Global Studies Latin America program sends USC Architecture students to Cuba, Mexico and Costa Rica 


With the launch of the USC School of Architecture’s new Global Studies Latin America (LTAM) program, undergraduate architecture students spent the spring semester exploring the region’s historical and contemporary architecture and urbanism.  


Global Studies are semester-long study abroad programs which are a required component in the undergraduate architecture curriculum and offered to all students who want to expand their global experience. The Latin America program is the newest addition to the portfolio of Global Studies programs, which include the Asia Program with visits to Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, South Korea and China, and the Mediterranean Program based in Rome and Barcelona, with field studies throughout Italy, France and Spain. 


The itinerary of the Latin America program retraces the path of European contact and Spanish colonialism, starting in Havana, Cuba, and continuing to Mexico — including the Yucatan Peninsula, Central Mexico, Mexico City and Oaxaca — before a final stop in the Limón province of Costa Rica. Some of the highlights included pre-Columbian Mayan ruins in Mexico, colorful modernist buildings in Havana, a collaboration with National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a residency at Centro de Artes de San Agustín in Oaxaca.   


“The Global Studies Latin America program aims to learn from the power inherent in indigenous architecture, in the colonialist architecture that displaced it, and in the postcolonial cities that rose in its aftermath,” said Adjunct Assistant Professor Marcos Sánchez, who co-directs the program with Adjunct Associate Professor Victoria Coaloa. 


The LTAM program is, in part, an expansion of a travel studio experience Sánchez has led for upper-level students in his undergraduate and graduate studios for the past several years. Sánchez built his teaching around an 11-day trip to Mexico City in which students worked with contemporary scholarship on the relationship between colonialism and the growth of Latin American cities. Coaloa likewise has years of experience leading Global Studies programs to Asia and the Mediterranean. Both Coaloa and Sánchez are widely traveled in the region.  


Those new avenues in scholarship are one of the reasons the Global Studies Latin America program was a vital addition to the USC School of Architecture, Sánchez said. 


“Architecture culture is in transition now, with exciting new discussions regarding the Global South, environmentalism and postcolonial urbanism. There is new scholarship, new conferences, new exhibitions and new ways of understanding the architect’s education.” 


Traveling to Europe has been part of an architect’s “Grand Tour,” dating to the 18th and early 19th centuries, Sánchez noted. More recently, with the explosive growth of Asia and cities in China, architecture schools started to visit that region as well.  


The addition of study abroad in Latin America to USC’s existing Mediterranean and Asia Pacific programs brings incredible learning opportunities, Sánchez said. One of them is understanding our own history in Los Angeles. 


“The history of Southern California is colonial; from the late 18th century, California was a part of New Spain, whose capital was Mexico City. Through the Spanish system of missions and presidios, we might say that Mexico City gave birth to Los Angeles. In going to places like Havana, Puebla and Mexico City, students gain a better understanding of where Los Angeles itself came from — it’s not just a history of Mexico, it’s a history of where we teach and learn architecture, and where USC is,” Sánchez said. 


“On the first part of their trip, we travel through the region’s Spanish colonial cities along a strand of roads leading to Mexico City; this history eventually points the way to the architecture and urbanization of Southern California.” 


While in Mexico City, the fifth-largest city in the world, USC partners with UNAM so that students can work with Latin American students, academics and designers. With almost 400,000 students, UNAM is one of the largest universities in the world, and part of its main campus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  


“The UNAM architecture school alone has about 7,500 students and 1,000 faculty members,” Sánchez said. “We are able to group the students with their counterparts and take on short term research and design projects during the semester.” 


Following the Path of Cortés 

The Latin America program’s itinerary follows the path that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés took on his way to Mexico City, starting in Cuba. One of the locations students visit there is Old Havana, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  


“Because Cuba is quite impoverished, the center of Havana has fallen into great disrepair, which is sad because Havana’s architecture is some of the most sexy, fashionable architecture you can imagine. A lot of it was built between the 1920s and ’50s, but it also contains Baroque and neoclassical works, alongside its fascinating modernist architecture.” 


But students also witnessed ongoing efforts, funded by the United Nations and the Cuban government, to refurbish Old Havana.  


“The center of Havana contains some ramshackle, crumbling architecture that is still super beautiful. One block over, you’ve crossed the restoration border and everything’s perfect: everything’s been refurbished, and the colors are amazing.” 


On the Yucatan Peninsula, students explored the Mayan ruins in Tulum, Chichen Itza and Uxmal. 


“The ruins are astonishing,” Sánchez said. “In the 19th century and before, architects would go during their schooling to places like Athens and Rome to draw the ruins of Greco-Roman antiquity. Sometimes they would draw reconstructions using the ruins as lessons. So, as we visited these Mesoamerican ruins, we were actually able to do a measure of that kind of work, where drawing is part of learning about architecture through its ruin.”  


However, as Sánchez pointed out, many of these temple complexes and cities were deliberately destroyed by the Europeans, to obtain materials for the construction of colonial towns or to destroy what the Europeans saw as temples to false gods.  


“That kind of deliberate ruination is both devastating and fascinating for architects — it’s not just the action of time, but also the collision of two cultures, with one culture disassembling the architecture and the cities of the other. Culminating with our study of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), this was a completely shocking and amazing thing. You’re basically drawing traces of the action of one culture on another, and that can be truly mind-bending.” 


One of the things that architects and architecture students do when they’re traveling is not only absorb the architecture and urban spaces, but also try to understand how the architecture grows out of the culture of the place, Sánchez said.  


So, during the Latin America program, students are immersed in the history and culture of the region through visits to ecological reserves, centers of indigenous culture and more. 


“In many parts of Mexico, the food itself famously contains a double tradition,” Sánchez said. “It will feature ingredients that were brought by the Spanish during the colonial period, but the same recipe has also been profoundly transformed by indigenous cooking traditions. So, as you travel through Latin America, if you get to know the food, you are somehow sharing in something that is deeply rooted in the history of the place. 


“There’s nothing better than studying by eating. Instead of looking at architecture outside of myself and trying to objectively record it, I’m going to allow the culture I am traveling through to affect and transform my senses. That, I think, is super important.” 


Learn about all the global opportunities offered at USC School of Architecture at arch.usc.edu/global-opportunities.  

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