Peppered through our 7-day workshop in El Tejar, Guatemala, there were often sounds of musical instruments emanating from below.  These sounds gave purpose to our work:  the design and construction of a new music classroom that would enhance the program’s mission of developing future musicians and teachers. While our instruments were a little different, the premise was the same- to bring together a mix of people and objects to create a beautiful experience.

The music program is hosted by the CEDIN School, and is supported financially and logistically by three NGOs – Fundit, PEG, and LEAF International.  The Build Lightly team consisted of 10 young architectural professionals from across the United States.  We were supported and guided by many local skilled craftsmen such as Leonel, the mason foreman whose 9 year-old grandson was learning keyboard in the music program.  Pablo and Bernadino were the hard-working masons whom became enamored with our unbreakable hammers.  The welder, Jeremias, would always arrive and leave in a hurry as he squeezed us in between jobs; he was hoping his 7 year-old daughter would join the music program in a few years.  Ewa Niewozewska, a Fundit staff member, provided essential ground support.  Finally, Sara Morales, the director of the music program, provided unbridled energy and was an essential guide for finding everything we needed in El Tejar.

We were all teachers and students, constantly learning how to use the instruments we had on hand.  Pablo taught us how to use the most basic material in Guatemala:  the concrete block.  In many ways, this was our most important instrument because it was the most familiar and contextual.  It also offered the easiest way for the community to assist and support the project: parents of the students in the music program had been donating them, one by one.  These ubiquitous concrete blocks formed three of the walls of the new space.

We had other instruments we chose to work with:  wood studs, wall insulation, rolled fabric, carpet, old fabric sheets and comforters, corrugated roofing panels, rebar.  It was our job to take these common materials and use them to create a different kind of space- one that would both sound and feel great for musicians.  Leftover translucent roofing became light fixtures. Fabric, wood and insulation became acoustical panels.  Old fabric sheets became color accents on the walls.  Carpet tiles became wall finishes to help with sound absorption.  Corrugated metal roofing became wall siding.

The musical sounds we heard during the week were sometimes cacophonous, a work in progress, as the students would go over songs numerous times, often playing just a single instrument trying to get it just right.  Our project was similar in many regards- we had a sense of what the final product was going to be, but we really didn’t know how it was going to come together.  We were stumbling through, adjusting, testing, and re-evaluating as we learned through doing, focused on the specific task at hand at that moment, while never losing track of the concept and finished product.

BuildLightlyGuatemala from Ethan Lacy on Vimeo.

On our last day, we hustled to bring together the remaining disparate parts and pieces.  The acoustic panels got mounted, the doors were painted, the carpet tiles were installed on the walls, the wood slats were finished, the scaffolding was disassembled, the hanging ceiling lights were crafted and the electricians turned on the power.  It came together beautifully.  To celebrate, the students in the music program performed a number of pieces of music- integrating all the sounds and instruments we had been hearing during the week.  It came together beautifully.

The goals of the music program are much larger than actual performances.  It is cultivating new opportunities – offering a music teacher’s certificate, with more space to accommodate higher enrollment for the youth in El Tejar.  The new classroom is much more significant than the actual physical space as it helps to increase the capacity for the program to grow.   Additionally, we designed this classroom so that another one could be added right next to it very easily.

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As is the case with these types of projects, the experience, the education and the exchange can be more significant than the physical product that is produced.  Yet, the space must serve the needs of those who are going to use it and they must feel empowered that it is their own.  And it appears they are doing just that. Since we have left, a new floor has been installed and the block walls have been plastered;  plants and window treatments are next on the list!  Much like the music program in El Tejar, this new performance space will only get better over time.