Vilcek Prize in Architecture
The immigration experience of San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz runs deep: There is his story, of moving from Guatemala to the U.S., in 1982. But since then, he has accumulated countless other stories, having devoted his professional and academic life to considering the citizenship experience of people living along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Born in Guatemala, Cruz first wanted to be a physician, following in the footsteps of a close family friend. But that friend, knowing his interest, invited him to watch an autopsy procedure—which made Cruz realize he wanted to pursue a different career path. “It was just so shocking, I very nearly fainted,” he says.
Not long after that initial foray into the world of medicine, Cruz, who had always loved drawing, visited another family friend who was enrolled in architecture school, and that’s when things became clear. “It’s kind of silly,” Cruz says, “but he had his table near a window, and he had a cup of coffee and sketch paper, and he was doodling, and it was raining outside, and I said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do—to be involved in shaping things.’”
Cruz has distinguished himself in the field of architecture by focusing less on the shaping of things and more on shaping the political systems and socioeconomic forces behind those things. “I didn’t want to have a conventional office of architecture where I would be designing boutique hotels or galleries or houses for the 1 percent,” he explains. “I wanted to focus on the U.S.-Mexico border, working with communities affected by border conditions.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture from California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, in 1987, Cruz became a founding director of Latin America/Los Angeles, or LA/LA, an initiative at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles, where he investigated the impact of immigration on the urban landscape of Los Angeles. His skillful hand in drawing earned him a prestigious Rome Prize in 1991.
He took a break from his work at SCI-Arc to pursue graduate studies in architectural theory at Harvard Graduate School of Design, from 1996 to 1997, and after his time at Harvard he started reconciling his own personal immigration experience with his academic training in architectural design and critical theory. “In my education, I began to piece together what those early years in Guatemala had meant,” he says, citing philosophies critical of the kinds of systems that enabled the types of experiences he had in Guatemala. As he puts it, “living in Guatemala was living in the midst of the most radical in-your-face inequality, and the type of dictatorial oligarchy that produced such incredible social injustice.”
Growing up in Guatemala during its bloody civil war, Cruz understands violence from his lived experiences. “People were killed in front of my very eyes,” he says. “People were fighting for their rights, and many of my friends disappeared.”
So, in 1982, when Cruz was 20 and enrolled in university, he and his family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Southern California, where he finished his architecture education. “Witnessing so much injustice makes you want to do something about it, but I wasn’t quite aware of that at the time,” he says. But a look at his architecture career shows that he has not only grown to be aware of it—he has also done quite a lot about it.
In 2000, following his time at Harvard, Cruz relaunched his architectural practice, with the intent of more deeply investigating border conditions. It was then when he began a long-term and ongoing collaboration with Casa Familiar, a nonprofit organization engaged in community development in San Ysidro, a district of San Diego that directly abuts the U.S.-Mexico border.
In that border landscape, Cruz, along with his longtime close collaborator and life partner Fonna Forman, has designed a series of what he calls cross-border community stations, which he characterizes as education-based public spaces: “a new form of public space that educates.” As he puts it, “This project is a network of hubs located in marginalized communities, where teaching and research can be conducted collaboratively.” The stations are located at strategic points along the border, and Cruz hopes they will become the catalyst for education and community development.
These projects demonstrate how he views the priorities of architecture: “It’s not just a place of beautification, but it’s a site of knowledge,” he says. “It’s not enough to design the physical systems. We also need to design the political, civic, and economic processes that would enable those physical systems to be truly inclusive.”
Cruz’s business model is very much his own. Whereas most architects respond to calls from clients and potential clients, Cruz has adopted a more entrepreneurial method by going out and creating the opportunity for a project where none had existed before. “We are not waiting for a client to give us a brief that we then just design and respond to,” he says. “We also design the brief itself. We design the client, or at least a way to engage in the formation of new clients.”
To considerable extent, his design practice is informed by his academic research, beginning with his time at SCI-Arc, then as associate professor of architecture at Woodbury University. Now he is a professor of public culture and urbanism at the University of California, San Diego, where he co-directs the UC San Diego Center on Global Justice with Forman, a professor of political science.
Cruz still explores his early love of drawing. His ongoing project, “The Medellin Diagram,” in collaboration with Forman, is an ongoing exploration of the processes used to affect the transformation of Medellin, Columbia. It was recently featured in Visualizing Citizenship, an exhibition at the Yerba Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
Cruz + Forman is one of seven firms selected to participate in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. The pavilion’s theme, Dimensions of Citizenship, will explore just what it means to be a citizen in a globalized, 21st-century context. Along with Forman, Cruz is writing a book, provisionally titled Un-Walling Citizenship, that will put his work in scholarly context.
For Cruz, so much of his story—his personal journey, his academic commitments, and his architectural practice—centers on the human experience of citizenship. Reflecting on his own immigration story, he says, “In thinking of the American Dream, I’ve always felt that really it’s a more emancipatory idea.” And his work continues on behalf of others. “It’s not a private dream,” he cautions. “It’s a dream of collectivity and inclusion.”
Watch a video about Teddy Cruz!
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