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My name is Lou Elena, and I am an architect and urbanist in training. Mostly, I would describe myself as a multidisciplinary and community focused spatial investigator. I’m really interested in the role of the architect as a bridge between the macro and the micro, as a spy that has a foot on both sides of the line – one deep in complex and bureaucratic top-down planning systems, the other in the land, the hands that shape it, and the people that inhabit it.
After finishing my foundation, I studied on BA Architecture at CSM, during which I had the chance to really push my sense of agency, work for architectural practices, engage with local communities and shape projects that I was truly passionate about. I spent three years studying sites across London, Jordan and Sicily, investigating refugee receptions in Croydon, camps by the Jordanian border and informal migrant economies in the old city of Palermo. I was also digging into my fascination for alternative and forgotten materials, interning in places like clay studios or cast-iron foundries to better understand them.
After completing my degree, I spent a year working in an urban design practice on urban regeneration projects for different boroughs and designing carbon sequestrating buildings. I was spending the rest of my week teaching on the UAL Insights and university programmes, organising community workshops around placemaking and the climate crisis, and engaging with activism groups like ACAN and Extinction Rebellion. It was a wonderful and painful year filled with quite difficult questions, which involved trying to decide whether I could make the practice of architecture work for my strange recipe of academia, activism, systems design and very hands on learning, sharing and making. Stubbornly consumed with the idea to find a way, I enrolled on the MPhil in Architecture and Urban Design at Cambridge University. I’ve just returned from five months of fieldwork travelling the Americas and retracing climate migration routes, working in permaculture farms, volunteering in shelters across the border, working with local activists, academics and conservationists, and learning (and building!) a whole lot about adobe and strawbale constructions.
‘Mend it from the Borderland’ is my graduate thesis and design work – it uses a wide range of methodologies and outputs, from archival research, design proposals, written research to policy books. The project looks at the impact of climate mobilities (refugees and migrants driven to leave home by climate events, often with nowhere to return to) on our urbanised borders. It’s a foretelling tale of an increasingly visible yet incredibly systemic and complex crisis, it explores the role that architecture can play in either strengthening a dysfunctional loop, or help us get out of it.
Focusing on the cities of El Paso (US) and Juarez (MX), which straddle both sides of the border (at the edge of Global North and Global South, and right above the climate danger-line of the tropics), the project looks at opportunities for regenerating derelict industrial infrastructure with earthen constructions, creating placemaking and housing opportunities for displaced communities and furthering local climate resiliency. Built by refugees and migrants, these emerging typologies of ‘repair’ spread across multiple scales, from the street and the community to residential space. By innovatively using earthen techniques and materials such as clay, adobe and strawbale, it draws upon the existing skills and familiar typologies of environmentally displaced communities, enhancing their opportunity for familiar place-making.
If you were to sum it up, it’s a hacking project. It looks at urban policy loopholes (things like special permits and zoning regulations) and uses squatters’ rights legislations to empower bottom-up opportunities for the fast and resilient creation/ownership of spaces, all the while repairing abandoned parcels in the city. It tries to decolonise the methodologies in which we intervene in the space inbetween, leaving room for the uncertain, the impermanent, and the unknown, while providing safety, resiliency and identities to displaced communities at the border.
Foundation was an incredibly validating and exciting experience for me – one I always wholeheartedly recommend to all students. I’d just moved from France and I think that though I had intuition about CSM being the perfect place of (un)learning. I still had a lot of set beliefs in what architecture was and wasn’t allowed to be. Foundation was a surrendering experience: letting go of what you think you know, of who you think you are, and who you think you’re going to become.
Foundation taught me that sometimes, your fingers and senses will lead you to unexpected paths. It also taught me that every mistake is a lesson; that nothing is precious; that there’s no such thing as failing. It was the perfect start to finding home at CSM, giving me a full year to create a fantastic support system, a great network, relationships with staff members. Be best friends with your workshop technicians! They will save you and your project more than once.
Things I wish someone had told me:
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