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Vásquez to Accept 2014 Alumni Award

04/15/2014

Vásquez’s firm restored the late photographer Carlos Endara’s 1910 home, which is now a museum and Panama City landmark.

At RISD’s Commencement ceremony on May 31, the RISD Alumni Association will present architect and social justice advocate Hildegard Vásquez BArch 94 with its 2014 Alumni Award for Professional Achievement. The Panamanian architect stands out for her extraordinary work in helping to revitalize the historic Old Quarter of Panama City – also known as the San Felipe district – infusing new life into the neighborhood through a thoughtful approach to urban renewal and the people it’s meant to serve.

In 1998, when Vásquez first opened her architecture studio Hache Uve in the San Felipe district, gangs roamed the dirty streets and the neighborhood’s once beautiful buildings were crumbling. She worked to revitalize the area, restoring such historic sites as the National Theater of Panama, the Santo Domingo Convent and the mixed commercial/residential Benedetti Building. In 2011 the latter earned Hache Uve the First Prize in Architectural Restoration from the Society of Panamanian Architects.

From the start Vásquez recognized that breathing new life into San Felipe would mean restoring its human heritage as well – by creating educational opportunities and jobs along with leadership programs for children. “I love making buildings, but I love helping people even more,” she says. “When I first moved here, my friends would not visit me because it was too dangerous. Now this neighborhood is packed with Panamanians as well as tourists. They’re seeing the potential we saw 20 years ago.”

While Vásquez and her team chose to redesign some of San Felipe’s historic buildings as high-end hotels and residences, they were careful to mix in low-income housing and to think about the needs of the people who would live there. In 1994 she co-founded the nonprofit Fundación Calicanto to provide training and jobs programs for the women and youth of San Felipe. A decade later she consulted with tourism experts, psychologists and businesspeople to develop the CAPTA program. Launched in 2006, it now trains 120 women per year to work in the hotel industry, with a graduation rate approaching 80% and more than 80% of those who graduate securing permanent employment. Some of the graduates of the program – which also focuses on life skills, self-esteem and developing “the ability to dream” – are now purchasing their own homes, which CAPTA considers a key indicator of economic self-sufficiency.

In 2011 the larger design community began to notice the effects of Vásquez’s work. She was a finalist for Avon Woman of the Year, named Hero for Panama and recognized as a Light in the Community by the Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Panama. She was also a finalist for the John P. McNulty Prize, which recognizes high-impact leaders from around the globe who make a difference in their communities, and went on to become a fellow of the Central America Leadership Initiative and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Now that she’s returning to campus to collect her award, Vásquez is pleased to recall how RISD helped shape her thinking. Her years here taught her to “feel the space” every time she walks into a dilapidated building, she says, adding, “the craftsmanship and love of materials I learned at RISD also come into play a lot.” She notes that she developed the capacity to think things through and take everything to the next level at RISD. “I keep returning to those concepts,” she says. “They serve the way I practice architecture and the way I lead my foundation.”

Most importantly, Vásquez says, she learned what she has gone on to prove – that “architecture is not just about designing buildings, but about designing the community around them. If you’re going to design a community that works, it has to bring people together and work at every level. A building site can become a catalyst for social change.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: Architecture, alumni, global, nonprofits, social responsibility, diversity

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