I am currently reading a great book that came out in 2004 titled “The Agua Caliente Story, Remembering Mexico’s Legendary Racetrack”. One day when looking for images on the internet of the Agua Caliente Casino I a came across this publication and just by looking at the cover image I knew it was one of those books that promised a factual story, yet I had never encountered it in any bookstore in Tijuana. The book is written in English, published by Blood Horse Publications and authored by David J. Beltran. Beltran, according to the bio in the book, is a former resident of Tijuana who used to live near the Agua Caliente Racetrack and would attend the races with his father since he was two years old. I immediately identified with the author and my respect developed for the book because it is written by a person whith a memory of the racetrack tied to his upbringing, yet the publication is also product of extensive and detailed research allowing a balanced reading without becoming sentimental or biased in a personal way. I was quickly seduced by the book since I also grew up near the racetrack and while very young – maybe 5 or 6 years old- I would go to the races with my father on Sundays. I remember walking into the members club and seeing the tourist and locals drinking their cocktails, wagering on the races, the buzz of the crowds, hearing the detailed relay of the race as it was happening and the televisions transmitting from distinct view points, all of this taking place as my father would be playing a standard on the grand piano in the club. My father was such a passionate race aficionado that he won the famous 5-10 prize one Saturday. These memories I had of the race track became vivid again as I read the book and reminded me why I have been critical of our current city administration and if there is something I detest it’s the destruction (close to a level of urbicide) of the Agua Caliente Racetrack. Unfortunately since 1992 it has become the personal playground of our mayor – destroying one of the most important patrimonies and catalyst of urban growth in Tijuana, because as the author writes concerning the first racetrack of the 1920’s “Without the racetrack, Tijuana would have had a difficult time economically. The growth of this city can be traced to one word, hipodromo, or racetrack”.
It also ascertains a couple of axioms about the origin of Tijuana. As the writer Heriberto Yepez once said, “Tijuana is an American city, governed by Mexico”. Beltran writes that the first racetrack was an American enterprise – conceived and financed by American citizens looking to make a buck when Porfirio Diaz legalized games in the northern states of Mexico. Permits where sold to Americans for the creation of the racetrack and the famous boxing promoter "Sunny" Jim Coffroth became its first administrator of the track – Coffroth was the son of the prominent California Republican Senator James Coffroth. In 1915, when the deal was made to build the racetrack Tijuana had over 1500 inhabitants not enough citizens to support the track therefore American investors and tourists were the main source maintaining the track afloat. “The track initiated a chain reaction to this city: the tourist needed to eat before or after the races. They need a place to stay and they also wanted to buy a souvenir of the trip down to Tijuana” (Beltran 2004). Coffroth also received financial and logistic support from John D. Spreckels – owner of the San Diego and Arizona Railroad – he also was the owner of the Hotel Del Coronado – responsible for the now defunct cable car system of downtown San Diego – once owner of the San Diego Union and Tribune- he build the Spreckels Theater in SD as well as financing the 1915 Panama California Exposition – he basically build San Diego and Tijuana to into cities from the ground up. In 1916 on opening day the racetrack had 10,000 visitors. Tijuana is clearly an American enterprise in Mexican land – a city designed for entertainment, gambling and illicit acts (acts unlawful in the US). A few years ago I re-wrote the history of Tijuana through the concept of illicitness in a text titled "Illicit Acts of Urbanism" and Bernal’s book reassures me that Tijuana was intended to be a place where “reinterpretation” is a key word when it comes to civil law and urban development. The book is full of beautiful black and white photographs of the racetrack and of people who made it a success such as trainers, jockeys, and Hollywood stars that would flock into TJ to have a good time at Aguacaliente and the other establishments (bars, hotels, curio shops, restaurants) that began to appear in and around the track. The story flows as you move along the chapters and the images offer a window to the past. Even though it’s the author first book and I believe he is not a writer or cultural anthropologist, but an employee of a food distribution company from Chula Vista, California, the passion and focus of the research is what makes this an entertaining read as well as a historical research document of a central cultural infrastructure of Tijuana.
The following images were sent to me by my friend and architect
I apologize for not posting all this time; the end of the year was hectic to say the least. Project deadlines, grades to fulfill, final school presentations to organize, out of state design jury and unfortunatelly death came upon family and friend’s family all in a two-week period. Even today, as I write this post my grandfather of 96 years past away calmly in the company of family. His life is full of anecdotes of the Tijuana in the 20's; he was one of the original landowners of ejido matamoros in Tijuana. Ejidos are community owned property established by the Mexican government for agricultural purposes. He was also a painter with more than 40 paintings depicting pre-colonial scenes taken from the famous calendars rendered by Jesus Helguera whose images are also popular in lowrider art.
His paintings where visible throughout his ranch Jesus Maria, inside spaces as well as exterior patios and barns. He used automotive paints so that they would withstand the elements outside. The sizes vary from large murals and reliefs to paintings on wood 8 feet high to smaller sizes of 24 inches. He learned to paint by being an assistant to a comercial sign painter and used a grid for proportion. Some of his work is now in the civic room of the community center, the rest are still in the ranch.
Last Friday January 12, 2007, the opening to Strange New World Art and Design from Tijuana took place at the Santa Monica Museum of Contemporary Art. This exhibit was first conceived and realized in San Diego last year with 40 artists designers and architects from various generations. The project was curated and organized by Rachel Teagle from the San Diego Museum of Contemporay Art. The show then moved to Santa Monica, yet due to the size of the space at Bergamot Station the exhibition was reduced to half the size as it was originally presented. Strange New World traveled with the work and all the baggage and issues concerning the name and the exotic character of the project. To some critics the title of the show portrays a “noble savage” distinction to the production of the work as well as connotations of colonialism in postmodern world. Strange- to whom and therefore strange becomes hip and exotic to a first world economy and art market. I have mixed feeling about this because I some how agree that we are strange in that way yet, we are also “New” in the sense Constant wrote about New Babylon, a nomadic culture where artistic freedom reigns, New – is creative yet aggressive. The exhibition is much more compact due to the size and therefore I was able to re-assemble the piece I created in San Diego through the space of the gallery weaving itself through the work and interchanging vistas with the rest of the art. The project interferes visually and spatially, it negotiates and it invades and I think that is one of the natures that have made Tijuana strange and interesting. The 100 laser cut panels used in San Diego where used with a new metal structure ( the piece was intended to be erected outside the gallery) they have imperfections because it was re design into a new shape and at first I was weary of the faults, but I realized that they gave the piece a sense of autonomy – it was out of my control.
On the day of the opening more than 1000 guest arrived to witness the show and dance to the hybrid sounds of two Tj DJs, Rafa Savedra and Sal Ricalde. The architecture community of LA was represented of which some are good friends of mine. During the exhibition I was interviewed by Frances Anderton, producer of the radio show Design and Architecture on KCRW 89.9 in LA. We discussed that Tijuana even though exists in the world within a bubble of bad reputation (sin city, drug trafficking, etc) which are all valid representations of the city, there is a sense of hope and optimism in the people of the city. Without romanticizing self built homes and communities I commented that this felling of optimism is what drives the city forward. If there is something to learn about these places and constructions is the self-determination to make things better for the future. In regards to the esthetics of self-built constructions, I mention I am not interested in them as object, but more by the freedom they express. If we understand the city through its range of opportunities (spatial, programmatic, and formal) we can begin to derive new forms and processes of cohabitation. The influx and liminal condition that we live in is an opportunity to rethink social space from institutional, infrastructural to private levels. We must make the concepts of illicitness and illegality a form of critical production that could bring us close to “real” freedom. Strange New World is primarily a survey of current artistic manifestations from Tijuana. It is relevant because it brings forth the voices of various generations of artists and designers. Its force lies in its assemblage, as point of departure for the new generations of citizens to critically look at their urban condition. As an architect these types of spaces allow for the simulation of building, an exercise of spatial calisthenics. The work of generica in this exhibition is a preamble of future constructions, the objects are not for sale they are meant to produce questions and issues of building and culture. The invitation is open to all, I hope some of you are able to visit the show and tell me your thoughts. The show runs from Jan 13 to April 07.I will be giving a talk on issues of architecture and urbanism in collaboration with the artist Marcos Ramirez “erre” on March 23, 2007 – 7:pm.
After party – Relearning my Modernism
After the opening celebration we where invited to dinner by the museum administration. We ate at a small Oaxaca style restaurant on a common strip mall in LA. Elsa Longhauser introduced me to a quiet gray hair gentleman sitting a couple of places from where I was. His name is Carles Vallhonrat and was principal assistant to Louis Khan from 1960 to 1971. He is currently professor at Princeton University. I had one of the most pleasant conversations in many years. Actually he did more of the talking I did more of the listening. It was incredible to hear his personal accounts about the design and making of Salk Institute and his conversations with Barragan (Carles was the interpreter between Khan and Baragan during the design conversations regarding the courtyard at Salk) his letters to Jonas Salk and the creation of the Khan archive. A poised man, well dressed in the manner of all great modern architects, and committed to his profession in a manner that I believe is hardly appreciated today. We spoke for about an hour on his friend Scarpa and his visits to his studio, on the future expansion of the Salk, which I was juror for the Orchids and Onions architecture prize in San Diego and responsible for giving the grand onion prize to the new expansion on the canyon. Carles is in the process of writing to the Salk and illustrating the faults in maintaining the building as well as commenting on the future architectural expansions. If he permits me I will post the letter in this blog. At the end of our dinner I enthusiastically presented Carles to my wife Monica and Carles mention to her that she must be proud to have married an architect like myself and she answered: “ well yes, but he should grateful I put up with his craziness, all of you architects are like that” we all laughed. Well I think she meant well, but they (spouses) will never understand!