by Alberto de Salvatierra
It could be easily said that the history of human civilization is one of grass. Wheat, rice, maize and sugar—which account for 60% of the world’s caloric intake—are only but a few of the species of grass that where pivotal in the development of large urban centers, and that are still important today. But in addition to providing food, drink, paper, fuel, and clothing, these graminoids have also been directly used as building materials. Because of their overall tensile strength and lightweight nature, they can be buoyant in water and have been used to make rafts and boats. Uros in Lake Titicaca, Peru thus become of unique interest as being a floating settlement made almost entirely out of grass: totora reeds, specifically (Schoenoplectus californicus ssp. tatora). Little literature has been dedicated to this water city beyond superficial and picturesque treatments aimed at Western tourists. Yet, worsening climate change and increasing sea-level rise have undeniably begun threatening these soft infrastructures. Along with other environmental stresses like water contamination, and economic pressures from globalizing forces, Uros and other cities like it are in decline and native populations are choosing to live elsewhere.
The site and its conditions were documented during the summer of 2016 through interviews, mappings, drawings and photography that have generated a photographic and representational archive of the various scales at which reeds are used to weave the soft infrastructures and ways of living in Uros—from boats and outhouses to sleeping quarters and gathering spaces. Using the historic format of an almanac, the resulting deliverables from the research will be published in a small, graphic book to be shared publicly and exhibited. Ultimately, this project seeks to explore the historical relationship between the urbanization of reeds and alternatively, how reeds have changed urbanization.
Sponsored by Harvard University GSD's Penny White Prize, Cornell University's Robert James Eidlitz Fellowship, Panono, and the Center for Civilization.