Found in translation? Reconfiguring the river edge of Cochrane, Patagonia, a travesía project of the Valparaíso School

Published in July 2016


A live project in Cochrane, Patagonia, termed a journey or travesía, whose aim was to reshape an important threshold between the town and its wilderness setting involved a group of staff and students from PUCV (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso) sharing a life in common for a fortnight in November 2013.  Taking errantry in post-colonial discourse on identity as its theoretical point of departure, and using the Cochrane project as a case-study, this paper examines an apparent paradox: that in a travesía the creativity of wandering must be allied to a strictly organised plan of campaign. Exploring how and why such a shared journey stimulates not only the acquisition of metis (practical wisdom or artful cunning), but a new capacity to ‘make the land speak’, it draws attention to the risk-taking negotiation skills on which wayfarers depend. Importantly the travesía is shown to be a form of learning-to-build whose arena for insightful play transforms design into an essentially collaborative transaction. Finally, the paper discusses why, as a kind of time-limited ‘trial’ away from Valparaíso to prepare students for the battle of practice, the travesía chooses some but not all the limits and opportunities of ‘liveness’.


The School of Valparaíso has a long history of live projects whose inspiration is a 1967 poem, Amereida, written by one of its founding fathers, Godofredo Iommi, concerning the contested destiny of America.  Beyond teaching students building skills, and making them familiar with the joys and obligations of collaborative work, such projects are therefore always bound up with the school’s longstanding mission to grasp the extent of the continent, reinterpreting the mute vastness of its sparsely populated landscape as a place of residence in local terms. To build a live project is always to embark on a travesía, a journey.

On the one hand a travesía typically involves two to three intense weeks of building work by a group who know one another well. On the other it is treated as a journey away from and back towards Valparaiso that necessarily involves questions of orientation. The school’s founding poem, Amereida, suggests that such a ‘voyage of unveiling’ should aim ‘to make the land speak’.  The travesía to the remote town of Cochrane in the Aisén region of southern Chile described in this paper was thus presented as not only a way of marrying the human and continental dimensions, but of finding the centre at ‘the end of the world’.

The Valparaiso school emphasises design as a shared exercise or trabajo en ronda, ‘work in a round’ (like a musical round), and development of the social skills and mutual respect such an approach to design requires. On a travesía the collaboration involves design students, teaching staff and potentially a poet, alongside the locals who volunteer to help. Importantly, a sub-group of the students are charged with maintaining the poetic trajectory of the enterprise. While there is no script for the improvisational theatre of building, as in a circus act, the series of intermezzi or ‘poetic acts’ that the students organise between the phases of building activity, enable the multiple ambitions of the enterprise to remain in view.  As a result the ‘liveness’ of the project is never lost, and the travesía acquires the character of a festival celebration. This is not an issue of role exchange but a matter of finding a way of living in the present, of playing life like a game, so that participants — and the work — remain alert to immediate opportunities.  While felt it worth ending his evaluation of the arts of practice and the limits of planning in cities, Small Change, with a list of the aptitudes that help professionals see the opportunities for action available despite apparently intractable difficulties, this would likewise seem fundamental to architectural education. Taking errantry in post-colonial discourse on identity as its point of departure, the insights the travesia offers concerning the development of metis — practical wisdom or artful cunning — stimulates the following discussion of the Valparaíso interpretation of ‘liveness’.


A travesía (literally a voyage or crossing) is a live project that requires students to be closely involved for a period of two to three weeks in actual building processes (see Figs. 1–4). At issue is the acquisition of a discipline concerning drawing and writing on the one hand and the deployment of tools in surveying and construction processes on the other. Interleaving the boundaries between learning, working and living, this design journey has its own rhythm and rules, including the idea that it uses the minimum means possible to achieve its ends. Each travesía is therefore not an isolated event, but one linked to the history of design expeditions undertaken by the Valparaíso school over the last thirty years. These journeys have produced a series of works across the South American continent that share a common attitude to design genesis and construction. Valparaíso staff explain that this long experience of live projects has two basic dimensions: firstly the development of a logistics of life and work that enables projects to be constructed even in the most remote locations, and secondly a teaching approach that makes annotated on-site sketches the point of departure for design in which issues of inhabitation are the major focus. This study is thus an opportunity to examine an apparent paradox: that the creativity of wandering must be allied to a strictly orchestrated plan of campaign.

Finding site levels on the second day of the travesía.

Figure 1 Finding site levels on the second day of the travesía.

Completing the timber construction of the seating places in pairs on the penultimate working day of the travesía.

Figure 2 Completing the timber construction of the seating places in pairs on the penultimate working day of the travesía.

Delivering the concrete seats to the site with help from a local contractor.

Figure 3 Delivering the concrete seats to the site with help from a local contractor.

Photo illustrating careful use of wood resources

Figure 4 Building material is scarce in Cochrane. Once won it is not thrown away but carefully stockpiled. The seating places took advantage of this, conjoining reworked timber with new, and adding concrete seats, all off-cuts immediately being claimed by the locals for firewood.

Given the difficulties that eulogising the migrant perspective rightly presents, the engagement with nomadism central to the post-colonialist discourse of Deleuze and Guattari has been controversial. Nevertheless, directly influenced by their advocacy of non-hierarchical thought, Édouard proposes the term ‘errantry’, roving/straying movement, in his own consideration of the impact on identity of forced diaspora, Poétique de la Relation, (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1990). In his argument for a subversive reworking of colonialist culture by those under the sway of its language, the process of transculturation depends on the thought of errantry because by definition this is both relational and dialectic. In supporting new forms of identity neither rooted in ancestral history nor so fluid they make shared perspectives impossible, errantry enables openness to both affect and be affected by others.

Learning through wayfaring: the anthropology of education

Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation supplies the clearest theoretical justification for the recent widespread introduction of live projects in architectural schools. Seeking to exploit situations in which students are compelled to learn, live projects enable learning through doing, seeking to provide a form of contextual, situated architectural education as regards people (both communities of makers and of users) and place. As they explain, the basic premise for such an approach is that learning is not the transmission of abstract decontextualized knowledge, but a social process in which knowledge is co-constructed.  Their work reflects the fact that between the 1970s and 1990s, enduring questions about the nature and production of knowledge came to occupy a central place in cultural and social anthropology, giving new emphasis to the lessons of everyday experience and the question of how humans acquire the ability to conjecture intelligently in face of the unknown. In this contested field, has a relational approach which focuses on the growth of embodied skills of perception and action within social and environmental contexts of development. Pointedly it is a perspective which makes walking the archetypal means of learning.  Giving thought to how locomotion and perception are coupled in enabling us to add up experience, he suggests that for the in-habitant of a locale his/her line of walking is a way of knowing. Wayfaring is the term he uses to summarise how we engage with our surroundings in negotiating a path through them. Importantly, encompassing the interrelation between human movement, observation and reflection, it draws attention to the responsive integrative character of inhabitation, the idea that the world is not a given, but is constantly being drawn into play:

Wayfaring, I believe, is the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human, inhabit the earth. By habitation I do not mean taking one’s place in a world that has been prepared in advance for the populations that arrive to reside there. An inhabitant is rather one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture.

Design as journey in a post-colonial context

Another important perspective on errantry which illuminates the ambitions of the Valparaiso live project to ‘make the land speak’ is offered by Édouard Glissant. In Poetics of Relation the tensions concerning identity and origin manifest in epic tales of foundation (he cites the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid on which Amereida is itself a play, the Chansons de Geste, the Icelandic sagas, the African epics) prompt a re-evaluation of what wayfaring may allow – not only for its participants but for those they meet en route. Recognising that many problems of the post-colonial world come down to the fact that questions of identity have typically involved a claim to lineage inscribed in a territory through settlement, he extols ‘wandering’ for its reframing of a relationship with the land, its capacity to open dialogue between wanderers and settlers. Conceiving of errantry as a de-territorializing gesture, an alliance between errantry and a new poetics of relation is theorised such that:

… in the poetics of Relation, one who is errant (who is no longer traveller, discoverer or  conqueror) strives to know the totality  of the world yet already knows he will never accomplish this – and knows that it is precisely where the threatened beauty of the world resides… The thinking of errantry conceives of totality but willingly renounces any claims to sum it up or possess it.

Declaring travel a privileged time, he points to the political significance of the unpredictable, improvisatory open-endedness of the learning shared by nomadic participants, the paradox that exile may be seen in a positive not a negative light, a being found, not a being lost:

In this context uprooting can work towards identity, and exile can be seen as  beneficial, when these are experienced as  a search for the Other (through circular nomadism) rather than as  an expansion of territory (an arrowlike nomadism). Totality’s imaginary allows the detours that lead away from anything totalitarian.

As he underlines, errantry’s potential to nurture mutual respect, to celebrate interdependence is pivotal to its telling narrative concerning what is found in, opened by, translation:

… Because the thought of errantry is also the thought of what is relative, the thing relayed as well as the thing related. The thought of errantry is a poetics, which always infers that at some moment it is told. The tale of errantry is the tale of Relation.

Likewise, in a paper entitled ‘Improvisation of the architect Alberto Cruz’, Alberto Cruz, the founder of the Valparaíso School, identifies that an openness to others is generated by a specific kind of wandering.  If architecture students are to interpret their surroundings in a nuanced way they must learn to see. The best way to grasp the multiple dimensions of a city is to wander through it, sketchbook in hand.  In framing why this situated learning is crucial to architects, he emphasises that seeing involves not passive reception but active interpretation of the myriad informal patterns of interaction of which humans are capable, a consciousness of the city’s intimidad.

Architectural education at Valparaíso accordingly begins not with the analysis of form and space, surface and material, but with the observation of people and their activities, the city as it is lived. How people communicate, work, wait, etc., and how the world does or does not accommodate such communicating, working, waiting. Critically, he underlines that the practice of observation involves. Walking the city, a student must first start to sketch from life the ordinary activities they encounter, and then make written observations that distil the insights of their drawing. Annotated sketching becomes the means to acquire a better understanding of spatial order and any possibility of its renewal or transformation through a growing appreciation of difference, of the needs and aspirations of others. It is an approach to urban research that proposes one must get lost in order to find the city. Rather than simply appropriating fragments of the urban realm for pretty pictures or reductive analysis there is here an element of re-positioning oneself in terms of city. In encouraging interaction, empathy, tact, nous, this embodied engagement with civic order is fundamental because it generates understanding of architecture as a setting for multiple lives. In this regard formulation of his goal as the acquisition of ‘a true cunning to achieve things’ is worth noting:

Typically intimidate, ‘intimacy’ or ‘privacy’, is used to indicate those zones of life into which no one else should intrude, so Cruz’s use of this term with reference to the city deserves comment. Whereas a preoccupied person may only take account of the city’s claims in passing, and a more leisurely stroller may or may not allow the urban conditions to resonate within a reverie, Cruz is concerned to underline the way in which drawing becomes a vehicle for close involvement with urban situations, all the small details and activities of daily life in an urban context that constitute the city’s intimidad.

In ‘rhetoric’ [the art of effective or persuasive argument], some say that Saint Augustine found a term for the true cunning to achieve things, a manner of working in conformity to inner thought. We have taken this word and it suits us to say that from the outset we are looking to ask the students to find a rhetoric for their own working process.

Significantly, the ethical basis for this approach is revealed by a framing of the relationship between walking, drawing, understanding and designing as a matter of trust, not artistic flair or technical competence:

We believe that the best teaching given to a student is to turn things into a question, to teach him or her these things, so that when s/he leaves the school, instead of being full of solutions and, as is often said, full of everything s/he has seen, when faced with whatever is proposed, s/he feels overwhelmed and naked before the case. Just like when students roaming the city say: ‘Good, we are going out again’; yet are obviously feeling alarmingly naked because they also say: ‘What are we going to do to see things anew, if we have already looked hard?’

What is feeling naked all about?

It is to have faith in the matter being considered, to believe it has not been exhausted: to know that at first nothing is seen and yet that every time one returns there is more to be seen. And what is it to have faith? Can you ever have more? It is the start of a vocation. So our school establishes a curriculum. All time at school is a time to sow. After leaving comes the harvest that each person makes.

Poetry and the travesía

At Valparaíso words and deeds are closely intertwined through an emphasis on the relation of poetry and architecture. Two forms of poetry embraced by the school enact building as a collective act, giving emphasis to the idea that architecture is an unfinishable theatre of place-making rather than production of form. ‘Carta del Errante’ (‘Letter of the Wanderer’) describes the first of these, the phalène, a form of poetry inspired by a collective journey to a site. It is poetry made by all its participants, one that takes place, has a valid place, by fostering insights on, and thus a carefully judged response to, the specific conditions of a locale.

Introduced to the curriculum in 1984, the travesía is a second form of poetic action, akin to the phalène, but born directly from the discourse of Amereida (see Figs. 5–6). A modern Aeneid for America, this epic narrative proposes that South Americans adopt a counter-event to European colonization, a collective journey across the continent during which America and its potential destiny is in question. The aim of a travesía is a building whose poetics emerges from an engagement with the landscape of America as ground and place of residence, not a resource to be exploited through its colonisation. All students are expected to participate in a travesía once a year.

Page 17 of of Amereida whose layout and lack of punctuation echoes that of the symbolist poet Mallarmé.

Figure 5 Page 17 of of Amereida whose layout and lack of punctuation echoes that of the symbolist poet Mallarmé.

Amereida’s first map introduces the South American continent through the whiteness of the page.

Figure 6 Amereida’s first map introduces the South American continent through the whiteness of the page.

As a live project, the Valparaíso travesía:

  • May be either a collaboration or initiated by the institution. Brief, site and materials may be agreed with clients ahead of time by the teachers, or decided by the teaching staff themselves (many of the more ephemeral works have been sited in remote natural locations, assuring a short life if they are not adopted by the local community).
  • Is curricular, taking place in a specific period towards the end of each year. Students participate alongside tutors throughout the school.
  • Is self-funded. The actual building work on site typically lasts two to three weeks.
  • Carries out construction of ephemeral or semi-permanent shelters for waiting, dining, looking, seating etc. though other tasks have also been addressed. Related preliminary studies/designing may be undertaken.
  • Employs new and recycled materials funded by participants who become well versed in handling tools.
  • Tutors direct the timetable and guide the drawing/building process, assessing and advising on feasibility in relation to time/materials/safety issues. In the building stage they lead by example.
  • Adds to an existing narrative and body of work concerning America as ground and horizon.
  • Avoids the typical instrumental or reductive social, cultural and political processes of design consultation and construction.

The genesis of metis in the travesía

Justifications for the ‘live project’ frequently indicate that designers’ need to deal less with tidy abstractions and more with the unpredictable messiness of reality, to be able to respond to the evolution of things and actions as they are happening. The Greek term for the wily practical intelligence real life requires is metis. Emphasise that metis does not equate to common sense, but to a sharp-witted adaption to circumstance in which the ability to conjecture from incomplete knowledge is allied to a readiness to take any direction. Exactly what improvisation requires, metis enables constraints to become not what they seem, that is, potentially creative not debilitating,

The Valparaíso Poetics of Relation takes two forms, both considered intrinsic to the enactment of design: a poetry of place (the phalène) and a poetry of journey (the travesía) linked to the school’s epic narrative of foundation, Amereida. In the following examination of the travesía‘s interpretation of liveness it is necessary to explore not only the kind of errantry such a project represents, but how it situates a poetry of collaboration in becoming a crucible for metis.

Path forging, being alert to the present, discovering the local

Wandering as practised today was first embraced by the Romantics. To many the word probably symbolises escapism or the misdirected idealism of tilting at windmills (a more noble and thus more poetic procedure). Wandering is undoubtedly not rational, which is why the Surrealists, and later the Situationists adopted it for their meandering traverses of Paris. Yet it is a valid tactic in design because the business of how to proceed as a designer is not obvious, the path to follow not immediately apparent. Design is not a system and thus not susceptible to systematic procedures. The aimlessness of wandering — a ‘return to not knowing’ that reflects a distrust of a priori thinking (volver a no saber is the Valparaíso phrase) — becomes a valid strategy because it offers opportunities for Bachelard’s reverie, the dreaming essential to successful design. The story of Don Quixote, for example, with its analogical magical elements, illustrated to Le Corbusier the creative madness of fighting losing battles. The imagination involved in forging paths, whether wrong or right, underlined the sense in which failure is always intrinsic to success.

The goal of comprehending America’s extensión casts the journey from Valparaíso as a kind of directed wandering across the continent’s so-called mar interior (inland sea). This does not involve making maps of the wilderness but seeking locatedness within it. Whatever the actual distance travelled, the travesía is a journey away from Valparaíso in which Amereida‘s advice to participants to ‘make the land speak’ presupposes its  continental scale wandering: movements backwards, forwards, sideways, doubling back on oneself, connoting the exploration involved in getting to know a locale more intimately. Here the insight that metis enables the shortest path to a goal “by exploiting detours” is relevant, the familiarity with a terrain gained by wandering an obvious precondition for metis.

The siting of works in the extent (extensión) of America in order to make sense of the vast wildness of its sparse human inhabitation suggests a romantic engagement with the sublime. Rather the concern is for how extensión may be brought into reciprocity with intimidad. This stems from the realisation during the original 1965 travesía that modest constructions completed en route were capable of embodying the continent. Subsequent travesías have required the completion of a pormenor, a fragment or detail alluding to much larger magnitudes and yet immediately tangible. This smallest inhabitable detail brings together continent and hand, the world of the page and the map epitomised by Amereida. In Cochrane the students were instructed that each sitting place should have the character of a pormenor (see Fig. 4 and student sketch in Fig. 7).

Day 8 bitacora page, describing Garreton and Paolinelli’s pormenor/seating place, Gregorio Garretón

Figure 7 Day 8 bitacora page, describing Garreton and Paolinelli’s pormenor/seating place, Gregorio Garretón

In this regard it is worth noting that in describing the landscape as seen from the site, the initial annotated sketches (observaciones) produced by each student speak both of the extent traversed together and their moment of arrival (see Figs. 8–10). As the following remarks about the setting of Cochrane illustrate, first impressions concern the lie of the land:

The ungraspable magnitude of the territory is drawn by enveloping silhouettes and sounds in the hope this approximation may bring surprises to hand.
In the loose expanse made close through time gained, a long prolongation of the step breaks away from the slope to reach the water.
Edge that separates what is close by but that also binds in the distance.

Early bitacora page, describing the view south-east from the site, José Paolinelli

Figure 8 Early bitacora page, describing the view south-east from the site, José Paolinelli

Early bitacora page, describing the view south, downriver from the site, Gregorio Garretón

Figure 9 Early bitacora page, describing the view south, downriver from the site, Gregorio Garretón

Early bitacora page, describing the view north-west, upriver from the site, Elizabeth Carcamó.

Figure 10 Early bitacora page, describing the view north-west, upriver from the site, Elizabeth Carcamó.

What does it take for a designer to understand the local? The power of the wayfaring analogy is that it illuminates how walking a footpath involves explain how footpaths not only take the wanderer into the countryside, but attune him or her to the fall of the land. A hiking path winds, clings to forms of terrain, whereas a road leading elsewhere reconfigures them. In walking along such footpaths the wanderer must adapt to the ground, submit to the countryside, countryside which is no longer an image but a setting. Such path following assumes a being in the moment, represents a potentially creative ‘return to not knowing’ as time loses its relentless forward-drawing character, and space is furthest from being an abstraction. Finally a wanderer cannot be lost, for the wrong path cannot be taken.

While the live project in the UK is typically a vehicle for student insight into the agendas of different stakeholders, and thus a matter of engagement with client aspirations; this is not the intention here. Students do not act as visiting design experts interpreting local aspirations. Instead teachers arrive at an agreed program, and frame the issues the work should address. Whatever location is chosen, the work produced by the group is a gift to the local community, who become its owners once the travesía is over.

As the on-site introduction to the Cochrane project disclosed, a town is always in the process of establishing its ecology, materially and politically. On this occasion the travesía brief was explained as fulfilling a municipal desire to put Cochrane on the map by articulating the town’s threshold with the river that shares its name. Along with the availability of recyclable building material, this brief (eight riverside seating places beside a new market building, also referred to as a set of boundary posts where civilization meets wild landscape) was negotiated ahead of time. Local interest in clarifying the town’s potential to become both a destination for outward-bound tourism (kayaking in particular), and an important regional forum, rather than the nearest settlement to the internationally controversial Aisén dam project was also cited as justification for the riverside site. While disabled access to the town’s new market building is locally deemed an index of progress, it was stressed that articulation of the town’s access to the river – and the river’s access to the town – could elevate relaxation amid views from municipal benches into an opportunity for reflection on the town’s situatedness in its valley.

Metis and the twists and turns of collaborative design

Importantly, the travesía is not only a way of teaching familiarity with tools and building processes, but empowering students by introducing them to the collaborative theatre that building involves. Alongside achievement of an architectural work, the fostering of self-discipline and mutual respect — a giving room to one another — is considered essential. It is a goal which presupposes that during their time together the members of the group live a life in common. Here the emphasis is on the idea that as wayfaring ‘strangers’, students must face the difficulties, and recognise the opportunities of the journey together.

The travesía construction is a work realised with the minimum means possible. This is the other explanation for accommodation being provided in the manner of a camp, be it in tents, or as in this case, a building belonging to the Cochrane parish. Its large hall of 15m by 13m became at once bedroom, dining room and classroom, where camp order prevailed in that the general order of the group prevailed over individuals (see Figs. 11–12). In the camp regime sub-groups take turns to cook meals and do the shopping and cleaning, and dining becomes an opportunity for everyone to meet and exchange ideas.

The central dining and working table in the hall of the parish buildings, Cochrane. In camp fashion, bunk beds for the men and the women were lined up on opposite sides of the room

Figure 11 The central dining and working table in the hall of the parish buildings, Cochrane. In camp fashion, bunk beds for the men and the women were lined up on opposite sides of the room

The central dining and working table in the hall of the parish buildings, Cochrane. In camp fashion, bunk beds for the men and the women were lined up on opposite sides of the room

Figure 12 The central dining and working table in the hall of the parish buildings, Cochrane. In camp fashion, bunk beds for the men and the women were lined up on opposite sides of the room

The travesía understands that the sharp-wittedness of metis is the fruit of complex social interplay. In insisting on design as a collective act it seeks to give students experience of the pitfalls of intolerance, self-deception, and uncritical conformity associated with group decision-making, but also fosters the self-critique required to avoid them. Arguably a related lesson concerns the way in which generosity and mutual respect — a sense of creative interdependence amongst participants — maintains a collectivity of purpose. The motif of ‘gift’ stressed by is invoked here.

I have already alluded to the observations from the site that practise the discipline of drawing and writing advises. What is more surprising to northern eyes is the extent to which a collectivity of purpose is manifest in the bitacoras — the expedition logbooks or design diaries — kept by each Valparaíso student. Regularly updated, words and drawings are presented like poetry, white page and ink or pencil lines a studied interplay of figure and field, word and sketch (see Figs. 7–10). Like violin-makers who must learn their craft by following time-honoured techniques, design students are expected to achieve a characteristic page arrangement, carefully considered in relation to a building narrative. In this way a process initiated in Valparaíso links the lessons about intimidad and the day-to-day life of the city to the practices of the travesía.

It is a tradition of the travesía that design must invite the interpretation of users. In this case the architecture sought to locate conversation in the landscape (see Figs. 13–16). Eight variations on a theme — seating-places that orchestrate different relationships between the people, the ground, the river, the town, the horizon — share a materiality, a scale and a colour scheme. The linearity of the overall arrangement and the fact that a pair of fabric-formed concrete seats is incorporated into each seating place help give the work its overall coherence.

The central dining and working table in the hall of the parish buildings, Cochrane. In camp fashion, bunk beds for the men and the women were lined up on opposite sides of the room

Figure 13 The central dining and working table in the hall of the parish buildings, Cochrane. In camp fashion, bunk beds for the men and the women were lined up on opposite sides of the room

The reconfigured bank of the Rio Cochrane from river level

Figure 14 The reconfigured bank of the Rio Cochrane from river level

The two seating places beside the tributary to the Rio Cochrane

Figure 15 The two seating places beside the tributary to the Rio Cochrane

A group of local children occupying one of the seating places

Figure 16 A group of local children occupying one of the seating places

Metis and the game of the travesía

That a travesía gives design the character of a game is perhaps its most distinctive lesson. According to this aspect arises from a poetic belief that “an opening for research through design is enabled when one is conscious of playing a game, where the present, with its urgency, makes the place speak”.

Establishing the proper ambience (ambito) for a travesía is considered indispensable, justifying the preparations a sub-group of the students are asked to put in hand from the outset. In one sense their goal is to remind participants that a travesía is the latest of many journeys answering Amereida‘s challenge to rethink the continent’s architectural destiny. This is a game that has been played before: a game that in treating social interplay seriously as the very crucible of creativity, offers the group an opportunity to re-interpret a tradition. In another sense it is to give a strong sense of the beginning, middle and end of the journey while strengthening camaraderie. This is a game whose capacity to manifest creative improvisation, to seize the moment, depends on strong group morale and a shared grasp of timing.

How this is done follows accepted practice: a series of ‘poetic acts’ punctuate the design journey at which readings of Amereída, and readings inspired by Amereída take place (see Fig. 17). These moments of collective theatre in which the whole group participates mark specific points of the journey: departure from the airport, stopping en route, working on site, meeting in the hall where the group is staying, the final meal of the trip. In giving the travesía its character of celebration, they make clear both the different stages of the designing and building work and the strict limits of its ‘festival time’. For further discussion of ‘festival time’ as a concept see. The establishment of a rhythm whereby the largely informal activities of travelling, dining and building are interrupted by brief events whose charged formality dramatizes cohesion, both heightens the game like character of the enterprise and brings alive its unfolding. Thus at the group’s first student authored ‘act’ in Cochrane everyone gathered in the candlelit yard outside the hall at night, and following a reading from Amereida, was invited to fling white paint at a large sheet of black card hanging on a gate. The sheet was brought inside to dry out and divided up equally the following morning, supplying the Cochrane bitacoras with a family of covers.

The final ‘poetic act’ of the Cochrane travesía, 1 December 2013. All participants were invited to illustrate the critical lesson that had emerged during the journey using coloured inks and simple grass paintbrushes

Figure 17 The final ‘poetic act’ of the Cochrane travesía, 1 December 2013. All participants were invited to illustrate the critical lesson that had emerged during the journey using coloured inks and simple grass paintbrushes

In their discussion of the metis displayed by the pilot who must chart a course across unknown waters point to the idea that ‘adopt as target’ and ‘conjecture’ are equivalent. As they suggest, in identifying the relevant guidemarks or beacons, pilots must be able to see in front and behind at the same time. They depend on not only their alertness to the situation, manual dexterity and sharpness of eye, but also on their ability to reason by analogy.  With no map to guide them when identifying a new path, they must have confidence at feeling their way but also at sensing when a bold leap of faith is necessary. Such a journey is hence conjectured by recognising the signals that ‘construct a bridge between the visible and the invisible’. How this skill at finding orientation and the courage to take risks, so important to designers, is supported by the travesía project’s open-endedness is worth rehearsing. As explains:

Truly open-ended works of architecture are unusual, mainly because once you start to talk about the price of something you are immediately talking about an end result. So the conditions in which you have architectural work with an open end are special. Having no economic importance in themselves — as a gift of the group to the local community — the travesía works fit this premise, being carried out by teachers, artists and students in a certain ‘free’ domain. Participating in an open-ended work is undoubtedly a privilege. The travesía experience frames for the students what is possible to achieve in common, helping them grasp that as when you hunt a quarry, or play a game, or pilot an unknown course, something may emerge once you take a risk, until the very last moment.

Metis, limits and a Valparaiso Poetics of Relation

At issue in Valparaíso teaching is the creation of an arena of insightful play, the basis of discipline that captures insights through wayfaring, not a system, a project or a theory. In this approach the detailing of a joint between two pieces of timber is as important as the words of the poetry. Everything is treated as dialogical, everything can become poetry. Poetry orients the themes, setting the topic and its horizon, so that on a travesía travelling by bus, eating, building, making an arrangement of beds, is done in this spirit, keeping alive the fundamental conditions.  As wayfaring the architecture is performed, improvisatory, unpredictable: only circumscribed by words, the building, like playing, makes itself up as it goes along. Like an arduous traverse across a mountain, the  journey becomes a test of a group’s mettle in getting the job done in which the mutual difference raised by debate is ultimately experienced not as an obstacle but a chance for growth point out, in enabling a journey, a path may also limit it, binding the wayfarer to a particular course as it opens a way forward. Thus not only are the conditions and human dimensions of place making issues aired by a travesía, but the moment for following and the moment for forging a path.

In hindsight many architects present their education as a journey of discovery, the adventure that has coloured their own individual design philosophy. Demonstrating how a community of builders is constructed in the navigation of a shared design path a travesía seeks rather to acknowledge the reciprocity between the literal and metaphysical dimensions of building as a collective act. The wayfaring of a travesía is a shared undertaking, its goals engendered through the cooperation and reciprocal actions of all those involved. Importantly, by treating design as negotiation in the pursuit of a common life, it is a form of learning-to-build which makes a marriage of site and brief not something to be solved like an equation, or unveiled as an artwork, but tossed about as in play, its critical objective a communal transaction of place.

Sharing comparable dynamics with migration, the travesía stages errantry in a provisional way, and is bracketed temporarily like a drama, offering its participants opportunities to reflect on the lessons concerning the polyvocal creativity of hybridity and mutual exchange theorised by. On the one hand it places hybridity in a host/guest relation that is intense and affects both the student participants and their hosts. On the other the provisional, temporary or dramatic quality gives the travesía a closure, during which the claim of everyday praxis is suspended, and by which the specific themes of hybridity are made vivid, open for reflection. However, like rite or ceremony or a performance, there is a core of actions to a travesía that are repeated year after year, but are never identical; and this establishes a species of tradition within the school.

As a journey across America, a travesía is a wandering, but as a design exercise it is also a kind of trial or joust, a brief foray that in being preparation for battle, chooses some but not all the limits and opportunities of ‘liveness’ to develop practical intelligence. Unusually, in paying close attention to the enactment of design, the Valparaíso approach seeks to identify the quasi-ritual content of everyday life, and in being tuned to ceremony that invokes the primary meanings, aims to stimulate the kind of group ethos which belonging to a church also entails. This is not achieved without creative limits. Debate about a specific design issue takes its cues from an ongoing narrative concerning identity and the architectural interpretation of place in a post-colonial context. This aspect is epitomized by the intuitions of Amereida, which suggest that for designers the mission of collectively wayfaring unknown territory is as significant as the exploration of a familiar urban world. The travesía journey is the complement and counter form to residence in Valparaíso, undeniably a being found in translation.

Author profiles

Mary Ann Steane

Mary Ann Steane is an architect and senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Her research on natural light marries technical analysis with a broader cultural perspective, looking closely at the range of factors which affect visual perception. This concern is allied to an interest in how architects learn to interpret their surroundings, how they acquire understanding of the city and its buildings through embodied as well as abstract knowledge.

University of Cambridge
Department of Architecture
1–2 Scroope Terrace

David Jolly

Dr David Jolly is an architect, senior lecturer at PUCV and a founding member of the Ciudad Abierta (Open City), the Valparaíso architecture school’s settlement / design laboratory run by the Corporación Cultural Amereida. His research concerns two domains: new forms for concrete employing geotextile fabric formwork and architecture’s relation to poetry. Since 1984 he has led 25 student expeditions (travesías) to sites across South America whose live projects have sought to reveal poetry’s significance to the human condition.

David Luza

Dr David Luza is an architect, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at PUCV and a member of the Corporación Cultural Amereida. The workshops, undergraduate degree programmes and expeditions he has led since 2000 have been dedicated to architectural experimentation in the Ciudad Abierta and elsewhere in the Americas. He participates in professional technical assistance at PUCV and is part of the regional study centre for tourism and heritage, CONICYT CtyP.