Designing To Fail

JULY 30, 2012


Last year I graduated with a Masters degree in Architecture.  My thesis was essentially looking at rural communities, cultural heritage, and the environment.  There was a lot more to it than that, but who wants to hear someone go on and on about their thesis project?  Not me.

So by the end of this project, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how design could help change communities.  Clearly, I had read many books, written many pages, and designed hypothetical interventions to bring change to places in need.  After finishing said project, I journeyed to Brazil with a motley bunch of fellow designers with similar aspirations.  I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to put all my studies to work.  I have never been more wrong.

I was completely unprepared for Brazil.  The most important lesson I learned in my time there was that I really don’t know anything.  I thought all my education would make me qualified to build meaningful projects, but all of that practical knowledge didn’t do me any good.  One project that brought me to this realization was a playground structure I designed for the children in a rural village.

There were about a zillion children in this village who would nearly trample you as soon as you were within eyesight.  They had nothing to play with and nowhere to go. To say that structure needed to be strong would be an understatement.  It needed to be indestructible.  I, having minimal building experience, decided that bamboo and wire would be the ideal building materials because there was nothing else really available, and they were free.

So we began building what we considered to be a very “simple” and “easy to construct” structure.  I must have overdosed on crazy pills during this period of my life.  Never has something been more difficult.  Not only were the resulting structures completely unsafe, but it was ugly, and I am not sure what is worse.  I may have read a lot and been taught a lot of things but I knew nothing.  Meanwhile, the local men walked by each day speaking amusedly in Portuguese about what this lunatic girl was doing.  Luckily, I only understand like five words in Portuguese so I was spared some embarrassment.

In the end, the kind local workers came to my aid, and we completely rebuilt these sad structures in just a few days.  Their help came with comments about how they like women with meat on their bones, and others that did not amuse me, but I was so relieved to have their help that I didn’t really care.   By the end of this trip I had learned some important life lessons – most importantly, that I still have a lot to learn at the ripe age of 25.

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