Teddy Cruz: Thinking Architecture without Buildings

Right now a passionate discussion is going on in the architectural field. On one side there are more socially conscious architects trying to find ways how their profession can improve lives of people living in marginalized and poor areas. And on the other side are those architects who claim this is rather a social work and it does not move architecture as a specialized discipline forward. Teddy Cruz is one of the most prominent architects representing the more socially-oriented thinking line, and as he says in an interview with Filip Šenk: the future of our cities depends less on buildings and more on the reorganization of socio-economic relations. Teddy Cruz was co-invited by the Aspen Institute Prague as one of the keynote speakers of reSITE Conference 2017.

FILIP ŠENK: In your lectures, you often stress that public space can educate people. Can you explain what sort of architecture or design, in general, can have such power?

TEDDY CRUZ: There might be some physical attributes of the space itself or even of the infrastructural frame of the space that may suggest a pedagogical dimension. But what I meant especially with the Medellin case is something else. The concept there was to turn the public space into a site for increasing capacities of communities. That means not only for political actions but also civic awareness, engagement, participation. It is not only the physical form but the space needed to be programmed with very particular activities and performances. This content needed to be co-curated by the local communities, cultural institutions, government, civic philanthropy,and universities. Such cross-section coalition-supported and funded content emerged from the local community. This is what ́s beautiful about it. The local community is famous for recycling things, and many exhibitions and events were planned to bring relevant science to the level where it is easily accessible. The point is the relationship of physical space to strategically chosen program that assures the space will be used in a particular way.

Can you give an example from your own studio?

I can mention one of the projects that Fonna Forman, my partner, and I developed on San Diego-Tijuana border – the Cross-Border Community Stations. It is planned as a vertical public space dedicated to programs coming from the University of California San Diego, where we teach, in collaboration with local communities. It is built through time with different exposed layers and all of the composition is transparent. I believe this space should be transparent socially, culturally, economically. Thus the overall composition suggests the building could be pedagogical, because people can see how it is developed using methods they themselves are using in an informal architecture. Aesthetically and materially the space almost didactically shows a formal solution inspired by architecture without architects, but not in a folkloristic way. We reject the idea of developing identity through style which has been for a long time in the heart of architecture.

Art and architecture have the power to shift consciousness. In this case, we care more about civic awareness, about sensibility for coexisting, for people being accountable for each other’s acts.

You stress that to change our cities you have to first change minds and hearts of people. Can architecture help the change or does architecture come after the change? It seems to me it works both ways at the same time.

It definitively works both ways. Art and architecture have the power to shift consciousness. In this case, we care more about civic awareness, about sensibility for coexisting, for people being accountable for each other’s acts. I ́m talking about places that have been hugely alienated by violence and people retreated into their private spaces because of fear. The idea to change hearts and minds already presupposes a society that is willing to change. The former mayor of Medellin decided all the resources should be redirected to most impoverished areas of the city. He was committed to building beautiful buildings in those areas. He used dramatic and powerful architecture as a way to restore the dignity of those people. It is not aesthetics for aesthetics itself. If you build something special as those public library parks in the previously violent, conflicted, and marginalized zones, people notice. Architecture can restore the dignity of a certain area but not on its own terms. These public library parks were planned as beautiful but above all open and accessible architecture.

You focus on public space and its openness. You work with the idea of socially conscious architecture. How does the current political situation with President Trump who got elected with rhetoric based on walls and barriers affected your praxis?

At the end of the day, it consolidates the commitment in terms of local community. And what is remarkable, that applies even for the conservative community. One of the most important civic leaders in San Diego today is a Republican. He is a businessman and he wants to get rid of the existing wall between San Diego and Tijuana. He recognizes how it affects the economic flow and vibrancy. In a surprising way, the conservative community is linked with the progressive critique of the wall. In fact, a group of San Diego developers built a bridge that transgresses border wall for business purposes. In the seventies, a famous urban planner, Kevin Lynch, was invited to the city by local civic leaders to draft a plan for the city. When he came, he realized Tijuana is next door and the first thing he said was: the future of San Diego depends on the future of Tijuana. I say we cannot think one city without the other because that would be regionally a suicide. Kevin Lynch suggested San Diego and Tijuana need to think how to collaborate, how to coexist. He didn’t say it explicitly, but if the wall is going to be there the cooperation is almost impossible.

Did people listen?

Tijuana paid attention to the wall and built an international airport just behind it. San Diego never did anything about it, ignored it only. Now a group of businessmen came up with the idea to use the proximity of the airport and build a parking lot on the San Diego side. They also built a bridge connecting the parking lot to the airport. You can park your car, check in, and you go straight to your gate, which avoids all the lines and crossing the official border. They just opened it recently. This is the only effective piece of infrastructure that crosses the border. It is a completely anti-Trump thing but it is driven by the business community.

Architecture can restore the dignity of a certain area but not on its own terms.

Many people supporting the wall are rural people living in the Midwest. They are far away from the border. People who live in close proximity to the wall understand the implications how the wall is undermining environmental tendencies as well as social relationships.

Can you say a bit more about your survey on cross-border citizenship?

I work in collaboration with Fonna Forman, a political theorist. Both of us have been researching Latin American cities, places that have suffered from alienation, from a lot of violence, and that have restored civic dignity. Fonna Forman focuses also on human rights and for instance was part of a special United Nations commission to update and review the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A lot of our work has been focused on social norms and normative aspects of current systems. We search for ways to intervene and shift systems to motivate will to cooperation. We co-direct the Center on Global Justice at UCSD inside which our cross-border initiative lives. And therefore we also met Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogota, because he is one of the leaders in advancing strategies for rethinking public policy. When he was a mayor of Bogota, he started to intervene in the city with artists and cultural producers.

For instance, in one famous event here placed the compromised traffic police with mimes. Very idiosyncratic interventions in cooperation with artists, curators, and cultural producers began to build the level of public awareness and civic engagement. After his last term, after 8 years of being a mayor, he created a center, an NGO Corpovisionarios, where he documented and consolidated all his experience with public policy. They produced a citizenship cultural survey of 52 quirky questions, which is not your usual social sciences survey but rather a cultural instrument. He said citizenship is a cultural concept. And how do you construct it? He built the survey to help other municipalities in Latin America to rethink their public policy and reorient public spending. He worked with 15 cities in Latin America and the data gained through this survey were very revealing.

We cannot think one city without the other because that would be regionally a suicide.

For instance, it revealed Tijuana had the largest index of domestic violence. Once it reveals zones of vulnerability the municipality can reorient their resources to tackle them. Artists would be now called to support very specific intervening scripts. In the end, the survey became a script for urban interventions. What precedes the programmatic is the change in public policy. We asked why not to make a survey not dedicated to one city but a survey on the border between two cities to see their interdependence?  What are their myths, beliefs, and correspondences about each other? We performed it and it revealed these cities want to collaborate. There is an understanding of positive implications of regional public sensitivity that transcends the jurisdictional border. To achieve a change we now have to educate people on cross-border citizenship.

You want to learn from poor areas, gain useful knowledge from informal urbanism. What sort of knowledge is that?

We argue we can learn from the slums of Tijuana to reinvent the oil-hungry suburbia which is the DNA of Southern California. If we are able to translate many of their unconscious strategies of development, the way people self-organize, the way they correspond to topography, we can improve the future of our cities. There are many strategies we could extrapolate, but we cannot see slums just as a façade of poverty. I said many times that informal urbanism is not just style or certain aesthetics, as many artists unfortunately believe, but urbanistic praxis.

I said many times that informal urbanism is not just style or certain aesthetics, as many artists unfortunately believe, but urbanistic praxis.

In San Diego when you go to immigrant neighborhoods, usually these are postwar single-family residences, smaller houses. In the last 60 years, the American dream of a single-family house has completely transformed to more complex social economic dynamics that are from 80 % nonconformist, I don’t want to say illegal. People found their economy in a garage or a house and used it in a way that is not allowed or wasn’t planned. If the first ring of suburbanization outside of city has transformed so radically already, can we anticipate how the subsequent rings of suburbanization will transform in next 100 years? From there emerges the idea that the future of South California depends on the transformation of the large to the small. Can large, big box economy development with huge houses adapt to the future by turning into smaller environments? Not only in terms of the size of its buildings but also in terms of programs.

But what sort of knowledge for such a transformation you have in mind?

The transformation of the city through informal economies and informal planning contains intelligence. There is creativity in a way how people negotiate with space, boundaries, retrofit environments and provide them with program… there are social and spatial strategies that are off the radar of institutions of planning or even universities. In fact, the schools of architecture lack tools to methodologically measure and visualize those dynamics. Most of the students are educated how to do buildings as self-contained entities. Our architectural education is ignoring the complexity of this social-political dynamics. Part of the problem is people are afraid of these issues because what they see is messiness, an idiosyncratic montage of informal ways of living. Learning obviously doesn’t mean reproducing it one to one. What you can take is, for instance, the different idea of density. The issue is how to socialize density? Density is not a sum of objects but of social interactions. How do buildings perform in thoseterms? How they create social frames?

What vision you have for the city of the future? You say Dubai or London is not the future… so what the city of future can be like?

A lot of people are seduced by the idea of self-driving cars and many such ideas. OK, but it is the same model of individual transport vehicle even though it is flying. Can we speculate the city of the future might completely shift this paradigm? Enrique Penalosa said a city of the future is not where poor can buy a car but where the rich use mass transportation.

The future of the city depends less on buildings, glamorous dream castles architects tend to design, but more on the reorganization of socio-economic relations.

For the future of the city, I say something that is professional suicide: the future of the city depends less on buildings, glamorous dream castles architects tend to design, but more on the reorganization of socio-economic relations. As designers, we need to figure out how to re-engage public policy that is inclusive from the bottom up. Top-down welfare state might not be possible any longer. The big metropolitan global capitals of capitalism have become hugely mono-cultural and hugely mono-use. The explosion of urbanization in many Asian and Arab states taught us nothing. These are neoliberal models driven by architecture of icons, it is a culture of self-referential objects built by immigrant working force living in a marginalized periphery. We cannot afford such alienation anymore as downtown cities are emptied out. We have to make future cities more inclusive. This question must be tackled by designers. It is about democratizing the urban planning and not having one huge developer building one big block or area but looking for ways how we can diversify that.

In the past, Fonna and I admired the social democratic model of many European cities driven by public commitment, investment in infrastructure to create a frame, but in later years later we realized that such model was possible only because those societies were so homogenous. When immigrants enter the equation things start to break up. The future of the city depends also on progressive political leadership that is inclusive and enables a new public policy that accepts difference. I know these are very idealistic and romantic visions, however, in the immigrant areas we research, we see it is possible.

Teddy Cruz was co-invited by the Aspen Institute to Prague as one of the keynote speakers of reSITE Conference 2017. Aspn.me/TeddyCruz


TEDDY CRUZ is an American architect, urbanist, Professor in Public Culture and Urbanism in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego. Cruz is principal of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, a research-based political and architectural practice based in San Diego, in partnership with University of California, San Diego political theorist, Fonna Forman. Cruz‘s architectural and artistic projects have been exhibited at internationally renowned venues, including: the Tijuana Cultural Center, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Carnegie Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, San Francisco Art Institute, Casa de America in Madrid, Spain, and Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement at the Museum of Modern Art. Apart from his design work, Cruz‘s project at UCSD, Community Stations, champions the mutual exchange of knowledge between universities and communities, the latter of which he feels have their own valuable resources and assets that are often overlooked. | Photo: Aspen Review Archive

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