Alastair Gordon is an award-winning critic, curator, cultural historian, and author. He has written on art, architecture, design, and the environment for the New York Times, WSJ.: The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Le Monde, and numerous other publications, and has authored more than twenty-eight books on the human environment.
Robert M. Rubin is a historian of architecture, film, and contemporary art. Most recently he edited and introduced Richard Prince Cowboy (2020). His curatorial credits include Richard Prince: American Prayer, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, in 2011, and Walkers: Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact, which originated at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, in 2016 and will travel in 2021 to Deauville, France, in conjunction with the Deauville American Film Festival there.
Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman is a research-based political and architectural practice in San Diego that investigates intersections of informal urbanization, civic infrastructure, and public culture. They represented the United States in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Cruz and Forman are professors of visual arts and politics, respectively, at the University of California, San Diego. Together they lead the UCSD Community Stations, a platform of the Center on Global Justice (gjustice.ucsd.edu).
In a settlement on the outskirts of Tijuana, immediately adjacent to the US-Mexico border wall, construction of a new housing project for migrant refugees began earlier this year. Based on a framework of prefabricated structural elements produced in collaboration with a nearby factory, the building is part of a larger initiative led by architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman. The two are professors at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and principals of the research-based practice Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman. Their work has long centered on issues related to urban policy and development, particularly in this border region, and on the capacity of design to help tackle urgent challenges and crises.
Cruz and Forman recently joined cultural historian Robert Rubin and critic Alastair Gordon to speak about this project and its connections to the modernist designer Jean Prouvé, whose innovations in modular building systems included designs for housing that placed architecture in the service of pressing social needs. Their discussion took place this fall, in the lead-up to the US presidential election.
Alastair GordonThis seems like such a timely project. Does it have an official name?
Teddy Cruz That’s a good question. There are actually two projects. One is a social-housing project, and that’s the one that’s now under construction. There’s also a community center, a “People’s House”—a reference to Jean Prouvé’s Maison du Peuple, in Clichy—that will be built within the same settlement. So I don’t know . . . we’ve been seduced by the idea of Prouvé in Tijuana, or . . .
Robert RubinProuvé at the Border.
AG Or, how about Prouvé Challenges Trump’s Wall?
Fonna FormanThere you go!
AGWhere are they geographically?
FFBoth projects are located in Los Laureles Canyon, in an informal settlement of about 90,000 people that crashes right up against the border wall on the western periphery of Tijuana. Both sites lie in the shadow of the multinational factories that have sprung up since nafta, producing global exports and drawing labor from the canyon settlements.
TC The social-housing project is in the heart of a refugee camp, a UCSD Community Station designed for over 300 Central American migrant refugees. [Four UCSD Community Stations link the university’s Center on Global Justice with marginalized communities across the border region for teaching and research collaborations focused on poverty and social equity.] The housing is a seed project for an evolving sanctuary neighborhood that we’re developing with the migrants and with the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús, led by the activists Gustavo Banda-Aceves and Zaida Guillén. The Maison du Peuple project is part of a new Community Station connected to Colonos de la Divina Providencia, a nonprofit organization, led by the activist Rebeca Ramírez.
FFRight now, Divina has a small community center that addresses very basic needs: food, senior services, a weekly health clinic. With the new Community Station we hope to increase their capacity for social, economic, environmental, and cultural programming, in partnership with the university. Our aspiration is that the Community Station becomes a genuine civic hub for that community.
AGThe project serves a populace that has been completely demonized in this political moment. How is it to deal with the barrage of anti-immigrant propaganda? You’re in a sense coming up with metaphors to counter the inflammatory ones coming from the White House.
FFIt’s true. The region has become a lightning rod for American nativism; we see ourselves as weaving counternarratives, drawing on what we see as counterhegemonic practices. Things happen differently in this part of the world: there’s a lot more cross-border trust and cooperation, a lot more resilience and democratic agency, than the political rhetoric and sentiment would have you believe. Of course we also see terrible pain here, fear and pain. US migration and asylum practices are ripping families apart. Because of the proximity to the border wall, there’s a lot of ice monkey business and extralegal deportation, the proverbial knock at the door. If the police don’t like somebody in the neighborhood, they can literally pluck them out and deposit them across the wall.
What we’re trying to do is reimagine the migrant shelter as a more permanent infrastructure of inclusion and economic self-reliance.Fonna Forman
TCFor us, conflict and crisis have always been creative tools—tackling the crisis, exposing the mechanisms that produced it. The Trump administration has declared the border region to be a place of criminalization and polarization, manifested by the border wall. But we have always told a different narrative, one that sees the region in terms of hybrid identities, empathy, interdependence, and the kind of porosity that moves through the wall in terms of social aspirations, economy, and, ultimately, a migrant architecture. Instead of building that stupid wall, can we not invest in an informal settlement in order to increase its capacity and chart a common destiny?
RRThere’s a bottom-up creativity in Tijuana that’s filling a void of neglect—people are moving to do what the government is failing to do. The demonization of poor people and people of color by the current US administration adds a layer of challenge, but also a layer of motivation and inspiration for these counternarratives.
AGAnd it’s not just about migrants moving through. There’s a possibility of continuity and permanence, of putting down roots.
FFYes, that’s central to what we do. There’s a tendency to think of migrant shelters as ephemeral, transitory spaces. What we’re trying to do is reimagine the migrant shelter as a more permanent infrastructure of inclusion and economic self-reliance, where staying is an option and where the migrant and her children are welcomed into the civic, cultural, and economic life of the city. As migrants wait in line for unjust US asylum processes that are never going to happen for them, Tijuana is increasingly becoming their home.
AGRobert, you’ve been involved in this project as well. How did the three of you come together?
RRIn 2008, the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] in New York was putting together a show called Home Delivery about the history of prefabricated housing. The curator, Barry Bergdoll, convened a focus group to which Teddy and I were invited, along with several other architects who had their finger in the prefabrication pie. Teddy—I had no idea who he was at the time—started excoriating the group for drifting toward a yuppified conception of prefabrication. He suggested that if they wanted to do something really radical, they would provide a basic framework for people in need to kit out their own homes.
I sought him out afterward and made him aware of my work with [Jean] Prouvé’s architecture. [In 2000, Rubin restored one of Prouvé’s Maisons Tropicales (designed in 1949) in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo; he and his wife, Stéphane Samuel, then donated it to the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Rubin also curated the exhibition Jean Prouvé: Three Nomadic Structures, shown in New York and Los Angeles in 2003–05.] We talked about Prouvé’s engagement with the housing emergencies of the mid-twentieth century, and also about his integration of design into activism. We continued to exchange thoughts over the years.
TCOur studio ended up being invited to be part of that show at MoMA, because of our work engaging nafta factories and their prefabricated systems to support emergency housing inside the informal settlements that surround them. But this early research work wasn’t yet connected to Prouvé.
RRWhen I went to Tijuana in the early 2000s, for the first time since 1975, I was amazed at the impact that nafta had had on the manufacturing base. The city had become a sea of factories, and its slums had expanded exponentially. More recently I went again with Teddy and Fonna, and we visited a company called Mecalux, a key participant in their program. Mecalux produces prefabricated big-box storage buildings for companies like Amazon and Walmart, and they make a very Prouvé-esque product: they use the buildings’ shelves as structural elements.
TCYes, we proposed adapting Mecalux’s typical shelving systems into flexible scaffolds for incremental housing, transforming them into anticipatory frameworks to support the evolutionary patterns of informal urbanization, which happen through time and in layers, as resources become available. The president of the factory, Angel de Arriba, loved the idea.
FF He’s been a wonderful partner. He and his engineering manager, David Felix Mancera, are genuinely moved by what they see as the humanitarian potential of our work together. Angel has subsidized the materials, and he’s been really receptive when we bring him prototypes and show him how we’ve been able to do things.
TC This had been a conceptual dream: While Tijuana is a tax haven for these multinationals, could we, as architects, hold these institutions accountable, and help to redirect their resources to communities in need?
FFOne of the interesting things about a border region like this is that for the conservative business community, flow and porosity are just as important as they are for the human-rights community—another counternarrative to conventional US antagonisms between left and right.
RRThat’s a great point. The people who are most positive about open cross-border flow are the people who actually live and work in these cities.
FFThey think about the region in terms of economic development. We’ve tried to make that concept more accountable and equitable.
TCOnce we started working with Mecalux, Prouvé became an inspiration in the shape of the system. We communicated with Bob and agreed to collaborate. That was when Bob said, “You know what? I have this container in Paris with the remnants of the Maison Tropicale. Why don’t I send it to you in Tijuana?”
RRMy project in taking the Maison Tropicale out of Africa was to restore and display what I thought was Prouvé’s magnum opus. The house was sitting there in war-torn Brazzaville, and I thought it was an important prototype to rescue. Afterward I had a lot of leftover pieces. The Maison Tropicale was a prototype of an industrial building system, and any iteration of those parts is as genuine as any other iteration, so for various reasons we’d made a building a bit smaller than it had been in Brazzaville. A number of panels had been cut for air conditioning, for example, and rather than repair them we just put them aside. The guy who was storing the pieces in Paris was bugging me to get them out of storage, and I initially said, Well, I could give them to artist friends and they could make work with them. But I realized that would run counter to everything I’d been doing as a custodian of Prouvé’s legacy. The light bulb went off and I said, I’m going to send this stuff to Teddy and Fonna and let them figure out what to do with it. They’re the rightful heirs.
The project we’re undertaking now is really about resituating Prouvé’s legacy by creating a counternarrative to the collecting of his furniture, or the recycling of bits and pieces of his buildings, into redecorated lofts and the like.
AGBesides the Maison Tropicale parts that you shipped to Tijuana, you also sold a Prouvé chair at auction?
RRThat was another “aha” moment. I was pitching the project to an architecture critic, and she said “It sounds great, come back when you’ve built something.” So I was looking around the living room and I saw this Kangourou armchair, the mate of another that I’d sold at Sotheby’s in 2005, at an auction I’d organized to finance the restoration of the Maison Tropicale. I’d been living with the chair for two decades and I said, Well, why don’t we sell the chair to create the cornerstone grant for the social-housing project? That was very much in the spirit of Prouvé, who used the profits from his furniture-manufacturing business to fund his social-housing experiments. It’s a testament to him that the chair brought $400,000, which was enough to launch the social-housing project. We’re about two-thirds funded at this point. Like Prouvé, we used profit from the furniture to underwrite a social-housing experiment.
AGIt’s a brilliant concept and you’re shaping a different narrative. It’s extending Prouvé’s social vision, which has probably been submerged in the past twenty years. I like to think that you’re saving DNA specks of Prouvé from art-world fetishization.
Teddy and Fonna, how will you incorporate the pieces Bob gave you? Will they be integrated in a structural way?
This community has been building its own architecture, “Prouvé-like,” through adaptation and retrofit.Teddy Cruz
TCWe have about thirty pieces to work with, some of them very small. Initially, Fonna and I were thinking, Let’s do a house! But then we said, Wait a minute, that would keep them in the private realm. Why don’t we make the pieces part of the Divina Community Station? After all, it’s like the Maison du Peuple, the house of the people. So we’re going to hybridize somehow. The building will be a scaffold that will be flexible for a variety of changing programs—an informal market and other temporal activities. One idea that’s growing from the heart of our activist partner Rebeca Ramírez is to create a small high school—there isn’t a single high school in this 90,000-person settlement. Through UCSD, we have connections in San Diego to help support such a plan. So there’s not only architectural DNA in the project, but DNA for a new cross-border public imagination.
AGIs this insertion of the Prouvé elements a benefit?
TCThat’s an interesting thing. Having Prouvé as an interlocutor obviously brings visibility to the project, but there’s also the idea of knowledge exchange, since this community has been building its own architecture, “Prouvé-like,” through adaptation and retrofit. When we do workshops with our community partners, we always talk about how we’re learning from the entrepreneurial processes of informal urbanization. These settlements recycle the waste of San Diego: garage doors, disposable structures, entire houses. So the waste of San Diego is repurposed into a secondhand urbanization, as we call it. We’re there to collaborate on figuring out how to scale that up, proposing structural support systems. So in our minds, Prouvé is understood in this spirit of coproduction and reciprocity, through which prefabricated systems can support bottom-up creativity. What I’m trying to say is that in this conversation with our partners, we’re talking not about an imposition or an act of colonization but about an opportunity to amplify the story of entrepreneurship, enabling Prouvé to become a seed to stimulate economic development within informal settlements.
RRYou can certainly critique Prouvé for some of the colonizing aspects of his projects, but he was a principled activist. He refused to collaborate with the Germans [during the Occupation]. After the war, the Allies named him mayor of Nancy. He oversaw a major postwar emergency-shelter program, and he collaborated with the great Abbé Pierre on housing for the poor. At some level I’m engaged in an income-redistribution project here, trying to redirect funds from the art and design collecting milieu by provoking some kind of a social conscience. Even if you don’t know exactly who Prouvé was, there’s something to be said for having important historical precedents for social justice and design coming together in such an entrepreneurial way.
FFWe are really mindful of the power dynamics whenever an institution like a university arrives in a community with ideas of how to make life better. Our work is horizontal and participatory, a project of mutual learning and coproduction. The way we’re appropriating Prouvé’s legacy, even our integration of the pieces themselves, is respectful of local building vernaculars and building practices. What we’re proposing is a kind of hybrid of local practices and a modular prefabricated vision. Our incremental building process is respectful of local labor and of the participatory energies and vision of the people who will inhabit the structures they’re building.
We’re also thinking about how the arrival of Prouvé in a site like this can help us communicate to larger academic, architectural, and design circles about his intentions and how they can be reappropriated to address the challenges now faced by people across the world. Migratory shifts are dramatic, and the housing crisis is going to become more and more intense in the next decade because of climate change, political instability, and nationalism. This is the challenge of our time.
AGYou were mentioning how the actual structures are put together in a grassroots way.
TCYes. This is an architecture of parts, right? It’s an architecture that accepts the heterogeneous and the idiosyncratic. For our community partners to understand the potential and the transformability of these parts, we created a bus stop to be replicated across the canyon. We built it with our students and local labor.
Now the social-housing project is increasing the scale of this whole thing. We believe that social housing cannot be understood only as “units.” It needs to be embedded in an infrastructure of productivity and support with social, pedagogical, cultural, and economic programming. Part of the idea is to thread the housing with economic incubators within the building—a construction shop with fabrication machines, a tool library, two tractors. After the project is finished, the community then has a mechanism for generating revenue to support the social programs.
AGThe upper levels will have residential space while below it will be industrial?
TCIt’s both. We have capacity for twenty-five units for families and two economic incubators on the ground, but there will also be other units above, on lofts and mezzanines.
We’re building in layers: first the overall structure, made of Mecalux frames over concrete columns and beams. That’s going to be covered by sliding plastic doors and shading—very affordable systems that are accessible in Tijuana. Once we finish the envelope, the migrants will move into one of the wings, because they’re living in tents right now. The other wing is where we’ll install the construction shop, so that they can begin to fill the interior with a variety of living and working environments.
AGWill the materials be made available by the nonprofit organization, Colonos de la Divina Providencia?
TCAt that point it will be partly hybrid. We want to provide a compendium of materials, but it will include recycled materials because those are so ubiquitous as part of everyday life here.
RR These are the materials that come over on trucks from San Diego, right?
TCExactly. There are houses being built in this area with recycled garage doors and pallet racks, retaining walls made from old tires, a kind of concrete post-and-beam vernacular with recycled houses on top.
AGThese are mainly from US landfills and dumps?
FFYes, and construction debris. There’s a whole economy of brokers who bring this stuff across.
RRWhat has always appealed to me about Teddy and Fonna’s practice is that so much architecture today is either preciously self-referential or overly focused on its formal qualities. So how do you reinvigorate the practice of architecture? In the twenty-first century you have to inject a social-justice element. Architecture isn’t very interesting unless it’s making the world a better place.
AGI agree. In many ways, architecture has become a lost art form. Without a social or environmental dimension, it’s little more than glorified window dressing.
TCOne question that always drives our work is, Where is our public imagination today? Who is the client for architects today? It used to be that the public was architecture’s client, and architecture was supported by a broad commitment to investing in the public good. Now, with the privatization of everything . . . For us, and for Bob in this case, we need to reimagine the client to shape a new public commitment from the bottom up. And we have to intervene in the contexts that the profession has maybe not been looking at as the places from which to begin to reconstruct and rehabilitate.
RRWhat Teddy and Fonna have demonstrated in their practice is that architecture really doesn’t have any meaning unless the end users are part of the process. They’re not just clients, they’re participants. That’s a key distinction. Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale could be erected by two people without using any machines. This was a logistical requirement. What we’re layering onto that logistical imperative is another kind of imperative, a social imperative. We’re recycling Prouvé to keep his ideas alive.
For information on how to support this project, contact the UCSD Center on Global Justice: gjustice.ucsd.edu/contact/