Design Forum’s Cazú Zegers: Ecocentric not Egocentric

Changing our egocentric culture to an “eco-centric” one, says the Chilean architect Cazú Zegers, is when we  see ourselves as part of a complex system that needs to be treated with humility. It’s a message she shares as founder and director of Cazú Zegers Architecture and Foundation +1000. Named among the Latin American architects who break down barriers by Forbes Magazine in 2020, Zegers is a featured speaker for Design Forum: South is Up! June 3-4  at the Ballston Center at Marymount University in Arlington. Register and join her at  aiava.org/design-forum-2022.

In a recent Madame Architect interview, you said “The territory for America is just like monuments for Europe,” and yet student sketchbooks are still not filled with topographies and river paths today. Why are we still stuck on architecture’s monuments elsewhere to contemplate a vernacular future here?

I think this is a movement that comes mainly from the south which is slowly and strongly increasing. I’m certain that the new cultural paradigm wave which is rising on the planet has to do with this approach of understanding the way we inhabit. A way of living that is not over posing or dominating, but to inhabit in relation with our planet. Therefore, changing our egocentric culture to an Ecocentric one, where we understand that the human being is part of a complex system, that needs to be treated with care and humility. This implies to reveal what indigenous communities have in the core of their cosmovision and by truly understanding that all elements have a being. By understanding this we begin to understand that all beings are sacred so we must relate with reciprocity. My work is deeply connected to this and I’m working to collaborate in the re-sacralization of the land.

Casa Ye, Cazú Zegers. Photo by Marcos Zegers.

On your observation of how “students’ sketchbooks are still not filled with topographies … (and) why we are stuck on architecture’s monuments elsewhere to contemplate a vernacular future here,” I think there are many elements to this situation. But mainly I would say that it has to do with a fact opened in the sixties by “Amereida” (PUCV, 1967). Amereida is an epic poem that is a translation from Virgil’s  Aeneid—also an epic poem which is known for opening the Latin culture. On this hand, Amereida is opening this new culture that emerges from America and the Pacific. What Amereida narrates is related directly with this element that has us still stuck on architecture’s monuments elsewhere. This epic poem has to do with the discovery of America as a continent, and on how Christopher Columbus at that time was searching for the Indies but “America emerges as a gift.” However, they never understood that this was a new continent, and it is from that misunderstanding—even to this day—that all people that came to America came with the idea of making a profit, but their homeland was elsewhere.  A homeland where the monuments are part of that other culture, therefore they imitated their ways in their designs and architecture building references from elsewhere, evolving as a fragmented culture. Amereida is a calling to stop imitating and understand that we must create our own ways, this is for me the vernacular future here.

But for this to happen and for us to see sketchbooks full of natural monuments, we need to reinvent the way we teach architecture. Architecture schools are not yet understanding the problem, and most of them—of course not all of them—are still teaching a Eurocentric point of view. This is one of the reasons that I created the Andes Workshop with Grupo Talca.

What does Chile’s geography suggest about materiality and scale, in relation to its neighbors? 

I always say that in front of these colossal monuments, we must inhabit in a “light and precarious way”, this has to do with materials and scale. My proposition to inhabit in a “light and precarious way” is not to compete with the natural monuments but relate in a love affair, where the building is tensioned by landscape and the landscape is tensioned by the building. You can see this as a great example in Tierra Patagonia Hotel (Zegers, 2011).

Hotel Tierra Patagonia, Cazú Zegers. Photo by Addison Jones

About materials, I also say that “Chile has its vocation in timber”. I’m also a strong defender on using vernacular materials from the place in question and furthermore to recycle materials if it’s possible. This is also related and can be applied to our neighbors. Urban Narrator Miguel Laborde (with whom I co-created the Foundation and Center of Geopeotic Studies, to reflect about Chile) always said that in Chile the original people didn’t build great monuments because this is a telluric territory, so they understood that this was a place to simply pass through. I also think that these telluric territories allow a profound sense of spirituality and I strongly believe that it allows a profound sense for the poetic. I used to give a lecture called Poetic Territory and if you think about it, two Chilean Nobel prizes in poetry will prove this. So, I must say that the geopoetic is part of our culture and we must look towards a “light and precarious way” (Zegers, 1990s) of doing things.

We talk a lot about scale in architecture, but what qualifies an architect to design at an urban scale?

What a question, and I think the answer is more philosophical. Alberto Cruz Covarrubias, one of the founders of my architecture school, always said that you become an architect after 20 years of practicing. I think what allows you to design on an urban scale, has to do with this. You need to experiment with smaller scales to understand the whole in all its complexity. Only then I think you have the experience to understand a human territory with all of its complexity.

Casa Soplo, Cazú Zeger. Photo by Ana Maria Lopez

How do you regard today’s “collaborative workshops” or “laboratories” within architecture? Are they merely extensions of historical guilds or ateliers? Or, do they point to a different ideal for architectural production today?

I co-created the Andes Workshop through Grupo Talca. This is a collaborative workshop, because I had the feeling that we needed to teach architecture in a different way—a more hands on and collaborative manner of confronting architecture. It so happened that our first Andes Workshop also aimed to unlock the resistance of a particular case with an indigenous community and families located in the south of Chile. Here we were proposing a new way of understanding the land and urbanization, or what I like to call as ruralization, of an amazing and wild territory where these families lived. I named this project as “Ruta Pehuenche.” This experience will later help my studio and I become experts in Ethnoarchitecture which points to a different ideal for architectural production today.

This is also something that has to do with your previous question about urban scale and design. I think that today for making an urban or rural development we need to do it with the communities that will live there and we must co-create, which is why I strongly believe that collaborative workshops are the way to go.

Casa Llu, Cazu Zegers. Photo by Marcos Zegers

More on laboratories—I think they are completely necessary to complement architecture education. With the advance of technology and the planetary/social and environmental crisis, we need to investigate in specific areas. For example, we created “Madera LAB” which is a platform that investigates the use of timber as the material of the XXI century. This is a proposal made by Alex the Richter for this century, and Chile, because of its amazing rainforests, its main material is timber. We are also committed as a country to be carbon free by 2050, that’s tomorrow, so to achieve this we must investigate and explore new solutions. For this, Labs are definitely the way.

How has your outlook on sustainability evolved as a result of your thinking about collaboration with architects and others?

Thoughts and solutions on sustainability have always been with me, since I was very young, but it has evolved and grown in complexity through my collaborations with others. I believe this growth also has to do with numerous lectures I have done in seminars and forums, because when I put together the lecture, I’m able to understand and integrate the new knowledge in a new conceptual way of thinking and taking on architecture.

Last year my studio signed “Architects Declare.” This encourages us and commits us to be sustainable in all that we do as architects. We must be able to change our ways very quickly, if we don’t, we will sadly be one of the next species to be extinct.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

William Richards is a writer based in Washington, DC, and co-founder of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy. His latest book, Bamboo Contemporary, published by Princeton Architectural Press, is out this month.

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