Interview with Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman


Volume 3, Issue 11
January 24, 2018


Cruz and Forman are principals in Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, a research-based political and architectural practice in San Diego, investigating issues of informal urbanization, civic infrastructure and public culture, with a special emphasis on Latin American cities. Blurring conventional boundaries between theory and practice, and transgressing the fields of architecture and urbanism, political theory and urban policy, visual arts and public culture, Cruz + Forman lead variety of urban research agendas and civic / public interventions in the San Diego-Tijuana border region and beyond.

A model of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman’s “Living Room at the Border,” a mixed-use, affordable housing project being developed in the border community of San Ysidro, CA in collaboration with the community-based non-profit, Casa Familiar.

Alejandro Duran & Orli Hakanoglu: We are interested in how architecture figures into your thought process as a political scientist, and what dimension architecture might take in the work of other people in your field. Are there any questions that you or other political scientists investigate relating to form or design?

Teddy Cruz & Fonna Forman: A major problem with the social sciences in general is a failure to think spatially.  To think and debate about democracy for example, to measure its successes and failures, without engaging the spaces in which democratic agency takes place—that’s a really limited, narrow way of thinking about politics. Another way of thinking about this, in terms of design, is that theories and ideas in the social sciences and philosophy often take the shape of ‘form’—much like form in architecture—without engaging the social, political and economic conditions, and the human experiences that animate them. One of the main commitments of our work is that social scientists need to learn to think spatially, and architects and urbanists need to learn to think ethically and politically.

AD & OH: Your work focuses a lot on site-specific activism and advocacy. Do you see questions involving space ever becoming elevated to the level of national discourse, on par with, say, issues of legal rights or healthcare? How and through what mediums? Should people care?

TC & FF: Absolutely, yes. While we are committed to engaging the local, bottom-up processes of informal urbanization, we have always been committed to bridging that incredible resiliency and knowledge with the knowledge and resources of top-down public and cultural institutions, for whom these bottom-up processes are often off the radar. We believe in public institutions investing robustly in public space. We don’t want to capitulate to the logics of privatization by claiming that the bottom-up local processes that we so admire can ‘go it alone’. We need a new public imagination. That’s why in our practice we consider ourselves mediators, or facilitators of bottom-up knowledge, in order to transform top-down urban policy.

AD & OH: Do any explicitly formal questions figure into your work? What is your work’s attitude towards form, given its prioritization of so many other variables in your process?

TC & FF: Obviously we understand and embrace the power of form, both from an aesthetic as well as a social dimension (marginalized communities also need beauty in their lives). But our dissatisfaction is with form for form’s sake, with uncomplicated political, social and economic agendas. In our work, we are trying to design not only the formal attributes but also the ‘pro-forma’ economic frameworks in tandem—so that we can be the designers of economic process to yield particular formal configurations.  Additionally, the small-scale spatial relations we explore are anticipatory of challenging policy agendas that have defined large-scale parcels as the unit of reference to constructing the city.

AD & OH: How do you work to communicate beyond the boundaries of your profession? How do you effectively engage the public, the experts in other fields, and others that you need to engage with on a regular basis? What interfaces do you imagine between the public and institutions like UCSD, your practice or the Yale School of Architecture?

TC & FF: Disciplinary languages and cultures in big research universities like ours, and yours, too often get in the way of integral ways of thinking and acting. The same is true for cross-sectoral engagement beyond the university. For one thing we are committed to tipping the model of university-community engagement from a vertical plane (where the university is seen as bearing all knowledge, and communities as empty vessels to be filled with our knowledge, or as laboratories for research—inert objects, in other words) to a horizontal plane, where universities and publics both have agency and knowledge, and communicate and collaborate as partners.

AD & OH: Do you think that in order for an idea to acquire agency it needs to gain traction on a massive scale? Or is it enough for the right people to know?

TC & FF: Mass thinking is scary right now with the rise of populist narratives of exclusion, border closure, misogyny, and race hatred—but we believe in democracy, we believe in collective will.  But we also believe in public knowledge, grounded in reflective, scientific and ethical realities. We believe deeply, for this reason, in urban/public pedagogy, committed to the ideals of equality, transparency, and public goods. We have been inspired by political leaders like Antanas Mockus in Bogotá, Colombia, for example, who believed in the possibility of constructing a citizenship culture as the foundation for a more just and equitable city—and that this required the mobilization of arts and culture to become agents of public knowledge.

AD & OH: By and large, buildings are built in response to consumer demand and within market dynamics. As a consequence, activist forms of architecture and political activism are the exception rather than the rule. Do you foresee a future where this is not the case?

TC & FF: We are designing for demographics whose needs are not part of market studies, and therefore our interest is in producing a new political economy of urban development that can emerge from the community capacity to produce its own local economies and urbanization. For these reasons, we have declared immigrant neighborhoods as laboratories for urbanizations of production, rather than the ubiquitous ideal of urban planning organized by logics of consumption.

AD & OH: We all agree there need to be fundamental shifts in how architecture is practiced, for whom it is built, etc. Who should these messages be targeted towards and how? What is the most effective way for the message to be broadcast and for change to be catalyzed across the wider community of practicing architects?

TC & FF: One of the tragedies in today’s political climate is the inability of institutions to name the problem for what it is, and to enact urgent adjustments in their own protocols. One institution that needs to transform fundamentally is our architectural education. So change begins in the schools. Unfortunately already for a long time, the client of architecture continues to be the 1%, in the absence of a public client. So while the more robust public investment comes back, there is a responsibility from us all, to help co-produce a more just city with others. As architects with political and ethical commitment, we cannot wait for the client: we need to create them. And in our case, pedagogically, one question has been: what are the processes and tools to increase a community’s capacity to produce spaces, housing, and infrastructure?

AD & OH: Does wresting control of the urban from the typical actors (the developer, the investor etc.) depend on a more fervent broadcasting of our message? To whom?

TC & FF: It’s not so much about broadcasting, but more about acquiring the knowledge of the developer and reorienting it to public benefit. This is something that can be taught: how a developer manipulates time and resources for private benefit. This can be hijacked and reconfigured by injecting into these logics our own sweat equity as architects, and the hidden value of community resources and participation for social programming.

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Volume 3, Issue 11
January 24, 2018

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