Reflections of my Duplexity

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    Dams Nations, Missile Tests, and the Wild West (pt.1)

    By sdonnelly
    Feb 28, '18 12:09 PM EST

    There is something fascinating when you hear about a particular place so much via the news, word of mouth, or cultural perceptions that when an individual finally gets the chance to visit, their preconceived notions are shattered and whatever they thought of that place before are proven entirely wrong. The southwest, El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico left me in just such a state of mind. 

    Last week my studio, led by Kathy Velikov who is one of the most forward thinking and brilliant academic minds I have had the honor to be taught by, traveled to the American southwest to the border city of El Paso, In the news and other media, this area is portrayed as a hell hole, with murders, death, drugs, all located in a barren landscape, with the governments fighting to control a otherwise lawless region. this is entirely false. That is why we traveled to Texas and Juarez, Mexico to study the transnational conditions, to prove that the conceived notions of the border and how it is shared are completely skewed. This area has been identified as containing a third nation mentality by writer and researcher Michael Dear. This term implies that regions in separate countries that lie on the border from one another often have more in common with themselves cultural, ideologically, historically, economically, and more than their own home nation. The El Paso-Juarez urban area encompasses all pre-described traits with the added sharing of a major water resource, the Rio Grande river. This idea of a shared yet split condition prompted our travel for the studio and the overall research prompt itself. 

    The wild west experience began right off the bat when we landed and headed straight for the pedestrian bridge that connects not only the two cities, but also two combined economies, cultures, and traditions. Walking the bridge we stopped halfway where the national boundary between the US and Mexico cut it in half. From the apex of the bridge you could see the difference in how both nations treated the Rio Grande. The river is already channeled into a concrete basin and is so controlled only trickles of water now flow through it, an alien site to the river that was hundreds of feet wide and was truly Grande in scale. The US had built massive highway infrastructure and border security walls/sections creating an imposing zone that blocked most views of Mexico. Juarez on the other hand had allowed its urban fabric to grow right up to the edge of the river channel. Houses, businesses, and even parks lined the contested territory; the day and night approaches to urbanism strikingly evident at every angle. The most amazing thing was the number of people walking back and forth across the bridge, the border a thriving entity in a supposed barren deadly landscape. 

    Once we crossed into Mexico we were met by one of the professors from the architecture department at Texas Tech in El Paso, Stephen Muller. Stephen proceeded to give us a short but in depth tour from the border bridge in Juarez down to the city center. This thoroughfare is lined by businesses that cater towards the tourist market on the American side who come to drink and consume the cheaper food, alcohol, and goods. Once we get to the center we are treated to the sights and sounds of a busy Juarez, quite the opposite of the bombed out and depressed one seen in the media. Markets, food vendors, kids playing, and groups of people exploring the sites and commercial stores are hustling by us. This downtown core held the cathedral, major museums, sport venues, and plaza's of the city. 

    After a few hours spent walking around, Stephen brought us to the Kentucky Bar for drinks and food. This bar is famous for inventing the margarita in 1920, the local drink of the region now made world famous. I was completely sleep depraved and exhausted, but I could not have asked for a more amazing and eye opening first day of studio travel. After the drinks, which were incredible, the class and I walked back over the border where we encountered a longer process to get back into the US as the border wall and security was so intense, finally making it back to our hotel in downtown El Paso. The travel, walking, drinks, and soon proceeded to knock me out, and for good reason as  the next day of my intense adventure would include nearly 400 miles of road tripping and some of the most incredible natural scenery I would ever see in my life.

    -More from trip to follow-

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About this Blog

The reflections, recollections, and insights from the viewpoint of a dual-masters student here at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture. My three year journey to obtain a Masters of Architecture and a Master of Urban Design has brought me, and will continue to take me, through some of the most incredible, toughest, happiest, and satisfying moments and experiences of my life. Please join me through the wanderlust that is my design and academic expedition.

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