If you’ve ever driven south from San Diego and crossed into Mexico, you know that the border marks a distinct line between two dramatically contrasting cityscapes, with a surprisingly short distance of blurring between the two. The typical pastel stucco dwellings that sit on well-watered lawns in southern California, sit in a second incarnation atop steel frames in Tijuana, steadied by retaining walls made of old tires.

The dense shelters people construct from various discarded and salvaged materials become squatter settlements – settlements because once established, they cannot legally be demolished, and ultimately must be provided with basic utilities and infrastructure from the government. But don’t let this picture lead you to believe that the manicured and carefully-spaced homes north of the border have the upperhand; Teddy Cruz will give you a lot of reasons to see that squatters know a thing or two about good urban development.

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Originally from Guatemala, Teddy Cruz’s roots now weave between northern Mexico and southern California, though his reputation as a visionary architect spans the globe. Although Cruz is not the only architect straddling the line between developed and developing areas, his perspective is unique: The observations he makes don’t send him running to bring Northern solutions to the South. On the contrary, the shantytowns of Tijuana inspire possibility for creating compact, densely constructed homes that reflect Latin American traditions of community interaction, and multigenerational households.

Cruz has been working for some time on a multi-use housing development for Mexican immigrants in San Ysidro (near San Diego), which incorporates the traditional structures of family and home, while embracing the tools offered through modern architectural design. Up north a bit, near San Francisco, he’s been taking the densification idea even further, converting a 70,000-sq-ft (appalling!) McMansion into multi-family housing – an approach he predicts will spread with population influx and economic downturns.

The story of Cruz’s process as an architect, and as both a member, leader and servant of his borderland region, reinforces the importance of planning as a community endeavor. His work is clearly informed by careful observation and willing involvement with the people he builds for. The way settlements like Tijuana’s evolve organically, based upon need, migration and available resources, presents a valuable lesson in the possibility for democratic approaches to development.

More detail on Cruz’s project and philosophies can be found in this New York Times article from Sunday, March 12. + Estudio Teddy Cruz

photos by Teddy Cruz via NYT