Teddy Cruz has been conducting research that interests those of us who believe that there is no “and” with politics for architecture and planning practices. Participation is the buzzword for urban transformation for such a long time but the nature of participation has mostly perceived to be consensus. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues, conflict is already participation that does not need to end in resolution. Borders in a “globalized” world bring the issues of autonomy, conflict, mobility and exchange which have been the main interest of Cruz along the political equator idea he suggests.
by Şevin Yıldız
Why Teddy Cruz?
In an age when designers and planners are fascinated with the visual potentials of information, data and geography, there needs to be more questioning of the long established norms and codifications of cartographic representation and what they sustain in the power relationships of the world. Our perception of global “north and south”, the socio-economic constructions of first, second and third tiers have to be redefined in the coming years. Teddy Cruz attempts to start this redefinition with his own research, looking closely into the mechanisms of crisis, shortage and sufficiency.
Şevin Yıldız: On what level were you first involved in the continuous informal and formal exchange between Tijuana and San Diego? (Was it more on a policy level, the urban sprawl or the creative architectonics of the settlements?)
Teddy Cruz: Much of the research on the trans-border urbanisms that have informed my practice first began as simply a desire to critically observe the specificity of the San Diego – Tijuana border territory, how one oscillates back and forth between two radically different ways of constructing city. At no other international juncture in the world one can find some of the wealthiest real state as the one found in the edges of San Diego’s sprawl, barely twenty minutes away from some of the poorest settlements in Latin America, manifested by the many slums that dot the new periphery of Tijuana. These two different types of suburbia are emblematic of the incremental division of the contemporary city and the territory between enclaves of mega wealth and the rings of poverty that surround them. I am interested in processes of mediation that can produce critical interfaces between and across these opposites, exposing conflict as an operational devise to transform architectural practice. The critical observation of this locality transforms this border region into a laboratory from which to reflect the current politics of migration, labor and surveillance, the tensions between sprawl and density, formal and informal urbanisms, wealth and poverty, all of which incrementally is characterizing the contemporary city every where.
ŞY: Do you think San Diego and Tijuana constitute a “bi-national” urban planning problem or is it a problem that should first be addressed as a country-wide immigration policy problem?
TC: The Tijuana-San Diego bi-national planning problem is emblematic of both scales and contexts you mention in your question. On one hand, it suggests the stupidity of nation state border-envelopes, administrative boundaries that truncate the fluidity of ecological and social flows. In this sense, this border region is emblematic of a crisis that will redefine the world’s cartography in the next decades: the emerging conflicts across shifting geopolitical boundaries, natural resources and communities, the politics of water, the re-definition of density and the meaning of citizenship everywhere. On the other hand, this region becomes also the instrument to re-think national policies in the context of immigration, labor and surveillance in the US. The 11 million illegal immigrants that live in the US are an essential part of its economy, an issue that cannot continue to be ignored. So the triangulation between the politics of immigration and labor and the redefinition of the American neighborhood by immigrants will point the way to a more sustainable density made of mixed uses and micro economies. This will be one the most fundamental issues in re-thinking urbanization in many cities across the US in years to come.
ŞY: You wrote that your practice has been inspired by “powerlessness”. Is this powerlessness related to your role as an architect in the politics of space, the grand decisions made on policy levels?
TC: Yes. The sense of powerlessness I refer to has to do with the inability of the architecture profession to lead the way in rethinking systems and institutions of urban development in our time. We are absent from the debate, in shaping a political will to shape the city, its political economy. It really has to do with our absence from the politics and economic of development. During the last years of unprecedented deployment of neo-liberalist economic recipes of privatization, homogenization and control everywhere, architects have remained powerless, subordinated to the visionless environments defined by the bottom-line urbanism of the developer’s spreadsheet, making architecture simply a way of camouflaging corporate economic and political power, unconditionally. So, I can say, yes, this whole period of crisis represents an inspiration to imagining counter spatial procedures, political and economic structures that can produce new modes of sociability and encounter. Without altering the backward exclusionary policies that have been constructing the territory in the last years – the socio-political ground, our work will continue being a mere decoration of a selfish, oil hungry urbanization from China to Dubai, to New York.
ŞY: I know that you are closely interested in the feeling of “dissatisfaction” which you hope will move architects, but how can these concepts of “advocacy”, “participation”, “informality” be saved from the normalization and being romanticized in the circles of architectural elites? What would your agency be at this point?
TC: At some point we cannot be afraid of romanticizing these issues. It is a risk worth taking. We seem to endlessly move through a historical pendulum of actions and reactions, an ideological carrousel that keep us from constructing models of possibility. I am less interested on the image of the informal, I want to reveal its socio economic procedures, translate them into new modes of intervention into the formal city. I am interested in small gestures, on improving ways of living at the local level, closing the gap between social responsibility and artistic experimentation, spatial practices that can be sustainable in the long term out of temporal socio-cultural exchanges. All of this desire amounts to a redefinition of the architect-citizen, less defined by a professional identity, and more by the willingness to construct a course of action, a way of thinking, a new interface with a public culture. That is simply what participating means to me. Let’s not get confused about its contradictions. This is simply a time to ACT, to construct new agency, expanded models of urban pedagogy and practice.
ŞY: In the exhibition you prepared for PARC Foundation in NY in 2008, you tackled issues such as Pentagon’s new concept of non-integrating Gap & Functioning Core and the politics of multi-national outsourcing, what skills does the architect require reading this information and translating it into spatial strategies?
TC: Recently, I have been recollecting a passage I read in the New York Times a couple of years ago. It somehow has become the most inspirational statement I have read in questioning my role as an architect, the skills we are trained to enact as professional designers. This inspirational quote came from the least expected place: the first report to the US congress by General Petraeus, the chief US general in charge, in those days, of the war strategy in Irak. In this report Petraeus suggested to congress that after the experience in Irak, the contemporary US soldier should transform. Not anymore a high tech robot like figure armed with the latest gadgets that can dominate the Warfield from a distance. The contemporary soldier should instead engage the critical proximity of neighborhoods, transforming into an anthropologist, a social worker and versed in many languages! Now, even though this can sound scary, I thought, if the contemporary soldier is transforming why can’t we as architects… we need to appropriate the procedures of the other… not becoming necessarily anthropologists or social workers… but borrowing their procedures so as to operate differently in constructing critical observational research and alternative spatial strategies… In my mind, this is the most fundamental meaning of inter-disciplinarity: not only to share our points of view from the sanctity of our specializations, across the round table of discussion, as we usually do, but to actually contaminate each other with the alternative procedures of each other. In my case, at the border, is has been important to re-observe the actual hidden dynamics of socio-economic and political vectors embedded invisibly in the territory, learning from the actual conditions that have shaped the oddity of these sites of conflict. We need to challenge our reductive and limited ways of working, by which we continue seeing the world as a tabula rasa, on which to install the autonomy of architecture… we need to reorient our gaze towards the drama of such reality. This new realities, as Roemer Van Toorn told me, demand a new theory, a new practice.
ŞY: Do you think what you call “second hand urbanism” or “recycling” can yield to a new solution for housing shortage?
TC: The main lessons behind some of the invisible flows of traffic across the border (despite the apocalyptic implications of a more fortified border with intensified surveillance infrastructure), whether peoples, goods or services, is the new opportunities they yield for constructing alternative modes of encounter, dialogue, and debate, sharing resources and infrastructure and suggesting how the recycling of the fragments and situations of these two cities can allow new ways of conceptualizing housing and density. We have been documenting these illegal flows, physically manifested, in one direction, by the informal land use patterns and economies produced by migrant workers flowing from Tijuana and into San Diego, searching for the strong economy of Southern California, and by ‘infrastructural waste’ moving in the opposite direction to construct an insurgent, cross-border urbanism of emergency. This suggests that in the very act of recycling the urban debris of the ‘other’ city, Tijuana is constructing a second hand housing urbanism made of waste, whose foundation is not based on objects but on a process of threading topography, human and economic resources, social networks and programs, the political economy of waste and housing. Behind the façade of poverty there is a more compelling idea of housing as it not only treated as units of dwelling thrown in the territory, but conceived as a relational system grounded of social organization. A new paradigm can emerge here about sustainability, threading environmental, economic an social issues, and where housing becomes the main armature to construct public culture and infrastructure.
ŞY: Your input as the structural framework for the houses is also an acknowledgment of the architect for a practice without architects, which I believe is quite important. What is your stance in this acknowledgement, of what has been called “informality”?
TC: So far, I think, we continue to be seduced with the ‘image’ of the informal, as I mentioned before, and we are not translating its actual operative procedures. While I am interested in the emergent urban configurations produced out of social emergency, and the performatic role of individuals constructing their own spaces, I am also, primarily, interested in taking these patterns into other levels of functional translation. So, in this sense I am interested in pushing to other levels of meaning, let’s say, the work of someone like Christopher Alexander… believing that his theories were hijacked by a reductive stylistic sense of regionalism, and a folkloric idea of the vernacular… it became a style, rather than a system to re-organize the political economy of building.
In my mind, the informal vernacular -in the public’s imagination- continues to be reduced into a folkloristic image of either Italian hill towns or picturesque third world villages, the perennial idea of regionalism that has become stylized and static. Instead of a fixed image, I see the vernacular as a functional set of urban operations that allow the transgression of imposed political boundaries and top down economic models. I see the vernacular not as a noun but as a verb, which detonates traditional notions of site specificity and context into a more complex system of hidden socio-economic exchanges. I see the vernacular as the urban unwanted, that which is left over after the pristine presence of architecture with capital ‘A’ has been usurped and transformed into the tenuous scaffold for social encounter.
In this context, more than architectural form, designers can also design forms of socio-economic exchange, the conditions that might ‘frame’ the vernacular as opposed to ‘construct’ it. For me, the main cues from the vernacular in this case emerge from an acknowledgement of the invisibility of informal socio-economic procedures at play in many neighborhoods in the contemporary city, or in shantytowns. Here, the informal is more than a mere collection of romanticized bricollaged structures surrounded by street vendors. It is a new politics and economics of development. Again, it is important that we see beyond the ‘image’ of the informal… in order to reveal what is beneath it: the compelling socio-economic procedures that can shape a REAL new urbanism, one made of urban tactics of alteration and retrofit, instead of the now ubiquitous, developer-driven, pseudo-vernacular, FAKE facades of difference.
ŞY: Related to the question above, how important do you think it is to incorporate more the design of infrastructure into the practice of architecture? (Regarding your contribution to the houses in Tijuana Border)
TC: More than any other time in history, our idea of infrastructure must transform. We need to understand infrastructure beyond bridges and highways… we need to imagine a variety of scales and registers of infrastructure… allowing, facilitating, managing change, the mutation of the contemporary city. In this context, I believe that a new understanding of housing and density must be produced by which housing and density is seen less as an amount of per acre in an undifferentiated territory and more as an amount of social exchanges per acre within a very specific community… housing as an infrastructure towards a public culture.
ŞY: Finally, do you also study, other cases in the world, where recycled urbanism (Soweto for example) or border politics (Israeli wall) shape the organization and growth of the cities? If yes, what are the parallels that you see among these different geo-political cases?
TC: At some point it was important to connect these observations emerging from the radicalization of my own locality: the Tijuana-San Diego border across a world atlas and contact other critical border zones where similar conditions of socio-economic emergency and strategies of surveillance and control collided. This is what I called The Politica Equator, which joined the borders imposed on Tijuana, Melilla and Palestine… constructing a trans continental corridor of conflict between the 28 and 32 degrees North Parallel. While the physical conditions might vary across these environments… the conditions remain the same: Worlds divided between enclaves of economic power and military might and sectors of poverty and precariousness, between sites of overabundance and scarcity, between the wanted and the unwanted. One thing I am sure of: at this moment when the economic power of the privileged sites of development has collapsed, it is time to suggest that it is in sites of scarcity –not of abundance- where the new urban paradigms will emerge, to construct new ideas about infrastructure, housing and density.
Şevin Yıldız is an architect, editor and writer. Graduated from Istanbul Technical University and later on KULeuven Belgium, she now conducts her research and teaching at New Jersey Institute of Technology in the United States. Apart from her architectural practice, she was the editor of Betonart Magazine and worked as the local director of the City Projects of Istanbul at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006. She took part in collaborative projects, like StudyoKahem at the 10th Istanbul Art Biennale or the exhibition House: A Settlement Negotiation . She was also part of the Night School Program at the New Museum, NY (2008-9).
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License .
/Creative Commons License