This is an archived article.

October 3, 2002

Sergio Palleroni, Architecture

Oh, the numbing routine of being a student of Sergio Palleroni’s.

In winter, you’re salsa dancing with your Havana crewmates after a day of digging posts for a community hall that you helped design.

Or you might find yourself designing water collectors at a utopian community in southern India, dodging a buffalo on the Cheyenne reservation in Montana, or helping Mexican villagers build the only library within 100 miles.

You emerge from these experiences, says Joshua Distler, one of Palleroni’s graduate students, “incredibly inspired” — not to mention, prepared for just about anything your architectural career might have in store.

But his inspirational effect on students is only one reason why Palleroni, an associate professor of architecture, is the recipient of this year’s S. Sterling Munro Public Service Teaching Award.

Palleroni also is being honored for the way he gets these students to collaborate with residents of the struggling communities they visit — a method that builds pride and self-sufficiency along with much-needed homes, schools and clinics.

“The key is to get students to see problems through the eyes of our clients,” said Palleroni, who started it all shortly after his 1993 arrival at the UW with the innovative Design/Build Mexico program near Cuernavaca (which Palleroni still leads along with architecture colleague Steve Badanes). Annual visits to Cuernavaca from UW students — not just future architects, but also undergraduates and graduate students in forestry, medicine, public affairs and many other fields — have resulted in two elementary schools and a medical clinic, community center and library.

“I come from a family of social activists,” says Palleroni, whose microbiologist parents were exiled several times from their native Argentina for political activities that displeased undemocratic, military-backed regimes.

During one such bout of exile, the future UW professor was born in 1955 in Berkeley, Calif., where he later earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. His architectural training took place at Oregon and MIT, but Latin America was never far from his thoughts. He first worked in Cuernavaca on a United Nations project there in the 1980s.

Design/Build Mexico — described by architecture and urban planning Dean Emeritus Jerry Finrow as “one of the most important service-learning programs in the field” — has been joined by what would seem an exhausting stream of global projects that Palleroni keeps adding. Collectively known as the UW BaSiC (Building Sustainable Communities) initiative, they share an ethic of creating architecture that is culturally compatible and eco-friendly — rare is the Palleroni project that fails to find a new use for cast-off local materials or to invent some new energy-saving, heat-insulating or waste-treating device along the way.

None of Palleroni’s ventures has garnered more attention than the straw-bale houses for Native Americans he builds each summer in concert with former UW colleague David Riley. Working with tribal communities stretching from Eastern Washington to the Dakotas, Palleroni’s students erect cozy and durable homes from what were largely waste products. Not only are the houses energy-efficient, but the technique can be duplicated by local residents after the students are long gone.

Robert Redford and Oprah Winfrey are not the only supporters who see the project as a fabulous combination of practical need-filling and community empowerment — so does the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which recently approved straw-bale as potential shelter for the 300,000 homeless Native Americans on reservations.

Sure to excite equal interest is next year’s Palleroni venture along the “AIDS belt” in Africa, where UW students will work near Lake Victoria with local groups to create a birthing center, orphanage and economic-opportunity center.

Nor has Palleroni neglected the University’s back yard. While politicians were bemoaning a 1998 “crisis” in migrant worker housing in Eastern Washington, Palleroni took a dozen students to do something about it — they renovated cabins and built a community center for apple pickers near Tonasket in the Okanogan Valley.

“Architecture has always been a service profession, but it has too often served only those who can afford it,” says Jeffrey Ochsner, chairman of the architecture department. “Professor Palleroni has created programs that are envied by architecture schools across the U.S.”

Student requests to participate, Ochsner says, almost always exceed available places.