This article originally appeared in Architecture magazine's April issue.
As sustainable as fireflies, off-the-grid power sources address the needs of a seminomadic, indigenous Mexican culture.
» Boston-based Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) is known for its interrogations of infrastructure, whether freeways, the information highway, or most recently, centralized electrical systems. Fusing practice and educational endeavors, principals Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich have designed these pursuits, in part, as pedagogical tools to prepare students in their studio design courses for new forms of practice.
Their latest such inquiry, Portable Light, is an outgrowth of MATx, the materials research division of KVA. Collaborating over three years with anthropologists, nonprofit NGOs, and architecture and engineering students at the University of Michigan and Harvard University's Graduate School of Design (GSD), the firm has devised an ambitious five-year plan: rethinking the paradigm of a centralized electrical system in order to generate and distribute light and power without engaging building systems. 'The goal is to create fully autonomous, off-the-grid light 'engines' that can provide durable, energy-efficient illumination to enable better options for household economic self-sufficiency, community-based education, and healthcare,' explains Kennedy. She describes the electrical state-of-the-art at present as brittle, vulnerable, costly to protect, and wasteful, and believes that mounting debt will eventually force market-driven alternatives. Regarding the 2 billion people around the world who have no access to electricity, Kennedy predicts, 'architects can make a big impact by networking the distribution of power and light.' And to that end, a promising prototype developed by KVA will begin a year-long test run among the Wixarika (Huichol Indian) community of Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico, beginning this fall.
Without electricity in the rural area's medical clinics, premature and low-birth-weight babies cannot be kept warm long enough to become independently strong. Scorpion stings are reportedly a leading cause of death for Wixarika children under five because their parents are unable to see the poisonous insects populating their houses in the dark. Surviving children are often illiterate because even though they have access to village schools in the foothills (a bus ride away), their daylight hours are stolen by chores like collecting burnable material for fuel-and it's difficult to read once the sun sets. For these and other equally compelling reasons, MATx has selected 100 Wixarika families (totaling 800 people) to assess the performance of Portable Light. 'You must connect research of the highest intellectual ambitions to actual people,' says Kennedy. 'It's key to the next step of criteria for innovation.'
The simple solar technology customized for the Wixaritari (the plural form of Wixarika) is designed to eliminate some of the duress associated with a lifestyle increasingly threatened by an industrialized economy for which they have little preparation. It borrows high-brightness LEDs from applications such as pedestrian walk signs, amasses them together with flexible photovoltaic power panels, and embeds them in textiles produced and worn by the users during their everyday pursuits. The sunlight absorbed by the exposed panels on these shoulder bags and shawls may be stored in a single large capacity battery (such as that used for a car) or directed to the equivalent of several rechargeable cell phone batteries that power smaller, detachable light 'candles.' The lightweight units are unbreakable and use just two watts of power; they may also be grouped to provide energy for charging laptops and powering equipment in medical clinics, in which case eight watts of power yields an illumination output equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb.
'We designed the prototypes around activities we knew they'd be doing, beadwork, weaving, and patternmaking,' says J.J. Wood, a Harvard urban design graduate student of Cuban-American descent who plans to take his newfound knowledge to Cuba to assist in its reconstruction process. The Wixaritari are weavers by tradition, and a rare example of a practicing Mezo-American culture. Their ability to produce art and travel to sell their wares or seek seasonal farming employment (they typically travel 400 miles annually) is hindered by the labor-intensive practices required to fulfill various needs during the daylight hours. This condition exemplifies the realities for indigenous people living with acute poverty worldwide. For many Wixarika people, the option to work in tobacco fields where they are exposed to toxic chemicals offers the means for assimilation, but doesn't represent a humane alternative. Moreover, textile weaving and wood and thatch braiding define the Wixaritari as a culture, inasmuch as the practice connects them with their heritage and ancestors and constitutes a kind of religious worship. 'For them, weaving is a form of prayer,' explains Stacy Schaefer, associate professor of anthropology at California State University, Chico. Schaefer, whose academic work and recent book focus on the role of women weavers in the Wixarika culture, acted as a research consultant for the Portable Light teams and has served as a critic during KVA's studio design reviews.
Portable Light will enhance the preferred lifestyle of the Wixaritari by allowing them flexibility in their schedules, so they may weave, cook, and study day or night. The predicted consequences of this temporal adjustment are tremendous, resulting in, for instance, improved nutrition because women will have the time to prepare traditional food sources like maize, beans, and soy products if they are not racing against the setting sun.
Having electricity in their midst is not entirely novel to the Wixaritari, but having access to light that complements their nomadic lifestyle-including engaging in trades like sandal manufacture and making tortillas, in addition to weaving-is. According to Schaefer, the Mexican government determined the necessity for electricity for some Wixarika communities a year ago without soliciting any input concerning their needs. 'They simply cut a path, erected utility poles, strung up electric wires, stuck meters on their organic houses, and began charging them for its use, thereby creating more inequalities for those who can't afford it,' she describes. '[The government] made it sound like a gift they were giving them,' she says, although not an entirely unwelcomed one: On a recent visit Schaefer discovered the newfound popularity of refrigerators there.
Significantly, Kennedy positions Portable Light as the opposite of the modernist trope of giving technology to the less fortunate, and thereby 'helping them to 'get modern.'' Instead, she explains, 'Technology is mutated and hybridized into an area through cultural adoption.' Kennedy describes her team's method as the atomization and appropriation of readily available technology, versus technology 'transfer,' in which solutions are grafted wholesale and the recipient's identity and specific needs are rendered irrelevant. The distinction is key to their ethical approach. Schaefer, who has also acted as a critic during KVA's studio design reviews, supports the more considered methodology, as does the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, which recently partnered with the Portable Light group to discuss ways to broaden the applications of its studies to other needy places such as areas of Haiti and Brazil. Following the year-long use of the prototypes, it is expected that research and communication between Boston and Mexico will continue to result in improvements, including adaptations to new technologies. Ideally, the Wixarika tribes would receive parts they can't manufacture (such as rechargable batteries) from the states, and continue to assemble units for themselves and their neighbors as part of a self-sustaining industry.
Portable Light's long-term impact may be mutually beneficial to the Wixaritari and KVA's graduate school participants. During the cold nights in Mexico's mountainous west coast, Wood and his fellow students gathered in sleeping bags on the roof of a medical clinic serving the Wixaritari and were stunned by the nonchalance of the hardy barefooted children nearby-and by the absence of any light pollution. He recalls that the community's reactions to the initial prototypes were intuitive. 'They wanted to be using them immediately. They were not seen as magical devices.' Summing up the Portable Light story at this juncture, Wood speaks about the value of transformation without imposed change. He credits the learning experience with causing him to be surprised by his own assumptions, and he welcomes more of the same.
Portable Light, Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico
designers: Sheila Kennedy, Frano Violich, Charles Garcia, Patricia Guits, Andrew Khouri, Sloan Kulper, Tonya Ohnstad, Jason O'Mara, Casey Smith, Christopher Wilson.
photograph courtesy Kennedy & Violich Architecture