(IAP ’18 FELLOW) Andrea Baena, G

Andrea will be working in Cartagena, Colombia, on the Project:  Architecture from the margins, co-designing and co-shaping informal settlements. She will collaborate with the Fundación Social in the informal occupation of the Virgin Swamp in Cartagena to develop an urban revitalization strategy for Fredonia, one of the neighborhoods in the informal occupation. Her background in System Dynamics and participatory design, will assist her in understanding and mapping the needs of the community.  She will engage the community in the process through a collaborative mapping exercise, followed by a design workshop and the construction of an architectural element. Fundación Social will be empowered to implement and adapt the design framework developed during IAP workshop throughout the neighborhood and territory.


The informal neighborhoods on the south of the Virgen Swamp, located in the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, is particularly suited as a case study for displacement. This area was first occupied in 1950 when there was a large wave of displacement due to violence in Colombia. In the late 80’s and 90’s there was another wave of violence which generated a second large population influx to this area. Families came from rural areas mainly in Montes de María, Urabá and Sucre (areas with a strong presence of armed groups) moved to the city of Cartagena escaping from violence and in search of a better future. Over 30% of the current population in this area has been displaced by violence.

Canal Calicanto Nuevo- Area of Study

Canal Calicanto Nuevo- Area of Study

Throughout the years, this urban area was expanded by gaining land from the swamp. In fact, the urban occupation has taken over a fringe of approximately 80 meters of what used to be water, along the 4km southern border of the Virgen Swamp. Settlers have been struggling to connect to the city’s infrastructure, mark their territory, and accommodate the land to reduce flooding.

It is a place that is still in constant flux, and can be characterized by rings that range from informal closer to the swamp to more consolidated towards the city.

The Calicanto Nuevo Canal will be explored as a natural scar that ranges from more
to less consolidated and becomes an opportunity to weave different communities.


The collaborative design workshop has as an objective to define the strategy of intervention along the Calicanto Nuevo canal in the UCG6 neighbourhood, including public space and collective amenities. This workshop departs from the findings of a collaborative mapping workshop during the fall, which demonstrated the need to intervene in the protection band of the canal as a strategy to anticipate invasions. Thus, this intervention strategy will include the design of a basic urban scheme and a system of collective infrastructure using local construction methods and materials.

The workshop will consist of a Design Charrette focused on the urban design of the Calicanto Nuevo canal, in parallel with a more specific research line which merges with my thesis enquiries. I propose the weaving of the micro and macro scales and a physical intervention strategy that is tied to the community’s memory and values. The project seeks to reinforce social ties, entrepreneurship and relationship with natural resources.

Research line:

I will explore the neighbourhood from a social focus. How can design based on the memory of the neighbourhood, strengthen the community? I will investigate the processes of adaptation, permanence and evolution within the informal neighbourhood context. How does access to city and sense of belonging manifest in forms and space?


Participatory Design Workshop. Photo by James Addison

Participatory Design Workshop. Photo by James Addison

Participatory Design Workshop. Designing the neighborhood with key community stakeholders. Photo by James Addison

Participatory Design Workshop. Designing the neighborhood with key community stakeholders. Photo by James Addison

Participatory Design Workshop. Photo by James Addison.

Participatory Design Workshop. Photo by James Addison.




Stories of displacement

To what end do we write when our prose takes on the responsibility of saving and giving but not the accountability of compensation?
… To what end will we educate ourselves in this literacy of life?
        — Ananya Roy

“This is my house”, Eufemia declared repeatedly with great pride. “I had pigs, I sold pigs” said Eufemia, “yes, because when you move from a small town into the city, you have your traditions, you sell pigs, I sold pigs”. Eufemia had moved to Cartagena 15 years ago from rural San Onofre, a small town that had been struck by violence. She had participated in the construction of her house, which started out being a wooden shed and had now become a spacious house made out of concrete that filled her with pride. I did not ask directly whether she had been displaced by violence, she did not explicitly say that she had moved away from her rural origin fleeing from violence, she limited herself to saying that she moved following her children who were already in the city. At the end of the interview, Eufemia took us to her back yard to show us that she still has pigs, the business continues.

The interview with Eufemia is part of a research enquiry on displacement in Colombia. I was born and raised in Colombia, a country where displacement is very common, however I have known very little about this phenomenon. I remember that when I was young, I always wanted to adventure, to move to a different place and experience a different culture. And I did, one of those experiences is being here today, studying architecture at MIT, a very challenging and exciting opportunity where I can immerse in the advance in design strategies tackling social issues. This exciting adventurous feeling of moving to MIT, is very different from what people who move to a different place out of need feel, what those who are displaced feel. I feel the responsibility of learning about the phenomenon of displacement, so present in my country, and advancing design research of alternatives to improve the living conditions of those displaced.

Displacement is the act of being forced to leave your original home. Reasons for leaving vary, however in Colombia, more than 7 million people have been displaced for the same reason: violence[1].  Families escape from violence in villages and farms to cities where they find refuge at the margins. Refuge usually in land that hasn’t been occupied by anyone else because it does not offer the best habitat conditions due to high environmental risk, lack of mobility connection and lack of infrastructure.

Eufemia was part of my first round of interviews within my research process, I was asking people who had suffered displacement difficult questions about traumatic events in the past and about the process of adaptation to different living conditions. Questions about their original home and the process of settling in a new city, about their sense of belonging, and about the different spatial adaptations that they have performed on their house. Answers ranged from detailed hurtful stories of transition, to more ambiguous bits and pieces, but they all had something in common, a sense of pride and perseverance.

What are the ethics of interviewing as a qualitative research tool? I felt a strange sensation because, even though I am from Colombia, I was exploring into pasts that I know so little about. This is a delicate subject and I felt that I needed to be very careful in my ethical approach to this research. I have done some interviewing before; the most significant past experience was working with migrants in Mexico. In this occasion I had the privilege to learn from experienced conversers working with me on the interviews, who referred to migrants as travelers and were able to connect with them as one on one. I learned that the worst mistake you can do as an interviewer is to stand at a higher ground and show any kind of pity. You must engage in respectful dialogue, as you would with a friend.

This time, I was to interview people who had been displaced in my own country. I was expecting to speak with victims, but soon realized that I was speaking with brave fighters. The most valuable lesson that I learned, was precisely that of learning and being inspired by the people I was interviewing. I was coming from a position of privilege (an important education institution), however I knew that I needed to place myself in a humble position knowing that I would learn more from the people I was interviewing. I was there as a traveler for the expansion of knowledge, but had no sense of what it means to travel for life.

Darlis and her two sons, in front of her favorite part of the house: the garden. Photo by James Addison

Darlis and her two sons, in front of her favorite part of the house: the garden. Photo by James Addison

I encountered many impacting stories. Darlis talked about her recent experience building her 1-year old bathroom-less house made out of wood from recycled palettes, “we were putting things together without knowing how”. Darlis and her family had been asked to leave from a close-by neighborhood, El Pozón, by their landlord because of her husband’s financial instability. They were now building a dream, a house of their own. Motivated by fear, the family had originally moved 5 years ago to the city from El Carmen de Bolivar, a place with a strong presence of guerilla. Darlis, standing with her two kids in her front porch with planters hanging off the wall and a small cluster of garden plants on a bench, was telling me about her dream of consolidating her house and reaching a stable situation for her kids.

Alejandro, artist, with some samples from his collective memory gallery behind him.

Alejandro, artist, with some samples from his collective memory gallery behind him.

Alejandro is a visual artist, he sees the power in collective memory and has developed an art gallery focused on memory with people who like him need to express troubled paths as a way of therapy. He has guided over 30 people from his community through the creation of works of art, art that tell personal stories of displacement and adaptation. A painting of a musical event with loud music, young people wearing extravagant colors and some of them with piercings, represents nostalgic feelings of culture that has not been expressed in neighborhoods where there is a strong presence of armed groups who control cultural expression. The painting of a house with a family inside, with a lightning going through the middle that represents how families are broken due to violence. Alejandro told me many stories like these, of victims that are fleeing from violence in rural areas, only to arrive to marginal communities in the city, some were violence has also permeated. Victims that escape to become victims again. Alejandro explores the question of how they can collectively heal, make their stories heard and make their neighborhood a better place.

Many lessons can be learned from testimonies of people who fight and don’t give up, people who have built their house, brick by brick. People who inspire. People who declare, this is my house, with a great feeling of pride. What can be learned? What can be conveyed as a writer? What can be designed as an architect?


[1] According to the United Nations, “war in Colombia has displaced 7 million people, more than in Syria, Iraq or any other war zone. Forced to flee their farms and villages, they have resettled at the edges of Colombia’s cities” (The Washington Post)



What is [place] making?
How is someone allocated to a place [place-ment]?
What are the implications of [dis-place-ment]?

Does the feeling of segregation lead to
the need to mark your place, set your boundaries? In places of dis-place-ment these invisible boundaries or grey spaces are ever more present. How to transform these boundaries into connecting axes that are appropriated collectively? How can we evert the ideas of scars that have been turned into trash dumps or places of violent encounters, into an axis that weaves and celebrates differences? Can we turn these scars into places of trus and negotiation, play and interaction, storytelling and cultural expression? These scars can be infrastructure lines (roads, rail tracks, etc) or natural lines (rivers, mountains, etc).

Check back for more updates on my project!


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