- April 3, 2021
just Architecture or Just architecture?
Two opposing architectural agendas have evolved in the last decades, shaping a debate about the role of architecture in constructing the contemporary city. The first position conceives architecture as a self-referential language, articulating the city as a collection of discrete buildings existing above a neutral, undifferentiated, and speculative platform, shaped by the market forces. The latter sees architecture as an infrastructure in which social flows, economic resources, and environmental dynamics are managed coherently to mobilize specific interfaces between private and public interests and contingencies of everyday life.
Our work has always been drawn to this second approach––a more infrastructural and political dimension of architecture—as we become more disappointed with the political neutrality of the field, in the context of a neoliberal political economy and its role in widening the gap not only between wealth and poverty, but also between artistic experimentation and social responsibility.
Is there value to disciplinary autonomy, and is it meaningful to the people you work with and design for?
Our position has always been that the design fields are uniquely positioned to advocate for more experiential dimensions of beauty, based less on visual quality and more on social vibrancy, of encountering and co-existing with others—an aesthetic quality that embraces contradictions and risk, and emerges out of inclusiveness. This means engaging actors other than private developers to co-produce the city, imagining other forms of ownership, resource management, and other financial arrangements to assure social and economic inclusion, and implementing other mechanisms of institutional accountability. At the bottom, we need to reclaim the public. The emerging unprecedented urban inequality in the last three decades is all the evidence we need: the ‘free market’ will never assure social and economic justice.
Who are these other actors and how do you engage with them through your work?
Our practice is an unconventional partnership between a political theorist and an architect, investigating “informal” urban dynamics and emergent collective practices – social, moral, economic, political, spatial. Our research has always been motivated by the positive impact of immigrants on the city. Their ingenious adaptation strategies and survival in conditions of scarcity have inspired our urban vision; we believe they generate more inclusive imaginaries of urban development.
The neighborhoods we engage at the US-Mexico border are sites of amazing informal resilience and creativity. But this ingenuity is typically off the radar of formal institutions with power and resources—hidden behind an undifferentiated screen of poverty and criminality and all the biases people associate with these conditions. We believe these informal practices need documentation and translation. The “official city” can learn from these urban processes. Peripheral communities are not passive victims of poverty. They are intensely active urban agents capable of challenging the dominant models of growth that have excluded them and denied their rights to the city. This creative knowledge needs to trickle up and inspire policymakers and planners to rethink their approaches to the city.
What is needed then is a more critical role for design to encroach into fragmented and discriminatory urban policies and economics, new models to facilitate interfaces between the top-down and the bottom-up. We very much see ourselves as curators of knowledge, urban translators, and facilitators of bottom-up intelligence to cultivate new communities of practice. Every project we do is a process of curating participation across sectors, convening the knowledge and resources necessary to conceive, design, fund, permit, build and program an intervention and sustain it in the long term.
Can architecture be used to address social and environmental issues today?
We have always maintained that architects can apply themselves not only to ‘solving’ immediate spatial problems, but also to critically investigating and countering the vectors of power that are creating so much social disparity and injustice across the world. Every site of intervention can be seen as a local manifestation of these broader inequalities and injustices.
From its foundation, our practice has embedded itself in the Tijuana-San Diego border region, as a sort of global laboratory for engaging the central challenges of urbanization today: nationalism and border-building, deepening social and economic inequality, dramatic migration, urban informality, climate change, really every imaginable challenge facing vulnerable people across the globe. In this sense, our work focuses on global conflicts as they manifest in a particular physical territory, as they hit the ground and impact real lives. These conflicts have been the detonator of design in our practice.
Do you have an example you found successful to achieve that?
These commitments over many years have manifested in a project called the UCSD Community Stations, a network of field hubs located in four underserved border neighborhoods, two in San Diego, two in Tijuana, where university researchers and students partner with community organizations on civic, educational and cultural and urban agendas and projects. The Community Stations enable a two-way flow that brings the knowledge of communities into the university to enrich research and education, and brings the knowledge of the university into communities to increase their capacity for political and environmental action. The Community Stations are sites for cultural production, collaborative research, youth mentorship and urban pedagogy. Together we develop urban pedagogies that increase public knowledge, cultivate community agency and capacity, and ultimately advocate for more equitable policies and practices in the city.
How can students and young architects engage with both?
When we encounter students and young architects and designers eager to advance urban justice, we encourage them to engage domains that are absent from the conversation, or peripheral to what we conventionally understand as design. Architects can do more than design buildings and physical systems. They can also design protocols for accessibility in terms of economy, civic participation, advocacy and shared governance. We are advocating for expanded modes of practice, through which architects can imagine counter spatial procedures, political, and economic structures that can produce new modes of sociability and encounter. We maintain that exposing and altering the exclusionary policies that have produced our current public crises can be the first act in producing a more experimental architecture, and new programmatic, formal, and aesthetic categories that problematize the relationship between the social, the institutional, and the spatial.