Professor Ronald Rael's, 1st Latino Acting Chair for the Department of Architecture, Interview from ByDESIGN
COVER STORY: Ronald Rael, 1st Latino Acting Chair, Department of Architecture, UC Berkeley
Joseph Martinez, Architect, Photography, Michael A. Hernández
Chicano Architectural Student Association (CASA)
Photo Courtesy: ByDESIGN
It's a pleasure to speak with you today — I've followed your career from afar. Not too often does a Latino/a make it to the top of their respective profession. Equally impressive is the fact you grew up in a very, very remote rural village in southern Colorado.
Ron, your profile is like so many other Latinos who arrive at UC Berkeley, or other prestigious universities, who are either from "economically-challenged" neighborhoods and/or have "limited beneficial" opportunities.
There is an ancient Mayan timeless precept: IN LAK'ECH (In Spanish: “Tu eres mi otro yo”; translated into English: “You are my other me.")
Tell us a little bit about your background, where you were born, grew up, etc.?
I grew up in a small 7 generation ranching village called La Florida in the high alpine desert of the San Luis Valley, which spans Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. The entire village was primarily my relatives and had only a few small adobe houses, a stone schoolhouse and a cemetery, surrounded by fields and prairie. I continue to live there part of the year in the house my great-grandfather built. My family has lived in this region for thousands of years as decedents of Spanish, Mexican and Indigenous people.
How did you decide to attend Columbia University in New York City?
It was a funny story — coming from el rancho, I was not very worldly. We lived in a very remote area with only a few TV stations and a couple of radio stations.
When I was in the undergraduate program (1990-95) at Colorado University, Boulder, I asked a professor where he thought I should go to be really good at architecture, because I enjoyed it so much. He said the best place to go to was Columbia.
Not knowing anything about Columbia, I thought he meant the country of Colombia, and I decided that since I spoke Spanish, I could do it. Later, I discovered that wasn’t what he meant, and it was the only graduate program I applied to – I received my Master of Architecture degree in 1998.
How did you get interested in Architecture? And Art?
I was always surrounded by art and architecture as a child, perhaps in a much more humble form. Abandoned adobe houses, barns, and sheds were the playground of my youth.
My parents and grandparents were traditional people who crafted their food, their homes, and their lives, doing as much as possible with the little they had. And they did it in a very artful way. In the summers, my father would build houses in the community and was a craftsman of wood, metal, and adobe, and I worked with him from a very young age. By age 15, I could build a house from the foundation to the roof!
When did you know you wanted to teach, write books, etc.?
I’ve always written in my notebooks my observations of the world. With the advent of the internet, I began sharing my thoughts on the internet through blogs. I never anticipated these online journals would become books, but I’m very grateful publishers thought the work was interesting enough to publish. It was less of a goal than a hobby I was already doing. Teaching for me was more about still have questions about the world. It is a great luxury to pose difficult questions to very smart students to arrive at new knowledge. This is how I view teaching. I learn more from students as I feel we are both still on a path to knowledge, and I am just another student in the courses I lead.
Working in mud, dirt, dust, et.al., for constructing buildings -- where did those ideas come from? Where do you want to take them?
They came from my childhood. Growing up in the desert, in houses made of dirt, working on construction sites since a very young age. Also being in the kitchens of my great grandmother, grandmothers, and mother, who would make tortillas, bread, chile, and feasts made from food that was often dried to be preserved, then made into something delicious and artful! I was always fascinated by how the smallest of “dusty” particles could become something amazing, whether it was a bowl of chili, a tortilla, or an adobe house.
I continue to think a lot about the origins of materials, where they come from and where they are going. In Colorado, I am currently working on preserving 7 different historic properties, all of which are made of dust (adobe). In these buildings, I also think about how to continue to preserve the cultural traditions that made them and thinking about what this means in the 21st century.
You also have a keen interest in 3-D printing of buildings, etc. Where do you think construction-technology will be in 10 - 15 years?
It was built with adobe that inspired my interest in 3D printing. Whereas the technology is mostly used today to make prototypes, I believe it will be quite common practice in the near future that 3D printing will be a viable manufacturing process. I hope to be part of that by continuing my research on 3D printing locally available and sustainable materials.
This year we are starting a company that makes wood products with 3D printing, and we continue our work in the 3D printing adobe.
You've taught at SCI-ARC (Los Angeles), Clemson University in South Carolina, and, at the University of Arizona (Tucson). What can you share about those places?
Each place is very different and has left me in very different ways to think about education.
It was very exciting to teach at SCI-ARC, which I did for three summers. It taught me about the importance of design as an aesthetic cultural endeavor. To me, that is where the school excels, and beauty is an incredibly important component of design — venustas, as Vitruvius would have said.
Clemson and Tucson were where I dove deeply into place. The culture of the south and the desert of Arizona are incredible places for thinking about how context and culture can shape architecture.
Who or what has influenced you personally and/or professionally?
Certainly, my unique upbringing has been an enormous influence on how I perceive the world. While I grew up extremely isolated in a village of only 25 people, as an adult, I have been fortunate to have traveled the world.
My experiences in Africa and Yemen have been especially influential in my work. I love studying the craft traditions of the past as a way of thinking about how to create the future. The ingenuity of the most humble people on the planet has been an incredible influence on me. Doing more with less has a very different resonance to me than “less is more”.
My time here at UC Berkeley has been incredibly influential as I am surrounded by the most incredible colleagues and talented students I could ever imagine.
As a successful Latino, how do you promote "success" for the next generation?
I hope I am able to promote success through my work in academia and through the work I do which respond to social and cultural issues. Increasingly, education is seen as a way towards a career.
I hope students remember being broadly educated and fulfilled in life is what constitutes success, not a career.
I always advise students to seek out fields of study they'll enjoy and truly makes them happy. For me, the quest for happiness, generosity, fulfillment and remembering from where you came from and the people who supported you along the way, is the best path towards success.
Hermanito, you've cast an exquisite shadow. Your adventurous journey has taken you to the four corners of the world, and to Professor of Architecture, UC Berkeley, College of Environmental Design, Eva Li Memorial Chair in Architecture. Ron, it’s no wonder the CED has selected you to serve as Acting Chair of the Architecture Department for 2019- 2020. Congratulations Carnale!