“Reality allows you to be more experimental, ” says Guatemala-born Teddy Cruz, founder of Estudio Teddy Cruz. An architect and educator based in San Diego, CA, Cruz jokes that he’s known as “the shantytown guy.” Actually, he has developed an influential, provocative design practice.
Cruz’ installation for the Into the Open exhibition, an 89-foot photo-narrative on the U.S.-Mexico border, offers a sharply-observed lesson on how political and social forces are shaping the American landscape. I sat down with Cruz when he was in Philadelphia last week to talk about his approach to architectural practice and projects.
What’s the role of observation and listening in the practice of architecture?
“We all need to observe and interpret. However, there are gradations of observation; it is not just a passive act. There is a myth in community development that architects simply come to observe and to listen. That is seen as respectful—but it creates problems. Architects need to complicate the conversation and place it within a framework of controversy and debate.
Communities tend to explain their identity in terms of how buildings look. They may say that they want Spanish Colonial style, for example. But as responsible designers, we can’t just perpetuate style over other things. When I was working on affordable housing with a community in San Diego, I observed how that community was already redefining its boundaries, which suggests a design approach more powerful than style. Instead of getting identity packaged in styles, look at the deeper operations.”
Can you trace your evolution from architecture student to the architect you are today?
“I’ve always been passionately involved in architecture. I studied architecture at a time when the poetics of form (i.e., the experience of space) defined the curriculum. Not that it’s changed much! Architecture schools are still very detached from political realities when they should teach their students to understand political and economic realities.
In practice, I saw how architects were incrementally obsolete and absent from constructing the systems of the city. I live in San Diego, a place where I constantly see conditions of conflict. I could dream of beautiful architecture, but the city around me was made of discriminatory zoning, gated communities, factories employing cheap labor, etc.
I returned to school because I was thirsty [to deal] with the relationships between form and social and political problems. Back in Southern California, I grounded myself in community to try to rethink creative procedures away from ‘form for the sake of form’.
So the foundation of my work is being pissed off! I felt that we, as architects, were just helping to camouflage power relationships. In my classes I often begin by telling my students, “let’s draw the social and economic structure of the city. Let’s map out the institutions, groups and resources. That map is a tool for connection.”
Any plans to work in Philly?
I’m currently working on a potential housing project with Aaron Levy, executive director of the Slought Foundation. You see, right now we think of housing as simply units of dwelling. In isolation in conditions of marginality, this can become unsustainable.
However, housing can be an excuse to create public infrastructure. So how do we inject support systems into housing? How do we create spaces charged with programming? The project that we’re working on begins by occupying a basic lot and goes from there towards creating truly sustainable affordable housing.” Editor’s Note: On the East Coast, Estudio Teddy Cruz is currently working on affordable housing in Hudson, NY.