A Talk with Jorge Anzorena: On Letters for the Community Architects

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Along the way to his house, the morning-glory flowers started to bloom. They cheered me up after getting lost on the way to find his residence. He welcomed me with a warm and sincere smile, and invited me to enter his work-space. It was a humble pavilion facing the yard with shady trees and comfortable sunshine. Father Jorge Anzorena is an Argentinian Jesuit (Society of Jesus) priest, based in Japan. He travels to several countries every year to observe the progress of community participation activity for low-income housing. It is mainly done in Asia, and also some other parts of the world. For many years, he has been sharing his experiences through his newsletter, SELAVIP.

He is one of the important figures in the early times of ACHR (Asian Coalition of Housing Rights), together with Johan Silas from Indonesia.  During 1990s, ACHR was focusing on housing rights and problems of eviction in Asian cities. He has also been involved in the Slum Dwellers International. I always wanted to visit him to discuss about community participation. To have this opportunity is a very valuable experience.


M: How did your involvement with community development start in the very beginning?

A: First I need to tell you about my educational background. At first, I studied civil engineering in Argentina. Afterwards I joined the Jesuits. Then I taught for two years in France before I came to Japan. In Japan, I started to learn the language for two years, and finished my master doctorate in architecture for two years. I also studied theology for four years and at the same time joining the Tokyo University at Hongo campus.

After finishing my master doctorate, I began to teach at Sophia University at human and architecture program. During my master study, I did a research on how the change of behaviour in universities could change the physical aspects or the other way around. The basic idea is that the universities should be the place for development of yourself, not only to prepare your job for the society.

One thesis that I put in my book is the Tamariya, a place you could stay. People would feel at home; you are not running all the time. Then, you have the attachment to the university. When you are in a big university like Meiji university, you finished class and you are out in the streets, it’s nothing. I tried to find out where people would relax inside.

Because when students are passive, they don’t grow. They need to find what they want to do in the universities, in life. It was a very interesting moment because they start to think about the future, began to see the meaning of their life. They just need to find something, which make them, as young people, become more active.

After ten years finishing the program, I went to Germany. It was a time for reflections. I wanted to see for one side what are the things that motivate young people to be more active and also about poverty.

It was in 1973-1974 that I eventually heard about Mother Teresa, even though she was not yet very well known. Someone said there was an interesting work in Calcutta when I was in Tokyo University. I tried, and I went over there for one month with her.


M: So you have worked with Mother Teresa?

A: Yes, I stayed with them. We were at the Kaligati Temple in which they collected dying people in the streets and tried to have a kind of decent last moments for them.

And then I said to myself “if you have a doctorate in architecture for instance and you see people dying in the streets, is not very useful for them to be with a doctor in architecture for their life”. Sometimes I asked, “In Japan, what could I do?”. I saw that tremendous need for help. They’re very poor. There was no architect, not much interest.

Afterwards, I went back to teach and tried to find a chance to make contact. Finally, there was one group of Jesuit, which has an office called Human Development. This Human Development office is related with the growing poverty in Asia. They are a group of bishops – Catholics and Protestants – who want to help people who are evicted. For eviction were very radical in Asia.

They ask for the disciples of Saul Alinsky [1] to come and help organizing it. Afterwards, they also went to Phillipines. It was a big problem during Marcos’s dictatorship. He wanted to move 300.000 people to make some beautiful things.


M: So what kind of project you had in your beginning years of community development?

A: Well, this organization was able to make 100.000 families to remain in their place. There was also Dennis Murphy, other Jesuit at the time. He had some experiences in Latin America. He was invited there and saw that for organizing the people’s housing you need to put a lot of energy. He didn’t know what happens in Asia and he wanted to do some research about what the poor doing to improve themselves. That was the first project. I read that and I wrote to him if I could help something from Japan. That was 1976.

Then I started to work for him and he said, “Please come to Asia, to Philippines. During the vacation of the university”. Afterwards, during the Jesuits meeting, they also said, “Why don’t you take care of this project?”. I said, “I was just teaching in a university and it is not that easy”. The bishops wrote to the University of Sophia, asking if they could lend me for two years for this. The university said OK, and I went over there.


M: So did you execute you first project inside or outside Japan?

A: The first is not really a project but trying to see what happens, to record what happens in different countries. On what activities the people are doing in different countries. Not the problems but what is happening in Asia.

I made several contacts with some independent or government-related groups. After these contacts, I began to make small notes, a kind of rudimentary newsletter that says what I see, what things happen, etc. I began to send it to the people I met. Because I learned from them and I said, “This is what I learned from you and other people.” Basically it was trying to record what’s happening. Practically at the time, I was continuously moving to most of the cities for two years.


M: What keeps you doing it until now?

A: Because it was very interesting: people you see, the activities, and so on. Afterwards, I went back to the university. They gave me other two years of working. But you know, if you are a full time teacher you need to really teach. So I tried to find a way to work on this during my vacation.


M: During your journey from that time until right now, did you see some ideal situation between the government and the community?

A: I feel it doesn’t exist much but it happens. Practically in the beginning, most of the groups were independent from the government. Even in the 80’s some groups were saying that the government is not doing nothing, so just do something by yourself. In Pakistan, they even began to build sewer systems by themselves. The Orangi Pilot project. It was very difficult because that was a sewer system.

Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan. Volunteers were constructing sanitation facilities. Source: www.diplomatonline.com

Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan. Volunteers were constructing sanitation facilities. Source: www.diplomatonline.com

M: Do you have some role in connecting all of the practitioners of community development between countries?

A: Well, because I am the only one who was moving around from the beginning. When ACHR (Asian Coalition for Housing Rights) was formed, it was my network. In the newsletter, you have the address, you can just go there, you don’t need to go through me. We began to have a kind of connections and they decide to be together.


M: Which countries that are you focusing in?

A: Asia. What happens in Asia. From the very beginning the scope was Asia. But then after 24 years, they asked me to go to the southern part of Africa. What I experienced is the groups of Asia were helping them. Now my movements are mostly in Asia, and one month in Africa.


M: So as you were seeing the situation of many countries’ community development, how did you see the local aspects in it?

A: Different people are working for different things. Usually when I go to one place, I try to meet the people, to understand and write about them, and see what they are doing. For that, usually I stay one month. When they are doing something interesting, I go the next year. Some groups I go every year. Usually I try to learn from them more than to say. If they ask me, there are groups that do similar things, then I talk. Usually I learn. More or less I began to understand what they tried to do and I see the relations that they have with the people. I record it, so later I could give some advices. There are people who will oppose the government, or there are who will cooperate or accepted. Hasan Purbo and Mangunwijaya were accepted by everybody. Robi Sularto was a very good architect, who lived in Bali. Even though afterwards he fought the government.


M: And then, I read in one of your paper that you mention the importance of self-help attitude from the community in the approach of building local housing. So what makes it more successful than the ones executed in top-down action?

A: Well depends. Sometimes, from bottom up is good but it’s very slow. For instance in Brazil, they call the Mutirao self-help project, very good and very cheap, but it goes slowly. If you have the money, sometimes it’s much faster if you go from the top. It’s not the best way but it’s the most effective way.

Mutirao self-help housing project. Source: http://incrementalhouse.blogspot.com

Mutirao self-help housing project. Source: http://incrementalhouse.blogspot.com

We could have a lot of money, but if we have a very well structured government, it could go faster. It is related to millions of people. We need them involved to give land or permission. Self-help attitude would takes a lot of time, its best to go opposite when its related to improvement of millions.


M: Do you have some working experience in Indonesia?

A: Robi Sularto was doing something about earthquake in Bali. He was working through the carpenters, not through the companies. Mangunwijaya was very quiet and became good friends with the people in the neighborhood. He began to do this very quietly and he did a good job with the poor houses. The government wanted to destroy it but Aga Khan gave their awards to him. I was learning tremendously with him.

Johan Silas thought that the government was very autocratic at that time. Surabaya didn’t have any technical support. He thought that the support from the government is necessary for the community development. I saw that he was trying to prove that it’s possible. He did something to the floors. And will try to defend even everything, even the wrong things he will try to defend. That is his way, his approach. But afterwards he is recognized for the good things he has done.


M: How is your opinion on Indonesian community architecture and community development?

A: I don’t know, because there are the new groups. I don’t have much contact with them. You have very capable people, but things in Indonesia move slowly. The government is very careful in making moves. I remember Silas able to do his thing because he was in Surabaya. It is more complicated in Jakarta. They were very difficult to move things. But maybe now its possible after the 1998 reform.


M: How do you see the rule of architect towards the people, regarding some architects’ individual desires in which they create iconic buildings, or becoming famous ?

A: They need to work. You cannot work for the people. Very few which are very competent people can do it and make a living of that. When you are young, you can become idealistic just like you. But when you are married you start to develop families, etc. You have to compromise.

I think it is very difficult for an architect to make a living and working in this. Everybody feels much better working with the poor because they think its more creative, etc. But how they could survive is the problem. I met many architects who like to do that, and sometimes they would provide free services to the people. One guy was telling me when he was making a thesis, “I cannot make a thesis about the poor in Tokyo University, because normally the teacher will not accept it.” But now perhaps things are changing.

But it’s evolution. For myself, not what I should become. I cannot say what Maria should do in the future. Maria should find out what she really wants and decides to do from inside herself. You need to be free, free to develop yourself. When you go inside, you will find something that is acceptable to you. From outside it’s very difficult. It sometimes works, but only very few times.


M: I am very agree with that. During your 24 years of experience, what is your most important lesson in practicing?

A: Well you know, it’s a process to be open to the difference. For us it’s very difficult. For example when I came to Japan, it’s a very different country. But if you are able to open yourself a little to Japanese, you would find out that you become a little more understanding, more tolerant. There are things that you don’t like but I think this is a process which exist.

It’s not something to say, “This is my way” because you are used to it. The other people around you have other ways, and that is a friction. Sometimes you get angry and even upset.


M: Last question. What is your hope towards the future of community development?

A: It’s people. Hope is the people. Usually we are not completely free because we have a lot of fears: fears of the future, fears of the people, and fears of the family. If you are more competent and more free, do something which you are called to do. This is extremely important. I think this is the most important thing that exist.


M: It’s the freedom of doing and thinking perhaps, and expressing ourselves.

A: Yes. For instance you have 40 students, they’re very enthusiastic. But from them, perhaps who will remain as community architects for longer time only 2. The others will try to go to other university etc. It depends on themselves you know. I think it’s the freedom of people, that more people become free. I think this is the hope.

It’s a process, and it also needs to be done by people. Not only the architects but also the communities. But I think the good process is when community begins to develop people, who really begin to care for others. When the community begins to think about the poor people in any community.

From the group of community architects itself, it depends on what ideas that tie them together. If you establish a group, you have to keep open to everyone. Do not becoming a dictator. When you are going around in 3 continents, you find things happen. Some groups of community architects develop, other groups die. That depends very much of the core group or the core beliefs that you have. If you are selfish, this will appear sooner or later. These things are, for myself: when you think there is something that is higher than you, and this: you are not the center of the world but this is the center, you just participate.

Fr. Jorge Anzorena ©Maria Dewi

Fr. Jorge Anzorena ©Maria Dewi



[1] American community organizer and writer, who is generally considered as the father of modern community organizing

Maria Bernadet Karina Dewi
A graduate student at Urban Engineering Department, the University of Tokyo. Her field of research is in disaster recovery. She has deep interest in community participation and been involved in several activities in the countries she has been living in.