Just to the north of Block 3 of the University, in the area known as Cuidad Universitaria (University City) are some concrete foundations surrounded by trees. At first glance it looks deserted but delve a little further into the undergrowth and you soon come across tell-tale signs of colourful political art work, a half-constructed some, gardens and the tents. Here, in central Buenos Aires, like the eco-village Velatropa. This university land of approximately one acre has now been occupied for three year (with no resistance from the University or the state).
Wooden dome and wind turbine
It has a transient population dominated by young University students (or those recent graduated) but even in winter, when I visited, had 20 residents. Although most people sleep intents there are several permanent eco-buildings on-site. The best of these is the main communal structure which houses a meeting space, library, art studio and kitchen which extends outside to several external ovens and food storage areas. This building is an experimental combination of adobe bricks, wattle and daub (using bamboo), bottle walls, beautifully shaped curved glass and quirks like a shutter made from flattened tin cans.
The kitchen and communal building, and a wall of the communal structure
The library and view of the windows from inside the communal building
Experimenting and recycling are two key activities onsite. All the materials for the buildings have been reclaimed and sourced for free. There are carefully ordered stacks of wood and ingeniously made bolts on the domes made from old drinks cans. Bricks are being made by compressing plastic bags into used plastic bottles and adobe bricks are made onsite. A reclaimed wooden dome is being given wattle and daub walls using bamboo to create the structure on which to ‘hang’ the clay. Elsewhere onsite a sandbag building is half complete. Someone has built a wind turbine from a bicycle wheel and recycled plastics and a solar hot water heater from old drinks bottles. This experimentation does mean that not everything works perfectly and in the recent rains the inside of the art studio was damp, perhaps built without a protective raised foundation. But that everything here has been made for free is the bigger message they are trying to convey.
Construction of bricks for building from used plastic bags and plastic bottles
In fact, Velatropa are trying hard to illustrate just how wasteful society is by deliberately recycling all that they can. They collect waste from around campus and beyond and recycle it, they run workshops with school children on making art from waste, and work with architecture students on building using discarded materials. The site has several stacks of plastic bottles, tin cans, plastic bags and cardboard. When I visited they were drying out the filling of a futon mattress they found dumped nearby which they are using as cushion filling.
Wall of the communal building and wattle and daub dome in progress
Inside and outside the communal building
There is a dedication to self-sufficiency here, but urban style using the waste of those around them as much as growing what they need in their large and luscious gardens (lemon and grapefruit trees, beans and legumes, celery, herbs, lavender and aniseed and many more which I could not recognise). With every act that they do for themselves however, such as build onsite, they seek to impact far and wide. So they extend their gardening by making seed bombs – seeds wrapped in small clay balls – which they distribute onto other empty land. Every Saturday afternoon the local architecture students some and help them build, building workshops are held as are other events about sustainability.
Perhaps their main asset though is their site and the welcome they give to strangers. A arrived without warning or an introduction and with terrible Spanish. For the first hour my hosts spoke little English and yet they took the time to show me around, communicate what they were doing with warm smiles, sign language, and the gift of bots of plants to eat and smell. Rarely have I felt so welcome at a place.
If you would like to visit they have an excellent website which has bus information and satellite maps. You can also take a taxi from central Buenos Aires (costs around AR$50 pesos, about £10) and ask to be dropped at Block 3 of University City. Visiting late morning or in the afternoons is best.
[Buenos Aires, 31st July 2010]