Developed by the architects of the "think-act tank" Archquid, in connection with the indigenous community and other institutions of the parish of San Rafael de la Laguna (Otavalo, Ecuador), this project revolves around the material research of the totora plant, a subspecies of the giant bulrush sedge. The Totora Cube project deepens the understanding of the art and craft with which these fibers have been used since pre-Inca times.
From the architects: The “Totora Cube” is an experimental structure and although it has a specific function —to promote the handicrafts created in the local community and to raise awareness of their culture— also has a degree of flexibility that allows different programs.
It is clearly a definable object: the view we have of it from the adjacent road, and its morphology and materiality, make evident their qualities as an object that are well beyond the limits of the idea of “Architectural Program."
A fundamental part of this project revolves around the material investigation of the vegetable fiber known as “totora” from the design and building of a structure. Inside the multiple implications needed to concrete the project, it was essential the understanding for the art and craft with which these fibers have been worked since pre-Inca times.
It was created an experimental cubical module of 3 meters long, with nine panels on each side, forming what it can be seen as an experiential catalogue of the different fabrics worked by the artisans. It was used a simple pure morphology, resignified from the material aspect, where they explored certain technical, structural and expressive qualities.
An unprecedented use of totora allowed reaching a specific and significant interiority that sieves the light and changes its character in a constant way.
The development of the building, as a result of communitarian work, was able to impregnate in a notorious way the inhabitants’ identity, which recognized and stimulated the autochthonous practices.
In the shores of San Pablo Lake, there are “totorales” in constant regeneration. It can be perceived the existence of a spirit and consciousness in the permanent relationship between the people of San Rafael and the material, which establishes an identity with the territory, the population, and the architecture.
The structure is made of wood, formed by two beams with a support strip and joints design to link the elements. The lower plane simply leans on a concrete slab where the cube stays pinned by its own weight. A secondary structure allows the collocation of the totora panels.
We propose, from the start, to consider this project as a living structure that allows changes, replacements, different configurations and combinations with other cubes. All these, allow us to put into practice the idea of program change. This is an interesting fact: locals, as the days passed and they were starting to see results, and especially at the end when they saw and felt the impact of the new structure began to talk to me in a different way. They began to think of different possible uses. And this raises an interesting challenge. In a community where resources are not many, therefore we must manage them with special care, it is important to think about these structures as projects that meet several functions at once.
The “Totora Cube” raises several issues and challenges:
- How to work in this particular geography and climate with these aspects: an altitude that on average is about 3000 meters above sea level; the magnificent and imposing presence of the Imbabura volcano —which can be seen from various parts of the province—; a considerable temperature range; a strong sunshine several hours a day and a marked rainy season.
- How to work with a material —totora— that is not used for architectural purposes, but for some small handicrafts or floor mats. The issues we address here, in relation to the totora, are basically divided into two groups:
- The specific properties of this material: its tensile strength, its response when combined with certain paints and other chemicals, its reaction to the use of some particular dyes (both natural and processed) and its resistance to this particular climate.
- Understanding this material from a new cultural angle.
How to organize a particular teamwork, combining very local interests (those of the communal handicraft company and the local population in general) with other topics specifically related to our field (e.g.: ideas and program use, morphology, durability and strength of materials, context, etc.) Apart from these issues, we must consider the governments, the local one (village council) plus the provincial authorities: they also have, of course, their own goals and procedures.
The cube finally establishes itself as a milestone highly visible from a very busy way, in a particular geographical context (a lake and a volcano) and a specific sociocultural area, which generates a center of identity, reunion, and participation.
The link between the local artisans, the architects, the academy and the government reached identity reinforcement, a vernacular rescue that represented an opportunity to leave a contribution to the community which was tectonically manifested.
Architect: Archquid think-act tank
Director: Federico Lerner
Location: San Rafael de la Laguna, Imbabura, Otavalo, Ecuador
Team: Equipo Archquid / Arq. Andrés Fuentes (Coordinador en Ecuador), Arq. Victoria Jones, Arq. Oscar Jara, Arq. Mercedes Mena
Construction: Archquid, Totora Sisa and local workers
Images: Federico Lerner and ARCHQUID
With thanks to: Otavalo Municipality, Prefectura de Imbabura, local community.
The Totora Cube project was one of the winners on the XX Panamerican Biennale of Architecture Quito 2016 (BAQ 2016) in the C category.