Ursula Freire
Ursula Freire is pursuing a Ph.D. at UNM combining architecture and geography.
Credit: John Sumrow

When administrators, faculty and staff from the University of New Mexico decided to provide doctoral education programs for faculty members from Ecuador, everyone knew it would require creativity and conviction.

It also requires those same traits – and a lot of fortitude – on the part of the students. Ursula Freire is an architecture professor from Universidad Central del Ecuador (UCE) in Quito. She earned both her undergraduate and master’s in architecture from the same institution where she teaches. Her Ph.D. program – in Latin American Studies – is distinctive and tailor made to her needs: it draws courses, faculty and advisement from both architecture and geography, neither of which currently offers a doctorate. Seventy percent of her coursework is in architecture and 30 percent in geography.

Valuable initiative for Ecuador, UNM
Freire is a believer in the intent behind the initiative. “Ecuador is seeking independence from foreign teachers. When faculty come from abroad, they look at your country from the outside. This initiative is not to transform Ecuador externally, but to make it better from the inside.

One of the containers Freire was challenged to design and build.

Developing faculty through further research and scholarship completes the journey,” she said. UCE, the country’s largest university, is “taking a big gamble” on its faculty studying at UNM, she said, adding, “There are risks for us, the country and the university to do something to preserve the beautiful country we have.”

Associate Professor and Chair of Geography & Environmental Studies Maria Lane traveled to Ecuador when the program was under consideration. She said, “The Ecuadorian legislature passed a law to transform the research culture in higher education there. It was unprecedented in Latin America.”

Freire calls Ecuador “my voluptuous landscape,” because of the richness of mountains, beaches and jungle. She comes joyfully to UNM and is embracing the different environment of the American Southwest. She was already an aficionado of the writings of Lawrence Durrell and of the art of Georgia O’Keeffe.

"[Architects] Paolo Soleri and Frank Lloyd Wright also came to the desert and they learned of its austerity. The beauty and life of the desert can pass unnoticed it you don’t pay attention to it"  – Architecture Professor Ursula Freire, Universidad Central del Ecuador

Architecture Professor Eleni Bastea

Navigating the coursework
Combining architecture and geography are natural for Freire. “In Ecuador, sustainability is a way of life for many. You cannot help but be connected to nature because of the beauty of the land,” she said. The classes she’s taken thus far at UNM are giving her opportunities to explore that consciousness in different ways. Last semester she took Architecture Professor Eleni Bastea’s course “Built upon Love,” based upon Alberto Perez Gomez’s work. “Many of the students had mixed backgrounds like I do – Iranian, Australian, Vietnamese and Mexican. English was not our mother language. My use of English, with the influence of my Spanish and Hungarian languages, means that I say things in a different way, which gives others the chance to look at the world wearing the boots of someone else,” she said.

This semester she has Bastea’s course “Cities and Literature,” in which students read a novel where the city was a major character in the book. She read a book about Budapest, her birth city, and also found Bastea’s book, “Memory and Architecture,” to be quite poetic.

“Ursula has brought to our classes a rich and multifaceted perspective: as an architect and an architecture faculty member in Ecuador, she is passionate about the current debates in architecture,” Bastea said. “Her Ph.D. dissertation focuses on the many aspects of solar benefits – from the practical to the psychological – from the historic to the poetic. At the same time, she embraces her dual academic focus at UNM to explore her own dual heritage. Listening to her recent essay on her visit to Budapest, which she read in class, made us all long to visit or revisit Budapest.

In Mark Childs' class, Freire was challenged to design and build a container and something held within.

“That is to be expected, of course, from a good piece of writing on a unique city. What took me by surprise was that the very same essay made me also equally eager to visit the Andes, as echoes of her childhood landscapes colored her descriptions of Budapest. As the semester comes to an end, it is most rewarding to see how each student's work has been enriching the work of the whole seminar, creating a polyphonic work on cities and personal memories. In many ways, Ursula has been a catalyst in this process.”

Freire has both an advisor and a teacher in Architecture Professor and Associate Dean Mark Childs, who helped her select courses, including Bastea’s and another architecture class taught by Brian Goldstein that explored the implications of race and class in the built environment.

“We were engaged in discussions on space, architecture and urbanism,” she said, adding that coming from a colonized country, she saw how architects’ work often contributes to social ills. “Architects are not always innocent,” Freire said.

Visiting Lecturer David Schneider, also on Freire’s committee, encouraged poeticism. “It was through his class that I wrote the paper ‘Making is a love letter to the planet,’” she said, meaning that creating is to enhance, not detract from Earth. As she put it, “Men have stopped making; they only buy objects. In a world driven by industry, and standards, people keep coveting because dead objects cannot fill their hearts.”

The female factor
Lane is Freire’s committee member from Geography & Environmental Studies. She reflected on the significance of female educators and mentors. “While at UCE, I came into contact with sustainability through the Center of Investigation Habitat and Energy at the University of Buenos Aires, with John Martin Evans and Silvia de Schiller. Most teachers in Ecuador were men. This Argentinian woman was the exception. She made an impression on me, especially through her efforts to merge science and art in architecture through sustainability,” she said.

“Eleni and Maria are my new women teachers. Both are potent and kind freethinkers,” she said.

Geography Associate Professor Maria Lane.

She noted that Lane’s book, Geographies of Mars, “is so beautiful and playful, but also serious scholarly, academic work.” Lane, and others, helped her hone in on her dissertation topic. “I am following the history of modern ideas about climate in architecture – as seen through meteorology, climatology, architecture and geography – in western culture going back to the Greeks. I will look closely how they represent climate, the atmosphere and the sun.

Teaching the teachers
“You cannot find a more ideal student than someone who is already a faculty member. They know they still have jobs. They are thinking about what they are taking back to their own classrooms,” Lane said. Geography & Environmental Studies now has three Ecuadorian doctoral students. She tells them, “Your challenge is to take this opportunity, as academic leaders, back with you. Take the theory development to your classroom that is true to your cultural context.” Lane added that she gets feedback from UCE students, which challenges her to look at the role that she, and others at UNM, can play in breaking away from traditional Western schools of thought.

Freire learned working toward a Ph.D. doesn’t mean having all the answers, but rather pursuing them.