Scott Gerald Shall


We sat on the floor in the cramped offices of Espasio Cultural Creativo. The group was an eclectic mix: staff and volunteers from Espasio Cultural Creativo (or ECC, a Bolivian non-profit that runs arts education initiatives on the streets of La Paz and the chief reason we were in Bolivia), the director of Creative Corners (a UK-based non-profit that helps to link artist-volunteers with local South American non-profits requesting their work), a smattering of students and professionals from around La Paz, and about a dozen students from various US-based universities who were here as a part of a new building abroad program I had initiated through Temple University.

Children working the streets of La Paz, such as the Lustrabota pictured here, do not have the time to pursue the educational opportunities available to others.

The meeting was run in two languages and through a myriad of lenses. For the students, this get-together was the official introduction to the work that had brought them to this country in the first place: to design new educational initiatives that would build upon the current work of ECC and help make education more accessible to kids who work on the street. It was also a chance to meet those who had invited us to La Paz: a dedicated band of artists, activists, students and community leaders who had been involved in bringing arts education to the streets for the past few decades and would undoubtedly remain involved for decades to come. Once the introductions were completed, the conversation quickly turned to the work that had brought us together. Specific parameters of the various projects currently run by ECC and other groups were discussed, as were the future initiatives of these parties.

In short order, the conversation turned to us, the team that had gathered in Bolivia to partner in this immense effort. About five minutes into this portion of the conversation, Miguel, the co-director of ECC, pointedly asked the team, “Why Bolivia?” The question struck us between the eyes. Why had we come to Bolivia? Why not Peru? Why not South Africa? Why not stay home and deal with the inadequacies found within our own educational system? For most, these questions were not new. Writers, educators and practitioners have asked very similar questions of humanitarian workers for some time. Recent publications by authors Graham Hancock (Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business), Michael Maren (The Road To Hell: the Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity), and Linda Polman (The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid) have presented very clear evidence to not only the ineptitude of this work, but its harm.

In the latter volume, Polman describes how the combatants in war-torn countries view media-ready events such as dismemberment, terror and starvation as a means to increased media attention, and transitively, increased aid. In her mind, this arrangement, sowing horror to reap aid, is “the logic of the humanitarian era.” Why had we come to Bolivia?

Useful Outsiders

After all, what possibly could our team offer to the other members of the circle or the kids they had dedicated their lives to helping? No one on the team spoke Aymara, the language of roughly 30% of La Paz, including many of those who lived in the communities with which we would directly work. Hell, some in our team (myself included) did not even speak Spanish, the language used by the rest of the city. We had little formal training in arts-based education (or education in general), we knew precious little about La Paz or Bolivia, and, aside from a few members of our team, we had little experience working directly with children who made their living on the street. Most of us couldn’t even catch a microbus. Surely, given these inadequacies, our talents and efforts would be more fruitful operating in our backyard. As we wrestled with these questions, we confronted a common assumption of humanitarian design, namely the implied belief in two camps of people: the insider, or those who are currently living within the community, and the outsider, or those who are only passing through. That is, all of the questions we faced insinuated a line in the sand between “us” (the people in the situation) and “you” (everyone else). Although this assumed binary has very little relationship to the actual situation, which is generally much more complicated, it nevertheless can have a profound effect on the work, creating an atmosphere capable of subverting the formation of the nuanced and intricate relationships required to realize a sustainable work. Confronting this belief thus becomes a necessary aspect of humanitarian work.

The Ludateca is a three-hour arts education event held most Saturdays at San Francisco Plaza, hosted by Espacio Cultural, a major partner in this work. During the Ludateca, children working on the streets surrounding the square take a brief break in order to paint, make music and play.

This necessary confrontation starts quite logically, at the root of all learning experiences: the predispositions of those involved. As posited by author and theorist Jerome Bruner, if “learning depends upon the exploration of alternatives” and this exploration will quite naturally be motivated and informed by the gifts, talents and experiences of the student, then these attributes must also furnish the base for instruction.1 Or, to reference John Dewey: “training must, however, be itself based upon the natural tendencies, that is, it must find its point of departure in them … Training, in short, must fall back upon the prior and independent exercise of natural powers; it is concerned with their proper direction, not with creating them.” 2 For both, the predispositions of the learner are the primary point of departure for any act of teaching, including those related to the necessary questioning of ill-founded versions of self and other. Bearing this in mind, to question the presumed self and other becomes a matter of directly engaging those predispositions that caused these biases to exist – to channel, not eliminate, the leanings of those entering the situation for the first time.

To once again reference Dewey, to cajole our predispositions, the offered phenomenon, thought, or experience must be articulated in a manner that can be appreciated by the existent knowledge or skills of the learner, but not completely explained by them.3 As this questioning gradually moves forward, the insider-outsider binary will give way to a much more nuanced understanding of self and other – to the benefit of not only the project at hand, but the long-term beliefs of all those involved. Done well, this process will overlap once disparate monologues in a manner capable of situating the humanitarian design practice between perspectives, including the provoking and useful influence of those entering the situation for the first time. This moves the emphasis of cultural exchange away from easily discerned markers of belonging and toward equally, if not more, substantive concerns. After all, adopting easily discerned markers of belonging as found within normative practices of language, dress or living, is only useful if such actions promote a continuing exchange whereby both parties might take an accurate account of their leanings across the spectrum of the insider-outsider dynamic and wield this range responsibly.

Language is but one method of achieving this end. The creative process, art, and other forms of exchange are equally useful. In fact, according to studies by Scott Page, the highest functioning creative teams actually consist of people carrying a wide range of talents and intelligence. Bearing this in mind, it is not hard to see how heralding one type of knowledge (language, cultural knowledge, etc) can actually serve to compromise the utility of humanitarian teams. Aside from oversimplifying the complex and varied backgrounds and perspectives held by both those involved in the work (including those living in the area and those coming into it anew), such beliefs also undercut the potential offered by those who are not originally from the region. In light of this, perhaps it is time for the humanitarian designer to focus less upon becoming a little insider and more upon becoming a responsible outsider.

Inspired by these events, student Michael Pope attempts to organize Ludatecas in other locations throughout the week.

To realize this necessary conflict in Bolivia, I offered our team of series of gradually escalating confrontations designed to move us from the position of tourist (the necessary starting point when one enters a situation for the first time) to position of collaborator. One of the initial acts to this end occurred about two days after arriving in La Paz, when I asked members of our team to engage in a bit of experiential foraging, awarding points for taking part in activities like playing football with a group of complete strangers, bargaining with local merchants for enchanted soaps or a getting a shave and a haircut. Overtly positioned as a tourist-centric act, these activities used the naturally-occurring curiosity of team members, who were quite anxious to explore Bolivia, to question (and eventually invert) subject-object dynamic generally encouraged by actions as seemingly benign as taking photos or purchasing trinkets. Instead of photographing kids playing football on the street, the members of our team asked to join in the fun (and someone else to photograph them playing); instead of taking a photo of the market, they asked someone else to photograph them bargaining (an oft-heated exchange) on said street.

The supposed insider (those living in Bolivia) thus occupied the position behind the camera, photographing the supposed outsider engaged in previously assumed insider activities. The distance between the city and the team member shrunk as they, two days into the project, navigated their new city in order to drink a local delicacy, bargained for dried llama fetus, or rode a merry-go-round. The juxtaposition of the experience to their premeditated version of it caused the team members to rethink their position within the city, cultivating a real-time negotiation that paved the way for more radical inversions and distortions of their assumed position, including a derive around San Francisco Plaza and a psychogeographic cab ride through the city.4 Obviously these acts represented only the beginnings of a more fruitful exchange. Although they provided a great platform for dialogue between an incredibly diverse team, they did not facilitate an equally rigorous conversation between these individuals and those who lived within the collaborating community. While the members of our team were better situated to question the harmful prejudice implicit within the insider-outsider binary, our partners were not so inclined. To them we were still, simply, outsiders. Which brought us all back to Miguel’s question: Why had we come to Bolivia?

Useful Work

Miguel’s question, as are most questions of this nature, is borne of experience, a fact that became clear in the few minutes that followed his query when he began to describe the efforts of others who had occupied our position in the years preceding our arrival. He told of other well-intentioned, motivated and creative teams that had taught kids how to make pinhole cameras, led artists to create murals within a local hospital, and endeavored to create new educational initiatives. He then went on to observe that pinhole cameras were no longer made, that many of the murals started by these groups remained unfinished, and that the vast majority of the offered educational initiatives had been coffered. The insinuated question was obvious: Why would our work be any different? How would it be sustained? These questions are, of course, not isolated to the members of our team; they are the domain of anyone who decides to undertake this type of work. It is a question that must be faced by doctors who give their services to help heal the sick and the maimed, engineers who lend their hand to bring water to the thirsty, and designers who offer their talents to build homes for the homeless. And it is not a question easily answered.

Student Philip Spina installs Lustrabota advocacy posters and artwork throughout the city of La Paz.

In a recent interview with Metropolis magazine, Cameron Sinclair, founding director of Architecture For Humanity (AFH), describes how an AFH program intended to form a baking cooperative operated by the widows of tsunami victims in Sri Lanka was canceled when the women began to receive death threats from a mobster involved with a local baking monopoly. Similar testimonies can be found throughout the field, prompting many to ask whether or not the architect has the ability or right to intervene in such matters. In a recent article on this topic in Fast Company, Bruce Nussbaum suggests that designers should “ask whether or not American and European designers are collaborating with the right partners, learning from the best local people, and being as sensitive as they might to the colonial legacies of the countries they want to do good in.”

Said questions bring us to a second common division within the humanitarian design process, namely the historic break between those designing and those receiving the design. As an act of construction, architecture, and design in general, require resources (time, land, money, labor, etc.) to be realized. This quite naturally creates a process wherein the owner (those holding these resources) contracts the professional (those possessing the skills and talents to design and construct new work) to realize new work, which, upon completion, will be engaged by others through employment (user), patronage (client), and inhabitation (occupant or tenant). Although at times, the owner may decide to grant, to increase marketability, raise the prestige of the program, or, at times, provide for the public good, some authority to the non-owners within the process, the hierarchy described above remains unchecked. The stance and beliefs assumed by those paying the tab (or providing the land) is the primary determinant within the process of design, construction, and, correspondingly, occupation. This hierarchy of process is reinforced by the inevitable sociological influence of the products created through it – a state of affairs that has historically fostered a deep relationship between those who design our built environment and those wishing to capitalize upon the influence of said work.5 Correspondingly, the field has prioritized pedagogies and practices that create influential architecture (architecture as generator of symbolic capital) over those skills that help to create architecture of value to a broader audience (architecture as generator of physical, social, or even economic capital). Over time, this has placed an emphasis upon the intellectual pursuits of the designer, often to the deficit of other methods of working.

The field’s resulting intellectual lean, although useful when operating in the design process described above, is in sharp contrast to more pervasive design patterns as well as the natural pattern of thought, which generally moves easily from physical, to social, to intellectual methods of thinking.6 Just as people piece together language through a messy, trial and error exploration based upon their current store of knowledge, designers shall only acquire the complex skills or knowledge necessary to complete a useful work through the use and mastery of more basic ones.7 As humanitarian designers, the stuff built and the thoughts that describe these artifacts must become “tools for reflection,” through which the learner might consider propositions rather than objects. This cycle is realized quite clearly through the “objects of knowledge” described by Claude Levi-Strauss: The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge … The aesthetic emotion is the result of this union between the structural order and the order of events, which is brought about within a thing created by man and so also in effect by the observer who discovers the possibility of such a union through a work of art. Or, stated more concisely: “By his [the artist’s] craftsmanship, he constructs a material object which is also an object of knowledge.”8

Several other students work with Lustrabota to create journals, sketchbooks and other creative works for educational and business purposes.

Applying Levi-Strauss’ insight to the act of humanitarian design, the task of the humanitarian designer becomes the creation of objects of knowledge, through which all parties involved bring their inherent leanings to bear upon each other throughout the process. As opposed to the mechanisms of project delivery described above, which infer a sharp distinction between owners and non-owners, the humanitarian designer would use the design and construction process to cultivate a dialogue between various publics (including those insinuated via the insider-outsider binary earlier described). Properly executed, the work produced does not simply build a relationship between itself and the publics affected by it (a task that requires a premeditated version of the involved publics). Rather, it must be concerned with building a relationship between itself and the situation that serves as its “site,” through which it might cultivate new publics, new wisdom, new work, and new fields of study. To realize this process in Bolivia, I revised the project delivery model so as to emphasize the creation of objects of knowledge, through which the members of our team might instigate and accumulate the wisdom of a much wider body of participants. That is, instead of assembling community groups, organizing focus groups or attempting to build consensus – all of which are actually contrary to current research on useful crowd dynamics – I asked team members to create methods of instigating and collecting wisdom at a variety of points and times throughout a cyclical design, construction, and inhabitation process. This movement toward accumulated wisdom began with a seemingly simple challenge.

After one week in La Paz (time spent in the activities already described), I gave each team member 40Bs (about $5 or the daily wage of a Shoe-Shine Boy) and 24-hours to create a work that would achieve the maximum good possible within the conditions engaged by our partners. I then advised them that to succeed their work must (a) be anchored upon the conditions faced by one or more of our partner communities so that it will (b) regenerate profound manifestations over time. The responses to this challenge varied widely. One team member, inspired by the Ludateca, an arts-education event hosted in the main plaza by ECC every Saturday, built instruments using reclaimed material and offered music education on the streets of the city. Another team member created advocacy posters and artwork with the Shoe-Shine Boys, which he then installed throughout the city.

Another member, a photography student, used her resources to set up free photography sessions around the city, providing a well-received service and creating an impressive photographic survey of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Other team members collaborated with kids working on the streets to create journals, sketchbooks and other creative works for educational and business purposes. Although each of these works carried a certain amount of utility, this was not their most important feature. The critical point behind these efforts is the framework for continued dialogue they established. To create them, our team built partnerships around each effort: students, day laborers, tourists, vendors, professionals, and faculty members gathered around the offered work, attempting to lend their knowledge (and a hand) to the work. The limits placed upon each piece (cost, time, etc) compelled the participants to offer something that was obviously not a final act, but a useful instigation through which more final acts might be realized. This way of working naturally shifted our responsibility from that of expert-architect, responsible for receiving all knowledge and then dispensing it to the group, to that of facilitator, who simply makes specific knowledge more accessible and then creates a framework wherein many publics might determine the best course of action. Our work was like a street-based Linux – an open-source code that allowed anyone with even a small bit of knowledge to contribute his or her specific knowledge to the conditions we had been asked to address. In so doing, our efforts began to cultivate a sustained address.

Useful Futures

Obviously, collecting this wisdom is not a short-term proposal. The dialogue cultivated through the work of the architect, whether offered as a provisional $5 creative act or a $5 million school, will only have value if it is sustained past this effort. After all, given the limited role held by the designer in even the most immersive service learning activity, to have a sustained address the value of the work created cannot lay in its quality as an isolated act, but in its promise as a progenitor of future evolution. For it is only through an ongoing dialogue between acts of intellectual inquiry, physical construction and methodological understanding, that the stuff we produce can cultivate a useful address of both immediate circumstance and long-term potential.9

Student Sam Kelly sets up free photograph sessions around the city, providing a well-received service as well as an impressive photographic survey.

However, for this cycle to occur, those involved must be shown the value of prolonged engagement. Participants (anyone who would choose to be involved in the work) must realize that they are functioning as instigators, that their work is about a movement, not an object. This emphasis upon longevity of thinking aligns quite nicely with the long-term aspirations of most acts of service learning – an arena where the work produced, through its construction and reconstruction (and, at times, destruction) must facilitate an ongoing dialogue between acts of intellectual inquiry, physical construction and methodological understanding, becoming “visual evocations that however precise and detailed, are intended only as heuristic aids, guides that will stimulate transformations by others.”10 The resulting architecture would function in a manner similar to the works of “radical reconstruction” proposed by author Lebbeus Woods. Prompted in large part by the observation that the homogenous vision offered by many works of architecture were too deterministic to function well with the densely-layered, urban construct, Woods offers that “the complexities of buildings, streets, and cities, built up over time and across the span of innumerable lives, can never be replaced” and that any attempt to do so invariably props up “ the interests of the decrepit hierarchies, struggling to legitimize themselves finally through sentimentality and nostalgia.”

If Wood’s conception is accurate, then it stands to reason that any view of the humanitarian work that positions the designer as a single point of wisdom, tasked with understanding “the available resources, tools, desires and immediate needs of their potential users” and to “design simple, functional, and potentially open-source objects and systems” for the good of many should be viewed with great skepticism. After all, within the environment described by Woods, single-layered, cause-and-effect conceptions of process or place have limited viability, as do the self-assured, monumental architecture such conceptions generally provoke. Bearing this in mind, no matter how well our efforts functioned as an object of knowledge, the work produced could not hope to fully develop a useful dialogue in only six weeks. Thus, we focused our efforts upon creating several clear, concise and compelling acts of instigation that would, over time, bring together many systems and flows in order to create knowledge and generate movements and works. Building upon the insight gained through acts like the $5 project described above, our team attempted to construct works that respected the limits of our current understanding, providing fewer declarations and more questions. The resulting architectures functioned as small-scale instigations, motivated by the mind of the bricolleur, artist, and engineer. Although intriguing in their own right, the underground postcard businesses, street-based photography lessons and Lustrabota travel agencies thereby created were much more important as generators of knowledge, gathering insight that we will build upon as we continue this work over the coming years, eventually resulting in a School for the Creative Arts designed specifically for children working the streets of La Paz.

Useful Conclusions

To quote respected author Nabeel Hamdi, “Practice disturbs. It can and does promote one set of truths, belief systems, values, norms, rituals, powers and gender relations in place of others.”11 Unfortunately, the voice carried by this imposition is largely outside the domain of the designer; the values held by our work are not a product of our personal meanings, but of the meanings that evolve as this work is engaged by a wide range of publics over a long period of time. To quote Jay Garrot: “It is obvious that the creation and utilization of architecture in society is prescribed by the value systems present within the sociocultural setting for which it was designed. Moreover, these prescriptive value systems can be seen to be the progenitors of the very essence of architecture through the process of social assimilation … it is not the personal meanings espoused by the architect in his work which becomes the essence of the architectural product, but rather the meanings which evolve for the interactions of the human participants with the built environment over time” (Interpreting Value Systems Milieus). Perhaps by admitting our powerlessness to articulate this meaning, or of solving any of the complex problems faced by the world’s poor, the architect might craft a useful response – an architecture of humility that casts aside false monumentality in favor of a graceful mutability. Far from compromising our efforts as humanitarians, this admission of our shared limitations could empower our work, eventually becoming the ultimate point behind our efforts.

Student Saleem Ahmed extends his photographic tutorials to the plazas of La Paz, developing new educational and business opportunities with the Lustrabota, including the underground postcard business shown here.

Perhaps the best response to the multiple crises caused by the unequal distribution of the world’s resources is to design work that functions less like a declaration and more like an instigation. Perhaps the highest calling of the humanitarian architect is not to create brilliant works, but to create useful frameworks that might allow the brilliance of many to accumulate, creating work that renders our own obsolete. Perhaps then the offerings of the humanitarian architect will gracefully fold back into the context that inspired it, creating something far more fitting and beautiful than we could have created alone. At the conclusion of the project, our team met once again with our partners in the aforementioned office space. During this final meeting, Miguel offered not questions, but invitations, including a request to collaborate further upon return to the US and an open invitation to return to Bolivia anytime and continue the work. Miguel’s well-founded skepticism about our work had been replaced with a provisional belief in the creative process of the team and the work that came from it (also well-founded). And, as we, and, more importantly, others, continue to build upon this work in the future, it is hoped that this faith/belief will transition into verifiable proof. “[My work} has been taken off into another plane … taken off into another world or into another work. It doesn’t feel at all like destruction. That moment is really part of that cycle of turning.” Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides


1) Bruner, 1966, p. 43
2) Dewey, 1997, p. 34
3) Dewey, 1997
4) DeBord, 1958
5) Foucault, 1997, p. 367
6) Dewey, 1997, p. 31-2
7) Bruner, 1966, p. 29
8) Levi-Strauss, 1968
9) Rowe, 1984
10) Woods, 1997
11) Hamdi, Small Change, xix

Scott Shall is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Tyler School of Art of Temple University, Principal of sgsa+d, llc, and the Founding Director and President of International Design Clinic.