A New Indigenous University in the Rainforest in Colombia

Studio Anne Lacaton ETH Zurich, D-ARCH

Publication December 2020


The project of planning and building an indigenous university in Southern Colombia was brought to the Studio Anne Lacaton at ETH Zurich by artist Ursula Biemann and Philip Ursprung, dean of Architecture. Anne Lacaton set up a two-semester design studio 2019/2020, in cooperation with the architecture department at Javeriana University in Bogotá, and with the Inga community and their official representative Hernando Chindoy. The combined studios undertook a field trip to the territory in Fall 2019 to learn about its geography and history and meet members of the Inga community to discuss their needs and expectations for this new institution. The studio began by conducting a broad research on life in the territory to then produce cartographies and a catalogue of concepts and architectural elements to foster discussions among the Inga and generally help the project to take off. Due to the pandemic, the output of the studio was not the planned exhibition inviting Hernando Chindoy to the ETH but instead turned into a book assembling a selection of cartographies, texts and design proposals in an English and a Spanish version.


The Indigenous University project was the opportunity to engage with a context whose conditions are completely different from the ones we know in Europe. For many of us, students and professors, this situation was totally unknown. The objective of the design studio was therefore not to produce finalized architecture projects for the construction of the campus, but to put together thorough, comprehensive documentation, based on knowledge that it would be necessary to acquire. The studio would offer analysis, viewpoints and ideas that could serve as a foundation and contribute to the fine, detailed process of drawing up the university program, preliminary to the design and construction project, which the Inga would have to establish.

In this way, the studio needed to start off by building up knowledge on the basis of research and in-depth analysis of the Putumayo-Piemonte region and the site envisaged for the campus’ creation, namely on themes such as geography, climate, geopolitics, the educational system, the history of the Inga people, their culture, spiritual foundations and relationship to nature, agriculture, economy... anything that could foster knowledge and understanding of the subject and the territory. The proposed work was to research, analyze, document, gather data, amass references, in close collaboration with the partner studio at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and the Inga indigenous people, with the goal of digging up information, establishing knowledge and shedding light on positions, reflections, questioning and ideas of what this university could be like. Proceeding with utmost freedom, a curious and open mind to widen perceptions and the field of reflection was the most useful contribution that we could offer the Inga in defining its project.

The two partner studios in Bogota and Zurich worked in parallel on the same topics, with a common schedule, sharing the same specific objectives:

  • To learn from indigenous communities about their conception of, and interaction with the territory, their needs, ambitions, and iconography.
  • To help empower local communities and institutions in structuring a pertinent project which aims to promote the construction of a University or Studies Center.
  • To conceive low-tech passive environmental solutions for an isolated low-income population, taking into consideration the pertinent geophysical and climatic conditions and the vernacular techniques and typologies.
  • To generate materials through research, analysis, concepts, experiments, plans, 3D representations, diagrams, models and spatial programs that would be helpful for the future development of the project.
Fieldworkshop with the architecture students in October 2019

Fieldworkshop with the architecture students in October 2019

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To respond to this particular situation, it was a matter of placing oneself in a position of maximum openness in order to understand, step by step, the context and the objectives of such a project, and to envisage the most pertinent strategies and orientations. This led us to call into question the project approach and its usual linear sequence – program, analysis, intentions, project – which does not seem appropriate to us. It is not necessary to wait for everything to be defined before starting the project’s design.

Starting off with the project is a way to define and to fine-tune the program, just as the project itself will call new knowledge, new analyses, then new reflections and decisions that will modify it and make it evolve, and so on, and so on…The project is no longer considered as the endpoint of the process, but as the trigger for reactive, interactive reflection, constantly in progress.

In this way, the projects produced for the Indigenous University by the design studio are to be considered in this perspective, not as final projects concluding a process but as inciters and generators not only of ideas and strategies, but also criticisms and questions, useful for re-interrogating the approach, pinpointing the objectives, and developing the program until its final precision.

The students embarked on a phase of research and observation, knowledge development, data collection and inventory, as well as interpretation and understanding of the existing situation through their personal intuitive, sensorial and emotional perceptions. They collected, very extensively, all the facts and data that they could find, then organized, classified, structured them, in order to establish a common resource base, available to the whole group, that was permanently added to and updated. Prior to the voyage, their task was to accumulate the maximum amount of information, to ask questions, to check data on the spot, but also to formulate reactions, positions, viewpoints, that were constantly subject to change and requestioning.


Anne Lacaton & Jean-Philippe Vassal

Tackling this subject raised the question of our role in this project.

What legitimacy could we claim in carrying out a project here, in a completely unknown territory, so removed from us, when we knew nothing about the people, the place, the climate or the geography? Why would we know how to do? Or do better than the people over there.

What is our role and place as a school in such a project?

And yet there are no taboo subjects, we are free to reflect on any subject, anywhere, it is a question of attitude, ethics, knowing precisely what our place is, and what our limits are.

We can work on what we do not know, but the rule and ethical code is to always have the discernment to know where to situate ourselves and to be deeply and sincerely aware of who we are.

To proceed with the humility of the one who does not know and who has everything to learn.

Questioning our role in this project should not paralyze us or prevent us from being curious, open and enthusiastic, or from reflecting on the project proposed to us, or from making plans. Proposing does not mean imposing.

The Inga people invited us to reflect on their project because they were interested in a new outside perspective and the approach that we could bring from a distance, which could possibly enlarge their field of reflection. They expected us to offer a point of view, ideas, or even projects, which could eventually be useful for nourishing their debates, their studies, and their decisions.

It was important and respectful to respond to their invitation by bringing our contribution.

By working on their project, we were also placed in the situation of learning from them.

The approach suggested to the students is the one we have when beginning any project:

to accept not knowing, being lost, having to learn and to find a way

to accept uncertainty and doubt, to use these to increase attention and discernment

to appropriate the unknown and to turn uncertainty into a catalyst

to learn, to accumulate, to look, with an open mind, without filters,

to free oneself from habits without denying experience,

to think freely,

to question, to criticize, to look behind the question,

to work rigorously to create oneself more freedom

to commit, to be generous,

to invent, to dream.

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