Christien Klaufus is the author of Urban Residence: Housing and Social Transformations in Urbanizing Ecuador, published this spring by Berghahn. Her work examines two contrasting populations in Ecuador’s cities: popular-settlement residents and professionals in the planning and construction sector to understand how they shape the city itself. Here she discusses her work, how she came to it, and her many varied interests outside the academy.
1. What drew you to the study of urban spaces in Ecuador?
My fascination for Latin America started when I was a child. I used to collect clippings about Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Guatemala from the National Geographic journals that my father brought home. After graduating in Architecture in 1993, I travelled through South America for a few months. It was during that trip that I decided I wanted to switch careers from working in architectural design to becoming an academic researcher on urban spaces and architecture, preferably in Latin America. Ecuador became my favorite destination. So I applied for a BA and MA in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, which later resulted in a PhD dissertation on that topic. The book was a logical outcome of my multidisciplinary academic background and a long-lasting fascination for Latin America.
2. What aspect of writing this work did you find most difficult?
I struggled with the dilemma how to balance out the voices of the two groups of informants that I worked with – residents of informal settlements and professionals in architecture and urban planning – to do justice to both their experiences, without losing attention for the power inequalities that also characterize Latin American societies. Related to the dilemma of a just presentation of all informants’ voices, I found it difficult to protect the privacy of the architect-informants, as they often referred to their own well-known works. I solved that last problem by presenting them partly as public figures, partly as anonymous informants using an alias.
3. Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?
I often work together with anthropologists, sociologists, geographers and architects. I have noticed that the academic discussions about the interpretation of taste patterns and aesthetical preferences in architecture remain the most controversial ones, because they touch upon disciplinary boundaries and the professional competence of architects as designers of space. Who has the decisive authority to decide on the most adequate aesthetic principles for house-building and interior decorating in a certain context, and how should we value taste? Those are epistemological questions as much as empirical ones. As you can read in my book, the visibly outstanding houses of migrant-families in Southern Ecuador were at once heavily criticized and tabooed by local experts, which complicated an open academic debate about that topic. Even though spatial and aesthetic categories are rapidly shifting as a result of globalization, those categories continue to define the academic boundaries of disciplines concerned with built-environment studies. That is why I like interdisciplinary research: there is still so much analytical ground to be reconsidered!
4. What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?
This is a difficult question. I guess I do not have one remarkable talent or hobby. I am more of a cultural “omnivore” and always searching for exciting new projects. My side-jobs and spare-time projects have run from being a catering hostess in the business club of PSV (soccer club in Eindhoven), where I served Brazilian star players like Romário de Souza Faria and Ronaldo Nazário de Lima, to making a documentary film about a Dutch city, to buying a property of 4.5 hectares with olive trees a run-down stable in southern Catalunya in Spain as a renovation project. I am fond of outdoor sports and activities, especially horse-riding. So my professional interest in bustling cities is often compensated with weekends on horseback in the countryside.
5. If you weren’t an anthropologist, what would you have done instead?
As I said before, I like to transgress disciplinary boundaries instead of staying within the “box”. When I was young I wanted to join the mounted police. When I studied Architecture, I once considered switching studies to become a professional in the equestrian sports. If I would have to choose something completely different right now, I would probably opt for having a small goat farm to make fresh goat cheese on a daily basis. I love goat cheese. In the French Ardèche I’ve seen how relatively easy it is to produce it.