Interview by Catherine M. Herbst
This interview will be published in the magazine Cuarta Pared, a Mexico City publication focusing on architecture art and design. Due april 2006.
Sera publicada en ingles y español.
Catherine, was born in the middle of 5 siblings in 1962, and after being raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Silver Springs MD, Ellicott City MD, and Los Alamos NM., she attended Montana State University and received a Bachelors of Architecture in 1995. In San Diego, she worked in a little firm, worked in a big firm, worked in a tiny firm, then landed at Rob Wellington Quigley FAIA in 1989. The work was comprised of houses for rich people, the Sherman Heights Community Center, Solana Beach Train Station, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall, an early childhood education facility, a couple of competitions, a few big planning studies, a bunch of housing studies, the Balboa Park Activity Center and the Sun Field Station at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Catherine’s work at Quigley’s office won numerous awards from the San Diego Chapter of the AIA. She is licensed in the state of California. In 2000 she formed a practice, Rinehart Herbst with Todd Rinehart, and since then has completed two houses, three additions, an office, and a strawberry stand that was converted into a Wetlands Learning Center for the San Dieguito River Park. The Strawberry Stand received a 2005Honor award from the San Diego AIA Chapter. She is an Associate Professor and Chair of the architecture program at Woodbury University San Diego. She has juried the New Mexico and Arizona AIA awards. Rinehart Herbst is currently working on modest residential work and a small-scale commercial development with nine of her closest friends.
The simultaneously archaic and hyper-modern 'archetypal fact' of twenty-first century architecture and urbanism will be the enclosure, the wall, the barrier, the gate the fence, the fortress.
Lieven De Cauter
Aqui es Tijuana / Here is Tijuana, is a two and half year urban research project and foremost, a collaboration between three friends, the anthropologist Fiamma Montezemolo, architect Rene Peralta and the writer Heriberto Yepez. We fused our disciplines and ideologies in an effort to document and rediscover the ubiquitous and unfathomable quality of the city’s urban representation. A project that culminated in a book who’s intention is not to abridge or resolve Tijuana‘s apparent chaos, but to engage the powers that act upon it and render its socio-cultural and urban form(s). Tijuana is similar to many other contemporary models of urban environments, yet it is also a fractal image of itself. A self similar procedural state where in every citizen exits a potential “here” of Tijuana.
In a search of a personal and informal discussion that could originate an innate response to the work, architect Catherine Herbst directs this interview in her San Diego office amid several cups of espresso and the cunning eye of a friend and an “American” trying to grasp the myth and realities that coalesce into images of this near yet bizarre place.
The conversation focuses on Aqui es Tiuana / Here is Tijuana, a 192 page book of images and texts due out in April of 2006 published by Black Dog Publishing, in London and with support from Instituto de Cultura de Baja California, Centro Cultural Tijuana -CONACULTA and Universidad Autonoma de Baja California. As well as an overview of the issues discussed in Worldview Cities Tijuana, a web based project of the Architectural League of New York realized in 2005 at www.worldviewcities.org.
Catherine M. Herbst. What is the value of the research as a generative source?
Rene Peralta. It is interesting because we began the research and initially the best thing we could do was put it in a book format and attempted to have an overall perspective of the last ten years through our three distinct personalities, visions, and disciplines. That was as much as we were able to do with it for now, because there is so much information and it is overwhelming and changing rapidly. So to be prescriptive is difficult.
CMH Why the three disciplines? Did you feel they would bring broadness to the discourse?
RP We never really discussed this formally, it just worked out. Heriberto had an idea to write a book discussing literature, literary concepts of and from Tijuana. I was preparing research for a book on downtown Tijuana, on the buildings of the 40’s and 50’s, the pseudo-modernist work. One day, Heriberto and I were discussing the two ideas and we thought to fuse them together, instead of working on a certain part or aspect of Tijuana, why not just ‘a’ book on Tijuana? We decided that we needed a third person, someone who was foreign, who would not be numb by Tijuana, and someone who could see beyond what we already knew. We had just met Fiamma Cordero de Montezemolo and Fiamma was working at COLEF, a think tank with extensive information on Tijuana. Being an anthropologist we thought she was a perfect match. Then a couple of weeks later we were all at a party and we made the deal. From that point on till the end there was much discussion about what direction and whose discipline would take the forefront. I was interested in urban planning and development. Fiamma was looking at the specific social issues and Heriberto had a critical perspective on diverse cultural aspects. Those three views were always in flux and always changing. We began with 13 chapters, later we edited them down to three while keeping the thirteen as sub-chapters. We titled the three, Avatars, Desires and Permutations. In the end we were very pleased with the way it worked out. We made a decision that each chapter would have a geographic order. So, Avatars begins at the border with immigration aspects at the forefront and flows into the city, Desires focuses on the red-light district in Tijuana and expands itself outwards into the city. Permutations, begins in the east and goes to the west, from newest to oldest urban developments. This was the organization and within those travels and chapters there was the discussion of what we thought was central to Tijuana. Sometimes Fiamma would see something curious and want to include it in the book because it was something unique to Tijuana, but since we were sometimes numb to certain issues we would hesitate to include them.
CMH I feel that is a truism, you do grow numb to your context; you may edit it too fast. We have to develop ways of seeing places and sometimes that means collaborating, so you are pulled off your trajectory. We were talking about the optimism of the book. Even though there were certain things you would gravitate towards, for example, people who can read the paper and find out who died and see how many horrible things happened. They miss all the things in between, seeing only the prostitution, drugs and corruption. It’s a bipolar kind of city. By the second, you can exist in the bad at the same time as the good. Maybe that is the analysis of the contemporary city. If you look really closely at any place, do we end up with the same result? Is there no specificity to place?
RP I think you will find similarities in other places. Yet, we did a sort of quantum theory approach to urban research in regards to Tijuana, where we began at the smallest, minute level and go out from there. If you follow this approach with Tijuana you begin to understand the places and events where things began to change. So, if you start at the east and deal with issues associated with illegal land acquisition, then you understand in general how the city was settled. You have to go in and pinpoint those minute concepts and ideas and then you begin to comprehend why the city is the way it is. Until you realize, according to other research that has been done, 50% of the residential plots began with squatters or are of illegal origin. Today you find out that in the new areas this is still happening and it is having a different effect because squatter groups are more efficient and due to the rapid increase in population, the state government hasn’t been able to cope with this issue. So there is a construct within that concept of illegality.
CMH If every one is just moving through, Tijuana as an immigration portal, as the data would support, why is there so much geographic expansion? Has ownership changed? Will Tijuana always be home to more people?
RP Tijuana is a destination now, but this perception has been fading in and out. If you look at the history of Tijuana, originally people came to work in the casinos, nightclubs and bars and other places of commercial activity during prohibition in the 1920’s. People came and settled. Decades later, during the US Brasero program in the period of WWII, Tijuana became a trampoline for migrants into California, replacing the young American workforce that went off to war. In the 70’s, the maquiladora industry established itself and once again Tijuana became a city with abundant job opportunities and a place to reside. From 1970 – 1990 the population of the city doubled. So the condition has fluctuated, becoming a city that to some is a portal, as you mentioned and to others a permanent place. Today, the city is reaching its critical mass and because of the proximity to California (the sixth largest economy in the world) people are coming to Tijuana in search of better wages, which tend to be higher than in other parts of the country.
CMH It would appear that Tijuana does not have a political system that exerts control over the size it has become. We had spoke once of Tijuana splitting into Tijuana and Nueva Tijuana, how do you maintain identity while splitting these big political entities and large amounts of control? Do you think the split is possible, do you think that is its future?
RP It is a possibility for two reasons, the city is growing rapidly and the municipality does not have the infrastructure and economic means to service it. The private sector is considering a satellite city right now. It is a pragmatic issue, but in the last years it has also become a psychological issue as well. In the last ten years the people of Tijuana are becoming a “capsular society”, a term coined by Lieven De Cauter, living in secluded enclaves that are emerging incessantly in the outskirts of the city. Because Tijuana is border town, we have many problems such as homicides and kidnappings due to the illegal drug trade, as well as other types of delinquency and for many inhabitants it is becoming psychological burden, therefore they look for ways to separate themselves from the rest of the city. Tijuana is becoming a true gated community. It is eventually going to divide because everyone that is immigrating to Tijuana is settling on the east and here is where the first break will occur, it is already considered the “Nueva Tijuana”. People perceive that they live in two distinct cities. Residents from this area usually say, ‘I am going to Tijuana’ when they travel west into downtown. Tito Alegria, who is a friend and a researcher at the COLEF, mentions that even though Tijuana is expanding, the traditional and historical core of the city is still the economic/commercial center. It is where the middle class and upper middle class live; it is where all the major services exist and where most of the population from the outskirts comes to work. Even though Tijuana’s clichéd image is of a chaotic city in flux, it operates as a conventional urban condition. The center is still the seat of control and it is located in the same geographical area. Yet, there is now the possibility that Tijuana could bifurcate into a specialized-function city, due the construction of major works of infrastructure in the east, such as a large boulevard connecting Tijuana to the city of Rosarito, a proposed border crossing, and the economic support of the manufacturing industry, all of this could lessen the dependency with the center and the New Tijuana could become an economically self sustaining city with up to a projected one million inhabitants. I believe these two urban entities could coexist. The coastal city of Rosarito was once part of Tijuana, before it separated into its own municipality with the idea that they could survive on tourism. After 9-11, it became difficult, but they are coming along. I believe the socio-cultural conditions for Nueva Tijuana to become independent are already occurring or in progress - the population already has established their own values quite different from Tijuana. I think its evolution is inevitable, we found that out in our research and with this premise we began ‘permutations’ the final chapter of our book.
CMH How do you feel the conditions of Tijuana, and for that matter, an ever more unstable world contribute to the formation of young architectural practices?
RP This is why I coined the phrase ‘alternative practices’. In Tijuana, there are two ways to work as a young architect. You can work as a construction manager/supervisor for a developer for 5 or 6 years from 6:00Am - 9:00PM, in the sector called the maquiladora of architects. Or try to make it by establishing your own practice. If you choose the latter, the difficulty is in the fact that there is no culture of design in Tijuana, so you basically become a contractor, designing for free to secure the construction contract. Working in the university is a possibility, yet tenured positions are not easy to come by. Many professors are reluctant to leave the stability of their institutions because they want to retire, have a pension and access to housing credits and healthcare benefits. I opted to create a design/research office and it was very difficult at the beginning because the economy or instruments to support this type of practice do not exist here. Coming from London filled with ideas from the AA, I felt I could develop a critical practice with emphasis on design research, the Deleuzian ideal. When I returned to Tijuana I realized the city did not have access to the mechanisms of this ideal (schools and technology). So I had to rethink my situation and searched for projects and the ones I began with where half-contractor and half-architect jobs, which was a real challenge. I realized I had to cross the border to keep from drowning, to teach and have an academic life in the US while maintaining a professional practice in Tijuana. Few architects are able to do this. Many young architects who do not want to follow the traditional paths are forced to leave and go to graduate school and they do not come back. They come and establish themselves near in San Diego or LA to maintain the connection to Tijuana but they don’t return to the city. This brings in an interesting perception of those of us working on various aspects of the city, as architects, designers, and urbanists; we get criticized for taking advantage of Tijuana for our own self-interest and academic credentials. But for me, the only way I could do research on Tijuana is by going outside of Tijuana. The book is a rare example, because where able to get funding from the state, the federal government and the university and then partnering with a British publisher. It was tough to secure. It took two years of hard work, knocking on doors, and meeting people. If you have friends, it is faster. If not, you wait in line because there are so many people who want those funds. We were lucky! Publishing editions in English and Spanish simultaneously, presenting our work outside Tijuana, or going on tour with a book opens you up to a lot of criticism. What people need to realize is that Tijuana does not have the mechanism to work from within.
CMH In reading the other authors and texts on the Worldview site, I found many parallels.
RP It is true. I believe if you take away the images and read the text, mix up the cities you would find those parallels. Caracas, Dhaka or Tijuana, they all become border cities or there is a type of border condition within them. There is a critical instability that shapes each one of the documented cities. I perceived this instability was inherent in cities like Tijuana who came into being during the 20th century. I was impressed to find out that in cities such as Dhaka ,which have existed for hundreds of years in some kind of urban form, deal with concerns that parallel their more current Latin American counterparts. For instance, now more than ever contemporary conditions such as immigration are affecting a city’s demographic characteristics and territorial extension.
CMH When you can blur the images of all the cities, can a place ever be read clearly? Are all cities a construct? Or, after all the analysis and research, is there ever any clarity of a place?
RP No, I don’t think so, speaking for Tijuana it is more a multiplicity of place. The book shows a version of Tijuana that we did not know existed. We found new places and rediscovered Tijuana again. This was the most important part for me, to rediscover the city and continue to study and understand its convoluted representations. I don’t think we will ever have the big picture. I think change in the big picture is too subtle. Tito Alegria seeks to find some clarity as it pertains to Tijuana and the border region. I have asked him to share his insight on how the city functions. I was amazed when he told me that after all the talk about Tijuana’s indeterminacy and how much it changes, every year, every two years, every five years and the instability of place, how little the economic structure has actually changed in 70 years. It is the same place. He has a very objective vantage point because he has studied Tijuana for many years. Yet, I do think he believes that the paradigm is starting to change.
CMH It seems that you cannot really sense the day-to-day shifts...the large picture stays fairly stable, but then it breaks or collapses or redefines its trajectory. Is it the accumulation of small shifts that cause the catastrophic?
RP I was speaking the other day with my wife, Monica about working on a second book titled ‘Illicit Acts of Urbanism’ and construct Tijuana through its history of illicit acts. It would be interesting to come up with a perspective where I could construct a history of contemporary Tijuana through the idea of illicitness or radical change, very violent change. I think we could look at other cities as well, say Shanghai, where change is physically and psychologically violent. Yes, of course there are elements of violent change in Tijuana, but it happens everywhere and it would be very interesting to catalog the history of urbanism through these violent processes. Violent change is opportunistic. Illicitness and violence are forces of global concern.
CMH In Beijing, the hutongs, traditional housing, have been systematically removed and just at the point when they are about to not exist they become the most desired place. It makes me wonder about progress and a future when the colonias become the ideal. Ownership and structure resists the most progress and survives the longest.
RP Tijuana is becoming old enough to begin to construct a history and a past. It’s true, when we look at the outskirts of Tijuana and confront the issues and difficulties; it makes people search for a moment of stability. That moment is the traditional and settled colonias. They have become good places to live. Our past as a city begins during the epoch of early modernism. The old downtown of the 40’s and 50’s is our past. There is a need today of going back and rescuing these artifacts of the past. They recently restored an old theater in the historic downtown. Foreign conservationists and specialists where hired to realize the project. Today it has become a theater for the community. This issue of preservation did not exist before in Tijuana, we never had anything to preserve. Interesting enough the Tijuana Historic Society is only 30 years old. Everything was being used and recycled; everything is fairly new and still working. Now we are preserving and building a history. It is the fear of the future when we look at the developments on the outskirts that instigated this process.
CMH I think this past is mutual for the region. The southern California landscape seems littered with abandoned buildings from another era. I am thinking of the Salton Sea and Palm Springs. One shift in policy or a natural change and the whole economy of the place changes.
RP It is an election year in Mexico and things will change again, they always do. Tijuana absorbs these changes; it is the first to deal with shifts in international policy promoted by the new government. Tijuana gets affected first.
CMH The fact that Tijuana has an agile economy was demonstrated after 9-11, in multiple ways.
RP That is interesting because my interests in illicit acts of urbanism could be a post 9-11 study. There have been desires of symbiosis or hybridism across the border. I don’t think they will ever happen. There is too much disparity. It is more of an exchange or a parasitic condition, except host and parasite are interchangeable and due to it we survived economically after 9-11. It will continue like this and I don’t believe there will be a time when we become seamless region.
CMH There is not a point in the future when Mexico will take back California? Is it happening, or it is just a pacifistic invasion.
RP It is not an invasion. Some Tijuananense know how to camouflage themselves as Americans, they know how to do it very well. They perceive it as region even though they understand that it’s not a political or physical one. I consider San Diego/Tijuana my region.
CMH Are there Americans that consider their region San Diego/Tijuana?
RP Not yet! But first let’s define Americans.
CMH Sorry! Estados Unidos, gringas like me.
RP I believe the ones that consider it the most are second generation Mexican – Americans with family on the other side, who go back and forth across the border.
CMH The longer I live here, the more present Tijuana becomes. For ten years it has been a meal, an opening, or a lecture. Some thing to do with friends.
RP It is also becoming a place where you can buy an affordable American style house. The American dream crossed the border into Tijuana. They are building 100’s of houses east of Playas de Tijuana, next to Rosarito. I have friends who are architects working in these communities, building homes for people who are buying lots in gated communities where the design codes are written in English, not a word in Spanish. The community codes are so strict and they override the codes of the city of Rosarito or Tijuana. They are creating these ‘American’ style enclaves so tightly restricted in an effort to hang onto the perceived distinction.
CMH Is it for Norte Americanos?
RP Yes it is. This might represent a different kind of invasion. It is violent as well, just look at the way they are leveling the topography and eating up all the great landscape that Baja is known for.
CMH The border ameliorated in yet another way.
RP Three cities, Tijuana, Nueva Tijuana, and these new enclaves. There are a number of Mexicans who are returning after living in the United States and they have adapted to a certain lifestyle that want to have replicated.
CMH That’s creepy. We export flight from participation.
RP It is creepy.
Excerpt from the Introduction of Here is Tijuana.
… Tijuana is a city of avatars, fractures, inscriptions, desires, machines, replicas, con-textures, and permutations. Within the constant self transaction, Tijuana becomes another. (Tijuana after all simulates itself). It is not inadvertently that within academic discourse, mass media and citizens alike (Tijuana) has become a sign of multiple and contradictory meanings. To mention Tijuana is to convene immediate social imaginaries and a click after, fabricate its anti thesis and parodies.
Tijuana, by de-codifying and re-codifying itself as sign and city, (city-sign) functions in the daily adjustment of its space and multifarious or chaotic self comprehension. Who ever want to understand Tijuana must realize that its history, its meanings, and its forms are part of popular culture discussion of the city. Tijuana is a passion shared by its citizens, Tijuana is discussed while watching television and eating tacos; waiting in line to cross to the other side .
Tijuana as an arduous intellectual problem is a passion, a riddle that fortunately or unfortunately we live in. Waiters, architects, managers, academics, laborers, writers, drug dealers, journalist, street vendors, mayors, and opportunists, all wish to define Tijuana and talk about her.
In the 21st Century the inquiries into Tijuana promise new transactions. The processes that alter Tijuana and that at the same time alters, have bifurcated. Tijuana awaits new concepts, experiences, and forms, because if there is something the city cries out for, is that it does not cease to transform itself. Tijuana is barely getting started…
Fiamma Montezemolo, Rene Peralta, Heriberto Yepez