Meet the 2019 PIVOT Fellow, Luigi Ghersi. Originally from Peru, Luigi is a graduate student at University of Oregon and attended undergrad at Utah, where he earned his Bachelor’s in Architectural Studies. We sat down with Luigi to pick his brain about the Fellowship, his future, and his vision for architecture.
PIVOT: How did you hear out about the PIVOT Fellowship?
LUIGI: I saw the flyer on campus and I thought it was a great opportunity. I also met the previous fellow, Yvonne, and she talked about how great of an experience it was. Before I applied, I collaborated with professor Gerald Gast on a research project about school design for low-income Colombian students through the Pies Descalzos Foundation, a non-profit started by Colombian singer Shakira. This helped me shape research topic I eventually proposed for my fellowship with PIVOT. And, actually, when I moved to Eugene, PIVOT was one of the first places I stopped by to get an internship. It did not work out because of the timing, but I was always really interested in joining the team.
P: And why did you want to work with PIVOT?
L: I really like the work that the firm does, from transit to schools. I’m very interested in community-centric projects. I love public work and civic architecture – especially when they are applied in conjunction with ethical design practices. PIVOT’s experience with this type of work resonated with me.
P: What you’re talking about – this civic work and ethically serving the community – could be achieved through politics or non-profit work. Why do it through architecture? How did you find yourself going down this path?
L: I got inspired during undergrad. I took this amazing architecture class called “The Human Dimension.” It was a class that, under the surface, is about feminism, career theory, gender studies, and just general theory within architecture. We talked about philosophers who, of course, aren’t necessarily architects, but they talk a lot about architects. For instance, French philosopher Michel Foucault has a bone to pick with modernists. He claims that modernists tend to heavily dictate what the design program is going to be, based on their own ideology, without taking the community and specific users into consideration. And this can create places that are hostile towards certain individuals – people can feel defeated or excluded. They are pushed aside. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Foucault says, but that stuck with me and made me more engaged with post-structuralism and the works of other 20th century French philosophers. Later, I read a book by Jeremy Till called Architecture Depends. It’s about the practice of architecture and how it lines up with the ethicality of the practice. When I first started in architecture, I really didn’t think that this would be my focus within the field – the ethical obligation of architecture. I knew that I wanted to practice architecture because I liked the convergence of all the arts into one space. But at the beginning, I couldn’t pinpoint why I liked that convergence, let alone ponder our responsibilities while designing these spaces.
P: In that case, what did draw you to architecture in the first place?
L: To be honest, it started because of ego. A lot of architects, especially in the old days, became superstars. They created these big monuments to honor themselves. As I learned more about the theory behind it, I began to change my vision. I want to see this profession as more of a public servant, instead of just seeing it as an artist who wants to create a narrative.
P: Shifting gears, this is your last summer of being a student. By this time next year, you’ll have your graduate degree. And then what?
L: I am trying to become a licensed architect as soon as possible. Eventually, I want to work on projects that have good meaning and that have a positive impact on the community. I want to feel purpose with my work.
P: Being in a graduate program is a great opportunity to keep-up on trends about the profession as you learn and grow. What do you see on the horizon for architecture that is particularly interesting or exciting to you?
L: I feel like architecture has the opportunity to respond to current topics of emergency. For instance, with climate or over-population, we’re at a crossroads where things can go in a really terrible direction, or we can try to make something that can be beneficial to humanity and catalysts for change. We can also start to think about how architecture can change opinions on certain types of buildings or technologies: For example, what is a school? And what can it be? What is a living space? What is a work space? What is a government building? And so on. As society and culture change, architecture has to evolve with it. I love questioning everything in order to explore the possibilities of design.
P: Is there anything, not related architecture, that’s a fun fact or something unique about you?
L: I read a lot of comics. I build miniature models at home. I’m really into music. I play guitar. I used to play in a rock band back in Salt Lake for four years. I also have a radio show on KWVA where I play music, and I talk over the songs sometimes. Music is a big thing for me. I also realized I’m really interested in philosophy and theory – especially as they relate to (or can be translated into) architecture.
P: Is there a specific piece of architecture that speaks to you? Do you have a favorite? Something that you look at as influential? Something so unique and different that you’re glad it’s on the earth?
L: There was. I have a favorite building and it usually gets a little bit of an eyebrow-raise whenever I say it’s the now-defunct Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. It was demolished in the early 90s, but it was basically a high-rise shanty town like you’d see in dystopian movies. It served many purposes over the years. The area used to be a military outpost before World War II. By the 60s, there was no government oversight because of some technicality with the Chinese and British governments. With no government enforcement, people built, settled, and grew these massive, tall structures. They just started stacking, and stacking, and stacking. It was demolished in the early 90s, but during its peak, it was the densest space in the world. It was incredible. It was like its own world. It had no electrical access. People stole electricity from outside. The only places to get water were through old wells that were outside the settlement. There was a lot of criminal activity. There was a lot of drug activity. Anyone would question its value, but to me it represented the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of creating something better for people in difficult situations. People made the best out of that place. They organized themselves and cared for each other. People started businesses, there was manufacturing, and real sense of community.
It’s important to me that Kowloon City wasn’t made out of pretty buildings. That’s not to say I don’t want to make pretty buildings, but I feel like architecture gets too sucked into aesthetics without really looking at the essence of what a building is – what a building is supposed to do. I’m interested in the spirit of the building. I’m interested in its story.