Tuesday night’s event with Teddy Cruz marked an inspiring end to our Development by Design: Dialogues in Architecture, Equity and Design organized in collaboration with Roca to highlight the role of architects and designers in contexts of poverty, disaster, conflict and rapid urbanization.

Teddy’s extensive research of the Tijana-San Diego area spanning the US-Mexico explores how architects and designers can act as mediators of bottom-up informal practices and top-down government policies to provide solutions to socio-economic disparity and contribute to healthy urban environments. In a conversation with Barcelona-based architecture critic Fredy Massad, the pair discussed the expanding role of the architect, the potential of informal practices and the romanticization of informality. Here are some of the key thoughts expressed throughout the talk.

What is informal?

Teddy started off by reminding us that informality isn’t just one-directional; it is a result of, or “collision with”, top-down policies, or lack thereof.

“For me, it is all about praxis; a set of everyday practices that need to be represented and mediated between the informal community and the governing body. That is where we as architects can come into play. We need to extract the DNA of these everyday practices in order to enable them to trickle-up and inform top-down policies.”

Architects as mediators

Although he fundamentally considers himself an architect, his approach lies in building protocols rather than buildings. At times an “alternative ethnographer” that explores processes, or a social worker that analyzes strategies, his aim is to reorganize institutional protocols in the urban space in order for genuine change to take place.

Visualizing citizenship

So how can architects do this? It’s fundamental, he says, to begin any urban pursuit by asking, “Whose territory is this? Who owns the resources?”

Teddy cited several examples of this approach, including the remarkable case of  Washington Street Skatepark, created by a group of teenage skateboarders who went from occupying an urban space under a highway to transforming it into a new skate park by organizing themselves, identifying ownership of the land and capitalizing on jurisdiction discrepancies to reach an agreement with private and public sectors.

He also mentioned what he refers to as the “Informal Buddha,” a religious center created by a community of Vietnamese Buddhists in the middle of a suburban residential community characterized by immigrant groups and informal, non-conforming land uses.

Architects can find inspiration in these bottom-up practices and multiply their potential by designing the interfaces between institutions and communities.

Romanticizing informality

Our host Fredy Massad, known for criticizing the romanticization of slums and what he considers the superficial practices of certain architects who brand themselves as social impact designers, did not miss out on the opportunity to bring the issue up with our guest.

Teddy explained that his approach was not about romanticizing informality; slums are not fun places to live in. Rather, it is a natural hotbed for resourceful and ingenious practices that rise out of necessity to provide solutions. “I believe in bottom-up, but I also believe in top-down. I think the only way forward to is bring these two together. That’s what I try to do.”

With regards to more artistic or visual explorations of informality like Urban Think Tank’s award-winning exhibition of Torre David, Teddy commented that often times these projects do not have any impact on the communites portrayed.  “These kinds of interventions come and go. I’m interested in providing solutions and seeing them through.”

While exhibitions like MoMa’s Small Scale, Big Change have helped bring these issues into the mainstream, the coverage is a double-edged sword. Stunning photos of happy communities in ribbon-cutting ceremonies do not do much in the way of educating the public about the complexity of working with poor communities, nor the conditions that led to their plight. In this way, the practice of social design itself has become romanticized, with hardly any analysis of how they perform over time, once the attention has waned.

Teddy expressed frustration at how exhibitions like these, which he was featured in, lack depth. “I think these institutions of display respond to a hunger for another direction. People want to see good in the world, but institutions are not willing to take the risk of exposing the real causes of crisis.”

According to Teddy, romanticization is definitely the wrong way to go. “It can send the wrong message to governments; to unplug informal communities, and that’s exactly what we don’t need.”

Expanding architecture

Teddy emphasized the need for schools to rethink how they teach architecture. “We need to teach architecture students to become better ethnographers and better social workers.” With these skills, architects and designers will be better equipped to act a mediators and harness the creative intelligence of informal communities around the world.

More photos from the event:

Learn more about Teddy Cruz’s work and listen to his TED talk.

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