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Notes from a humanitarian reconstruction expedition in Pisco, Peru

Access to adequate shelter is a basic human right but so often evades the poorest in society. I believe that shelter provision is at the very heart of architectural design, upon which intellectual and aesthetic complexities are apportioned, creating potentially uplifting or moving places which end up providing far more to the inhabitant or visitor than simply protection. As a student of architecture, I have always been intrigued by “simple” shelters: the cultural, social and personal nuances encompassed within vernacular design traditions are complex and highly developed, despite humble appearances. As such, I have long harboured ambitions to become physically involved in shelter construction, for both the humanitarian aspects of such work and also for my own education and curiosity.

After finishing the bachelor of architecture course at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in 2008, I moved to London  to work in practice for 2 years, where I learned much about the role of the architect in society and specifically gained experience in housing developments in the UK. Before returning to university to begin postgraduate study, I made the decision to travel independently across South America, incorporating humanitarian architectural work as part of the expidition. Researching different possibilities, I came across the NGO Pisco Sin Fronteras who specialise in reconstruction and community outreach programs in the town of Pisco, Peru. This charity was set up in 2008, on the 1-year anniversary of 7.9 magnitude earthquake which hit the south-west coast of Peru, killing hundreds and destroying or severely damaging a huge proportion of all housing in the area.  This devastation was largely relating to the inability of local/vernacular building techniques to withstand the forces exerted on the structures during earthquakes. For example, the predominant building material in Pisco prior to the 2007 quake was adobe brick which is heavy and brittle, making it inherently prone to failure during earthquakes.

I was deeply moved by my time spent at Pisco Sin Fronteras in 2010, as I became aware of the huge struggle people faced in providing adequate shelter for themselves and their families. I strongly believe that the quality of life of many local people could be enhanced via improvements in housing quality. However, Pisco is not an affluent area and many locals speak with disdain regarding the governmental assistance provided to them in the wake of the earthquake. Therefore aspirations of attaining seismic resilience in reconstruction projects has often given way to more urgent, daily concerns, leaving many local people highly vulnerable in the event of future natural disasters. I believe that the cultural significance of housing is of huge importance in determining the success of a particular project within the local community and therefore I was particularly interested in the idea of improving seismic resilience of traditional building techniques. I quickly felt at home when I began volunteering in Pisco, I  enjoyed working with the local people and “getting my hands dirty” working on site with the other international volunteers. Living and working in what was at times a highly challenging environment, I gained a real sense of perspective and achievement at the end of each day.

Returning to university, I remained involved with the charity and I have recently completed my 4th year dissertation entitled “Post-Disaster Reconstruction Methods in the town of Pisco, Peru” and I became determined to return to Pisco for a longer period of time in order to continue assisting Pisco Sin Fronteras and the local community.

With the support of the Jessica Jennifer Cohen Foundation, in the form of extremely generous grant funding, I am able to return to Pisco this summer, between June and August 2011 in order to continue working with Pisco Sin Fronteras and to explore the potential for developing ideas from my university dissertation in the town. JJCF are a small charity, set up in the memory of Jessica Jennifer Cohen, who was dedicated to various charities, working for improvements in communities and for women, children and families. Therefore the charity offers funding to young people seeking to undertake voluntary service which will be of particular benefit to the local community, particularly when reinforced with specific academic or professional goals. Additionally, I am  indebted to the Omprakash Foundation (Pisco Sin Fronteras’ fiscal partner) for their support and assistance in funding this voluntary expedition. Omprakash support numerous small charities worldwide, each of which undertake vital humanitarian work amongst communities. With the backing of these organizations, I am returning to Pisco in June to undertake roughly 10 weeks of voluntary service, and will be maintaining this online journal to record the experience.

JJCF Grant Recipients

Omprakash Grant Recipients

Alice Milligan Omprakash Profile

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