From the global border to the border neighborhood

Our research-based practice has forwarded the Tijuana-San Diego border region as a global laboratory for engaging the central challenges of urbanization today: deepening social and economic inequality, dramatic migratory shifts, urban informality, climate change, the thickening of border walls and the decline of public thinking. And now that Tijuana-San Diego has become the main site of arrival for people seeking asylum from Central American violence and poverty, and a lighting rod for American nativism and hatred, geopolitics has once more turned intensely local. We want to provoke the studio to localize the global, moving from a critical distance—the abstraction of globalization (the ‘out there,’ somewhere in the world) into the specificity of the political inscribed in the physical territory, a critical proximity (the ‘here and now,’ of our immediate social-political context).

We will layer these realities into the contextual scaffold for our work across geographic scales, from the global border to the border neighborhood:

THE POLITICAL EQUATOR: links the most contested geographies of conflict across the world between the 30-38 degrees north parallel. When this political equator is visualized alongside the climatic equator, the convergence of environmental and social injustice across the world becomes evident, as communities most affected by political marginalization likewise often bear the brunt of the accelerating impact of climate change. The collision of geo-political borders, environmental crisis, political marginalization, and human displacement is the great crisis of our age, demanding collective action.

MEXUS: investigates the ruptures and collisions between natural and political systems along the entire trajectory of the US-Mexico continental border, and imagines a new cross-border zone of interdependence—a thick, bio-regional set of social-ecologies framed by the existing structure of shared binational watersheds systems. This project, recently exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, will provoke thought about the border beyond the jurisdictional line of the nation state.

LOCAL (the site of our Studio Project):
CROSS-BORDER COMMONS: As one descends in scale from MEXUS, we arrive at a specific zone of cross-border conflict between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. The Laureles Canyon is an informal settlement on the periphery of Tijuana, and home to 85,000 people. It is an important finger of the binational watershed system that crosses the border line, and culminates in a precious natural estuary in San Diego—the Tijuana River Estuary. The canyon sites high above the estuary; and the construction of new Homeland Security border-wall drains has accelerated the flow of wastewater, trash and sediment from the slum into the estuary. As a radical gesture of bioregional protection, we are presently advancing the Cross-Border Commons to link the Mexican slum with the estuary in the US, into a continuous political, social and ecological zone. The Cross-Border Commons operates as a transnational land conservancy, that bundles leftover slivers of land in the canyon slum (that have not yet been squatted) into an archipelago of protection, and links them with the estuary on the US side. The project is led by a cross-sector coalition that we have assembled, including universities, government agencies and grassroots organizations on both sides of the border.

Studio brief: Cross-Border Commons: A Geography of Interdependence

Our studio intervenes at this site of local conflict, recognizing that the environmental ravages of borderwall securitization are not only problem of Mexico, but a problem shared by the US as well. In our present geopolitical moment, how can the two border cities of San Diego and Tijuana tackle this condition collaboratively, in order to protect their shared water and environmental resources?

Students will engage this urgent challenge of designing binational environmental cooperation and strategies of co-existence at the border, at a time of unprecedented polarization and division. Studio projects will be sited in Tijuana, inside the informal settlement of Laureles canyon. We focus on the spatial and programmatic design of several slivers of land that we have secured, that comprise the Tijuana side of the proposed Cross-Border Commons. Students will design hybrid infrastructural / landscape / architectural interventions for these sites, as well as the collaborative programmatic activity that can transform these sites into inclusive public spaces and civic / pedagogic nodes. In other words, we will ask students to design physical systems in tandem with social protocols: the programs and economies, the cross-sector collaborations and forms of governance and management that will make those spaces sustainable.

Method: Border conflict as a creative tool

Our method involves the visualization of conflict as a site of intervention. We will develop Conflict Diagrams as “scaffolds for spatial and political action”, generative tool that exposes the vectors of power and contingencies inscribed in the territory (institutions, laws, norms, practices) and through them, the propositions and opportunities for meaningful transformation.

To model what we mean by designing space and protocols simultaneously, we will introduce students to our UCSD Community Stations initiative, a network of field stations located in marginalized neighborhoods on both sides of the border, where research, teaching and advocacy are conducted collaboratively between university researchers / designers and community-based nonprofit partners. We have four of these stations, one of which is located in the slum where we will be working. The Community Stations demonstrate a fundamental commitment of our practice: reimagining public space as a space of knowledge, that increases a community’s capacity for political and environmental action.

Ultimately we want to demonstrate that architects can be designers of social, economic and political process.

The Trip

We will travel to San Diego-Tijuana to visit the sites engaged in our studio brief: the city of Tijuana, the informal settlement of Laureles Canyon, the Tijuana National Estuarine Research Reserve, and our UCSD Community Station sites, located on both sides of the border. The field-trip will include presentations by regional stakeholders.

Trip date:
Monday September 30 - Friday October 5.
Arrive in San Diego no later than Monday morning, September 30.
Depart Saturday October 5 or Sunday October 6, as desired.

Studio Schedule

Mondays, Thursdays 2-6pm and the following Fridays, 10-2: August 30
September 13
October 18
November 8
November 22

All Semesters

Fall 2021
Advanced Design Studio: Housing Redux
Nnenna Lynch, James von Klemperer, Hana Kassem, Andrei Harwell
Fall 2020
Advanced Design Studio: No Normal
Keller Easterling, Theodossis Issaias
Fall 2018
Advanced Design Studio
Simon Hartmann, Michael Samuelian, Andrei Harwell
Fall 2017
Elia Zenghelis
Elia Zenghelis, Andrew Benner