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Teddy Cruz

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Nov 19, 2009
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Teddy Cruz
Interviewer: Caleb Waldorf

LatinArt:  Architect and activist Teddy Cruz has been stationed along the border of the U.S. and Mexico for the past decade, traversing the territory between San Diego and Tijuana, observing the social structures and urban formations of each place. He has developed an architectural practice that is rooted in the realities of informal settlements and immigrant suburbs, and that is equally engaged with the needs-and innovations-of their residents and the exigencies of their local bureaucracies. Cruz spoke with Triple Canopy over the course of the past six months.

LatinArt: You’ve been doing work on informal architecture and cross-border urbanism for many years. How has your practice shifted-or how has the relevance of your practice shifted-since the economic collapse?

Teddy Cruz:  I’ve always operated in the context of crisis. Over the last few decades, the physical manifestations of capital-corporate high-rises and luxury condos-have become the laboratories of the avant-garde in architecture (though calling them “laboratories”grants them too much credibility; better to call them sites of economic power that became playgrounds for architects). This was a sad thing to witness. Many of the manifestos that inspired me when I was in school in the early 80s were truly trivialized in this context. But now architects are shifting focus from those sites of abundance to sites of scarcity.

I’ve been trying to make this case for years: It is, in fact, in the most depressed, disenfranchised and underrepresented neighborhoods that some of the more interesting social and political agendas have begun to emerge-as we’ve been focused on Shanghai and Dubai, harboring an infatuation with those places and their ability to produce and support architects. The most inventive, progressive, experimental projects have not happened in China or the Emirates (where architecture is so often treated as an object or icon), but within the context of infrastructure, in Latin America.

Architects and politicians such as Jaime Lerner in Curitiba, Brazil, Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa in Bogotá, and Sergio Fajardo in Medellí­n, Colombia, are rethinking the meaning of infrastructure on many registers: suggesting how to negotiate a new relationship between top-down and bottom-up dynamics; blending top-down industry and economic power with bottom-up social networks and activism. The idea is that urban pedagogy can generate a new type and scale-and suggest a very different kind of awareness-of infrastructure and transportation.

LatinArt:  In what ways is this kind of pedagogy manifest in the “sites of scarcity”you mention? How does it effect what is built?

Teddy Cruz:  Fajardo, the mayor of Medellí­n, reinvented certain public spaces by envisioning them not just as manicured gardens in the leftover areas between architectural icons, but as hybrids of knowledge and leisure. He believed that public spaces could be infused with knowledge, so he invented library-parks. For him, the site of intervention was not the center of the city- that would have been the most obvious environment, and would have supported the same old economic recipes-but rather the shantytowns, where Fajardo built many of these library- parks. Mockus, the mayor of Bogotá, institutionalized a very unique form of interface with public culture as a foundation for urbanization. Without transforming the public’s image of the city, it is difficult to produce meaningful urban transformations. Mockus’ urban pedagogy elevated a sense of civic awareness and participation that paved the way for Peñalosa, the subsequent mayor, to create one of the most progressive transportation systems in the world, threading pedestrian, bicycle and bus infrastructure with libraries and public spaces.

Now everyone is rushing to understand these projects that have been happening in Latin America. None of them require too much money, but they do need a government willing to renegotiate the system and revolutionize the politics and economics of development. These projects began with a renewed engagement with the public: they’re not just one-off experiments, but attempts to establish a social platform through a kind of eco-literacy and urban pedagogy.

The effectiveness of this sort of approach has, in the last few years, been more widely acknowledged, which can be vindicating: it suggests that true experimental architectures can emerge from the intelligence of social networks and dynamics of informal settlements. Because of my belief in the potential of these conditions to facilitate more experimental planning processes, I had come to be known in many circles as this “Mr. Do-gooder”architect forcing a social and political agenda. Actually, I’m not interested in the romanticization of the precariousness of the shantytown. I am simply suggesting that behind those dynamics there is a certain intelligence, from which we can harvest a more sustainable politics and economics of land use. Whether in slums or in older neighborhoods, in the United States or elsewhere, immigrants have retrofitted what are otherwise homogeneous and bland urban spaces.

LatinArt:  How exactly do immigrant populations produce this new kind of urbanism?

Teddy Cruz:  In slums and other informal spaces, there are certain procedures - social, political, and economic actions, exchanges, and transactions - that suggest an alternative political economy. New economies and markets can emerge from those interactions, from within those communities, and they can provide models for rethinking the meanings of infrastructure and density.

The notion of the neighborhood as a site of experimentation is fundamental to rethinking our institutions in the wake of the economic crisis. To me, the crisis has amplified the importance of those neighborhood-level interactions. It has forced me to get into the nitty-gritty of how economics can be considered in terms of development and in terms of collaboration between neighborhood residents; how non-profits working within local communities can partner to produce new conceptions of property, the co-ownership of resources, and social-service infrastructure.

The foundation of the whole economic mess was the housing bubble, and the practice of giving people loans that they couldn't repay. The ownership society represents a kind of American entitlement: To own a unit of housing is to be free. This has been the paradigm driving urbanization in this country, with low-interest havens strengthening our strange sense of democracy being based on the almighty right to be left alone behind a picket fence. Now the American Dream seems to have collapsed, with people losing their homes and living in increasingly marginal conditions.

The need to reinvent new modes of property - and with them new conditions of ownership - is more evident now than ever before. This is not to say that we should go back to the 60s idea of co-op housing; in that model, though people share ownership of units, it remains the static ownership of things- they don't share resources or the means of production. Housing can be more than shelter; in conditions of poverty, it must be connected to micro-infrastructures and socioeconomic support systems. Housing can even be a neighborhood economic engine; it can be a site for the production of new social and cultural relations spawned by pedagogical programming carried out at the scale of the community. In other words, housing cannot be understood in a vacuum. It must be viewed as a relational tool.

LatinArt:  It seems clear that we need to approach urbanism from the bottom up, looking at how molecular design solutions can effect the larger urban fabric. This model requires many people working independently, with a DIY attitude; I find it difficult to imagine this actually happening. But given that such a possibility is fundamental to your practice, I’m wondering how you see this molecular approach becoming an institutional model- or the institutional model- for development? What are the risks of institutionalizing DIY tactics?

Teddy Cruz:  That’s something I often ask myself. We all depend on particular ideologies: you have the formalists versus the infrastructuralists, those who support largeness in architecture versus those who are interested in the micro-scale. But in Latin America, these projects actually came from the top down; progressive governments implemented them. Latin America is the only place in the world where governments have attempted to harness the potential of social networks and the dynamics of informal economies in order to rethink urbanization.

I’m interested in the informal, but I’m not suggesting that it’s only interesting now that the large-scale, top-down model has failed. We don’t always have to turn to the bottom-up, DIY model. One should work on a small scale, but always with the idea of retrofitting and challenging top-down institutions. In order for these projects to produce a trickle-up effect that results in the rethinking of those institutions, they need to be reproduced and translated in different environments and at different scales. Right now, they can only be located in specific geographies. We need to develop case studies that yield models that can be tested elsewhere.

LatinArt:  What are some examples of this approach being employed in the U.S., specifically in the work you’ve done in California?

Teddy Cruz:  There are grassroots efforts in the U.S., but they’re minuscule, and not much has trickled up. I think the future of urbanization in California depends on the pixilation of the large and the small. The idea is, of course, to develop an alternative to the oil-hungry, urbanism-on-steroids model that defines the sprawl of Southern California. The political and economic frameworks that have supported and promoted this selfish urbanization need to be called into question. One project we've developed that does this is Non-stop Sprawl, McMansion Retrofitted: a plastic model of the ubiquitous tract home, placed in a box with mirrors that reflect it into infinity. The house is accompanied by two monitors, which display a video diptych. On one monitor, a series of immigrants talk about how they imagine transforming this McMansion to accommodate two families, or a small business in the garage. On the other monitor, an animation shows the house transforming.

Originally, the project was a satirical play meant to speculate on the transformation of American suburbs. In conditions of environmental and economic emergency, the current model of urbanization is not sustainable, and alternative uses must be developed. This is not a fantastical idea: it's been happening for decades. Look at the first ring of suburbs in San Diego, Los Angeles or Chicago, and you'll see Levittown-style subdivisions that have been radically transformed in the last thirty or forty years. As immigrant communities have taken root, densities have increased and informal economic ties have grown.

Today this phenomenon is being accelerated: Because of the mortgage crisis, people are changing the way they use these large residences, whether it’s owners dividing them into two or three units with a small business in the garage, or immigrants turning them into multi-generational family homes. As a result, we're beginning to think of density differently: not as a number of units per square mile, but as a measure of socioeconomic exchanges in an area. This invokes a very different image of the city and of the relationship between housing and the economy.

I think these patterns can trickle up. The more we inject ambiguity and flexibility into regulations that govern the use of urban space (and decentralize the power structures that implement them), the more it allows them to be adapted to different environments. When I talk about trickle-up, it’s not to suggest a homogenizing effect of the informal- or that the bottom -up model will now be the only official approach to development - but rather that we need to come up with hybrid approaches, and generate abstract frameworks and informational models. Studying the patterns of stealth urbanism found in immigrant communities can help us create policies that allow each neighborhood to take its own course of development, in accordance with its own history; that enable people to transform neighborhoods in response to demographic shifts. (I hate to call it “site-specific land use.”) I think that’s the dream of many architects dealing with these issues.

I was at a talk recently where Jim Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere, observed that, because of the crisis, people today are really clamoring for solutions to some of these problems. But he also said that he was really pissed off because he feels that solutions are being sought just so that people can maintain a certain lifestyle. This isn’t only an environmental crisis and an economic crisis; primarily, it's a cultural crisis. It calls for reengaging the public and suggesting - not in a patronizing way - that people shouldn't live on the periphery and enjoy their McMansions and big lawns anymore. Given that, it’s amazing that the Obama administration is suggesting that the way to invest in infrastructure is to fix roads and add more lanes to the freeway.