Teddy Cruz – What adaptive architecture can learn from Shantytowns

From Mixed Feelings Teddy Cruz a California architecture, who has focussed on what architecture can be learnt from informal settlements is profiled in an article Border-town muse: An architect finds a model in Tijuana from the March 13 International Herald Tribune.

The IHT article writes:

As Tijuana has expanded into the hilly terrain to the east, squatters have fashioned an elaborate system of retaining walls out of used tires packed with earth. The houses jostling on the incline are constructed out of concrete blocks, sheets of corrugated metal, used garage doors and discarded packing crates – much of it brought down by local contractors and wholesalers from across the border (slideshow in NY Times).

Once such a settlement is completed, it is protected from demolition under Mexican law – and the government is eventually obliged to provide plumbing, electricity and roads to serve it. In Cruz’s view, the process is in some ways a far more flexible and democratic form of urban development than is the norm elsewhere.

Yet he takes a special delight in places where free-spirited forms and conventional ones overlap. One of the strangest sights in Tijuana is a row of vintage California bungalows resting atop a hollow one-story steel frame. Once destined for demolition across the border, they were loaded on trucks and brought south by developers who have sold them to local residents.

To squeeze them into tight lots, many homeowners mount them on frames so they can use the space underneath for shops, car repair and the like. On one site, a pretty pink bungalow straddles a narrow driveway between two existing houses, as if a child were casually stacking toy houses.

Driving farther into the hills, we passed through the gates of a sprawling subdivision from the late 1990s that has become its own sort of hybrid. Originally it was conceived as a sprawl of identical beige houses, each no bigger than a two-car garage, arranged behind tidy little lawns in a grim version of the American dream.

Only a few years later, the lawns are now cluttered with car repair shops, grocery stores and taco stands. New floors have been added, single-family homes have been joined together to house extended families, and many of the beige facades have been repainted in bright colors. Cruz sees the mix as a richer, more vibrant landscape – a spirited answer to the alienation that many of us associate with conventional American suburbs.

It’s not that he romanticizes poverty; he recognizes the filth and clutter, the lack of light and air, that were the main targets of Modernism nearly a century ago. But by approaching Tijuana’s shantytowns with an open mind, he can extract a viable strategy for development that is rooted in local traditions.

The fruits are visible in Cruz’s peculiar architectural vision. For years now he has been refining a design for a 12- unit housing proposal in San Ysidro, an immigrant community in suburban San Diego, in cooperation with a local advocacy group known as Casa Familiar. The design is conceived as a frame for future development, with a blocklong semipublic loggia as its centerpiece.

The loggia will function as a shared communal space for markets, festivals and other social events. Its concrete frame, partly inspired by Donald Judd’s sculptural cubes, is intentionally purer and more formal than anything in Tijuana, but that rigorous framework houses an informal and flexible social organism.

A row of delicate wood housing units on top of the frame will heighten the contrast between private and public zones. Each unit is conceived as a series of interlocking rooms that can be broken down into two one-bedroom units or pieced together for large families. And the entire site will be bisected by a semipublic garden that connects West Hall Street to an alley that serves as a thoroughfare for immigrants on their way to work.

A second phase calls for parallel rows of housing for the elderly interspersed with semipublic gardens. The single-story blocks are covered by long uniform roofs that tip up at certain points to create space for what Cruz calls “prodigal apartments” – single units where extended family members can stay. A full-time day care center is also part of the elderly phase, since many immigrant children are being raised by their grandparents.

To proceed with the project, Cruz opened a full-scale campaign to change San Diego’s zoning laws. Working with Casa Familiar, he has sought to open the way for the denser mixed-use communities that are so typical of Mexico – an urban fabric in which structures bleed freely into one another, allowing for the shifting realities of immigrant families. The group’s offices will serve as a makeshift city hall, arranging loans and reconfiguring the units.

The San Diego City Council approved the development plan last year, and Cruz expects the zoning changes to go through this autumn. Planners hope to begin construction next year.

Teddy Cruz won the 2004-2005 James Stirling prize for Border Postcard: chronicles from the edge, a project exploring new urban strategies for the international border zone spanning San Diego and Tijuana. He has designed new mixed-use developments that reuse and adapt existing structures and recycled materials. The model above shows a proposal for a community in Tijuana. In 2004, he gave the Stirling Lecture at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (pdf). Cruz writes:

Two Urbanisms

Two completely different urbanisms expressing two different attitudes toward the city have grown up in reaction to the phenomenon of the border. If San Diego is emblematic of the segregation and control epitomized by the master-planned communities that define its sprawl, Tijuana’s urbanism evolved as a collection of informal, nomadic settlements or barrios that encroach on San Diego’s periphery. This comparison is not reductive, if one considers that the steel border wall itself transforms San Diego into the world’s largest gated community. The complex relationship between San Diego and has engendered multiple histories, narratives and identities. Their centers, for example, which are only twenty minutes apart, represent entirely different socio-economic and political universes. While San Diego calls itself “America’s Finest City,” Tijuana is viewed in México as a decadent hybrid and transient world unto itself, distinct from (and somehow inferior to) the rest of the country. While San Diego is perceived as a picturesque resort town, a point of arrival for migrating populations looking for a nice cul-de-sac in which to retire, Tijuana has traditionally been perceived in México as a threshold leading to the ‘other side’, a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah. The differences dwindle as San Diego’s signature mini-malls spring up on Tijuana’s street corners and gated residential communities fill in the city’s periphery, while Tijuana’s dense and chaotic patterns of mixed-use and informal type of public markets begin to appear in neighborhoods of San Diego. Unavoidably, both cities seem to contain something of one another other: In every ‘first world’ city, a ‘third world’ exists, and every third world city replicates the first.

North to South: Disposable Housing

A Tijuana speculator travels to San Diego to buy up little bungalows that have been slated for demolition to make space for new condominium projects. The little houses are loaded onto trailers and prepared to travel to Tijuana, where they will have to clear customs before making their journey south. For days, one can see houses, just like cars and pedestrians, waiting in line to cross the border. Finally the houses enter into Tijuana and are mounted on one-story metal frames that leave an empty space at the street level to accommodate future uses. One city profits from the material that the other one wastes. Tijuana recycles the leftover buildings of San Diego, recombining them in fresh scenarios, creating countless new opportunities.

Residential Architect Magazine (2005) Teddy Cruz writes on Urban acupuncture:

The objective of “Living Rooms at the Border” has been to distill the essence of this community’s patterns of use, and to let these patterns become the basis for incremental design solutions with a catalytic effect on the urban fabric. Such a tactical approach generates prototypical solutions, and perhaps paradigms for densification in other cities. In a parcel where existing zoning allows only three units of housing, the project proposes (through negotiated density bonuses and by sharing kitchens) 12 affordable housing units, a community center resulting from the adaptive reuse of an existing 1927 church, offices for Casa Familiar in the church’s new attic, and a garden underpinning the community’s nonconforming micro-economies, such as street markets and kiosks. In a place where current regulation allows only one use, we propose five different uses that support each other. This suggests a model of social sustainability for San Diego, one that conveys density not as bulk but as social choreography.

Our “Manufactured Site” project in Tijuana, Mexico, is a very different investigation of the same issue, the notion of housing emerging out of community interaction. It explores how the area’s informal settlements grow faster than the urban cores they surround, creating a different set of rules for development and blurring the distinctions between urban, suburban, and rural. These startup communities gradually evolve, or violently explode out of conditions of social emergency, and are defined by the negotiation of territorial boundaries, the ingenious recycling of materials, and human resourcefulness. For the “Manufactured Site,” we are proposing a prefabricated building frame that can act as a hinge mechanism to support the multiplicity of recycled materials and systems that residents bring from San Diego and reassemble in Tijuana to create makeshift dwellings. These structures are fragile, as is the topography of the land they occupy. The frame could be the first step in the construction of a larger scaffolding that would help strengthen the otherwise precarious terrain, without compromising the temporal dynamics of these self-made environments.

Other Articles

The Prefab Home Is Suddenly Fab is a 2005 Tyee article that also mentions Cruz along with many others.

Mixed Feelings – Tijuana/San Diego is a US public televison dialogue on the border between San Diego & Tijuana in which Cruz is a participant.

How Katrina will reshape borders – a description of a talk by Cruz at an Urban Habitat symposium at the University of Virginia.

10 thoughts on “Teddy Cruz – What adaptive architecture can learn from Shantytowns”

  1. I always found an appealing quality in the organic nature of such unplanned building patterns, at least when dealing with self-made, relatively smaller structures that affect a restricted amount of space, e.g. at the scale of a house lot.

    I find interesting the ways in which these small and independent stuctures add up and form patterns at larger scales in a way that just seems to work. Especially when contrasted with some of the dysfunctional outcomes of the modernist approach to urban planning.

  2. What I think he’s trying to achieve is a balance between the extreme organization of suburbia and the unorganized growth of most mexican cities.

    All the more congrats to him for trying. Having lived in both environments, I know there are ways to get the best from both without having to make people uncomfortable with the change.

  3. Co-opting slum ingenuity, or the genius loci of “micro utopias”, to redress the alleged failures of top-down urban planning suggests that Cruz’s thinking is perhaps unnaturally tithed to the conceit that architecture remains disproportionately responsible for the supposed alienation frequently cited as the bane of contemporary urban/suburban society.

    While he seems cognizant of the falsity that “complexity can be manufactured” through gentrification, he goes on to state that “the ultimate site of intervention is planning regulation itself”, and, typical of all aspiring theorists, stamps his chosen intervention strategies with radical overtones such as contamination of zoning, social choreography, practices of encroachment, tactics of invasion, urban acupuncture and “urbanism of transgression”. This is the language of insurgency and
    cold war polemics, no doubt inspired in part by Mike Davis, the eminence grise of strident social criticism.

    Cruz’s James Stirling Memorial Lecture reads like an extended blurb for a future monograph, Learning from Tijuana: A Squatter’s Manifesto. The danger with such breathless hyperbole lies in its ability to radically polarize public opinion on complex issues related to immigration, identity and economics. His theories come across as viral urbanism for the disenfranchised, micro-financed sans-culottisme that erects a lean-to on the back of the Bastille and calls it Relational Aesthetics.

    I sincerely hope that if and when his ideas percolate through North American cities they don’t appear as a new urban trend called favela-chic, or worse, the cause of further ethnic strife.

  4. As a US citizen having lived in Baja, Mexico, I think that much of their culture is superior to the USA. However, Teddy Cruz’s fine ideas on Tijuana’s shanty towns over looks the fact that these towns are largely the result of over-population. Not that California, for one example, is not over populated, but Mexico clearly cannot take care of its population because that is why so many there want to come to the USA. I met unemployed men in Baja who thought that if you did not have sex every day (every day!) you were not a real man. If a married man did not have a child nearly every year they thought it had to be because something was wrong. I saw poverty-stricken Indios walking in Baja; the young barefoot wife held a child in each hand, had one on her back, and she was pregnant! These kids are going to have a really rough life. Mexican society has got to start a program to adjust social attitudes to sex and child bearing. Mexico is a wonderful country full of marvelous food, but it is over populating itself into starvation. Opening American borders, which in theory I agree with, will not stop the real problem at home in Mexico. I have watched Mexican workers (in a cafe in Indio) in California call US immigration to report newly arrived “wetbacks” willing to work for less than the callers were getting. You see the problem.

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