Alejandro Haiek Coll lives in Caracas, Venezuela. In his architectural design work, he is more interested in “the design of a logistic chain of events than to the massive construction.” His projects, which often have a strong social component, have focused on the renewal and resuscitation of inactive landscapes, revival of urban soils, and the concepts of reuse, recycle, revive and re-program. One of his projects, Tiuna el Fuerte Cultural Park, a programmable urban oasis in Caracas, Venezuela, designed and created by LabProFab—a design collaborative headed by Alejandro Haiek Coll and Eleanna Cadalso—has just won two major awards.

Last year, Tiuna el Fuerte Cultural Park was selected as winner of the first prize in the International Festival of Architecture of Barcelona EME3 2012, sponsored by Fundación Jesús Serra. In April 2013, it was selected from more than 140 researched projects as winner of the International Award for Public Art presented in Shanghai, China.

The project began in 2006 when Haiek and Cadalso teamed up with other collectives to occupy an abandoned parking lot to create a model of what they call instant microurbanism. The park infrastructure was built using cost-effective, low-energy technologies. Recycled shipping containers, for instance, were grouped together as modular elements in expandable multi-use spaces. Increasing green coverage in the city was another project priority. Currently the Capitol District of Caracas contains an average of .26 square meters of park space per inhabitant, compared to the World Health Organization’s recommended standard of 10 to 12 square meters of park space per city inhabitant.

In recent years, the project area has continued to expand, becoming a city cultural park containing offices, classrooms, dining spaces, green spaces and sports areas, and with plans for organized workshops and other activities promoting development in the arts and sciences. At present, of a total of five planned projects two have been completed. There currently exist a store, a cafeteria, administrative offices, a radio station, and a music-editing studio. On a daily basis more than 500 children and adolescents participate in cultural and artistic events in the park.

The name of the park is a reference to a nearby military base, Fuerte Tiuna. However, “Tiuna” was originally the name of a native warrior from the region. Thus the name has been re-appropriated to restore its natural and social connotations. The designers did not put their hopes in government assistance, but rather relied on civic involvement to promote public art. The project reflects the creativity, cohesiveness and the capacity that is possible when hands join together to improve the social and human environment.

When speaking about why Tiuna el Fuerte was selected was winner of the International Award for Public Art—with a focus on placemaking—Lewis Biggs, chair of the jury, said, “This unique project met every criteria—and more. It is a multipurpose gathering place that has started a green cultural movement, demonstrating cost-effectiveness, low energy usage, recycling, sustainable community engagement, education, media empowerment, and repurposing a vacant lot. It reflects the creativity, cohesiveness and the capacity that is possible when hands join together to improve the social and human environment. It’s a vibrant work of creative genius.”

The first-ever International Award for Public Art and a forum on placemaking was co-presented by the two leading public art magazines in the world, Public Art Review (USA) and Public Art (China). Held at the University of Shanghai, the award event featured guests from 18 different countries.

Alejandro Haiek Coll, was on hand to receive the honor, expressing his gratitude on behalf of the more than 50 artists and volunteers that helped build the park. Afterward, Public Art Review publisher Jack Becker interviewed Haiek Coll.

 

Q: First, congratulations on winning this award. What was your first reaction when you heard the announcement?

A:  I was surprised; receiving this award for working with recycled material—over so many good projects—makes us feel honored. To be a part of this amazing event has also been a great opportunity to show the concepts behind our work. We are glad to be recognized by people from different countries.

 

Q: What do think the award will mean? What difference will it make?

A: We expect this award will increase understanding about how we approach our projects. The work we do moves into lots of disciplines; it can be understood not only as design, architecture, and urbanism, but as a hybrid process of fabrication that includes art, social integration, and lots of improvisation. We had to find our way to work through the social, political, and economic situation in Venezuela. By doing so, we found the “opportunity,” since there are not many design projects in our region. There are few opportunities for the kind of work we do, to help people understand the meaning of our work, or to manage the process of integration—working with communities and finding direct solutions to their needs. Appreciation of our work on an international level is more meaningful than just local or regional. Getting this award makes a statement that ideas can be executed (and appreciated) with hard work and commitment.

 

Q: Who deserves the credit for this award?

A: Everyone involved deserves this award. We have worked on this project since 2006 so there are many people who participated through the years, and they all should be recognized. It has been a collaborative process in which lots of people participated. The artists and all the collective groups that worked together to create programs in the park should be recognized and credited. But we don’t have a traditional structure, so it’s hard to assign direct responsibility to any one person. We think that everyone who believed in it should be recognized for the support they gave us. We are grateful for having the opportunity of working with lots of talented workers, students, urban artist, designers, architects, engineers, psychologists, sociologists, photographers, musicians, and dancers, and for having the support of the communities here.

 

Q: What about your role?

A: I have been involved in academic research and now I’m moving into applying what I’ve learned to real situations. I tried to distance my work from classic urbanism by using spaces that are in between—or interstitial spaces—around Caracas. My role is to manage the relationship with the communities, to understand their needs, and to reinterpret them into cultural infrastructures. From an environmental perspective, I focus on the consolidation of a new nature, managing technological processes and mixed techniques involving art, science, and popular knowledge. I design occupation and fabrication strategies that mix local practice and local intelligences and provide different protocols that allow us to do this kind of work in our own way. I work hand-in-hand with my colleague Eleanna Cadalso on the conceptualization of ideas and developing the strategies for involving all disciplines into the final development.

 

Q: At Tiuna el Fuerte, you started with music and then it attracted other artists and different kinds of talent.

A: Exactly. This is the kind of protocol I was talking about. The first use and occupancy dynamics were music concerts. As the infrastructure started to grow, we had to develop more spaces for different activities. At present, the park offers workshops on art, yoga, breakdancing and graffiti. We also have a recording studio, library, wi-fi center and a cafe that offers meals by day, and by night serves as a bar, with the surrounding ground serving as a platform for all kinds of artistic expression. We have helped the local artists to develop their style and create works with meaning—works that also address their native people and previous cultures.

 

Q: It seems like all the right ingredients came together here. What do you suggest for others trying to do this?

A: For other places wanting to do this, they should start with research: What happened here? What is the cultural heritage? I suggest planning a strategy that fits the environment, the community needs and their cultural expressions. We map the talent as a kind of cultural cartography. The territory, the communities, and the local technologies are the most relevant factors in our strategic plans of action, and yet sometimes this is the most ignored part of the city. Every place has its own demands and its own knowledge base. We involve kids who would otherwise become dangerous if they didn’t have any activities to develop their talent or an outlet for their expression. We try to develop projects for the spaces in between, the places that nobody comes from or cares about—these are the spaces we like.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Tiuna El Fuerte Cultural Park is still under construction, yet we are also working with other communities on what we call “Social Insects.” These are a series of microsurgery interventions in which we are inserting multi-programmatic structures in very small and complex topologies located in the middle of some of the most dense and poor neighborhoods of Caracas. We are also working on expanding these protocols to other countries in search of cultural interchange; we have already done a few interventions in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Puerto Rico, and we’re looking forward to expanding.

 

Q: Are you also making living spaces for the homeless?
A: We have done a few interventions on abandon infrastructures, adopted by homeless people as shelters. Sometimes we try to help with shelters because of the dangerous places they are living in; the idea is to enhance their opportunities for occupancy by adding just a few elements. These interventions do not pretend to solve the problem but to put in evidence a reality the world can’t ignore.

 

Q: Do you have any closing remarks or thoughts you’d like to share?

A: We approach the city is an exploratory venue with the purpose of balancing social and environmental needs focusing on the regeneration of abandoned urban infrastructures and non-regulated metropolitan territories. We don’t need big buildings to make culture. We can transform our cities using local talent and local practices to make our culture—a hybrid culture. We need to understand our practice, and reveal our way of working, and reinvent our reality—without dogma. We create our own protocols, techniques, cultural know-how, and make things with low cost. Art has an irreverent or subversive way to see life. It has the power to criticize realty, move it forward, raise awareness of the problems, and demand a different way to solve them.