Fieldnotes – The Humanitarian Architect

I first became aware of Cloe Medina Erickson through my friend Randy Gray, who has been on the lookout for story ideas for Mountain West Voices. In his understated way, Randy suggested Cloe’s work might be of interest to me. He turned out to be right.

The projects Cloe has undertaken in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco are multi-faceted. She first traveled there for a rock-climbing honeymoon with her husband, Kris, fell in love with the region, became fascinated with the rare historic architecture, and decided to return. Almost immediately, however, her perspective shifted from that of a historic preservationist and architect to that of someone who felt a bond with a specific community, and wanted to do what she could to help address the challenges that community faced. The restoration of ancient buildings was only a starting point. The foundation she started in 2010, The Atlas Cultural Foundation, is concerned with a range of issues, from illiteracy to women’s health. You can find out more about the foundation’s work here.

I have included below an excerpted transcript of the interview I did with Cloe at her home in Livingston, Montana.

The photos for this episode were taken by Cloe’s husband, the talented photographer and videographer Kristoffer Erickson. Kris also kindly allowed me to use sound he recorded in Morocco of Cloe speaking with the people of Zawiya Ahansal. I should talk a bit here about the linguistic context for this interaction. Cloe is speaking in Modern Standard Arabic, which is not the first language of anyone in the Arab world, but is the language of newspapers, books, broadcast media, etc. The people of the region of the High Atlas, where Cloe has carried out her work, are not Arabs at all, but Berbers, who speak a language unrelated to Arabic. A few of the men in the area are educated enough to speak and understand standard Arabic, and it is with them that Cloe can communicate most easily. Illiteracy among the women of the region is close to 100%, and they are monolingual in their dialect of Berber. Cloe has been trying to learn enough Berber to communicate with the women, who are at the center of the current efforts of The Atlas Cultural Foundation.

I myself have spent several years in the Arab and Muslim world, and believe I understand the bond Cloe and Kris feel with Morocco. At the same time, they have deep roots in Montana, and a deep connection to the Rocky Mountain West, which, after talking with Cloe for a while, does not seem like a contradiction at all.


Livingston, Montana

March 3, 2011

CLOE ERICKSON: My name is Cloe Medina Erickson, and I live in Livingston, Montana, and I’m the founder of the Atlas Cultural Foundation, a new non-profit that I founded in 2010. What it’s doing is creating a non-profit body to incorporate the philanthropic work that I’ve been involved with as an individual for the past five or six years in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I’ve sort of been a one-woman army in the central High Atlas Mountains. I first went to the region in 2003 on my honeymoon to do some rock climbing, and ended up falling in love with the architecture, and also the people. The first trip turned into much greater interest.

The region is extremely poor – it’s the second poorest region in Morocco. After the first trip, I began speaking with locals about the possibility of doing some humanitarian projects with them, and over the years it started as a small project, and it’s turned into a few larger projects, and I finally got to the point where I needed a bit more official recognition for my work, and also some help with my work. The Atlas Cultural Foundation was kind of the obvious choice.

I graduated in architecture at MSU in 2000, and was working at a firm in Bozeman on my three year internship, and I was completely miserable. I was working 50 to 60 hours a week, I had everything was supposedly going to make me a happy young architect, but yet I found myself very unhappy. My boyfriend who was a climber and a photographer travelling all over the world, and all I could think of was my own dreams of wanting to travel all over the world, and more specifically visiting Morocco – which is where my parents met.

And it had always been a seed in my mind that this was a place I had to go. So I up and quit my job one day, I walked in and said they had eight hours left of me, and that at the end of the day I’d be done. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I quit and kind of went on a soul searching mission driving around the Western United States by myself, and decided I’d come back to school and learn Arabic. That the best way to maybe to go to Morocco and be able to do some sort of work there would be to be able to speak the language. I was thinking that would give me respect with the local people as a Western woman. Which it did.

I always had intuitive feeling, even as a child, that I had to get to Morocco. I have no idea why, I can’t explain it. Even when I was studying Arabic people would ask me: “What are you going to do with this? You already have a Masters of Architecture. Why are you going back to school?” I couldn’t explain it, I just said I know it’s going to turn into something and I just have to follow this feeling, and follow this intuitive pull over to Morocco.

Kris and I made it there on our honeymoon. We went to the High Atlas where there was great rock climbing. I also noticed the amazing historic architecture. Most of the buildings there are made out of stacked stone and mud. But the more civic architecture is actually rammed earth architecture. And the region where I’m working was originally a Muslim brotherhood. It was founded in the 11th century by a travelling saint from Algeria. He had big impact on the religion of the Berbers of the area. The region is very deep and very remote in the High Atlas Mountains, but it became a center for religious learning – it had some of the original libraries in Morocco.

To be in such a remote place, and to see such a high concentration of this historic rammed earth arch is extremely rare in Morocco, and even within North Africa. Usually to see this more decorative civic rammed earth arch you have to be in a more urban area. So it’s unique in that it’s a mountain region but the civic buildings are rammed earth.

The first rule you learn when you are a historic preservationist is that there’s no sense in restoring a historic building unless you find a viable use within the community for that building once it’s restored. So to be a preservationist, you are not only an architect who is restoring these beautiful buildings, but you also have to work very closely and very directly with the community, with the community associations, you have to assess the history of the region, the future of the region, and what their needs are.

I decided that best use of first building we restored – which originally was a fortified granary – was to turn it into a regional library and community center to augment the inadequate government education that’s provided in the region.

So I’ve become much more than just an architect in the region. I’ve become a very intimate part of the community fabric, and I’m working closely with the government officials, with the locals – whether that’s a local association or just individuals. And I couldn’t help but see through my architecture work the other needs that are happening in this region.

CLAY SCOTT: Such as?

ERICKSON: Such as women’s health. Starting a new women’s health initiative, focusing on newborn and new mother’s health. Right now there is about a 20% infant mortality rate in the first year of life, which is among the highest in the world, equivalent to Afghanistan and Bolivia. Our foundation is also going to start assessing the education needs within the region.

Our main goals as a foundation are to preserve the culture, and within these restored buildings implement community projects – community development projects, such as women’s health projects, or education projects within the region. So the historic preservation is actually supporting community development.

Originally I had seen myself – because architecture and preservation is my first passion – as kind of hopping around Morocco restoring historic buildings. But after the first restoration project, I realized that my passion was actually for this one region. And I started to understand how much time and energy and patience it takes to build these relationships within the community and within the government, of these local areas to really make a difference. And if I was moving around every two or three years I wouldn’t have the time to build the strong bonding relationships I had in Zawiyat Ahansal.

At first, as an architect, I was nervous about working on other projects outside my field of expertise. But now, honestly, I feel like I’ve made the right decision, and I’m really looking forward to spending a lot of time over the next decade or two decades in this region, and seeing the progress that happens by being in one place for a long time, and working with the same community groups, and building upon each experience and learning from those, and gaining more and more from every project.

I’m starting to see that there are two different ways of doing international development work or aid work, and I think one of them is to choose a cause, and to promote that cause throughout the world or throughout a country or region. I think the other way – and a way that is somewhat new in the development region and also maybe going to end up being more effective – is by actually choosing a region, and working on that region on all of the needs that it has. Because it’s very hard to isolate the development needs of a region. You can see that here in the United States. Whether it’s a town in Montana, or in the middle of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Even if you restore all of the architecture, there’s still going to be problems with health and education. How can an uneducated population appreciate their historic architecture? Or how can an unhealthy or malnourished population find the energy or time to appreciate the historic buildings that they have? I think that all the development issues are completely interrelated. And that was the shift that I took with my work. I was initially focused on historic preservation, and then I realized that…it’s much more than that. In order for my first passion – the historic preservation – to be successful, I also need to help these people become educated, and healthy, and culturally aware.

SCOTT: What do the people of the region think of you? Do you feel they understand your intentions?

ERICKSON: I think they were skeptical at first of this woman that kept coming back to their village, season after season. But after the completion of the first restoration, which happened last fall, I really saw a change in the overall psyche of the community. People were so proud of the building that we had restored. And they did it themselves as well. It was their idea. They told me that this is what they wanted. To turn this building into a center of education for their community. And now it really stands as this icon of their culture. I mean it stands now as it did when the elders of the village were young children. So the elders can see what they saw when they were young.

SCOTT: How do you define success with your work?

ERICKSON: Success is defined for me in very small victories, because I’m finding that doing this development work takes a lot longer than we think as Western people, and it often takes a different form, often, than what we believe it’s going to be when we start out. So success for me is going to Morocco for a season and completing a very short list of realistic goals. I feel like if that’s accomplished I feel very successful.

SCOTT: All small communities have their politics, intrigues, jealousies. I assume Zawiyyat Ahansal is the same.

ERICKSON: I love comparing it to a small town in Montana, because in any small community you’re going to have families that have history within themselves, and any news is front page news, because nothing is happening in these small areas. Maybe I’m comfortable with the small setting and the politics that go along with that because small communities are the same and have the same problems the world over; whether they’re first world small communities, or developing nations, or in Africa, or in the U.S. It helps me through the difficult situations, because I understand how those small communities work

SCOTT: What would you say to someone who asks why you would go half-way around the world to do humanitarian work, when there is so much do be done here?

ERICKSON: That’s something that people ask me a lot, because there are so many communities in Montana or the western us that you could consider equal to the quality of life that you see in the developing world. And all I can say is, for some reason my passion and destiny has drawn me to this region of Morocco. But I do think that it is also very important to bring back the things that I am learning over there and educate other people on the culture and the work that we’re doing. We’ve started to make strides in that manner by partnering with Montana State University. We bring over university students to Morocco every summer.

Being an architect doesn’t mean that you have to sit at a drawing board and draw. An architect is somewhat of a director of sorts. They are really the nucleus of community development in so many ways. The architect has to not only work with the structural engineers, and the mechanical and electrical engineers, but they have to understand the community, and the history of the community and the future of the community.

I have a masters degree in architecture, but I knew absolutely nothing about rammed earth architecture when I arrive in Morocco with the intention of restoring traditional buildings.

One thing that was incredibly helpful was that I partnered with famous Moroccan woman architect. She gave me week long crash course in rammed earth historic preservation. How to work with Moroccan communities, how to be a woman working as a leader, as a construction manager, in a Muslim, male-dominated society. So I have learned a lot. My education just keeps continuing and continuing. And one of the most amazing things that I realized was this fall, I was standing on top of the final restoration of the first granary, and I was just kind of thinking back to the process, because it took over two years to do this restoration, and I thought, ‘Wow – this building is amazing! It doesn’t have a single connector in it. It doesn’t have a single nail, it doesn’t have a single screw – it is just earth, wood and gravity working here, and here I am standing on a five-story building. This was something that I was never taught in architecture school, that you could just use the raw materials from the earth and create such a magnificent structure without any sort of modern technology. It’s been so rewarding; working with the local people, explaining my goals, trying to get them to understand, Working between a literate and an illiterate populations…and then persevering…working on keeping on without becoming too deflated…and depressed. But the great thing that comes out of any situation like this is that my bond with the local people grows, and our trust grows, and we seem to overcome these hurdles and move forward.

SCOTT: If, for some unforeseen reason, circumstances prevented you from returning to Morocco, what kind of work do you imagine yourself doing?

ERICKSON: If I had to stay in Montana I’m sure I’d start to do the same kind of work here in Montana that I’ve been doing in Morocco, and I guess that would be a turn back to where my career was initially. I spent five years on the city of Livingston Historic Preservation Committee, which was where my passion grew for historic architecture. At university I only learned about modern architecture, so the historic preservationist in me really was born here in Livingston, Montana. And the funny thing is, all the buildings we are restoring in Morocco are collective granaries, so..they’re essentially like grain elevators. They’re like North African grain elevators, and my husband and I actually own one of the historic grain elevators here in Livingston, so maybe there’s something about grain elevators. That project in Livingston hasn’t come to fruition yet, but it’s sleeping and so…I think at some point it will all come back around to Montana.

SCOTT: Where is home for you?

ERICKSON: Home right now is in Livingston, but in about three weeks it’s going to be in Morocco.

SCOTT: How does that feel?

ERICKSON: It’s always hard. It’s really hard for me to leave. No matter where I am. I find that when I leave Montana I become very emotional, and I question why I’m going back to Morocco, and when I leave Morocco, driving out of that valley… I am always just full of tears.