Design Radicals: Creativity and Protest in Wurster Hall

Postermaking
Postermaking, ca. May 1970 Enlarge [+]
The shock waves of the Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement reverberated within Wurster Hall, transforming the College of Environmental Design into a laboratory for experiments in countercultural art and politics.

Students turned hallways and classrooms into impromptu print shops in the wake of U.S. military incursions into Cambodia in May 1970, producing anti-war posters now featured in graphic arts exhibitions and collected by museums from Oakland to Washington DC. Self-styled “Outlaw Builders” launched hands-on ventures in pedagogy, including a mobile lab for elementary school teaching interventions, a communal settlement built from salvaged materials, and an early iteration of ecologically sustainable, “autonomous” home technology. The story of these innovative enterprises is told in Design Radicals: Creativity and Protest in Wurster Hall, an exhibition in the Environmental Design Library showcasing the rich holdings of the Environmental Design Archives and the privately held Docs Populi poster collection.

1970 Gorilla Graphics poster
Gorilla Graphics poster Enlarge [+]

As alternatives to postwar consumer culture, scavenging and hand-crafting combined a sense of play with the cultivation of new skills, liberated social relationships, and developed ecological consciousness. These qualities pervade the protest posters created by two CED-based graphic arts collectives, Gorilla Graphics and Kamikaze Design, in response to the expansion of the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia in 1970. CED Dean William Wheaton endorsed the appropriation of Wurster Hall’s first-floor classrooms and hallways as a “headquarters for… anti-war related activities,” as he testified in a subsequent investigation. The CED became a round-the-clock propaganda factory, with students cranking out press releases and galvanizing silkscreened images. At a donation of one cent for a poster and one dollar to silkscreen a design onto a t-shirt (supplied by the customer), Gorilla Graphics raised as much as $500 dollars daily –corrected for inflation, an amount over $3000 today. The phenomenal ease with which money was raised for student anti-war activities conveys the scale and popularity of the CED’s graphic arts insurgency.

Amerika is Devouring its Children
CED Poster Enlarge [+]

Anti-war protest was a high stakes pursuit, however. Incensed by campus faculty and administration support for student activism, the Regents of the University of California, at the behest of Governor Ronald Reagan, launched an inquest into the “possible misuse of University equipment, facilities, funds or personnel time.” The San Francisco accounting firm of Haskins & Sells was hired to conduct a thorough audit of resources used in protest activities within three hotbeds of rebellion: the School of Law, Eshelman Hall, and the College of Environmental Design. The investigation was no shot over the bow: any diversion of resources “considered to be improper with respect to pertinent provisions of the Constitution and the Education Code of the State of California or University policies and regulations” would establish grounds for the expulsion of student activists and a purge of faculty and staff.

The inquiry failed to produce evidence supporting disciplinary action. Typewriters and mimeograph machines used by activists had been “assigned to students for their own use” or requisitioned from surplus stock. Accountants painstakingly traced the source of paper used for the production of anti-war posters back to the refuse bins of the campus Computer Center. The Regents’ expenditure of taxpayer funds for an investigation conducted by a top-shelf accounting firm did have a positive outcome: it generated a trove of detailed information on the strike of 1970 for future historians of campus counterculture.

The Eagle
“The Eagle” Enlarge [+]
School children with geodesic dome
School children with geodesic dome Enlarge [+]

The power of the handmade to forge a new political and social awareness also infused a series of pedagogical experiments launched at the CED in the early 1970s. In a studio course dedicated to “freeing up the classroom for learning by doing,” architecture students working with Professor Sim Van der Ryn collaborated with teachers and elementary school students to restructure classrooms and playgrounds. The standard phalanx of desks made way for flexible spaces in which to build things. Children learned geometry, measurement, and simple construction skills using salvaged materials. Jim Campe, an enthusiastic CED lecturer, spearheaded an initiative to transform a surplus mail van into a nomadic platform for one-day classroom makeovers. A handmade, self-published record of the school reform venture, The Farallones Scrapbook, quickly sold out of its print run of 5,000 copies. Picked up by Random House, it became a “West Coast lifestyle” bestseller, and helped fund the CED design collective’s next enterprise.

Outlaw Builder
“Outlaw Builder” Enlarge [+]

In the summer of 1971, Van der Ryn and Campe proposed a studio course titled “Making a Place in the Country” that would bring Berkeley students to a remote five acre site in northern Marin county for three consecutive days every week. The design/build experiment tackled the construction of a commune premised upon ecological integrity. According to a student’s journal entry, it was an opportunity to “build a house in which my physical self could exist and… a consciousness in which my spiritual self could exist.” This “living-learning experience” began with a crash course in foraging for forest mushrooms, collecting mussels at a nearby beach, and scavenging redwood from disused Petaluma chicken coops. Students designed and built sleeping platforms and tree houses, a collective kitchen and meeting room, an outdoor oven, a shower and a composting toilet. Participants received a certificate entitling them “to be known to all as [an] OUTLAW BUILDER with all the rights and privileges attached thereto.” A report on the experiment, designed and printed as an underground press-style publication titled Outlaw Building News, sold out at local bookstores almost as fast as they could be printed, providing cash for the next “outlaw building” enterprise.

Outlaw Building News
“Outlaw Building News,” Enlarge [+]

A patchwork tower of timber and machine parts took shape on a patch of grass in front of Wurster Hall in the spring of 1973, the final project for a Van der Ryn studio on “Natural Energy Design.” Built of lumber salvaged from a demolished Hayward barn, the student-designed “Energy Pavilion” incorporated a small wind generator, a homemade solar collector, a stationary bike that alternately drove an electrical generator or a mill to grind grain, steel barrels as rainwater reservoirs, a greenhouse bedded with lettuce and snow peas, and a composting toilet. The odd structure was, in fact, a freestanding service core of an ecologically sustainable autonomous home. After an intensive research phase informed by the few books and journal article available on the topic, students compiled a 150-page document, The Natural Energy Handbook, which, marketed as an underground publication, funded the construction of the Energy Pavilion. Promoted by Bay Area newscasters, the quirky tower was an instant attraction, generating long lines of visitors — as well as the unwanted attention of the Campus Esthetics Committee. Disdaining the notion of “outlaw building” on campus, the Committee demanded that the structure be removed before commencement exercises. It disappeared before the visiting families of new graduates could be shocked into some semblance of ecological awareness: a task accomplished a few months later by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. By the time OPEC’s massive spike in oil prices had produced the first global energy crisis, the CED’s early experiment in sustainable building technology had come and gone like a counterculture hallucination.

Design Radicals: Creativity and Protest in Wurster Hall can be viewed from Thursday 16 October through Friday 5 December in Wurster Hall’s Environmental Design Library. See the UC Libraries website for opening hours.

The Economic Benefits of Transit Service

How do we determine why and under what conditions investments in transit contribute to the economic growth of cities? Many planners and theorists argue that better public transit solutions have a clear correlation to improved urban economies and better opportunities for people living and working in these regions. And indeed, some evidence suggests that transport improvements do enable the growth and densification of cities, downtowns, or industrial clusters, providing better accessibility to ideas and labor and thereby returning a net benefit.

But, the relationship is not simple. There is also evidence to the contrary — that transit may just redistribute benefits. By reducing transport costs, public transit improvements could even lead to cheaper land, sprawl and de-densification, and reduced proximity of firms, workers, and consumers to each other.

So how do cities make the right decisions about funding public transportation improvements that are intended to bolster the local economy? To get to the answer, several fundamental questions need to be addressed. What effect does public transit have on physical agglomeration measures like employment density? What effect do any such changes have on economic productivity? Are local development changes near transit stops just a shifting-around of residents and workers, or do they signal genuinely new economic activity?

New River Line diesel train. The goal as with many rail transit projects is to attract so-called choice riders. Some evidence that this happened; for example, a substantially higher share of riders on the River Line access it via park and ride than bus users.
New River Line diesel train. The goal as with many rail transit projects is to attract so-called choice riders. Some evidence that this happened; for example, a substantially higher share of riders on the River Line access it via park and ride than bus users. Enlarge [+]

In his current research on the impacts of transport improvements on agglomeration economies, Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning, Dan Chatman, points out that the scarcity of both readily available data and good theories about transit and economic growth make answering such questions a challenge.

Building on a body of previous research that showed the connection between employment density and higher wages, Chatman and his colleagues sought to trace the links between transit, agglomeration, and productivity, and constructed models based on data from approximately 90% of the 364 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Supporting advocates for the benefits of transportation improvements, the study found significant indirect productivity effects. For example, in the case of central city employment density, estimated annual wage increases across metropolitan areas averaged $45 million for a 10 per cent increase in seats or rail service miles per capita. However, since the costs of providing new transit service or improving existing transit service can be quite high, the productivity benefits associated with transit-induced agglomeration may not in many instances swing the balance to a positive benefit-cost calculation. But the study results do suggest that there are unanticipated benefits from densification and growth due to transit improvements. Particularly in large cities where roads are congested, space is at a premium, and rents are high, the additional benefits may provide a justification for transit service improvements.

In a separate study that took an in-depth look at the economic impacts of New Jersey’s River Line, a less positive picture emerged. Originally proposed in the 1990s, the River Line broke ground in 2000 and began operation in 2004. From its conception, there were arguments both for and against the proposed project. Public officials hoped that it would help to revive the adjacent towns’ economies, bringing visitors to local tourist attractions and capturing commuters to prime destinations or transfer hubs, while the inevitable not-in-my-backyard protests came from residents who feared that the rail line would drive down property values.

Map showing household income in the 4 county area along the River Line.
Map showing household income in the 4 county area along the River Line. Enlarge [+]

Specifically focusing on single family homes near the 34-mile stretch of rail service between Camden and Trenton along the Delaware River, Chatman analyzed home sales values before and after the line opened, comparing properties of different types near the River Line to a large set of properties sold in the four-county region, between 1989 and 2007. For low-income area properties near stations, property values appreciated significantly. But for properties farther than one-quarter mile away, the net estimate was neutral and, in the two to three mile radius, the estimate was negative, suggesting a redistribution of property appreciation gains. For the small number of houses in higher-income areas, having a River Line rail station within a quarter-mile was also associated with slight reductions in value.

It is important to recognize that these findings only reflect relatively short-term impacts. With the River Line now operating at near to full capacity, there is evidence that new higher-density development could increase, eventually leading to a more positive outcome.

For urban planners and cities debating the economic value of public transportation investments, these results suggest that large cities with significant road congestion should expect large economic benefits from public transit expansions that enable central city densification. At the same time, while improvements to transit service in other locations may benefit lower-income households and other groups with higher reliance on transit, they may not confer the same levels of generalized economic benefit. Nevertheless, as cities and metropolitan areas become more congested, it is critical that we continue to strive to understand the complex relationships between transit, urban growth, and productivity so that we make the wisest decisions with the greatest overall benefit.

Developing a Cultural Practice

Earlier this year, distinguished landscape architect and artist, Walter J. Hood was appointed the inaugural holder of the David K. Woo Chair in Environmental Design. Below, Hood describes the foundational thinking that inspires the research he plans to conduct during his Chair tenure.

The culture of communities is replete with the everyday and mundane actions of people that make up our human experience. We’re conditioned to the familiar: the trip to the grocery store, walking the dog, driving to work. The objects that facilitate these actions are ubiquitous and mostly go unnoticed.

Within this context, things accrete around us as time passes: buildings, vegetation, objects, and even space. Sometimes these layers go undisturbed, creating fascinating places that literally tell their own stories: the moors in Cordoba, the detritus of Rome, the colonial memories of America. Yet in many cases, when it is time to change, such accumulations are wiped clean, leaving nary a wall, a street, nor a piece of infrastructure to commemorate what was before.

de Young Museum
The New de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA (photo by Proehl photography) Enlarge [+]

The spaces and places that people maintain, conserve or preserve reinforce their lifeways — the particular way they want to live. Individualism and collective diversity — a truly American “way of life” — suggest a willingness to validate other norms and actions of inhabitants. Urban design and planning projects often seek to organize and homogenize environments through easily understood standards, negating this idiosyncratic diversity.

Everyday and mundane, commemorative, and community lifeways together argue for “culture” to be central to design. Synonymous in their intent, they recognize that places and environments are maintained, sustained, or transformed by the people and bureaucracies that control them. A cultural practice is a framework that empowers all voices to speak out through their everyday actions and experiences.

7th Street, West Oakland
7th Street, West Oakland, CA (photo by Hood Design) Enlarge [+]

The Everyday and Mundane

The environment around us is host to often ignored objects that are omnipresent in the built environment: power boxes, light posts, street signs, and curbs. A cultural practice alive to the everyday and mundane recognizes these objects and spaces as opportunities, and transforms them into public sculptures that embrace and validate the everyday patterns and rituals of neighborhoods.

When we activate objects, we move from an attitude of problem solving to one of opportunity. We give people the ability to see things differently, to possess the objects around them. The most meaningful interactions occur when we actively engage with the environment around us. Activating the mundane through all of its artful machinations is an opportunity to see and experience the beauty and utility of the things in our life.

Powell Street Trolley
Powell Street (Trolley), San Francisco, CA (photo by Hood Design) Enlarge [+]

Commemorative Landscapes

Commemoration Landscapes embraces the value of history, emphasizing the importance of the past in how the present, and eventually the future, will be constructed. Return to origins requires palimpsest. Akin to an incompletely erased page written over again, the layering of the environment’s surface and its objects reveals the physical, social, and cultural passing of time.

Simply memorializing the past through pedagogical representations of a place forgets the act of remembering. Communities have collective and individual past, present, and future identities, suggesting that a return to origins is complex and indeterminate.

“Narratives” such as the Biddy Mason Wall in Los Angeles, CA and the Freedom Trail in Boston, MA are often utilized as conceptual cues to help us remember. The narrative provides a carefully vetted and agreeable interpretation for a design or artwork. It suggests that everyone experiences the public realm in the same way. Stories, on the other hand, do not rely on agreement and correctness. Rather, the focus of a cultural practice is on experience, interpretation, and the people themselves who emerge with agency to act.

Shadow Catcher
Shadow Catcher, University of Virginia (photo by Hood Design) Enlarge [+]

Community Lifeways

As communities are dynamic, full of many voices, people need a variety of ways to ensure the continued growth of rich and diverse cultural landscapes.

A cultural practice honors a community’s lifeways — recognizing everyday rituals and validating the mundane. Paying attention to the way people live in a place — as opposed to how designers want people to live — yields different project results. The lifeways approach always begins by acknowledging that if there is a community, people live “here,” there is a manner in which they do so, and that is important.

In 1993 I chronicled the experiences of living in and observing the public landscape of my West Oakland neighborhood. I wondered: if we design for the real acts and events in a given place, would the projects be different? By accepting the diverse actions that did not fit the normative, designs can be liberated from best practice models, making visible another side of familiar spaces and things.

These conceptual frameworks: everyday and mundane, the commemorative, and lifeways, formulate a triad used to articulate and navigate the practical and speculative context distinguishing a cultural design practice. They occur as points of determination in a practical, linear design mode. They do not influence the speculative but embrace the cultural context upfront, which guides and provides fodder for deeper inquiry and meaning.

Energy Efficient Japan

A hallmark of the CED program is its relentless commitment to addressing the most critical challenges facing society today with an attention to sustainability, design excellence, community involvement, and technological expertise. CED faculty continually lead the way in promoting these values not only in the classroom but beyond it as well.

No event demanded the application of these principles more than the disaster that occurred March 11, 2011. The most powerful earthquake ever to have hit Japan caused huge devastation triggering a massive tsunami responsible for meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Along with tremendous rebuilding needs, the country whose lifestyle depended on reliable electricity, was now forced to rethink its energy use.

This became the catalyst for Architecture.Energy.2011, an intensive 4-day workshop, June 23–26, 2011 in Tokyo, developed by CED Professors of Architecture Dana Buntrock and Susan Ubbelohde. Intended as a quick response to the catastrophe with longer-term follow-up, the workshop was designed to introduce advanced concepts of building energy use and occupant comfort through the lens of architectural space and material as a filter for the environment. A subsequent workshop was held in August of 2012 at Berkeley, offering participants knowledge and skills that continue to be applied today.

handbook used in workshop
A page from the handbook used in the 2011 workshop in Japan, produced by Susan Ubbelohde’s practice, Loisos+Ubbelohde. Enlarge [+]

A different way of thinking

Having been involved in architectural research in Japan since the late 1980s, Dana Buntrock has an intimate familiarity with the country’s approach to building design and a strong affiliation with the architectural community there. She reached out to her colleague Susan Ubbelohde, realizing that while Susan and her firm, Loisos+Ubbelohde, had no prior experience in Japan, their leading-edge expertise in technical analysis and energy efficient building practices was essential.

Historically, Japan has placed little emphasis on basic energy conservation approaches, such as insulation, in architecture. Because living and working spaces are typically very small, and households are in the habit of heating only one room at a time, per capita energy use has been relatively low. Energy saving practices that we take for granted in the US — like thermal insulation, day-lighting and energy performance measurement and analysis — are rare in Japan and although a building code related to energy consumption exists, compliance has been voluntary. While Japan places great importance on environmental policy as it concerns greenhouse emissions, there was little relation to efforts to reduce overall energy consumption, especially connected to buildings.

Buntrock and Ubbelohde were not out to champion California energy policy. “We were not interested in suggesting we are better at energy conservation than Japan, but simply that we offered a way of thinking that filled out an area where Japan had not yet developed strengths,” explains Buntrock. Ubbelohde echoes the sentiment, “Japan has a challenge to maintain their current quality of life without nuclear power. Japanese architects now have the opportunity to look at building science as a means of addressing that.”

Light. Heat. Air. Energy.

The June 2011 workshop, funded through a variety of resources that Buntrock and Ubbelohde put together, including money from the UC Berkeley Center for Japanese Studies and personal resources, was designed to provide tools and ways of approaching energy efficiency for architects already leading the profession in Japan. Seminars on the physics of building performance based on daily themes — Light, Heat, Air, and Supplementary Energy — were followed by an Environmental Measurement segment where participants used devices to discover how metrics relate to experience, and a Design Lab where teams were tasked with re-designing a contemporary building. Energy modelers from Loisos+Ubbelohde and UC Berkeley simulated energy performance and gave feedback to the participants as they worked.

Measuring wall surface temperatures
Participants at the 2011 workshop in Tokyo use infrared sensors to measure wall surface temperatures. Enlarge [+]

The workshops were truly a cross-cultural collaboration, with organizers and leaders from both Japan and the US. Along with Professors Buntrock and Ubbelohde, and L+U principal George Loisos, groups were led by L+U staff Brendon Levitt, Ibone Santiago, Eduardo Pintos — all CED alumni — and Santosh Phillip. CED graduate student participants included David Fannon (M.Arch ’12), Kyle Konis (PhD Arch ’11), and Jeremy Fisher (M.S. Arch ’11). Collaborators in Japan who helped with organization and logistics included Shuzo Murakami, Building Research Institute; Masao Koizumi, Tokyo Metropolitan University; Kengo Kuma, Tokyo University; Nobufusa Yoshizawa, Insitute for Building Environment and Energy Conservation; and Balazs Bognar, Kuma and Associates.

Kyle Konis and Tokyo-based architects
Kyle Konis (UCB PhD ’11), now a professor at the University of southern California, reviews performance data with a team of Tokyo-based architects. Enlarge [+]

Response was overwhelming. All together, 57 individuals participated. Many firms and organizations, under pressure to respond not only to the paradigm shifts in thinking about energy, but also to the more immediate need to rebuild in devastated areas, sent different participants on different days.

Workshop presentation
Mr. Norihisa Kawashima, an architect at Nikken Sekkei, and other Japan workshop participants present the results of four intensive days of redesign to Professor Susan Ubbelohde and George Loisos. Enlarge [+]

The follow-up workshop the next year at Berkeley, funded by a grant from the Japan Foundation’s Center for Global Partnership, focused on energy efficiency from a policy and application perspective, and concentrated on a more substantial sharing of available tools. Many of the same participants or participant firms took part in the second workshop along with first-time attendees.

Expressing her amazement at the level of engagement of the workshop participants, Susan Ubbelohde remarked, “These were some of the best designers I had ever worked with. Since the workshop, we’ve had a number of architects and engineers from Japan visiting the office and now there is an ongoing dialog that has really benefited the entire office. It’s been great.”

Bill Burke speaking at workshop
Bill Burke explains the use of the artificial sky during a tour of the Pacific Energy Center in San Francisco, part of the 2012 workshop. Enlarge [+]
Professor Dana Buntrock and Japanese architect Mr. Masatoyo Ogasawara
Professor Dana Buntrock and Japanese architect Mr. Masatoyo Ogasawara, who participated in the 2012 Berkeley Workshop. Enlarge [+]

Making a Difference

While it may be a while before significant results are achieved, participants are beginning to put their experience to use. Norihisa Kawashima, an architect at Nikken Sekkei who came to Berkeley as a visiting scholar and worked with L+U to learn Berkeley-based simulation approaches, is now back at Nikken Sekkei sharing what he has learned.

Partners from the Tokyo-based ADH Architects, designing publicly financed homes in the earthquake region, have been working with L+U to propose upgraded approaches to efficiency. They will work with another workshop attendee, Dr. Masayuki Mae of the University of Tokyo, to do thermal testing after completion.

Not surprisingly, the workshops have also had an impact on the Berkeley student participants and faculty. David Fannon now works as a building scientist and specialist in high-performance design for Syska Hennessy Group in New York. Kyle Konis was moved after meeting young Japanese designers who, though their lives had been dramatically affected by the disasters, were driven to have a positive impact. Konis now teaches sustainability classes at USC and has incorporated his Japan experience into the themes of his teaching.

“There are social implications to energy,” explains Dana Buntrock. “Without electricity thousands of buildings in Japan became at least temporarily uninhabitable because of poor thermal and day-lighting qualities. Beyond reduced reliance on fossil fuels, which Japan now must consider, energy efficiency has larger implications for human comfort. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to continue working with Japanese colleagues on the energy demands of buildings.”

More information about Architecture.Energy.2011

Dry to Wet: A Network for All Ages

In their second year participating in Vertical Cities Asia, the 5-year series of competitions focused on high-density urbanism in Asia organized by the National University of Singapore School of Design and Environment, two student teams from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design were presented with the theme, “Everyone Ages.” This year’s competition sought innovative design solutions for a balanced environment for high density urban life addressing the complexities of a rapidly ageing society. Each year, a one square kilometer territory is chosen, with teams challenged to design a visionary and holistic community for 100,000 residents. The solution must incorporate areas for work and recreation with the residential component allowed to comprise only fifty percent of the total site area. This year’s site was located in Yongshan, part of Seoul Metropolitan City, Republic of Korea.

The CED teams, led by Professor of Architecture René Davids, aimed to address the needs of all, removing the barriers created by age, social and family structure, and physical mobility.

Revitalizing the connection to the river through landscape integration and optimizing views, Team A’s entry, Succulent City, embeds a dynamic and productive natural network into the existing urban context. Integrating rainwater collection, grey water filtration, recreational public space and herbal healing practice into a branching building/landscape system, the network weaves into the existing urban fabric at the ground level and extrudes vertically into programmatically efficient, branching towers. The interaction and transition between wet and dry systems permeates the city at every scale, from the urban to the individual.

Inspired by the human aging process, Succulent City nurtures a relationship with the environment through sinuous bioswales and filtration basins that continuously and seasonally evolve, while respecting and responding to the diurnal fluctuations of contemporary urban life. Sculpted by the natural forces on site such as sunlight and wind, and by cultural influences such as feng shui and family relationships, this organic network is oriented along commercial routes to optimize accessibility for everyone.

The building network of towers, ground, and sky branches is thoroughly integrated with the wet and dry landscape, serving all ages with a gradient of mixed-use programs. Views of the river, accessible vertical swales that wrap the buildings, and ground branches that form a familiar commercial continuation of the existing streets, encourage residents and visitors to form a culturally and ecologically dynamic relationship with the landscape.

Succulent City’s approach to the Vertical Cities Asia challenge preserves the deep connection to the site’s historic and contemporary water systems, presenting a dynamic and revitalizing solution that changes, grows and adapts to the evolving needs of its urban population.

More information about the competition:

  • http://www.verticalcitiesasia.com/?q=competition
  • http://www.ced.berkeley.edu/departments–programs/arch/arch-202-spring-2012-davids.htm

Student Team

Team A members Aine Coughlan, Kristen Henderson, and Ekaterina Kostyukova are all part of the M.Arch. program in the Department of Architecture at CED.

Designing Sustainable Tourism in the Tlacolula Valley: The Mezcal Route | La Ruta Mezcal

How can tourism improve the lives of poor people? Must tourism always destroy existing cultures? Can indigenous people plan and manage their own tourist resources? These are just a few of the difficult questions that CED students in the graduate studio, “Just” Tourism in the Tlacolula Valley, Oaxaca, grappled with during Spring, 2012.

The studio was based on the idea that to be equitable and sustainable, tourism planning needs to build on the existing environment, society and economies of the local area. Sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of the State of Oaxaca and in collaboration with professors and students from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, students from all three CED departments—Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and City and Regional Planning—traveled to Oaxaca Valley to investigate its rich history and culture and to understand its current challenges.

Raul Cabra (M.A. Design, 2011)—Director of Oaxacalifornia, a cultural exchange program between Oaxacan craftspeople and California designers, who is also a local resident—led us through ten intensive days of fieldwork that covered nearly every meter of the valley. We surveyed local agriculture and gastronomy, craft traditions, markets that date from pre-Columbian times, unique Zapotec governance systems and the techniques of artisanal mescal production—the most important local industry. We met a range of Valley residents including government officials, returned migrants, organic farmers and American expats.

Returning to Berkeley, we incorporated different concepts from the anthropology of tourism, everyday urban design, local economic development theory, infrastructure planning and land-use law to create a strategic tourism plan for the Valley. Organized around flexible itineraries, the plan makes the valley accessible to tourists while protecting its physical and cultural resources.

Multi-dimensional and decentralized, the plan offers numerous options. Since villages value their independence and autonomy, each element can be adapted to local conditions. Last summer, local officials, businesses, and artisans enthusiastically responded to the Mezcal Route strategy, so we are optimistic that the rest of the plan will have an equally positive impact in Oaxaca.

Team