Sunday, November 20, 2005

Yamani Hernandez, Activist Student in Seattle

Activist Architect was recently contacted by Yamani Hernandez, an architecture student at the University of Washington in Seattle. Yamani maintains her own blog, Strange Bungalow, that serves as her a vehicle for her musings about the social issues related to art and architecture. It's great for us to be able to discuss similiar issues regarding activism and architecture across the U.S. We asked Yamani to fill us in on the activism scene in Washington as well as explain the work she's been doing with her thesis on the subject. Here are her responses:

Activist Architect: What is the architectural activism scene in Seattle?

Yamani Hernandez:
Hmm, I think it depends on how architectural activism is defined. That's something I'm still trying to ascertain myself. I'm certainly not hooked into everything that's going on. There's a ton of public art that interfaces with buildings and "community design" related work that I think fits under the broader scope of architectural activism. There is a community design center, Environmental Works which almost exclusively focuses on affordable sustainable housing. Another organization, the pomegrante center, works with communities to build gathering places. Then there are two tent cities.

AA: What is the University of Washington doing in this vein?

The University of Washington actually offers a number of courses ranging from community oriented design build studios, to the design activism course taught by Dr. Jeff Hou, to ethics in community building class taught by Dr. Sharon E. Sutton. She also used to coordinate a city-wide charrette with students and community members on politically important design projects. I think the undergraduate studios are a lot more socially oriented than the graduate ones.

AA: How do you combine your passion with your education?

YH: I came to architecture school as a speculative endeavor. There's the age old debate of whether you "can you destroy the master's house with the master's tools." I think oft times the answer is yes. I wanted to learn those tools to know how to subvert them. I think it's been hard for me to pursue architecture education. Many times I find that I'm less interested in the actual building, as an object, than I am in the circumstances, people and politics around such buildings in neighborhoods and how they all weave together. Also, I sometimes find that architecture as most know and love it feels very counter to my principles about empowerment. It seems that so much of the popular concept of architecture is about "experts", consumption, waste and vanity that it's hard for me to meld that with what I think architecture can say and do. I'm not interested in working for rich people. There are plenty of people who want to do that. I want to work with and for people who are underserved to create environments that serve them holistically, whether that be an unsanctioned emergency shelter, a homeless shelter, or a rehab clinic.

AA: What's your thesis on?

YH: My current title is: Typologies of Resistance in the Built Environment: Intersections of Architecture, Art and Activism. My research is essentially comprised of doing analytical case studies and interviews on boundary breaking professionals and projects which transcend all three realms. I want to illustrate for activists that architecture can be used as a tool for social change work, make a case for architects (who don't already realize) that architecture is not just about commodities, and use activist art as a precedent. I want to know if architecture can be a direct activist act. Can it directly support or oppose a given social issue and provoke public debate and action? Why or why not? Somewhere nestled in there are also ideas of hybridity in that there are many artists who use the tools and vocabulary of architecture yet their work is not architecture. Why? Why not?

AA: Who are the activists that you turn to as role models?

You know, I think I'm still figuring that out. I don't know if I have real "role models" right now, although my thesis advisors, Dr. Sharon E. Sutton and Dr. Jeff Hou, are a start. Everytime I try to put someone on a pedestal as a "role model" I get disappointed. There are bits and pieces of people and work that I really take to heart. Street artists inspire me. Definitely the unsanctioned building featured on the one small project site speaks to me. People that do things out of neccessity and those that break boundaries and convention - those people are my heroes.


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