Expanding the Frontiers of Architectural Practice

By February 11, 2020 Alumni, Alumni interviews, Blog, Internships

An Alumni Interview with Dario Guazzo, Jonathan Maier, and Marcello Maltagliati about their work with Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman at the UCSD Center on Global Justice

The complex challenges our program addresses – rapid urbanization and informal settlements, social and economic inequality, environmental aspects, migration shifts and the spatial and social integration of migrants and refugees – require holistic solutions that integrate interdisciplinary knowledge and citizen participation. The Tijuana-San Diego border region serves as an example for our studies due to its alternative strategies of urban sustainability, and local, bottom-up social and economic practices to tackle those issues. The largest bi-national metropolitan region in the world, a main entry point for migrants from Central America fleeing violence and poverty, is characterised by the proximity of extreme wealth and poverty.

The specific conditions of this border region and its positioning within the context of broader global border dynamics is one of the major research areas of our guest professors and long term collaborators Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman. “Protecting the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees has a spatial dimension, and urbanists and architects need to place themselves at the front line. We all speak regularly about the need for mitigation and adaptation to tackle climate change and its impacts – but, in an age of accelerating global migration, we need to expand our idea of resilience to include the capacity of our cities to anticipate social emergency”, they recently wrote in an article for Architectural Review. “The urban challenge is how to escalate hospitality towards inclusion, both normatively and spatially. Cultivating new social norms of equality and respect has a physical dimension; it must be accompanied by inclusive spaces and programming – in other words, protecting human dignity in the host city has an urban and architectural mandate.” This mirrors closely the new paradigm in urban governance and planning, which our school has been actively promoting, to develop a more flexible approach and adapt to changes like unexpected migration waves and provide sustainable spatial and social refugee integration strategies, which traditional top-down and long term urban planning policies cannot achieve.

Community Stations
Cruz and Forman see their primary roles as mediators, curators and facilitators who intervene in the interface between bottom-up and top-down resources and knowledges. In 2012, as a community-engagement support to their architectural practice Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, they founded the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Cross-Border Community Stations hubbed at the UCSD Center on Global Justice, which they also co-direct, to promote interdisciplinary poverty research and practice in the San Diego-Tijuana border region. The Community Stations serve as a platform for reciprocal knowledge production, therefore connecting academic research with the knowledge embedded within the communities themselves. They are field-based hubs in underserved neighborhoods on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border, where experiential learning, research and teaching are conducted collaboratively with community-based non-profits, advancing a new model of community-university partnership.
There are currently four UCSD Community Stations operating throughout the region, two in San Diego, California and two in Tijuana, Mexico; and each focused on a particular cluster of urban and environmental issues:

  • The UCSD-EarthLab Community Station based in the Southeast San Diego neighborhood of Encanto, in collaboration with NGO Groundwork SD
  • The UCSD-CASA Community Station, based in the San Diego border neighborhood of San Ysidro, in collaboration with NGO Casa Familiar
  • The UCSD-Divina Community Station at Laureles Canyon, based in an informal settlement of 85,000 people on the periphery of Tijuana, in collaboration with NGO Colonos de Divina Providencia
  • The UCSD-Alacrán Community Station, based in Little Haiti, an immigrant refugee camp in Alacrán canyon, in collaboration with NGO Embajadores de Jesus

We had the pleasure to collaborate with Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman on numerous occasions over the years, and their workshops and lectures have greatly enriched the quality of our program. Many of our students have undertaken their internship with the UCSD Cross-Border Initiative, therefore strengthening our collaboration over the years. Three of our alumni, Dario Guazzo, Jonathan Maier, and Marcello Maltagliati, continued their work with the initiative after their internships. “We feel lucky to have assembled a unique team of alumni from UIC, facilitated by the internship-corridor we have shaped with the Master of Sustainable Emergency Architecture,” Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman explained to us. “Dario Guazzo, Jonathan Maier, and Marcello Maltagliati first joined our studio at the Tijuana – San Diego border as UIC interns.  After their internship, and because their work was so extraordinary, we invited them to stay as meaningful full-time collaborators to work in our research-based practice. Their contributions range from leading the research and visualization of our cross-border work, which will result in the upcoming Hatje Cantz monograph Top Down – Bottom Up, to managing exhibition content and development, such as their curatorial role in our US Pavilion installation for the 2018 Venice Architectural Biennial, to leading the urban and architectural design and construction development of our four UCSD Community Stations across the border region. We have very seldom engaged a team of collaborators who invest their intellectual and artistic talents in such a committed way, to the urgencies of the immigrant communities and sites of conflict we engage. Their sense of ethics, collaborative working culture and professional commitment speak of the quality of the socially-engaged education at UIC, and remind us of the activist energy we felt when we first experienced the international group of students during our teaching at UIC.”

We spoke to Dario, Marcello and Jonathan about their career paths and current projects. 

From left to right: Dario Guazzo, Jonathan Maier and Marcello Maltagliati

Name: Dario Guazzo
Nationality: Italian
Year of Graduation from Programme: 2018
Current Occupation: Urban Researcher / Architectural Designer
Area of interest/specialty: Practices & Public Engagement in Forced Migration Research, co-production of social innovation, Urban inequalities and conflicts, local and global borders
Professional goal: Advocate for and contribute to guarantee the rights of disadvantaged communities

Name: Jonathan Maier
Nationality: Argentinean
Year of Graduation from Programme: 2017
Current Occupation: Urban Researcher / Architectural Designer
Area of interest/specialty: Human rights and environmental justice at the urban scale
Professional goal: To offer the necessary knowledge and tools in disadvantaged communities to facilitate self-development

Name:  Marcello Maltagliati
Nationality: Italian
Year of Graduation from Programme: 2017
Current Occupation: Architect and Urban Researcher, Graphic Designer
Area of interest/specialty: Research focusing on issues of urbanization, immigration, poverty, environmental justice, public space & housing, as well as infographics strategies that translate this research into new visualization tools for publication and civic engagement, including installation and exhibition materials

How has your career developed since finishing our program and undertaking your internship with UCSD Center on Global Justice?

DG: When I completed my internship I left knowing that I wanted to fight for other’s rights just as I would for my own. I was invited back to the U.S. by Teddy and Fonna to join the design team at the UCSD Center on Global Justice. The decision to come back was prompted by my own moral imperative. At that time a major project for the studio was starting to be built and it was an exciting time around the office with work to be done.
For the displaced and the dispossessed, the migrant and the refugee, there is no distance greater than the few feet between the borders. I am humbled and grateful to have the honor to listen to the experiences of people living in these borderlands. Working at the CGJ is a privilege that allows me to combine my education in sustainable design and my experience in construction for a cause I believe in. 

JM: Many exciting things have happened since I joined the Center on Global Justice. Through Teddy and Fonna’s studio, the CGJ is constantly reaching out to the world, raising awareness of the social and political complexities that contrasting binational communities deal with, and hoping that the work that is being achieved locally will serve as an example for future replications in similar contexts around the globe. In 2018, the studio was selected, amongst other teams, to represent the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Being part of this process was a privilege, not only as a participant in terms of logistics and design, but most importantly due to the relevance and repercussions that the topic discussed – what citizenship means in the 21st century, in both the academic and public realms. Since then, we have participated in many other exhibitions worldwide. As the leading manager of these, with the support of an amazing group of colleagues, this has been both challenging and fulfilling.

MM: After finishing the Master, I did not have much time to reflect. I came directly to San Diego to dive right into the work at the cross-border region. This was basically my first job, and I have been working for the UCSD Center on Global Justice for almost three years now. During the internship and the months after, I was focusing on editing a book that addresses the role of the architect as a mediator between university, local organizations and the community. I concentrated on developing diagrams and different images to communicate theoretical practices in a visual and more direct way.  In the beginning, it was hard to get familiar with the new concepts and ideas of the studio, as a global laboratory for engaging the challenges of urbanization today in a region that was unconditionally strange to me. We also developed diverse art exhibitions in Venice, Chicago and Seoul, from the design stage through to the successful completion. Lately, I have been assigned to a new project of emergency housing in Tijuana where I can finally put into practice what I learned in the Master at UIC. 

Above: Elevation drawing of the UCSD-Alacran community station with the main components of the system: the Mecalux prefabricated system is placed on top of a post-and-beam vernacular concrete frame.
Below: The UCSD-Alacran housing site is precarious and highly impacted by flows of waste. Currently, it is the home of hundreds of Central American and Haitian refugees.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

DG: During the last year I’ve been involved with the construction of Living Rooms at the Border, a social housing, educational public space and economic development project in San Ysidro. Together they form the UCSD-CASA Community Station. Originally, the aim of this project was to expand Casa Familiar’s immigration services and youth training programs into new housing prototypes. Our proposal included affordable housing units embedded into the infrastructure of social programming to assure sustainability. The toughest challenge was to restore the 1927 church on-site. We lifted the church and rebuilt its basement. Due to our intervention, we were able to preserve this historic landmark for future generations, transforming it into a black-box theater with sound and recording studios for youth.
We also built 10 units of affordable housing around the community station that allow residents to participate in programs and develop small businesses, to strengthen their presence in the neighborhood.  These units were envisioned to be similar to the street-level businesses and housing complexes we see across the border in Tijuana. The unique living situations of the San Ysidro community informed the design of the family units. For example, these units were designed to host grandparents who may be helping out with childcare. We hope that the development of this prototypical architecture will become the model for how low-income housing is designed in underserved neighborhoods across the US. This project is special to me because it returns a community space to the disadvantaged neighborhood of San Ysidro.

JM: The Divina Community Station has been at the core of my professional activity during the past months. As part of the Cross-Border Community Initiative, the project has two main branches of action: architectural and programmatic. My focus has been on the architectural field, giving shape to a building that will act both as an educational facility as well as an economic incubator for the community of Divina Providencia in Tijuana. The project is part of a more ambitious plan of nurturing environmental awareness and increasing the agency of this underserved community. Therefore, the building must be thoroughly designed so that people are inspired to reflect upon each of the components that compose it.

MM: As the migration crisis at the border continues to intensify, the location and requirements for refugee housing projects have become more concrete. In collaboration with a local architect and the Tijuana Pastor Gustavo Banda Aceves, we are developing twenty-four units to shelter hundreds of Haitian refugees in the Alacrán Canyon, an informal settlement adjacent to the border wall. Banda has been welcoming in his church migrants from all over the world – first the Haitians, then families from El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras. We are currently developing a variety of housing configurations – readapting the Mecalux factory system as an armature – and public infrastructure to address the issue of waste-water and trash inside the canyon. The housing is not only about shelter but about establishing a framework of productivity, social interactions, and educational programming. It will be embedded with ‘economic and social incubators’ to promote the local labour of immigrants in the city of Tijuana. This project is part of the UCSD Community Stations.

Above: Drawing of the UCSD-Casa Community Station showing the social and cultural infrastructure of Living Rooms at the Border, a mixed-use affordable housing project developed with the local community partner
Below: Drone shot of the UCSD-Casa Community Station

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of your job? 

DG: Everyday poses a new challenge for advancing our work. All of the projects we develop are informed by grassroot needs and this process is different from what we usually see happening at privately-funded studios. The very nature of Teddy and Fonna’s practice requires us to connect with students from all over the world and this, to me, has been another important challenge. Balancing the expectations of multiple stakeholders is not an easy task but this is ultimately the most rewarding part of the job. It requires a lot of creativity to get around stakeholders objections and find the perfect compromise. Working with other architects, urban researchers, artists and political scientists, educators and students, through the UCSD, can bridge communities and needs.

JM: Having to tackle many sorts of responsibilities and jumping from one task to another, has probably been the most challenging aspect, but this has also made my job more satisfying. Working at a research-based architecture studio devoted to enhance the civic infrastructure of lower-income neighborhoods, through greater environmental sensibility, implies not only envisioning the physical spaces that will later on become materialized, but also (1) creating educational programs and cultural activities that will accompany the design process as well as follow up the construction of these spaces, and (2) expanding the knowledge of our work on a global level. Being in charge of both technical projects and many other audiovisual representations, has obliged me to learn new software programs along the practice, that enriched my vocational training.

MM: In the last year, I got closer to the development of different projects connecting housing and social services. These are not common projects driven by a developer,  with an assigned budget and well aligned processes. We have to construct our own process and develop activities. We want to support the goals of the community that we work for and be advocates to the changes they would like to see.  This is not always easy, because there are a lot of stakeholders involved and sometimes it is hard to find a point of contact. Especially working in the San Diego/Tijuana border has been really challenging, understanding these two communities that are completely different, but yet so close to each other. The main attempt is to shift cultural narratives in order to focus on the network and collaboration — because this area is a fundamental point of exchange with or without the wall. 

Above: Elevation perspective showing the Mecalux prefabricated system at the UCSD-Divina Community Station
Below: Collaborative educational and environmental programs 

The Tijuana-San Diego border region is one of the main entry points for migrants from Central America, many of them living in makeshift camps around the city. Breaking down the barriers between social and spatial interventions is one of the major aspects of our master program, an approach that is also reflected in the work of Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman. How do you see the role of the architect in regards to the social inclusion of refugees and how did our master program influence your views of the profession?

DG: As Carlos Fuentes said: “The new world economic order is not an exercise in philanthropy, but in enlightened self-interest for everyone concerned” and this is the reason why, in 2017, I decided to deepen my education. After working as an architect and earning my licence in Italy, I realized that the master’s program at UIC would be a great opportunity for me. There I could learn what I couldn’t study at the Polytechnic University of Turin.
In Barcelona, I researched tourism-related gentrification and its impact on the social fabric of barrio de Gràcia. This neighborhood is one of the central touristic areas of the city, where speculation and rampant rent prices has forced people unable to afford higher economic burdens to move.
The translation of Henri Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space” exposed me to the concept of the state as a ‘spatial framework’ and inspired me to inquire further into the geographies of state power under modern capitalism. Too often we stigmatize the displaced and dispossessed as refugees. After leaving Barcelona, I recognized that globalized city-regions are fascinating sites to investigate transformations of statehood and governance.
In San Diego and Tijuana, tension has become a tactic to repress and threaten citizens of both sides of the border. Author Mike Davis portrays authority as an invasive “space police”. In San Diego, this apocalyptic view comes to life: Military bases, the Wall, ICE, border patrol, fighter jets, black hawks and war ships are constantly looking for an invisible enemy. This familiarity with war in times of peace with Mexico unpairs U.S. citizens’ perception of reality and normalizes militarization.
The conceptual basis I gained through UIC set the foundations for my professional goals.  By working and living in San Diego, I’ve been able to challenge the idea of the architect’s political role. Now more than ever, architects have to stand up and collaborate with other professionals in order to achieve common goals and build a better world. A world that is not solely driven by economic interests, but also social sustainability.

JM: It is evident that we live in a paradoxical world, where physical barriers are increasingly dividing us, while being progressively connected through the digital sphere. Thus, it is crucial to question this reality and our behavior as a species, a reality that is constantly affecting and reshaping the way we interact with each other. In a world where academia has historically been constraining us from seeing the big picture, enclosing us in narrow micro-worlds of knowledge, I strongly support the role of architects embracing other disciplinary approaches, to pursue more equitable and inclusive interventions. In regards to the social inclusion of refugees specifically, I see it as an opportunity to expand the frontiers of the architectural practice, not as a business, of course, but as a wake-up call for politicians to act accordingly to the necessities of present-day societies. In terms of the master program, I don’t think it influenced my view of the profession, but expanded my abilities to perform architecture in an idiosyncratic and critical way.

MM: When I entered the program in 2016 I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I worked for 8 months in a studio in Milan working on private houses in the Caribbean Islands without any consideration of the social and environmental aspects of the place. After graduation, I became interested in combining spatial and sector approaches, introducing sustainable urban services and supporting the socio-economic development of urban communities. Nowadays I believe that cities affected by conflict and struggle don’t advance with physical projects alone, but must contain the restructuring of social and economic resources which typify them. It is in these preconditions that the role of the architect should emerge as a string-puller between diverse institutions, local activists and residents. We, as architects, have the capabilities to understand the resources and the policies of the space where we are working, and to design the redistribution of those creating new collaborations and alternatives in order to confront the challenges of everyday life – such as institutional collaborations, housing affordability, environmental sustainability.

Above: The EarthLab, a 4-acre outdoor climate action park, is designed as an educational tool for local public schools
Below: At the Environmental Design Lab, university climate research and teaching is conducted collaboratively with community partners

What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path?

DG: Since the start of my career I have struggled with the question that historically plagues our profession. Whitney M. Young Jr. calls it the “escape hatch”, the architect’s ability to hide behind the client as an excuse to forlorn the public good. If it’s true that the spaces we live in shape our behaviour, architecture should be of primary importance to society.
My advice is to find peers and to share ideas between them to make the most of our knowledge base. Be curious, never fear critique, and be open to other professions’ point of view.  In order to serve the public interest and fight for equity and justice, don’t be afraid to reshape your life. We must work together. Last but not least, since we know everything starts from and leads back to architecture, call upon other colleagues to fight for architecture as a human right, and not just as a commodified product of capitalist realm.

JM: I am convinced that it is our obligation as architects to change the paradigm of the profession, in a world of endless crisis where cultural fragmentation seems inevitable and innocent people are continuously paying for our sins. Therefore, it is time to develop innovative solutions to narrow the gap between what is being done and what is actually needed. Corporate projects might aesthetically beautify our cities, but only actions that address the current social emergencies will enrich our human nature.

MM: Who is it I’m working for? This question always resonated into my mind when I started my career in architecture. Architecture is considered as the business of designing for the richest 1% of the world’s population. I truly think that in the face of today’s crisis we have to acknowledge that architecture is not just about making buildings. We have to enter the dimension of political and civic processes and try to integrate and explore new tools.

All images: UCSD Centre on Global Justice

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