Five years ago a team of artists, politicians and scholars entered a small drainage tunnel under the concrete barrier separating Mexico and the United States. As they negotiated their way through the damp corridor, they were met by a distressing sight: waves of trash washing off the slopes of Los Laureles, a Tijuana shantytown. The trash cascaded across the border, polluting the Tijuana River Estuary on the other side.
This was not an illegal crossing.
When they emerged from the tunnel, Mexican officials were there to meet them and stamp their passports.
Their journey was the centerpiece of Political Equator 3, an event that exposed the environmental degradation occurring along the Tijuana River Estuary as a result of the border wall. Political Equator is just one of the ways in which architect Teddy Cruz is raising awareness of the social, environmental, economic and political problems that exist along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cruz is one of the most provocative voices in architecture today. He has spent the better part of his career focusing on border issues and developing an architectural approach for addressing them. His work has been extensively published and was recently featured by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Cruz, a native of Guatemala, was born during an era of intense political strife, a fact that he said has informed his interests as an architect.
“I began to become aware that the border between San Diego and Tijuana is an incredible laboratory for rethinking the role of an architect by engaging very similar issues to the ones that I grew up witnessing,” he said.
Cruz began studying architecture in Guatemala. In 1982, after he finished three years of study, Efraín Ríos Montt seized power of Guatemala in a military coup.
This political turmoil led Cruz to finish his studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Cruz’s studies culminated at the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Design where he earned a Master’s degree in design studies and history.
During the mid-1990s Cruz began teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, a school known for being at the forefront of the architectural avant-garde.
“I began an experimental studio called ‘Latin America: Los Angeles,’” he said. “That was the beginning of my inquiry on issues of immigration, the impact of immigrants in transforming the city and also the kinds of relations that exist across borders between Tijuana, San Diego and Los Angeles.”
Architecture is more than an act of design, Cruz said, it is a political act with the potential to transform communities and reshape the way people think about a region.
“We forget that as architects we also need to take positions,” he said. “By that I mean political stances, social engagement stances, where maybe the first layers towards a building might not be the building itself, but the processes that engage social, economic and political domains.”
Cruz said his own brand of architectural activism begins at the San Diego-Tijuana border, a meeting point along what he calls the “Political Equator.”
This is an invisible boundary located between the 30th and 35th parallels where, according to Cruz, the developed world and the developing world crash against one another.
Hidden away in a small studio teeming with architectural models, loud diagrams and colorful maps at UCSD, Cruz and his partner, political theorist Fonna Forman, engage with the issues of culture, community, economy and ultimately architecture that emerge form the clash between north and south.
“I grew up in a country that was defined in the ’70s and ’80s by huge political and socioeconomic injustice,” Cruz said. “There you witnessed and faced every day the kinds of class struggles that occur in environments like that, hugely militarized with dictatorships pretty much defining the terms.”
That environment defined Cruz’s agenda from an early age, he said.
“There is a saying in Latin America that growing up here, in many of these countries, you are a kind of Marxist by default. Meaning that you are confronting inequality and social injustice and you definitely get pissed off.”
Today Cruz’s focus is primarily in two small, marginalized communities on both sides of the border, San Ysidro in San Diego and Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana. This work led him to his current position at UCSD.
“They were seeking an artist dedicated to issues of public culture and the city,” he said. “Even though I’m an architect, I was given the position.”
Cruz founded the UCSD Cross-Border Initiative with Forman.
“In the last four or five years we have begun to engage in many projects that address inequality, citizenship and immigration,” he said. “So all of the issues that I began to perceive and work with in Guatemala have become really tangible elements in the rethinking of our practice and our teaching.”
So far, Cruz and Forman have conducted groundbreaking research in cross-border relationships between Tijuana and San Diego.
Cruz, an architect at heart and by training, has yet to build a single building.
“My primary interest (so far) has been to expand notions of design,” he said. “Some of us might want to be engaged in the design of pedagogy, or in the design of collaboration or the design of new political and economic frameworks within which architecture might be more inclusive, more democratic, more socially engaged.”
Cruz is working with community nonprofit Casa Familiar toward making that vision a built reality.
On a site near the border in San Ysidro, Cruz and Casa Familiar are planning to build what they are calling “Living Rooms at the Border,” an affordable housing project designed to integrate community services, public space and intergenerational housing.
David Flores, design and development director at Casa Familiar, is helping to spearhead the effort.
“The thing that amazes me about Teddy is how quickly he can see space and be able to identify really good solutions for the use of that space,” Flores said. “It is rare when architecture impacts a community because of design.”
“Living Rooms at the Border” democratizes design by incorporating art spaces, open spaces and intergenerational affordable housing around a historic church that will be restored and repurposed as a community center.
A video of the plan on Cruz’s website shows large, empty concrete frames that will be used as incubators for uses like a weekly farmers market, an impromptu art exhibit and communal kitchens, or simply as the backdrop for chance encounters between neighbors.
A later phase of the plan builds sleek, impeccably modern apartments above the concrete frames and intergenerational housing on the other side of the church. A combination of uses like these is unconventional and bold.
In this scheme, extended families could work and live together as part of an integrated community. Casa Familiar would also be present onsite to help residents. David Flores said this was one of the design’s key components.
“The whole intent of our project with Teddy is to make sure that we design great living spaces for people, while making sure that Casa can provide support services onsite,” he said.
Projects as revolutionary as Cruz’s living rooms face many challenges.
“Our projects are not typical projects where a client gives us a brief and we design something in response to that brief,” said Cruz. “We are, in fact, the builders of that brief.”
Therein lies the challenge.
“We have to build the money, partnerships and finances to make these projects happen,” he said. “It is a very large effort to connect all these different dots and put together all these broken pieces.”
Flores said that requirements for traditional development projects would prohibit a project like Living Rooms at the Border from being built. This is where Cruz’s political activism came into play.
Andrea Skorepa, CEO of Casa Familiar, was a firsthand witness to his transformation into a full-blown activist.
“When he started, Teddy didn’t know a thing about politics,” she said. “It is because of our work together that he has seen you need to change policies.”
Flores said that this is the most important aspect of Cruz’s work.
“The design is a visual thing and its impactful, but when you can affect the policy so that you can move projects forward and not have them just be a once in a lifetime thing, but rather ideas that can continue to be replicated, then that’s the impact.”
A few miles west of the Casa Familiar site is Los Laureles Canyon, a marginalized Tijuana shantytown that hugs the border wall and the Tijuana River Estuary. It was here Cruz staged Political Equator 3, the latest in a series of binational happenings designed to visualize the problems that arise along the border. This is one of the lynchpins of Cruz’s work as an activist.
“Political Equator is an event that happens every two or three years, we are currently planning our fourth one,” said Cruz. “They are a series of meetings that happen in these environments which bring the conversation away from the institutions and into these environments.”
Political Equator is not just an event, Cruz said. It also refers to a line separating what he has dubbed “The Global North” and “The Global South.”
“(Los) Laureles Canyon and San Ysidro are on the same line that connects the San Diego-Tijuana border with at least two of the most intensive border checkpoints in the world,” he said. “One of them is the border between Ceuta and Melilla, the main border between North Africa and Europe, a zone which immigrants are crossing over at this moment. The other is the Israel-Palestine border, which is the most iconic geography of conflict in the Middle East. All of these checkpoints are between the 30th and 35th parallels, so I ended up calling this the political equator.”
It is along this equator that Cruz finds inspiration for his work as an architect.
“Part of our practice has been to locate ourselves where ecologies collide and explore the issues that made that collision possible,” said Cruz. “We expose them and use them as material for design.”
Cruz said Political Equator 3 highlighted the destructive results of the wall lining the border.
“The premise was to visualize this problem,” he said. “While Homeland Security has built a wall for the sake of national security, the wall itself undermines our own environmental security and potentially produces socioeconomic insecurity in the future.
“After 9/11, Homeland Security claimed a 150 foot jurisdiction from the border to start destroying all the canyons in order to construct a highway of surveillance.”
Cruz said this practice is destroying the environment.
“Basically they have built this infrastructure along the wall that ignores a lot of existing environmental policies,” he said. “This undermines the functionality of the binational watershed system.”
For Political Equator 3 Cruz and an entourage of artists, activists, politicians and scholars from both countries met at the base of the border wall to debate the issue.
“We got permission to set up a tent very close to the wall where they built a drain, beyond which is (Los) Laureles Canyon,” Cruz said. “Not many people here know that 85,000 people live beyond that wall. The people who live in that settlement also do not know that on this side of the wall there is a precious environmental zone that needs to be protected.”
After debating and discussing in the impromptu forum, Cruz and his guests did something unprecedented and walked right through the border wall.
“We requested an unprecedented permit from Homeland Security that enabled us to transform the newly built drain under the wall into an official port of entry from the Tijuana River Estuary into (Los) Laureles Canyon,” he said. “We made it into an official, 24-hour port of entry.”
Behind this exercise was a desire to expose what Cruz argues is a binational problem, one that needs to be addressed through a binational agenda that unites stakeholders from both countries.
“People finally realized that there is an environmental system that is shared by these two cities,” he said. “The informal settlement and the estuary on opposite sides of the border must be looked at as two environments that are interdependent, not separate.”
This is the groundwork needed for a new type of architecture and regional thinking to take shape, said Cruz.
“This is the point of departure for architecture. It is a negotiation across institutions that can become a point of entry into a new idea of public space and binational relations,” he said.
The political partnerships and ground-level activism that Cruz is fostering are huge movements that involve massive political players. One would not imagine that change can begin at a place like Southwestern College.
“Community colleges like Southwestern are places where we find the demographics, the truer composition of the neighborhoods that surround it on the border,” he said.
Short of issuing a call to action for Southwestern students, Cruz said the college can serve as a seed for the type of movements that can revolutionize the San Diego-Tijuana region.
“Many people who are at Southwestern live in Tijuana or come from these communities that flank the border,” Cruz said. “They could become an important platform to produce new, cross-border, cross-institutional collaborations between universities and colleges in Tijuana, and serve as facilitators of new experiments in education and in the research of new, cross-border city planning agendas.”
Studying places like Southwestern College, Los Laureles Cayon and San Ysidro for new ideas about community and architecture holds immense promise, he said.
“From these marginalized neighborhoods on either side of the border, we can begin to reimagine the world.”