to a very diverse plant and animal population which has been able to support consecutive human habitation for nearly 15,000 years. The human occupants have shifted over time; from Native Americans, to Spanish, to Mexicans and finally to Americans. My family's experience spans these periods, through the oral histories of my grandparents and great-great-grandparents. They lived in a time when Tucson was a small, agricultural community where these cultures, Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American came together. My family learned to live within the confines of their desert environment by adopting the regional customs and traditions that developed over this vast time period. The lessons they learned are vanishing today. I will begin by piecing together the conversations I have had with my grandparents and great-grandparents, and weave them in a story that is derived from their collective memories:

A rooster crows in the distance and a morning breeze rustles through the leaves of a tree. The cries of a baby can be heard amidst the sizzle and crackle of a fire and the smell of mesquite and beans wafts through the air. The sounds and smells move unfiltered from the backyard area, to the ears of the barrio sleeper. Victoria had retreated outdoors for the night to avoid the summer heat of the thick adobe walls of the house. Now awake, she opens her eyes to see morning rituals unfolding: her mother is bent over the comal, which at one time was a tin tub, but now serves the purpose of containing the fire that is heating the pot of breakfast beans. Grandmother is gently rocking her baby sister as Mother prepares the meal. Our barrio hija (daughter) knows her place in these daily rituals. Rising from her mattress, which is kept outside during the summer months, she puts on an apron and begins the arduous task of making fresh tortillas. She directs younger siblings to collect eggs from their hen house, and then heads to their pantry to gather ingredients for her tortillas: flour, salt, lard, and the last ingredient, water, from the well in the front yard. She begins mixing her ingredients in a large bowl on a table that has been set under the vigas of a ramada which offer protection from the quickly rising sun. The time is about 7:30 and it is 1954.

This memory shows the self-sufficiency that families can have. In the barrio, families lived together as clans. It was common for multiple generations to live together under one roof. Inter-generational living promoted a self-sufficient unit that was not dependent on services like baby-sitters and elderly homes, thus saving time and money. The family became a micro-community, and with interactions across generations, the knowledge of elders passed on to the new generation; instilling an understanding of community and family bonds. It is difficult to say whether or not the architecture was designed for this type of living arrangement, but it evolved to accommodate it. The main asset that the family had was its home flexibility. The barrio home often began as a one bedroom adobe house; as the family grew, the original house was expanded, room by room.

To apply this concept today is to design for flexibility and multiplicity. Designing a floor plan as one large open space enables it to be partitioned as the needs of the family change. Furthermore, the process of building, when it comes to zoning, and land use, might need to come under scrutiny. The barrio offered freedom, because families often built without any permitting. While this might be a dangerous proposition today, perhaps the costs associated with permitting could be mitigated through subsidies established to promote density and community self-sufficiency within neighborhoods. This concept might even incentivize new developers to design with these principles in mind. Another strategy that might apply to existing neighborhoods is the concept of accessory dwelling units. For some families, the thought of the extended family living under one roof may seem cramped. Thus, the idea of smaller, detached units on the same property as the larger house may be an alternate solution. This would permit a degree of separation, while still allowing the advantages of clan living.

In addition to the tight-knit living patterns of families, another valuable aspect of the barrio experience is the way that people lived with natural cycles and developed a land ethic. For example, in the barrio, families adapted their living strategies to take advantage of the natural environment, and extended the boundaries of the home to include patio spaces and gardens, as opposed to creating artificial environments that sealed them off from the outdoors. In a seasonal pattern, the family slept in the house during the cool winter months and outdoors during the hot summer months. This type of living vanished today. Houses are designed to be closed, climate controlled boxes that offer very few opportunities for either natural ventilation or other passive environmental control systems. The climatic conditions’ corollary in dwelling patterns is that the exterior was used as a living space just as much as the interior. The outdoor spaces had tables set under ramadas, offering opportunities for relaxing, eating or working, as well as outdoor kitchens which allowed for many meals to be enjoyed outdoors.

How can we recover some of these valuable methods? One way is to design for indoor/outdoor spaces that bring people in contact with their environment and offer chances to live seasonally once again. Homes today, could be designed with a minimal interior building footprint, about half of what it is normally. Lost interior space could be recovered by allowing functions of the home to extend outdoors, from cooking, to sleeping, to lounging and working. These interior/exterior spaces could be protected through the use of screens or fabric that would keep out insects. Furthermore, the whole livable area of the home should be surrounded by trees and vegetable gardens that help cool the local environment and supplement the family diet. Suddenly this home is built of multiple layers which offer diverse experiences, from the interior, protected core, moving out to a semi-permeable layer, then further to a vegetated layer. These layers can also assemble in any order, they could be courtyard dwellings with a protected outer core, semi-permeable middle, and vegetated center. This strategy could be retrofitted to existing homes through something as simple as adding a screened porch.

A few more words must be said of these gardens and vegetated spaces in terms of their social value; they helped keep the house shaded and cool during the day, but also had a more subtle effect of demanding awareness of natural cycles. Every member of the family participated in the process of cultivation and quickly became aware of the limitations of the desert. They would have been keenly aware of how much water was used and which seasons were good for planting. This would have created something of a land ethic within the individual family, because family members felt tied to the land in an immediate way, instilling a sense of responsibility over it. This social value of gardening has not changed today, but it can be done sustainably through water conservation methods like rainwater harvesting and xeriscaping.

What is equally remarkable about the homes of the barrio is that they were made of almost nothing. Barrio residents took the ground below them and made it into bricks that held on to the morning cool of summer and afternoon warm of winter. And when bricks could not make a roof, they dug through the nearby dump yard and gave second life to discarded lumber, turning it into a shelter overhead. Their choice in materials shows an ability to be resourceful and an ethic of making something out of nothing. This resourcefulness stemmed out of their understanding of the land, and because they knew the region they were in, they knew what natural resources could be made into shelters.

To apply these same principles to building practice today would mean to use both regional, natural materials that can easily biodegrade into the earth, and to use the process of recycling for materials that will not return to the earth. The advantage of using local building materials has an almost unintended aesthetic effect of creating buildings that reflect the regional setting, which in turn helps to establish a collective identity for the city. Today it is almost impossible to tell one city from another, because building processes and materials have become so standardized and globally available. There has been a denial of vernacular forms of architecture that have a history that often dates back thousands of years, as the barrio attests:

It is now 2:00 pm and dinner is approaching. Victoria heads through the layers of her home, ramada, interior, front porch, and finally front yard. She closes the chain link gate to her front yard, and spots her neighbor attending to his roses. "Hola, Jose," she says, "your roses are looking lovely." "Si, si," he replies, "and I couldn't have done it without the seeds you gave me last fall. Muchas Gracias, senorita." She waves her hand goodbye and heads towards Main Avenue in search of spices for dinner. At the end of the neighborhood street, the road stops and the ground begins to slope up; Main Avenue bustles beyond. She climbs the slope and enters a street where cars, bikes, buses, and pedestrians are all busy making their way through. She stays on the sidewalk, walking along the western edge of the north-south street, now partially shaded from the descending sun. She passes a variety of curiosities: a Chinese Market selling medicinal herbs; various street vendors selling small trinkets, toys, and candies; a sleepy bar that is strewn with men passed out along its counters; a theater that is playing Spanish movies ... and past dozens of small Mexican restaurants, markets, and businesses from carnicerias (meat store), and taquerias (taco shop) to papelerias (paper store) and joyerias (jewelry store). Finally, she arrives at the small Mexican market that sells all kinds of local foods, from the pads of the prickly pear cactus, called nopales, to the ground flower of the mesquite tree pods. She chooses some dried red chiles, pays the shop owner, and then heads back home.

As she walks home she can hear the church bells of San Augustin Cathedral in the distance and remembers that tomorrow is the Fiesta de San Augustin, a celebration in which almost the whole city participates. The festivities held in the plaza in front of the church will include dancing and gambling and street vendors selling food and refreshments…

Now, these are only memories. Sadly, most of the urban character of El Hoyo was erased during the urban renewal movement of the 1960's. The neighborhood was condemned as a blighted site, because some of the homes and areas had fallen into disrepair, and the neighborhood had a reputation for being rowdy and unruly. The city's new plan widened the narrow pedestrian streets and demolished nearly 800 small businesses and homes. The new plan created a convention center on a two-acre site that had once been home to diverse urban residents.

But what if we look beyond what city officials saw as dilapidated and poor, and see the virtues of the urban barrio environment? These memories are striking because they show how the barrio community is linked together through the experience of the street. The street allowed all types of various daily tasks and ritual to take place- from a mundane trip to the market to a church festival. The diverse range of experiences was in part, facilitated through the architecture- narrow streets allowed opportunities for chance encounters, continuous building facades acted as stage sets announcing their activity to the street, and the dense urban fabric meant that the community was constantly rubbing elbows with one another. All of this led to a sense of public life and community within the barrio.

Today, suburban models for living separate homes from their daily uses and isolate people from one another, neighborhoods are built with only housing in mind, which causes relentless driving from daily task to daily task. Our streets have become large and over scaled, facilitating movement of cars and not people. To apply the principles of the barrio urbanism to communities today, would be to design for mixed use, density and alternate modes of transportation- walking, biking and public transit. But more importantly, the barrio urbanism shows a different model for a city- one in which life is centralized into clusters of self-sufficient neighborhoods that display the regional flavor and spirit of place.

The spirit of place is captured through the types of functions that are taking place, which are all centered on the local community. The shops and businesses were locally owned and operated, and because the community was primarily Mexican-American, it catered to the local populations' preferences and taste. The barrio was a unique area in the city because of this cultural specificity, and it wouldn't have been possible without people within the neighborhood taking pride in their community and investing within it.

This model offers valuable lessons for today; it shows how important it is for cities to promote locally-owned businesses within neighborhoods. This allows local residents a chance to create economic opportunity for themselves, and invests them within their community. It also fosters a greater sense of community participation within the neighborhood and centralizes people's lives and daily tasks to walkable regions. These strategies could apply to new development but they could also apply to existing neighborhoods through creative zoning that might allow either small business to be run out of homes, or accessory dwelling units added for business operations.

There is much talk today about global problems: global warming, a collapsing global economy, desertification, depletion of clean water sources. But the memories of the barrio powerfully show how people created sustainable economies and building practices through their ethic of community, resourcefulness and land. What is more poignant is that it was done through an understanding of the regional customs, not just in terms of building practice and knowledge of climatic and ecological systems, but also in terms of the value and power of social ties and community bonding. It is a powerful lesson that as one person, we can affect very little, but together we can overcome.

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