To Sergio Palleroni, humanitarian architecture is nothing new. In the 1980s, long before public interest design became fashionable, Palleroni was working on sustainable architecture projects for the World Bank and the United Nations in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Africa. Then, in 1995, while teaching at University of Washington, he co-founded a design-build program called the BaSiC Initiative (BaSiC stands for Building Sustainable Communities).
Photo courtesy BaSiC Initiative
Now based at Portland State University in Oregon, where Palleroni is an associate professor of architecture, BaSiC is affiliated with more than two dozen schools and organizations. Using a highly grassroots approach—ongoing communication with the people being served is essential, Palleroni says—BaSiC attempts to use design to empower impoverished communities around the world.
“From the beginning,” he says, “I’ve been less interested in what a building looks like than how it serves the people I’m working for,” he says. “I always say that 90 percent of what we do doesn’t show in the building itself.”
Over the years, Palleroni has taken groups of students to Mexico, where they built solar kitchens for people living in squatter communities; to South Dakota, where they built a straw bale adult-education center for Native Americans; and to India, where they designed a portable school made from surplus military parachutes. (The school, located in the Tibetan region of Ladakh, was nominated for a 2011 Brit Insurance Design Award, bestowed by London’s Design Museum.) On every project, BaSiC students immerse themselves in the local culture and work directly with community members in a give-and-take process to arrive at creative (and often inexpensive) design solutions.
In the field of public interest design, says Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, Palleroni was one of the first to do design-build projects on a global scale, working with nonprofit and governmental organizations.
“I think the architectural profession needs more people like him—people who are less eager to design the next great building and more interested in designing systems and strategies” for underserved populations, Fisher says.
Palleroni, 56, insists his work is about building human capacity, not simply doing good. “From the very beginning,” he says, “I fell in love with indigenous communities, with people who live in isolation, have little or no representation, and who are increasingly forced into poverty. I’m driven by the notion that we undervalue such people, and that every person in the world has something to say and contribute. Since I was 20, my focus has been on giving a voice to these communities.”