August 1, 2003: Headlines: Architecture: Residential Architect: Corps values: in the Peace Corps, architects learn to think globally and design locally - practice

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Architecture: August 1, 2003: Headlines: Architecture: Residential Architect: Corps values: in the Peace Corps, architects learn to think globally and design locally - practice

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Corps values: in the Peace Corps, architects learn to think globally and design locally - practice

Corps values: in the Peace Corps, architects learn to think globally and design locally - practice

Corps values: in the Peace Corps, architects learn to think globally and design locally - practice

Corps values: in the Peace Corps, architects learn to think globally and design locally - practice

Residential Architect, August, 2003 by Cheryl Weber

architect Jack Tucker owes his life's direction to the call of adventure and the hand of fate. As a student at the University of Arkansas in the early 1960s, he was on a date with a girl who mentioned that the Peace Corps exams were being held the next day. Interested in the prospect of travel, he agreed to meet her at the student union in the morning. "We partied heavily that night," recalls Tucker, FAIA, Jack R. Tucker & Associates Architects, Memphis, Tenn. "I wasn't feeling good the next day, and she didn't show up."

He took the exams anyway, one thing led to another, and soon he was on a plane to Tunisia. "You stumble onto things," Tucker says. "But the experience with another culture and another language just expanded my horizons as to what the history of architecture was about."

Such serendipitous encounters seem commonplace in the Peace Corps, established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It is a 42-year-old fraternity of sorts, a thriving subculture with different tribes and factions that frequently sparks lifelong relationships: Architects Robert Hull, FAIA, and David Miller, FAIA, volunteers in Afghanistan and Brazil, respectively, went on to co-found the Miller/Hull Partnership in Seattle. Stanley Hallet, FAIA, met his American wife in Tunisia, and over the years has practiced architecture in Washington, D.C., with fellow Peace Corps volunteer Roger K. Lewis, FAIA. St. Joseph, Mich., architect John Allegretti, AIA, married a Samoan woman whom he met while working there in the early '70s. And the University of Arkansas coed who slept in? She and Tucker are still friends.

Whether they were in North Africa or the South Seas, architects say Peace Corps work has changed their lives. Although the program still recruits architects, the largest group participated in the 1960s and '70s, when newly independent countries were undergoing ambitious development programs and requesting formal architectural services. Those energetic interns arrived with their idealism and new degrees, and departed two years later with values and skills that have stuck with them throughout their careers.

fundamental things

Part of the thrill of being in a foreign culture is that daily routines, identities, and expectations are left behind. There's a sense of power that comes from being in a totally unfamiliar setting, where many of the things that define you no longer apply, and the possibilities seem endless.

That realization was both humbling and liberating for architect Steve Lloyd, Chester, Conn., when he arrived in Tunisia in 1972. "I had done well in college and was proud of my credentials," he says. "But to say anything about America in the context I was living in meant nothing to the local inhabitants. It didn't matter what number I graduated or whether I went to an Ivy League college-the only American name they recognized was a soccer star's."

Misplaced altruism fell by the wayside, too. Stanley Hallet thought he would save Tunisia by introducing the "miracle joint" he invented for his MIT thesis on housing in developing countries. When he arrived, though, he discovered that Tunisians already knew how to put buildings together, using stone and brick to make fabulous vaults. And so he ended up working for the bureau of tourism, designing hotels for the rich, instead of housing for the poor. "They convinced me that these hotels would provide indirectly many more housing units than my miracle joint would ever accomplish," he says. "I-felt very guilty."

Many architects gained a real appreciation for economy. David Miller says that both he, in Brazil, and Hull, in Afghanistan, learned to solve problems with on-hand resources. They used natural systems for heating and ventilation, and mud bricks for building. "That philosophy of being very efficient about means is something that underpins the work of Miller/Hull today," he says.

John Allegretti, too, found that scarcity inspires practical solutions. In Samoa, where the most technical building component was a jalousie window, everything was used well, and used again. Coconut fibers served a dozen different purposes. Nails were unavailable, so the woven fibers were used for lashing posts and beams--simple fasteners that nevertheless could withstand 150-mile-an-hour winds.

quick studies

In 1964, 23-year-old Roger Lewis arrived in Nabeul, a small town in Tunisia that hadn't seen an architect in 10 years. After the country gained independence from France in 1956, the French and Italian architects who'd been working there returned to Europe. "As soon as I arrived, government officials started walking in the door asking for buildings to be designed," he says. "I could hardly keep up with the work." With his shaky grasp of French and Arabic, Lewis began working on public buildings--a hotel on a beach, municipal auditoriums, a movie theater, and shopping complexes. He was given a desk and a drafting board, but several months went by before he had a lamp. Tracing paper was in short supply, and getting a print made was a challenge.

Lewis had brought with him a Western viewpoint and an education steeped in early '60s Modernism. So an important challenge was how to reconcile his ideas about composition with Tunisia's building traditions. Some of his designs had vaulted roofs and white-painted stucco--forms and materials that could be used to build quickly and inexpensively. Others were more Modem, their flat roofs of reinforced concrete slabs influenced as much by the work of Louis Kahn, Jose Luis Sert, and Le Corbusier as by indigenous forms.

The pace of projects demanded quick study skills. Lewis developed a knack for sizing up problems and generating concepts swiftly. After getting a sketch approved, he would put dimensions on it and hand the piece of paper to the builder. Detailing was done in the field. "I had projects built within the first 16 months," Lewis says. "It gave me tremendous confidence about how to approach design and get buildings constructed. It was much more informal in Tunisia, but on some level, it's the same bunch of guys in the field trying to read the drawings and build the way you've drawn it.

"The Peace Corps years taught us to operate in a climate of uncertainty and ambiguity, which is the nature of architectural design," he adds. "As young as we were, the Tunisians looked on us as experts. They took for granted we knew what we were doing, so we tried to do it." That perseverance paid off. By age 26, Lewis had a portfolio of built work that most architects his age could only dream of.

politics and prose

But in a village culture, knowing how to design and build is only half the battle. The other half is navigating public opinion. When he was in Tunisia, Atlanta architect Randal Roark, AIA, quickly discovered that although his boss was the minister of public works, the final authority was the man's father, who lived in a village and was blind. "He wasn't a politician or an Islamic elder, but he had a very strong unofficial influence," Roark says. "I had to learn where those kinds of people were." And because Roark's Arabic was weak, he had to rely on the right people to provide access. "To get something accomplished, I had to find somebody he respected. Not just a translator, but someone who provided the right kind of connection. It happens all the time in Atlanta, too."

Doing self-help housing in Brazil, Miller was honing his political skills as well. One project involved coordinating the design and building of 10 houses for 10 families. He would do the design, and the families and community members would pitch in on construction. "The biggest problem was getting the government officials, the national housing organizations, local politicians, and the residents to believe in the project," Miller says. "I learned how to get skills from people they didn't know they had. It taught me about human potential."

Tucker perfected the art of suggestion to get people to do what he thought was right. Though a Modernist at heart, he fought plans to tear down mountain village structures that represented layers and layers of civilizations. He talked to teachers and community leaders about preserving their heritage so casually that they eventually took credit for the idea, he says.

But sometimes, more subversive tactics were in order. One weekend when Tucker was away, a construction crew tore away a street that led to some hillside shops he was trying to restore. Says Tucker, "When I got back, my Tunisian boss said, 'Now you can do whatever you want to do.' I said, 'Here are the drawings, build it back,' and they did. After that, when I left town I had to literally hide the keys to the bulldozer."

climbing into culture

The essence of the Peace Corps experience is building a relationship with other cultures, and that is never simple to do. In 1970, Steven Ehrlich, FAIA, Steven Ehrlich Architects, Culver City, Calif., convinced his boss to give him six months to study the indigenous architecture and patterns of the Moroccan villages he was assigned to relocate because of a dam being built outside Marakesh. Taking along an interpreter and a draftsman, he drew houses and interviewed the villagers, observing how houses grew over time to accommodate growing families.

Baltimore architect Robert Olsen, in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968, believes that one of the reasons a public bath he designed was never built was because he'd made the entrance too public. "People, particularly women, don't like to be seen going into the baths," he says. "I had the entrance on a fairly prominent corner when it should have been off of an alley."

And what seems like progress to Americans may often be viewed differently by nationals. Peace Corps deputy director Jody Olsen, who was married to Robert Olsen during their Peace Corps days, recalls a project that brought water into the houses, eliminating the need for women to haul it from the community well. "We began to understand the rebellion that occurred," she says. "Women in this Islamic society didn't have a lot of ways of getting out to chat. They had lost a reason to get together that was extremely important. There are a lot of subtleties that architects have to be very involved with in order for their design work to be effective. You have to climb into the culture."

global village

If they're gratified to have helped provide better housing in poor countries, Peace Corps architects are also pretty clear about the experience's influence on their own lives. Tucker's stint in Tunisia ignited a passion for the urban revitalization and preservation work that he is known for in Memphis today. Olsen subsequently spent most of his career doing urban planning in developing countries around the word. Allegretti's practice mixes high-end homes on Lake Michigan with Habitat for Humanity housing and planning for disadvantaged communities. And Hailer is still leading trips to Tunisia with his students at Catholic University's School of Architecture.

Bill Kreager, FAIA, of Mithun in Seattle, was in Iran from 1968 to 1970. He can still strike up a conversation in Farsi, and he believes living in another language has made him a more observant listener. "We're doing a lot of work in Japan," he says. "I don't speak the language, but clients tell me they have the feeling I understand what they're saying." Kreager says that skill grew out of the need to observe the nuances of body language and facial expression to function in a foreign culture.

The architecture of developing countries, in which structures grow with an organic responsiveness of form to function, often made a powerful impression. While in West Africa, Ehrlich lived in courtyard houses and fell in love with their tranquility. "I see the courtyard house as a paradigm for new housing in the U.S.," he says. "I think it's a valid strategy for increased density and urban infill."

The Moroccan culture of graciousness and generosity also made an imprint: the way people gathered around a table and ate with their hands out of a tajime, or round pot, for example. And the town centers that encouraged casual gatherings. "People in America desire that, but it isn't always offered," Ehrlich says. "In my multifamily housing projects and on master plans for college campuses, I try to find that synergy."

When he returned to the U.S., Ehrlich, who grew up on the East Coast, was drawn to Los Angeles because of its rich cultural diversity and indoor-outdoor architecture. He likes to say that his graduate degree was six years in West Africa. And when he lectures to students, he tells them that "the most important job you get when you're out of school is not a job at all, but a way to have some experiences."

Steve Lloyd shares that perspective. Recently, he ran into a group of people in Amherst, Mass., who'd been in the Peace Corps. Despite the diversity of their experiences, he says, they felt they'd shared something profound. Partly it was the idealism, but it was also the knowledge that they had allowed themselves to be minorities in a foreign culture, and had benefited from it. "In the end, that's the only thing that's going to bring everyone together," Lloyd says, "that greater level of understanding of other cultures, and the compassion that results from it." ra

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.

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