After decades of absence from the main spheres of architectural discourse, the phenomenon of the metropolis as a site for research and experimentation is beginning to recapture the imagination of architects. This renewed attention our profession is giving to the socio-cultural, political, and economic forces at stake in the city could redefine the operational processes of architecture itself, as well as the role of architects in the context of city development. Certain practices in contemporary architecture and urbanism are generating the re-evaluation of notions we have perpetuated as immutable in describing certain typologies and concepts in our field.

In the context of this paradigm shift, it is clear that one of the most important issues we need to question is housing and its relationship to the urbanism it occupies. Conventional ideas of housing—in government, financial, and academic institutions, for example—generally define it as an equation, a number. In the same way, density has been understood solely in terms of building size and mass. Both concepts need to be redefined as sets of relationships within a broader framework to promote new types of density and land uses. Housing and density need to be seen not as an amount of units but as dwelling in relationship to the larger infrastructure of the city, which includes transportation, ecological networks, the politics and economics of land use, and particular cultural idiosyncrasies of place.

At “Living Rooms at the Border,” estudio teddy cruz will weave 12 affordable housing units across a concrete framework. The open space underneath will function as a marketplace, among other uses.

At “Living Rooms at the Border,” estudio teddy cruz will weave 12 affordable housing units across a concrete framework. The open space underneath will function as a marketplace, among other uses.

Credit: estudio teddy cruz

new view

In fact, the political and cultural dimensions of urban housing and density as tools for social integration have been the central inspiration for our work in San Diego. We're proposing that fragments, voids, and leftover urban spaces be transformed to support hybrid and layered programs for flexible, affordable housing, civic and commercial uses, and public spaces. These are the ideas fueling the social housing projects we are designing on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border. The goal has been to achieve maximum effect with minimal gestures, to take existing patterns of use as a point of departure, and to develop urban solutions with enough persuasive force to change obsolete planning policy and zoning regulations.

“Living Rooms at the Border” is a small project that anticipates San Diego's needed densities and mixed uses. It has also become a political instrument for its nonprofit developer, Casa Familiar, to transform zoning regulations for the border community of San Ysidro, Calif. Casa Familiar's role as choreographer of a triangulation between community, architectural practice, and government agencies suggests that the most experimental work in housing in the United States lies in the hands of progressive, community-based nonprofit organizations, and within small communities such as San Ysidro. The agencies that engage the social dynamics of these unique neighborhoods daily can mediate between their histories and identities and the planning policies that shape their destiny. Also, these nonprofits' socio-cultural agendas translate into unique organizational strategies, inclusive of the specificity of individual communities and places.

The objective of “Living Rooms at the Border” has been to distill the essence of this community's patterns of use, and to let these patterns become the basis for incremental design solutions with a catalytic effect on the urban fabric. Such a tactical approach generates prototypical solutions, and perhaps paradigms for densification in other cities. In a parcel where existing zoning allows only three units of housing, the project proposes (through negotiated density bonuses and by sharing kitchens) 12 affordable housing units, a community center resulting from the adaptive reuse of an existing 1927 church, offices for Casa Familiar in the church's new attic, and a garden underpinning the community's nonconforming micro-economies, such as street markets and kiosks. In a place where current regulation allows only one use, we propose five different uses that support each other. This suggests a model of social sustainability for San Diego, one that conveys density not as bulk but as social choreography.

living framework

Our “Manufactured Site” project in Tijuana, Mexico, is a very different investigation of the same issue, the notion of housing emerging out of community interaction. It explores how the area's informal settlements grow faster than the urban cores they surround, creating a different set of rules for development and blurring the distinctions between urban, suburban, and rural. These startup communities gradually evolve, or violently explode out of conditions of social emergency, and are defined by the negotiation of territorial boundaries, the ingenious recycling of materials, and human resourcefulness. For the “Manufactured Site,” we are proposing a prefabricated building frame that can act as a hinge mechanism to support the multiplicity of recycled materials and systems that residents bring from San Diego and reassemble in Tijuana to create makeshift dwellings. These structures are fragile, as is the topography of the land they occupy. The frame could be the first step in the construction of a larger scaffolding that would help strengthen the otherwise precarious terrain, without compromising the temporal dynamics of these self-made environments.

We want to give the layered complexities of these sites primacy over the singularity of the object. In our view, housing is less about a collection of objects and more about participatory community processes and the resourcefulness and organization of people. By bridging between the planned and the unplanned, the legal and the illegal, the object and the ground, as well as man-made and factory processes of construction, the “Manufactured Site” questions the meaning of manufacturing and of housing in the context of building community.

Together, these two projects represent the range of issues that define our work, allowing our practice to straddle both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border. They have ignited real processes of intervention within the multiple forces that shape this divided territory. They have also challenged the incremental homogenization of architectural styles and exclusionary planning and zoning practices that oppose the forces arising out of the continually changing and expanding “border condition.” This situation has prompted our search for a participatory political process advocating, instead, an urbanism of juxtaposition, inclusive of socio-cultural patterns of use that can promote alternative housing prototypes.

Using the border zone as a laboratory has encouraged us to observe thriving conditions in existing neighborhoods, focusing on the dormant potentialities of under-utilized elements, spaces, and urban infrastructure. Many lessons can still be learned from the “great bi-national metropolis” stretching from San Diego to Tijuana, where radically different economic and cultural spheres clash and overlap as they embrace recurring waves of immigrants from around the world. A different notion of housing can emerge out of this geography, pregnant with the promise of generating an urbanism that admits the full spectrum of social and spatial possibility.

teddy cruz is principal of estudio teddy cruz in san diego, calif.