Down at the Canadian Centre for Architecture last night, I attended a lecture by Architect Teddy Cruz, who works between San Diego (USA) and Tijuana (Mexico). He showed these powerful slides of the long long fence that runs between California and Mexico, "holding back the tide" of human movement to the richer northern state. The fence, constructed from the recycled steel landing mats that were used in the first "Gulf War" a decade ago, stretches right into the ocean. I find these images, fencing off the beach itself, to be quite violent, and certainly the graphic nature of the fence itself has been an inspiration and focus for many of the art projects initiated by the Border Art Workshop and others.
Cruz made some fascinating observations about the economies of exchange going on between the two border cities. For instance, humans are "traded" north, whereas discarded construction materials (like old tyres, wooden shipping pallets, and even entire demountable houses, are "traded" south). You can see quite clearly from aerial photos of the border territory, that the settlement of Tijuana is crowding to the border, pushing right up against the limit of the wall…whereas the settlements of San Diego seem to be retreating from the wall. One of the things Cruz seems to be constantly tackling is the issue of zoning. In an interview, he says:
"So many metaphors about this wall. This city [Tijuana] crashes against this wall. Its almost like the wall becomes a dam that keeps the intensity of this chaos, supposedly, this density from contaminating the picturesque suburban order of San Diego. I call it a zero-setback at the border, because it’s a whole country leaning against the other in a zero-setback condition, again speaking of urbanism. A zero-setback condition that is very much out of the idea of space in the United States."
[I understand the term "setback" to refer to the minimum legal distance between a property's boundary and the building on it. Setback is obviously something of more concern in the "sterile" suburbs of San Diego than in the more ad-hoc construction of Tijuana.]
When working in the United States, often with non-profit housing organisations to provide shelter for immigrants, Cruz often seeks to incorporate the seemingly chaotic land-use patterns from south of the border. For instance, recognising that small "unofficial" economies (like micro veggie markets) are a part of the lifestyle of the residents, he finds ways to make the housing spaces adapt to "mixed use" – such as having fences between properties fold down horizontally to become ad-hoc market-stall benches, or going beyond the density laws by building illegal small apartments which share kitchen and bathrooms (and hence doubling the population density). All these things are an attempt to adapt the land to the way of life of the residents, instead of the other way around.
Surprisingly, Cruz has found that the local councils are responding positively to his agitation – apparently they get hardly any input from architects about the need to change zoning regulations. And this is one of the most sobering points of his lecture – that architects need to push to be able to design not only the boxes that fit into the existing "invisible borders" within a city itself (property boundaries, zoning restrictions) but to also shape and move the borders themselves.
[postscript August 2006: more on teddy cruz here (thanks to Ian Milliss for the link) :