In this new part of our alumni interview series, we talked to Carolina Collignon, who completed our master in 2017 and went back to her home country Mexico after two major earthquakes had devastated the country. She spoke to us about her work for UNICEF, poverty, migration and societal challenges during the pandemic, and how she is giving back to society with her company En.Concreto.
Name: Carolina Collignon
Year of Graduation from Programme: 2017
Internship placement: Santa Coloma de Gramenet
Current Occupation: Director EN-CONCRETO
Area of interest/specialty: Women’s entrepreneurship – Migration
Professional goal: Use my profession to contribute to the construction of better opportunities for all
After finishing your degree in 2017, you went back to Mexico after two major earthquakes had just devastated the centre and south of the country. You went on to work on a housing reconstruction project, and also on a research project by UNICEF focusing on the mental and physical effects of the earthquakes on children and adolescents. How did your career progress since we last spoke to you.
Right now, I am starting to teach emergency architecture classes at TEC DE MONTERREY University in Guadalajara. For me it is a pleasure to be able to do so and to take up more theoretical and research topics. Besides that, it forces me to keep up-to-date with what is happening around the world.
The reconstruction project in Oaxaca ended one year ago. I was less present at the completion of the project due to the obligations to my company. It achieved quite good results with the reconstruction of more than 100 homes and has even won several awards, which gives the team much satisfaction in the sense of knowing that the effort in this type of architecture is valued.
You also started your own business, En.Concreto. Tell us a bit about your business and current projects.
En.concreto has basically become my full-time job, so I now try to make a social and environmental contribution from the private sector. At the moment already half of our staff are refugees from Central America, who decided to stop on their way to the United States and stay in Mexico for at least a few years. We have felt very comfortable and proud to have them in the team, because they have also contributed to change our local workers’ perception of migrants who come to our city. Little by little the wrong beliefs learned culturally are broken.
Another project we have been working on is to build and continue the work of the ENCONTRARTE cooperative, formed by women with limited resources, who were taught by us to make decorative concrete pieces and sell them, so they have economic independence and contribute to family expenses. Now these pieces will go to Canada to be sold thanks to a very interesting fair trade initiative.
In what ways did our master program influence the direction that you took with your business – which you started before coming to Barcelona to join our course?
The impact is very noticeable and very important. For me there is a before and after in my way of being able to solve things and connect with vulnerable groups. I feel more confident when it comes to approaching institutions linked, for example, with UNHCR on the issue of recruitment of refugees. The same applies to socially responsible companies so that they purchase products of the cooperative. I always had a social interest, but the master gave me a lot of clarity about all the available options.
Earlier this year, you took part in an online webinar with our director Carmen Mendoza about Emergency architecture in times of crisis organised by the Universidad Anáhuac de Querétaro, Mexico. How would you describe the current situation in Mexico with regard to the global pandemic we are facing?
In Mexico, what we can see clearly is the enormous inequality that we have in the country. Most of the people have not followed the preventive health recommendations, not for a matter of ignorance or of not giving it importance, but because they are people who live day to day. They simply cannot stop going to work.
According to ECLAC, the percentage of people below the extreme poverty line in Mexico will increase from 11.1 to 15.9%. This makes it very complex issue and basically forces a choice between protecting health or protecting the family finances of the poorest.
What parallels can you draw from your work in the humanitarian field after the earthquakes and the current situation – specifically concerning the psychological trauma of children and other vulnerable parts of society?
The parallels lie in the little importance that we as a society give to mental health and its appropriate and professional attention. It is a critical time for children’s mental health. Furthermore, the change in routine and prolonged isolation is causing modifications in their behaviour and moods, especially in adolescents. Levels of depression have increased and medical attention is scarce and deficient especially again for the most vulnerable sectors.
In Mexico, telephone lines and chats have been established so that young people can ask for help. Education authorities decided to grant primary and preschool education through television, not through the Internet – considering that 80% of the public school students do not have Internet access at home. For the same reason, there is a strong pressure from parents for students to be allowed to go back to class. But it has not yet been permitted by authorities on a national level.
What were your conclusions from the debate about ‘Emergency architecture in times of crisis’? What are your thoughts on how the architecture profession can contribute to tackle this global crisis in general, and in Mexico in particular?
I believe through the debate, where we shared space with architects that have expertise in other areas, the different approach that we have learned in the master’s degree for emergency architecture became glaring. What we acquired are capabilities for the analysis and formulation of multidimensional and multi-scalar solutions, not only focused on the materiality of the architectural object but on the management of the project itself. I believe that architecture has obviously a lot to contribute, but it must be a disruptive and activist architecture that explores the actual needs and knows how to collaborate in an interdisciplinary way – not an architecture that waits for projects to arrive on the doorstep.
All photos: Courtesy of Carolina Collignon