Talking to architect Marta Maccaglia about her work is not just talking about architecture. Each of her projects derives from a participatory way of working, based on the approach and deep understanding of its users in their social and local context, their needs, the territory and the available resources, resulting in works that acquire a meaning beyond that of the function itself.

Marta Maccaglia is an Italian architect from the Sapienza University of Rome, but her professional career has developed mostly in Peru. A country she adopted as her own in 2011 since she was part of an Italian government programme, the Civil Service, with the NGO CPS, which offered the opportunity for young Italians to participate in international cooperation projects.

In 2014 she founded her architecture office Asociación Semillas, of which she is currently director. Marta is also co-founder of the office PLAN A 0-100 (2019-2021) and has been a lecturer at UCAL University since 2015. Among numerous awards for her work in recent years, in 2018 she received the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, along with Boonserm Premthada, Raumlabor, Nina Maritz, Lacaton & Vassal, and Frédéric Druot. This is awarded by the Cité de l’architecture (Paris) to architects who advocate the sustainable and participatory development of architecture. She has also been selected in 2020 as a finalist for the AR-Emerging Architecture Awards 2020, an award that recognises young designers and architects for their powerful and promising portfolio of work and gives them the opportunity to position themselves on the international architectural scene.

Her work at Asociación Semillas focuses mainly on architecture for education and public buildings in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, through participatory processes in local communities. Such was the impact and real need for this type of project that Marta’s work began to form part of the identity of Peruvian architecture. In recognition of this, she was selected to participate in the Latin American Architecture Biennial, held in Pamplona last September.

On this occasion, we had the opportunity to talk to her to find out more about her vision of architecture and her work. 

"Projects Cannot be Carried Out Without First Feeling and Understanding the Place": Marta Maccaglia of Asociación Semillas - Image 5 of 17
Escuela Inicial y Primaria Unión Alto Sanibeni. Image © Eleazar Cuadros
"Projects Cannot be Carried Out Without First Feeling and Understanding the Place": Marta Maccaglia of Asociación Semillas - Image 3 of 17
Escuela Inicial y Primaria Unión Alto Sanibeni. Image © Eleazar Cuadros

How was Asociación Semillas born? How is the team currently formed and how do you work with this interdisciplinary team?

Our team is a rotating and ever changing team, and our office is a nomadic office, which reproduces itself like a seedbed. As a basic principle we believe that where the projects are, we are, and that in order to be able to work and offer a coherent architecture to each place we have to know its people, its culture and its territory in depth. This sometimes makes things a little more complex, but it gives the projects a unique strength and depth.

My first project in Peru was the Wawa Wasi in Huaycan. In 2013, together with Paulo Afonso, a Portuguese architect, we developed the Chuquibambilla school project and at that time I decided to move to the jungle. I understood that the project could not be carried out without feeling and understanding the place. In 2014 I founded Semillas, and from then on a system of collaborative work with more institutions and professionals was consolidated.

Our first office was in Pangoa, a small town in the central jungle of Peru. Now, it has multiplied into branch offices in the cities of Lima and San Ignacio, a small town in the jungle to the north of the country on the border with Ecuador.

In each branch, we work with an architect coordinator who is always accompanied by an assistant. At the same time, a larger and more interdisciplinary team is being formed, thanks to the partnerships consolidated over the last few years. Every year since 2016, we receive young Italians in Civil Service, through the NGO – CPS, from 2 to 6 interns each year. Since 2020, thanks to the inter-institutional agreement with the master Architecture for Development of the Politecnico di Milano, we are part of the training program for students who come to Peru for 6 months (from 2 to 4 interns each year). Depending on the needs, we also open calls for architects, anthropologists, educators, political scientists, engineers, and sociologists for specific consultancies or to accompany us in some of the processes. In addition, our master builders: Elias – carpenter, and Javier – builder, are also part of our team. I met them during the first project we developed in the jungle, the school of Chuquibambilla; they were interesting relationships, about learning and growing together. Since last year, the architects Giulia Perri and Giuliana Miglierina – former interns – are part of the management team together with me. With them, we share decisions, and responsibilities and continue to build this dream.

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Cortesía de Semillas
"Projects Cannot be Carried Out Without First Feeling and Understanding the Place": Marta Maccaglia of Asociación Semillas - Image 13 of 17
Escuela en la Comunidad Nativa de Jerusalén de Miñaro. Image Cortesía de Semillas

Which project best represents the ideology and vision of Semillas’ architecture?

I think that in our projects, the 13 projects managed, designed, and built from 2011 until today, you can read a history of accumulated learning. This is because we are always reviewing past projects, and what happens after the inauguration; where, how, and why some design proposals have worked, and where and why not. We continue to face feedback and look for solutions together with the communities, celebrating an architecture always in process and under construction.

The Alto Anapati Preschool, our latest project, seems to me a good place to recount our accumulated ideology and reflections. It is a school in a native community in the central jungle of Peru, providing access to education for more than 50 children and a community space for 86 families: a small-scale, representative project.

The program consists of 3 classrooms with toilets, a multipurpose room, administration with toilets, a kitchen, and outdoor spaces. The project is inserted in the access area of the community welcoming and at the same time, it is linked to the Amazonian landscape of the jungle.

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Escuela inicial Alto Anapati . Image © Eleazar Cuadros

The participatory process carried out in this project has generated a high level of ownership on the part of the community and the children, which has been visible from the first months of operation. From our practice, we consider participation as a fundamental right and it is not about meetings where the population is allowed to say their opinion, but to generate spaces for exchanges of opinions and debate where we are all participants.We develop workshops and activities in phases (the step-by-step method): from participatory research and design, stages in which we weave links with the community and local institutional actors – such as the municipality and local education ministry – and build common dreams; to participatory design, construction, and monitoring, stages in which we strengthen management and cooperation capacities and promote the use of local resources.

Generally in Peru, all architectural projects come from Lima to the provinces, as do all construction companies and materials. In our case, however, we want the community to be part of the construction process, generating jobs and skills locally. On the other hand, we promote the use of local materials – such as wood, clay bricks, and river stones – thus keeping local and artisanal production alive. For example, in the Alto Anapati School project, all the aggregates for the foundations, columns, and concrete beams come from the community’s river. The baked clay bricks are locally produced and the roof structure, part of the porches, and all the furniture and doors are made of wood. This makes the structure fit into the context through an architecture with low environmental impact and in line with the sustainability and maintenance possibilities of the community.

Finally, one of the main reflections of this project was on the role that public infrastructure plays in a rural community in the jungle. That is to say that it is to be understood as a space not only in its physical construction, but also in its symbolic construction, of belonging, identity and the struggle for the right to other forms of existence.

We understood the vision of the Nomatsigenga native population of living well, as living in harmony with oneself and with other beings on the planet, and for this reason, the school seeks to be this place where community, identity, and nature meet. In this sense, in the Alto Anapati School, this encounter – community, identity, and nature – has been sought through an architecture designed based on how the space was to be inhabited. We generated a range of scenes and situations co-created with the children, teachers, and parents during the participatory workshops. For example, the teacher or the apus of the community telling stories to the children, the children learning about the plants, the children using and inhabiting the space according to their customs, drawing, and painting, sitting on the mats on the floor, and the children playing freely in all the spaces. In the design proposal, this translates into classroom spaces that open up to the landscape through large partitions, breaking down the physical barriers between indoors and outdoors as much as possible; a multipurpose classroom without walls, inspired by the typical architecture of these areas such as the malocas[3]; an outdoor pedagogical space that we call “the forest classroom”, an open-air classroom where children learn together with nature; a single corridor runs around the entire building, accompanying the children to walk through different scenarios in the school. Hybrid, free, open spaces, celebrating the school as a public space, a symbol of freedom and learning for the children and the community.

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Escuela inicial Alto Anapati . Image © Eleazar Cuadros
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Escuela inicial Alto Anapati . Image © Eleazar Cuadros

What are your future career aspirations and what are the ideas and types of projects you are interested in working on and strengthening?

We want to contribute to changing the paradigm of architecture, breaking down physical and symbolic barriers, bringing quality educational spaces to all places, and promoting libertarian spaces, which are a meeting platform and a symbol of integration. I believe it is essential to strengthen alliances with local governmental entities, to do it with the people as a citizen practice, and also to strengthen the link with academia, because – freed from the interests of power and economics – it is a medium that can and should connect reality with scientific research.

Our main field of action has been the architecture of educational spaces and now we are presented with new opportunities and areas of work that motivate us a lot. In the evolution of our work, we have gone from a situation of rejection, suspicion and mistrust on the part of local entities and communities – especially at the beginning – to a situation of welcome, alliance and search for common fronts. 

We are now attracting projects loaded with need and representativeness, such as cultural, memory, and public spaces, as well as educational and community spaces. In most cases, these projects are born from independent initiatives that are not listened to by public policies. At the moment, the biggest challenge for us is to develop projects that make a difference and that can be truly representative and symbolic of the local cultural heritage, as well as to build bridges with local governmental institutions. We dream of having several action centers spread throughout the Peruvian Amazon and perhaps in other Latin American countries. We dream of having an echo and a multiplier effect. In any case, I think that these processes need time, we have to grow with awareness and responsibility because, at least in our case, we need time to process and understand in depth. What I can see is that in Pangoa, step by step, from local participatory action, we are marking a change and representing a milestone within the territory where we work. There is still a lot to do and to improve, we are constantly on the road to learning.

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Residencia Estudiantil Santa Elena. Image © Eleazar Cuadros

You have recently been selected to participate in the Latin American Architecture Biennial (BAL) in Pamplona, Spain, recognized for your work representing Peru. What is your opinion about the BAL and why do you think it is important for such an event to take place?

Biennials, meetings, confrontation, criticism, getting to know other realities, other practices, other ways of seeing the world and architecture are always important. This helps to increase motivation, to inspire, it is an opportunity to stop and reflect. Those of us who are involved in action work, in the field, are almost all the time running after deliveries, bureaucracy, files, and participating in events like these is a healthy and healing pause of time. It is part of our mission to share and contribute to collective learning and dissemination is part of it. This is what it is all about: contributing and learning, reflecting, revising and regenerating our work philosophy through criticism.

Arriving in Pamplona after two years of confinement due to the pandemic has been liberating from many points of view, from the human to the professional. This year the guest country was also Peru, and being able to represent young Peruvian architecture in an international context has been very exciting. Finally, what we have been doing for 10 years as part of Peruvian identity architecture has been recognized, allowing us to have a more significant impact on the discourse being built in Peru. It is an honor and an enormous challenge.

Europe is going through a very different reality from Latin America and, as I experienced it, the BAL is a symbol of the meeting of worlds. All the offices present, each one from their own reality and experience, have brought a bit of Latin America to Spain, we have all felt the need to talk not only about the projects but also about the context from which we come, the territory, the local culture, to generate a story and share the life behind the projects. From my point of view, with a stance outside the Euro-centric and colonial stereotypes, I believe that this has come about because in Latin America we seek to feel understood, we fight to have a voice, and we want the architecture we do globally to be recognized, but without conforming, without losing sight of our local contexts and realities.

Can you tell us about your vision of Latin American architecture with a view to the future? What recommendations could you give to students?

I think that we have to re-imagine architecture with the awareness that the progressive western model has left us with the only certainty: that we live in a vulnerable world in crisis. We live in a world destroyed by the disrespectful consumption of natural resources and Latin America has suffered from this exploitation, having lived through ferocious injustices.

I believe that the discourse on Latin American architecture was born from there. Taking as references Latin American colleagues who also participated in BAL, both sauermartins from Brazil, Barclay & Crousse, and Sharif Kahatt from Peru, built their reflection on architecture and scarcity, perhaps, in my opinion, from a more aesthetic approach. But I think this is given by the subconscious need and the intention to take a position from architecture in front of the world. In other words, minimalist architecture in a more philosophical than aesthetic sense; a more respectful architecture, where building with more walls and more ornaments does not mean more development.

What I always tell the students, is that being an architect is a difficult and beautiful profession because it looks at reality from several fronts, it allows us to learn and relate to other disciplines. I tell them to look beneath their eyes, to value and think from the needs, to explore the imaginary, to dream of the beyond, to find their place in the profession, and that the possibilities of action from architecture are many, from design, management, politics, and construction. But above all, I invite you to reflect and re-imagine the role of the architect in society and to find battles that are worth fighting and that motivate you.