In Search of the Light
Outdoors, South African Shantytowns Inspire Architecture Student’s Designs
Giovanni Florenca’s parents arrived in California as immigrants from South Africa in 1996. Concerned about the poverty, crime and political turmoil in Johannesburg — prevalent even as the apartheid era ended and improved race relations hung on the horizon — they sought stability near family.
In pursuit of their American Dream, however, they met an unexpected reality.
Florenca’s dad couldn’t find a job in his specialized field of butchery. And his mom, an optometrist’s assistant, didn’t have the education required to pursue a similar path in the U.S.
So they became janitors in Los Angeles high-rises. The family lived in a one-room apartment and furnishings were scant. A cardboard box served as their dining room table. As a result, Florenca spent a lot of time outdoors.
“My mom, to this day, says all I need is a ball and a set of wheels and I’m set,” Florenca said. “That’s basically all I did growing up because I did not like being indoors.”
Now a master’s student in the University of Idaho’s College of Art and Architecture, Florenca, 24, tries to infuse the natural world into his designs. He attributes this influence to his out-of-doors upbringing and return trips to South Africa, where he witnessed an architectural aesthetic, based on security and necessity, that he considers a complete juxtaposition to his own.
“In South Africa, people give themselves a lot of protection with buildings,” Florenca said. “You can go by any community and there’s going to be barbed wire or electrical fencing around the top of the housing — or gated communities or high walls.”
Florenca also remembers the pervasiveness of shantytowns, “basically houses made of tin and pieces of wood,” surrounded by clouds of smoke as people burned combustibles to stay warm.
Pursuing a Childhood Passion for Design
The first-generation college student stayed the course after singling out architecture as his career ambition during an elementary school career fair. Florenca started his undergraduate studies at California Lutheran University with the help of academic and athletic scholarships in soccer and track and field. During his second year, he concurrently enrolled in design courses at Ventura College — with hopes his coursework would transfer to a nationally accredited architecture program.
Florenca soon found the program at U of I, along with substantial need based scholarships, and planned a trip to Moscow. He was struck by the campuswide ivy-clad architecture, the accessibility of faculty and success of the program’s alumni.
Architecture can influence people’s subconscious and social interactions within a space. Giovanni Florenca
Now in his second year of the master’s program, Florenca expects to graduate in May 2020, and he’s received several student design awards, merit-based scholarships and teaching assistantships. Most recently, he won the 2019 Building Technology Educators’ Society Student Award for design concepts he created for a potential U of I Visitor Center.
Interested in how “architecture can influence people’s subconscious and social interactions within a space,” Florenca seems the perfect fit for designing such accommodations. The young designer is also intent on achieving innovation by “relating nature back to architecture.” Accordingly, he incorporated a sophisticated daylighting model into his winning design.
Eventually, Florenca wants to give back to the university by educating future students on “how architecture affects people’s lives.”
“My other goal involves going around the country and designing small mobile homes, out of shipping containers and reusable materials, for instance, that are inexpensive and innovative,” he said.
In pursuing that path, Florenca hopes to help others achieve upward mobility, regardless of social class or circumstance — the essence of the American dream his parents chased.
With support from the Bruce T. Haglund and Tisha Egashira Earth Stewardship Scholarship, Florenca traveled to Portugal in July 2019 to present a paper he co-authored at the International Conference in Structures and Architecture. The paper deals with teaching innovative uses of concrete masonry units in building construction, like installing filters inside the blocks so an entire building façade purifies the air. Florenca wrote the paper with Professor Emeritus Diane Armpriest, Associate Professor Carolina Manrique and Graduate Teaching Assistant Shudan He.
Article by Kate Keenan, College of Art and Architecture.
Published in the Fall 2019 issue of Here We Have Idaho.