From Venezuela to Reading: Inspirational academics
Penélope Plaza - Teaching Practitioner in the School of Architecture - talks to us about her work in Venezuela and how it influences her teaching at Reading.
Hola! My name is Penélope Plaza and I am originally from Caracas, Venezuela. I am an architect/activist/researcher and I am very proud to say that I am part of the academic team of the new School of Architecture at the University of Reading.
Caracas is a beautiful and exciting city, with great architecture, a lively cultural scene, friendly people, delicious food, and the beautiful mountain Cerro Ávila. Sadly, in the last decade, Venezuela has become extremely politically polarised and Caracas is now one of the most violent cities in the world. The fear of becoming a victim of violence has compelled most people to entrench themselves in their homes. But this creates a vicious cycle, because the less we inhabit our streets and public spaces the more dangerous they become, and with time they fade from our mental, emotional and cultural map of the city.
I had always admired the work of Candy Chang, Rebar Group, Maya Lin, FLIX and the urban activism collective Ser Urbano (of which I was an active member). I realised that as an architect I not only had the creativity and skills to design and make buildings but also to positively transform how the city is perceived, occupied and inhabited. So I decided to take action.
I co-founded CollectiVoX in 2008 with two good friends (a designer and a cultural manager) who shared my sense of urgency. We all have full-time jobs, but we gladly devote most of our free time to our not-for-profit work. We combine our talents, imagination and skills to design urban actions and interventions to open new possibilities for positive social change through public space. We collaborate with communities, cultural organisations and local government to co-create projects that foster an inclusive, participative and playful re-occupation and use of urban space.
Our most recent projects are Busca Tu Espacio and [CCSen365]. In 2014 we co-created Busca Tu Espacio (Get Your Space) in partnership with The British Council Venezuela with funding from the European Union. The aim of the project is to identify underused or neglected public spaces and private venues all over Caracas that young people could activate for free by using them to share their talents, hobbies and creative projects. We have matched thousands of young people to hundreds of spaces, making them come alive with dance, music, art and even science! We launched [CCSen365] in January 2017, as an invitation to reconcile with Caracas, to rediscover our shared memories and the love for our urban landscape through urban walks. So far, we have re-visited almost one hundred emblematic buildings and public spaces, with the participation of over a thousand people. This has encouraged us, despite the current turmoil Venezuela is submerged in, to dream about organising the first Open House Caracas for 2018. This is an act of urban resilience, focusing our efforts on re-framing our places in Caracas with new and positive memories, especially in areas that have previously accumulated painful experiences.
My work in Caracas with Collectivox definitely influences my teaching at Reading. It enables me to teach using a wide and perceptive lens for critical thinking and cultural awareness, and demonstrates to my students how architecture can be a powerful instrument for creating positive social change through the way we design and inhabit our built environment.
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