Architecture Meets Public Policy

Architecture Meets Public Policy

Acting on pure impulse while on spring break last April, Ashley Kochiss BArch 15 asked a cab driver in Marrakesh, Morocco to bring her to a remote Berber village on the edge of the Atlas Mountains. The fifth-year Architecture student – who is also pursuing a concentration in Politics and Policy at Brown – was eager to explore the region’s thick-walled adobe clay buildings. After being invited to stay with a local family, she was disheartened to discover entire walls slowly disintegrating – beneath brilliantly embroidered tapestries used to cover up the decay.

“Surprisingly, this is a common problem among those who live in adobe homes,” Kochiss explains. “The community’s cultural heritage is literally decaying because they lack the knowledge to sustain their homes and public spaces.”

As interested in education as design, Kochiss devised a logical solution to the villagers’ chronic problem: teach young people in Morocco how to design and repair earthen homes. She’s now applying for a Fulbright fellowship to facilitate children’s art and design workshops in communities nestled on the Boufekrane River, near where she visited last spring. Her ultimate goal is to teach young people sustainable ways to rehabilitate their centuries-old clay homes.

“Almost half of Moroccan adolescents aren’t enrolled in school or actively employed,” Kochiss notes. Since the country cries out for programs focused on skills development and educational opportunities, she sees her proposal for teaching young people how to care for the crumbling earthen structures in the region as a timely and logical solution to an endemic cultural problem. “Plus, the act of making has the power to foster a sense of self-empowerment in an individual and ultimately create change,” she points out.

The daughter of a Colombian mother and an American father, Kochiss admits to being familiar with cultural problems of her own when growing up in Sheepshead Bay, NY. “Because some classmates knew I was Colombian, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be labeled as a cocaine dealer or other derogatory stereotypes,” she remembers. “But I was proud of my culture and never concealed my background or allowed my peers to belittle me.”

To infuse a bit of Latin culture into her fifth-grade classroom, Kochiss got approval from her teacher to give Spanish lessons to her predominantly white counterparts. Two days a week, she taught the basics of the language using self-designed handouts that revealed vocabulary words when colored in with crayon. “Even that long ago, I used art as a tool to educate my classmates – and made Spanish stimulating and fun instead of foreign and ignored,” she says.

Kochiss’ lifelong love of education also served her well when interning at Stempel Form PC, Architects, a firm based in Utah that specializes in creating innovative, sustainable and environmentally responsible spaces. With the help of a small team, she mapped out 50 miles of the state’s Virgin River, providing topographical data that was later used to revise outdated land preservation ordinances for Ivins, UT, a quiet suburban community settled by Mormons in the 1930s. The new legislation permits entrepreneurs and developers to safely build on land tracts with a moderate incline.

“We got the chance to work with local politicians and city planners to make real changes in public policy,” Kochiss explains with enthusiasm, noting that the project naturally bridged her studies at RISD and Brown. “As I continue to grow as a designer, I intend to work to enhance the living conditions of underserved communities.”

Abigail Crocker

Related stories

The Transformative Power of Art

New AICAD Post-Graduate Teaching Fellow Adela Goldbard believes in the political power of art to generate critical thinking and social transformation.

Moving Documentary Focuses on Forgiveness

An intense documentary about murder and forgiveness wins Grand Prize at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

Promoting Conservation through Art

At RISD Weekend 17, four young alumni explain how they’re harnessing their passion for the natural sciences and building ecologically focused practices.