It Takes One: Marjetica Potrč

Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Marjetica Potrč

It Takes One: Marjetica Potrč
Ljubljana, Slovenia,
United States

I am an architect and an artist, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. For the last fifteen years, I have been working as an artist on issues involving architecture and sustainability. I construct houses in galleries, I create on-site projects, I write about contemporary urban culture, and a few years ago, I incorporated another passion in my work: drawings. Instead of simply analyzing a city, I tell a story. I have narrated stories about Caracas, Medellin, Amsterdam, and New Orleans, as well as about the Western Balkans and the state of Acre in Amazonia.

I just returned from New Orleans, where I did research into the sustainable practices developed since Katrina. I looked at how individuals are re-introducing the practice of rainwater harvesting. The collection and use of rainwater in the city helps to heal the wetlands and preserve the water table in New Orleans. And it supports the case for introducing a twin water system: there is no reason to use drinking water to flush toilets. Together with FutureProof, a sustainable-design consultancy from New Orleans, I collaborated on an educational project entitled "Water Cycle in New Orleans", which is being exhibited at the Contemporary Art Center there through March 23rd. When the exhibition closes, the project's rainwater cistern and pond ecosystem will be moved to the International School in New Orleans, where they will serve as a fully functional water supply and filtration system. In New York, I presented a home rainwater-harvesting cistern in my recent exhibition at the Max Protetch Gallery, entitled 'Future Talk: The Great Republic of New Orleans'.

How would you define a cultural landscape?

A cultural landscape is the culture of living. I like to talk about Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogotá, who introduced a number of unusual initiatives that proved his thesis that citizenship is built on cultural behavior. For instance, instead of resorting to the force of law, he hired 200 mimes to regulate the chaotic traffic in Bogotá, as a way of reminding the citizens that they are the ones who create the urban coexistence in the first place. Coexistence is symbiosis.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

Only a tiny part of the built landscape is designed by architects. The remaining landscape is basically built by ordinary people for themselves. I am interested in what individuals can do to improve their living conditions. I have found many inspiring examples in informal cities. Under such harsh conditions, design is born of necessity; it's not just a choice.

In 2003, I had the privilege to work on an on-site project in La Vega barrio in Caracas, Venezuela. Together with the Israeli architect Liyat Esakov and the La Vega community, we developed the Dry Toilet project. Liyat and I stayed in Caracas six months, during which time we researched the informal city under the auspices of the Caracas Case Project. We wanted to work inside the informal city and not merely analyze it from a safe distance. Eventually, a dry, ecologically safe toilet was built on the upper part of La Vega barrio, a district in the city without access to the municipal water grid.

To begin with, Liyat and I asked a group of barrio residents what they thought about self-sustainable energy solutions such as solar panels for bringing additional electricity to their homes. They could not care less. They were happy to steal electricity from the municipal power grid. They saw self-sustainable alternative energy technologies as something only rich people would be interested in. But drinking water was another matter, since it was provided by the city for only a few hours twice a week -- if you were lucky. For us to make or change anything there, we had to work closely with the barrio residents. Liyat eventually rented a room there and had to learn to bathe using only one cup of water. In a way, the Dry Toilet occurred to us because we could see the potential in an informal solution. The Dry Toilet was built with the help of construction workers from the community in the upper part of La Vega barrio on the property of a resident named Raquel (if you can speak in this way about occupied public land); her house had never had a toilet before and there was no access at all to running water. The Dry Toilet project draws attention to the shift from the power of institutions to the empowerment of individuals.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

We all learned together by making the Dry Toilet happen. The biggest problem we had to overcome was not the actual construction, but changing the culture -- the cultural behavior: the way things are done.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

The Dry Toilet made sense in a city where the amount of water in the reservoirs was rapidly declining. For the La Vega community, the project provided a long-term sustainable solution for the problem of sewage and radically reduced the community's water consumption. Houses collapse in the barrios not only because of the torrential tropical rains, but also because of leaking sewage. At one point Hidrocapital, the municipal water company, envisioned building full-scale models of the dry toilet in every municipality as an educational endeavor. Though this initiative has never materialized, residents of both the informal and the formal city subsequently built several dry toilets.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

I would suggest that we view the societies of the world, taken together, as an intelligent organism: when necessary, they are able to self-generate new models of existence and coexistence. A barrio in Caracas is as inventive and inspirational as today's New Orleans. Take the issue of self-sustainability. It is a political tool. When individuals are in control of the energy they consume and the water they use, they become active players in the social sphere. Positive lasting change happens through the process of doing things differently. It's all about cultural behavior. The human world can be remade, but only by transforming the perceptions that guide human actions.