Lauren Elder 
Environmental Artist working in community
Guest Artist: La Vida es un Teatro in Nashira 2009, 2010

“How to Build a Tree House Where There are No Trees” (2009)
Prior to my first visit to Colombia and Nashira, Veronica Wiman, the Project Director, and I considered a wide variety of possible responses to the challenging physical environment at Nashira and the social needs of the numerous children. Nashira, an “eco-aldea” (village) has been evolving for over six years on the grounds of a former hacienda that presented few opportunities for safe play. The children needed a place that was protected from the strong sun, humidity, and the swarming insects of the fields. I made various quick models, almost all of them suggesting a roofed and elevated structure: one or more towers, a bird blind, a tree house. We finally settled on the last idea enabling us to combine the other functions. I thought of furnishing it with a little library of handmade books with the children’s observations of the animal and plant life around them.

Imagine my surprise on the first site visit when I found only aging orange trees and more recent plantings of bananas!
An inventory of local materials also brought surprises: milled lumber and plywood, extremely common and inexpensive in the US, is not readily available in Colombia. Steel is plentiful but not “cheap” and is harder to work. Aesthetically it was out of place in the “handmade” environment of the village.

Quick re-evaluation. Quick change of plans.
We settled on the construction of a shaded, two tiered play structure with swings, slides and climbing supports. There would be two elevated platforms connected by a long bridge.
The next issue was to select appropriate and affordable materials. I noticed that many structures in the Cauca are built from timber bamboo (guadua) that grows locally, is plentiful and is relatively inexpensive. A consultation with a local architect linked us to a supplier, Eco-Bamboo, in the nearby town of Candelaria. The staff there was extremely helpful, pre-cutting the main pieces, lending us tools, providing advice and selling the materials at a discount. The visit there was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

PROCESS
I grew up empowered to use tools and to create my own physical spaces: tree forts, playhouses, animal pens, and various contraptions. As part of my art practice, I continue to support children so that they can affect their surroundings in a positive way. I believe that as a result of these activities they can evolve into pro-active citizens, creating a better environment for all.

With the help of ASOMUCAF’s organizers we offered two workshops for the children so that they could take part in designing the structure by building a three dimensional model.
The workshops were attended by a growing number of children and a few mothers joined it, sharing the enthusiasm. They created many “extras” including a pond with water fowl, a soccer pitch and a tunnel of love. The sun rose smiling over green Colombian peaks. I realized once again that each of us carries an image of “Paradise” inside us and we long for a place to replant it.

The older girls helped unloading the guadua from the delivery truck. I assisted a resident child, Maria Isabel in taking many excellent photos that documented the construction by Freddy, a skilled builder from El Saladito, assisted by Don Daniel and Don Elian and other local men. Within two days the main form of the structure was in place! The work of fixing the posts in concrete, attaching the roofs and railings and developing the climbing structures continued over the succeeding months, with internet conversations ongoing between Veronica in Cali and me in Northern California. When I returned in 2010 I was deeply touched and fulfilled to see the structure completed and swarming with dozens of happy children.

REFLECTION
The process, for me, was a remarkable combination of community engagement with ecologically appropriate design and construction: part landscape architecture, part social practice, “despegando” from the realm of art and “aterrizandose” on the ground of useful design.

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