words Beatrice Galilee
Your exhibitions at the PARC Foundation and this year’s Venice Biennale focus on what you call border conditions. Why should architects examine this area?
The best opportunity for rethinking architecture is in the margins, in the conditions of conflict. My studio is based at the juncture of San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, the most trafficked border in the world. Some of the wealthiest people in the US can be found barely twenty minutes away from the poorest settlements in Latin America. There is a movement of waste and wealth and people. These flows, and the legal and illegal crossings on this border have inspired my small practice to develop new ways of housing the immigrants that are living legally and illegally in these fluctuating conditions.
What relationship is there between immigration and the local architecture?
Immigration has transformed the American city. Tijuana for example recycles the leftover materials of San Diego. The larger condominiums in San Diego are displacing post-war homes, which are moved into Tijuana. People put them on wheels and move them over the border. They are often then put on top of columns so the space underneath can be used for businesses.
How does this research manifest in your own architectural work?
It manifests conceptually. Part of my work is arguing that the neighbourhood is what we need to concentrate on, not the city. There is also a joint venture with the PARC Foundation to commission a series of affordable housing prototypes. It’s essential that architects enter the socio-political arena and participate in designing local economic processes: what really is the minimum size for a plot of land, can we build more houses in that area, are there new ways of challenging relationships of cost and density to allow more affordable and better housing?
Why are so few architects engaged in political processes today?
Perhaps because we have not been asking the right questions about resources, ownership and political processes. Architecture has recently been fascinated with the redevelopment boom in the cities. This redevelopment caused marginalisation, but people didn’t look into their own neighbourhoods. The people who inspired me as a student are now rushing to Dubai and China to build their dream castles. I don’t see many architects rushing to Bolivia or Peru or Caracas to participate in this debate. Social activists and small agencies that fight to sustain themselves and their communities are doing the most experimental work, not architects.
Do you think you would be more powerful force for change if you were a politician, not an architect?
It’s not about becoming politicians. Instead we should expose conflicts that we have been far from understanding. Bernard Tschumi said in the mid-1980s that architects are obsessed with the conditions of design and have forgotten that we could be the designers of conditions. I’m tired of our profession being subordinated to the developers. The faulty laws that avoid certain densities and mixtures of use are all designed to help the developer and not the community. We can be the designers of new agencies that reduce poverty.