Interview with Sandra Gutierrez Poizat, 2013-2014 Humphrey Fellow, El Salvador

What do you do in El Salvador and what does your work involve? 
I have two main activities. One is teaching at the University where I'm in charge of the urban design courses, the team of teachers, and the curriculum. The other is research, and for the last four years I've been involved in research about architecture and urban design in El Salvador at different periods of time. We are working with the Junta de Andalucia in Spain to understand the spatial configuration of El Salvador in terms of the landscape, architecture, and urban projects. The other research project I am involved with is understanding modernity in national identity in El Salvador, working with what we call the country's modern period of national formation, from 1940-1970. We are trying to make a common research agenda between the social sciences, literature, art, music, poetry, fashion, architecture and urbanism to understand how the modern period gave birth to representations of citizen and spatial formation in the country. I also work with two other colleagues in a small architecture and urban design firm on projects related to public space and social housing. 

What brought you to architecture and design? 
When I was entering University in 1990, El Salvador was trying to end the civil war with the peace dialogues. I started to think, I just don't know my country as a whole, because the war started when I was a child and we couldn't travel in the country. That brought up a lot of questions for me about the reconfiguration of the country and what would happen when the war ended. We would need people to work in the reconstruction of the country. That gave me the incentive to enter architecture school. It was a very new school with a whole new vision of what architecture and urban planning should be, and it broadened our persepctives. We engaged in a lot of travel in El Salvador and Central America to understand the land and the spatial configuration, and when we finished around 1995 or 1996 we started to teach. We then decided as a group, of about 10 people who started University at the same time, that we needed to see the world, so we went abroad to Europe, South America, or the United States. My education was never confined to my years at the University. It was a concern before, as a youth growing up in a civil war environment, and it was a concern after, about what kind of professionals a country like El Salvador needs. 

What are some of the major challenges and opportunities for planning in El Salvador?
For urban planning, it is very fertile ground. I always tell my students that the land of opportunity is here, because there are so many things that haven't been done yet. We have been developing a lot in terms of architecture, but not as much in terms of urban planning and design. We don't have an urban planning school in the country, and right now with most of our population in urban areas there is an appeal to understand what an urban planner does, and the connection between planning, architecture and urban design. Right now we are working to start a new Master's program in "Territorial Studies" because we believe the foundation is not only the city, but how it relates to rural areas and the region as a whole. We are trying to understand scale, and how different projects interact with the territory. There is a lot of potential for that. 

What are some of the major questions or issues you are engaging with through SPURS? What does your program of study here involve? 
I have divided my program into three main parts. The first is an upgrading of knowledge. One of my areas is development and social housing, so I am taking classes with Professor Rajagopal and Professor Hong on international development, trying to understand how the work I do in Central America is done in other parts of the world. The other part of my program is going to different seminars and lectures related to art, technology, public space, and the relationship between science, technology and urban design. Finally, in the spring I will be taking more courses at Harvard's Kennedy School to focus more on policymaking, because many of the projects we are engaged with in El Salvador are related to policy and implementation in the city. 

What has been the most interesting part of the SPURS expeirence so far? What are you hoping to take back to El Salvador?
One very interesting thing is being here with fellows from Turkey, Russia, Angola, Pakistan, Zambia -- it's like the United Nations in one corridor of MIT. That's one of the most amazing and great things we have here. Of course each of us has come here for professional development, and MIT has so much to choose from, but I would say that the community, this sharing among human beings, is the most important part for me.