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Cesar (left) and Miguel (right) at Biennale.

Northeastern alumni Cesar Cheng and Miguel Espino, who both graduated with their undergraduate degrees from the School of Architecture in 2014, recently participated in this year’s La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale), one of the most famous and prestigious cultural events in the world. Cesar and Miguel, architects at SUMA (located in Panama)  were invited to participate in the exhibition entitled Time Space Existence, which is on display through November and organized by the European Cultural Center (ECC) in the context of the La Biennale di Venezia. Their contribution presents a prototype for social housing in tropical climates.

“We were trying to address two subjects that are critical to the architectural debate in developing countries situated across the tropical belt,” explained Cesar. “We proposed a strategy for the provision of social housing in the face of rapid growing populations and strategies for developing an architecture responsive to the climate of the tropics and independent of mechanical systems.”

At the exhibit, Cesar and Miguel participated in representation of Panama, which does not have an official pavilion at La Biennale.

“This made it a great opportunity for us to have a space to be able to share our work and raise subjects that may not be addressed by the traditional discourse of architecture which tends to be more dominated by Europe, North America and a few old established players such Japan and Brazil,” Cesar added. “Increasingly, we see new emerging voices, such as China or the Arab Emirates, having a stronger presence; the participation of these countries help to complete the picture of what is happening at large in the profession at a global scale.”

So naturally, when the ECC opened up an alternative space for other architects to present work from underrepresented places, Cesar and Miguel saw this as an opportunity to reflect on the essence of tropical architecture – and they are so glad they embraced the opportunity fully.

“Perhaps the most important reason we are glad to have participated in this exhibition is because locally in Panama, there aren’t many spaces that offer the opportunity to think of architecture critically and reflect on important questions that are often neglected in the practice,” Cesar and Miguel added. “The city of Panama faces many challenges and often, the proposed solutions are based on replicating foreign models of development that are inadequate to the specific context of Panama. The invitation to the ECC exhibition and the space we were given at La Biennale was the perfect opportunity for us to open up a conversation about architecture in the tropics and share the work of our office with a larger audience who may want to participate in this conversation.”

Luckily, this project is not the first time Cesar and Miguel have worked together, which made the many moving pieces of the project come together with a certain ease.

They met their freshman year at Northeastern, and throughout their time as students were placed in the same studio classes, having the chance to collaborate on many projects together during their undergraduate careers. Beyond this, coincidentally, they both did their co-op in New York, at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, which trained them to have similar work flows.

“Looking back at the time we spent at Northeastern, we built a common background that, five years later, brought us together again to collaborate at a professional level on an interesting myriad of projects, including our exhibition in Venice,” Cesar and Miguel shared.

To make the Northeastern connections even stronger, they actually prepared the work for the exhibit with the help of current Northeastern student Isabella Whitehill, who is doing a co-op at SUMA Arquitectos through June. She is also studying Architecture, and her contribution was critical for the project the team presented in Venice.

“Miguel and I remember the co-op program as one of the most significant learning experiences we had during our time in Northeastern,” said Cesar. “We encourage students to take advantage of this program and look at options abroad.”

SUMA is certainly one of the architecture firms abroad that has a lot going on and offers constant learning and growth opportunities for everyone there. The team is working on exciting, interdisciplinary projects from urban planning to architecture to branding. While Cesar joined just this year to lead the urban analytics department along with other design projects, Miguel has been leading the design team since he graduated from Northeastern.

“At SUMA, we enjoy having co-op students; the team benefits from having young talent bringing fresh ideas, and in turn, we think that we offer the student a great opportunity to have a very active participation in all the projects we carry out,” said Cesar and Miguel. “Our goal is to teach the student new sets of skills and include them in all aspects of the projects so that their experience is meaningful.”

Isabella was SUMA’s first intern, and since it was so successful, SUMA is actively looking for more students from the School of Architecture for future co-op positions (if you are a student and interested, please contact your Co-op Advisor)!

Currently, the office is working on the new comprehensive zoning plan for the city of Panama, a large urban planning project aiming at defining the overall guidelines for future urban development in the city.

“This is a very large project that we are glad to be part of, and we are also involved in a number of institutional projects, such as the museum of anthropology and a historic public market,” explained Cesar and Miguel. “We are currently finishing the design of two residential buildings in the historic area of the city and we are also participating on a design research project for a building in a local indigenous community.”

In addition to this, SUMA has also done work for pop-up events, such as an arts and culture event that takes place during summer, and Panama Fashion Week. For those events, the team typically designs pavilion structures and branding material.

Congratulations to Cesar, Miguel, and the entire team at SUMA Arquitectos! We look forward to hearing more about your future innovations and research. For questions or more information, please contact Cesar at [email protected] or Miguel at [email protected].