While the housing shortage in the world grows, the amount of empty homes also expands: millions of people without houses, and millions of abandoned homes throughout the world. Rich and poor countries simultaneously suffer housing shortages and build ghost towns. From Detroit, to Keelung or Ciudad Juarez, our built environment reflects the incongruities of a system in which architects have become gradually less useful. Mexico exemplifies this dramatic scenario: despite being one of the countries in the world with the most scarcity of homes, it paradoxically has one of the largest rates of abandoned houses: more than 5 million homes, most of them new. One out of every seven houses in the country is empty, due to massive developments of single-family homes in the peripheries lacking public space, collective services and links to transport systems. Urban expansion no longer follows population growth, but rather, market driven decisions that benefit only a few: grow more to sell more. In the past thirty years, the population of Mexico increased 210% while the urban sprawl grew 700%.1 This world-wide phenomenon, based on the American Dream of single-family houses built in suburban settings, has become the nightmares of the peripheries.
Still today, in the United States most residential land is destined exclusively for single-family detached houses. It is illegal on 75% of residential-zoned land in many cities (Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago) to build anything other than a detached single-family house, which leads to houses built hours away from working places and schools. The only apparent alternative to this recurrent model is the apartment building. But, are there no other options for dwelling in the twenty-first century than suburban homes or apartments? Can we think far from these two predominant typologies, the first one derived from a misunderstood version of the Garden City movement proposed by Ebenezer Howard in the late nineteenth century, and the second based on the influence of the Cite Contemporaine by Le Corbusier developed almost one hundred years ago and also understood partially? Today, we work in our homes and live in the office, and it´s difficult to remember the number of houses we´ve lived in since we were born. Can we imagine projects that revoke the oppositions between permanence and change, living and working, the urban and the rural, and the individual and the collective?
1 Sergio Trejo, “En 70 años creció 700 veces la mancha urbana,“ in La Razón, July 6, 2013; available at www.razón.com.mx, accessed September 2, 2015.
This advanced design studio will investigate and explore new housing alternatives in abandoned neighborhoods in Mexico. It will present the opportunity to work in the border with the United States and address issues dealing with migration, identity, temporality, privacy, housing and production. What to do with 5 million abandoned homes in Mexico? How to make place for the immigrants that want to cross to the United States but are staying intermittently in Mexico? How to build a sense of identity and prosperity in places lacking local appreciation and hope? This project challenges the role of architecture and aims to engage in urban, political, social and cultural aspects in an attempt to reshape our communities and territories.
We will look back at the vecindades, an urban multifamily tenement with mix-used housing arranged around a central courtyard with shared services that was a main typology in Mexico for the past three centuries and essentially forgotten after the 1950´s. The vecindades started as improvised subdivisions of grand colonial houses during the 18th century to accommodate multiple houses and commerce for different social classes. During the last decades of the 19th century, vecindades were built as urban alternatives for transitory dwellers and rural immigrants. They are historical examples that portray flexible design and a shared sense of belonging; a space in between the public and the private spheres.
We will also study the concept of wall and the definitions of boundaries. The idea is to work against binary categories (exterior/interior, construction/void, seclusion/sharing). Architects have stopped being the mind-changing engines of housing, and houses are the main instruments to produce cities, so this studio will engage in new ways of understanding the concept of collective dwelling.
Our studio will travel to Mexico. First we will study and visit vecindades in the historical neighborhoods in Mexico City, then we will visit abandoned houses complexes in Zumpango, near the capital city, and during the last days we will travel to Tijuana, one of the five border cities that we will be researching, along with Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Ciudad Juárez and Mexicali. In Tijuana we will analyze different strategies, ranging from the collective Torolab to the existing social housing complexes. We aim at repurposing the vast under-used territories of suburban dwellings, and simultaneously work to produce alternative ways of living, where neighbors will not be seen as a threat, and architecture will not accentuate boundaries. This studio will count with the collaboration of SEDATU, The Mexican government agency in charge of urban development, agrarian land and living space, and INFONAVIT, the National Institute for Social Housing.
We will work in the most frequently crossed border in the world, with more than 350 million documented crossings per year and an estimated 2,500 illegal crossings every day. The border extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, from urban areas to deserts, displaying various economic, cultural and geographical realities. Despite President´s Donald Trump policies against immigrants, unauthorized crossings have nearly doubled in the past year. This problem has an unpreceded scale in terms of migration coming from South and Central America into Mexico, and implies a higher degree of responsibility from the Mexican government to prevent illegal immigration, which means more people staying indefinitely in the Mexican border. This issue is treated as if it were a temporary emergency but its consequences are imprinted in culture, economy, and in the territory itself.
The idea of this studio is to seek out new architectural strategies to simultaneously design for real issues and radical experimentation in order to transform abandoned housing complexes into sustainable local communities and centers of production. We will seek to design new possibilities of collective living without the boundaries that characterize our contemporary life: imagine cities with no walls.
We recurrently criticize our cities, yet we are unable to build alternative models that differ from what is built from one end of the world to the other. The same architectural solutions are replicated in different geographical conditions, climates, cultures, and economies, extending uniform shapes that accentuate the contrasts between people, territories, buildings, and activities. For the past 200 years, the disparities between these four realms have grown, amplifying the oppositions of each: owners and users; rural and urban; private and public; and living and working. This results in progressively segregated environments, where there is no relation between individual desires and collective consequences, with no one in charge of the space that lies between a bed, a sidewalk and a water-system. These gaps are visible in the oppositions that exist between resources and waste, between centers and peripheries, the formal and the informal, and between dispossessed people and vacant houses.
Mexico was the first laboratory for gauging the urban and social repercussions of the demographic explosion, pollution, and traffic on the vast megalopolis of the 20th century. It is characterized to be a live playground for experimentation, with more than 65% of constructions built informally (out of regulation). The dramatic economic and territorial contrasts offer an immense opportunity to work with an array of situations that challenge the ways we usually understand architectural practice. We will question the way we consume territory, buildings and resources. Our ambition is to provide housing alternatives capable of building new centralities at the border. Our society demands new spaces to inhabit that pose a different understanding on conservation and destruction, growth and use, identity and coexistence.
We will work on architectural projects that don´t stop dimensionally. The first part of the studio will be based in research on three main concepts: collective dwelling (with a main interest in vecindades), the concept of walls (borders, limits), and the study of the specific sites we will be working on (five case studies of single-family housing projects with a high degree of abandonment in Tijuana, Nogales, Piedras Negras, Ciudad Juárez, and Mexicali). The second part of the studio will focus on the projects that each student will design in order to turn the typical forms of housing into more flexible ways of living that foster collaborative infrastructures and acknowledge the fact that air, water, resources and culture are things we all share. The idea is to understand cities as an extended bed for all.
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