In this era of intense public scrutiny of U.S. immigration policy, with the country divided on this and other pressing moral issues, a transnational movement of architecture across the border into northern Baja California continues to evolve quietly, steadily, and organically. While the much-debated northward human migration seeking economic opportunity in Mexican border cities and the United States persists, a less conspicuous southerly flow steadily feeds the evolving vernacular landscape of Tijuana. In modest precincts that strangely mirror those of neighboring, yet far more affluent, San Diego, new homes can spring up practically overnight: phantom structures appearing on unlikely dirt patches, clinging to tenuous slopes, filling in improbable gaps between existing buildings.
Sprawled across dusty hills and perched along the edges of scrub-clad ravines, these unassuming burgs echo their northern counterparts in the surrounding topography, in the temperate weather that graces this corner of the world, in occasional glimpses of the vast blue Pacific glinting to the west. That, however, is largely where the comparison ends. Nor are these homes actually new — consisting of discarded or surplus building supplies, recycled materials of all kinds, even entire structures, they represent the repurposing of America’s waste in an improvisational, eclectic, and inventive fashion.
House awaiting transport [left]; Transported duplex [right]. Photos by Anthony Marchetti.
The patchwork architecture of Tijuana’s informal settlements possesses an ephemeral, dreamlike quality that seems at times to evoke some postmodern Impressionistic vision of urban life. The city has many faces: it is relatively young (founded in 1889), a financial and manufacturing center, home to a diverse multicultural population, and one of the fastest-growing metropolises in Mexico. Currently the fifth-largest in the country with a population of roughly 1.7 million, estimates suggest that in less than 15 years it will be second in size only to Mexico City . Tijuana is also the most visited border city on earth, as well as the location of the world’s busiest land border crossing — the San Ysidro Port of Entry alone logged a staggering 59 million crossings in 2014 . Despite all of this, and despite sharing a miles-long border with “America’s Finest City,” it is a place all but unknown to most Americans.
The practice of moving entire buildings across the border began in earnest at least 70 years ago, when San Diego authorities sanctioned the razing of hastily-built wartime tracts to accommodate shifting housing needs for families after World War II . Rather than demolish them all, however, some of the homes associated with these “defense housing projects” were loaded onto trailers, trucked the 25-odd miles south to Tijuana, and sold to local residents.
Relocated house on top of existing structure. Photo by Anthony Marchetti.
In their multi-year examination of this phenomenon, Minnesota-based professors and photographers Laura Migliorino and Anthony Marchetti have suggested that there may be as many as tens of thousands of these structures scattered throughout Tijuana . One long-time San Diego building mover had, as of 2002, been involved with the relocation of thousands of houses to Mexico over a period of two decades . Some houses were literally cut in half to facilitate transport, their exteriors still bearing the scars of this process. Others have been placed on top of existing structures, with cantilevered second stories or exposed floor joists belying their origin elsewhere. In another space-saving measure, some straddle the driveway between existing buildings.
In the mid-1990s, the removal of 618 Navy housing units (primarily apartments) in San Diego following the passing of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative by Congress would have resulted in one of the largest single instances of the cross-border movement of buildings: a plan was proposed to transport approximately 20 duplex officers’ quarters by barge to Rosarito, on the coast between Tijuana and Ensenada, but this couldn’t be accomplished prior to their scheduled demolition. In the end, just three of the homes were sold and relocated to Tijuana .
The practice of buying and transporting entire houses has, over the years and in concert with NAFTA-fueled manufacturing along the border, morphed from what began as a simple, affordable housing choice for Tijuana residents, into an architecture of necessity for the city’s dispossessed. It is now common to find homes made from cast-off relics of the maquiladora industry — shipping pallets, prefabricated components, packing crates, fiberglass, plastic — intermingled with more conventional building materials such as lumber, plywood, concrete block, fencing panels, and sheets of corrugated metal brought across the border by wholesalers, local contractors, or various philanthropic organizations. Older garage doors, salvaged from remodeled homes in Southern California subdivisions, are frequently reused as structural walls. In some cases, the border wall itself has been used to enclose one side of a structure. In an area noted for its steep slopes and unstable soil, used car tires have become a popular choice for retaining walls. Two Tijuana-based photographers, Maria Teresa Fernandez and Ingrid Hernandez, have been documenting this phenomenon for years in their own unique ways, with respective projects titled Architects by Force and Tijuana Comprimida (“Tijuana Compressed”).
House made of recycled materials including garage doors, packing crates and shipping pallets, Las Torres neighborhood. Photo by Maria Teresa Fernández [left]; House clad with salvaged maquiladora scraps, Colonia Nueva Esperanza/La Cuesta. Photo by Ingrid Hernandez [right].
In 1993, an unprecedented influx of donated building materials crossed the border following devastating floods that accompanied heavy winter rains in northern Mexico. In response to this humanitarian crisis that killed at least 30 and left thousands homeless, a combination of American citizens, public agencies, private companies, and contractors donated over 400 tons of building materials that filled twenty-seven tractor trailer loads . Be it through Southern California or Tijuana-based contractors, third-party freight companies and distributors, philanthropic organizations, or individual efforts, an impressive amount of building material originating in the U.S. has made its way south of the border over the course of the past several decades. This material, in turn, has found its way into newer neighborhoods ringing Tijuana’s older core.
A colonia resident moving salvaged materials. Photo by Guillermo Arias.
Drawn to this far corner of Latin America by the promise of factory wages, education, and the lure of El Norte, immigrants from Mexico’s hardscrabble rural districts, from Central and South America, and from other indigent areas of the world frequently find themselves in largely unregulated precincts on Tijuana’s outskirts. Incidentally, the Spanish word for neighborhood or community is colonia, which translates directly as “colony” but is used colloquially to denote settlements that often lack basic infrastructure such as potable water, sanitary sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, or safe housing. Mexican law also tends to look more favorably upon squatters — as vacant land is taken over and built upon, residents may eventually be able to appeal collectively to authorities for municipal services such as water and electricity .
In this tenuous setting, often only minutes or even a literal stone’s throw from the increasingly fortified border wall, buildings blossom in newly-colonized spaces which only a week before (or in some cases a mere day) may have played host to a pile of refuse, a stray dog nosing for food, a children’s pickup soccer game. Perhaps heralded by nothing more than the rumbling arrival of a well-worn flatbed truck, and of helping hands recruited from family and neighbors, these makeshift dwellings fly in the face of conventional urban planning: no city permits or building inspectors, no teams of subcontractors, no final punch list, no transfer of keys or formal acknowledgement of ownership. These homes are works in progress as means or necessity dictate. A room may be added to accommodate a recently-married son or daughter and their spouse; a kitchen enlarged to feed more grandchildren; a new wing constructed when salvaged materials become available.
Besides embodying a spirit of economy, this informal architecture often displays an ingenuity that extends into entrepreneurship: many relocated houses have been placed on top of other structures, concrete block piers or open steel frames, allowing flexibility for later additions or street-level commercial space such as garages or shops below . This practice has found its way into the forward thinking of Teddy Cruz, architect and professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has advocated for the use of factory-made prefabricated frames — essentially a “plug-in scaffolding” — to provide the basic substructure for endless variations of buildings made out of re-assembled materials .
As people continue to migrate north in search of a better life, the spoils of America’s abundance head south, mingling in a prolific cycle of consumption and reuse. Beginning with the carcasses of the postwar California Dream, this architecture of impermanence has resulted in a living urban fabric that is constantly changing in response to a porous border: as some immigrants choose to seek their fortunes across the line in the U.S., still others arrive in northern Mexico to take their place.
House made of reclaimed lumber, shipping pallets and packing crates, Colonia Nueva Esperanza/La Cuesta. Photo by Ingrid Hernandez.
Meanwhile, the need for basic housing in Tijuana continues to increase: back in 1993 the shortage was predicted to be a staggering 200,000 dwellings by the year 2000, and the city is growing at a rate of over 5% per year, nearly four times faster than San Diego . Providing for of one of humanity’s greatest needs — shelter — with discarded components exemplifies a potent form of recycling, on a household scale but with grand implications.
Construction and demolition waste at a typical U.S. landfill. Photo courtesy Joe Songer/The Birmingham News.
The economics of salvage encourages this kind of reuse: the cost of demolishing even a modest single-family house, including permits, hauling and landfill fees, can routinely run upwards of $15,000. Companies specializing in “deconstruction” rather than demolition are redefining the traditional waste cycle, a task made easier in the border region where the demand for affordable building materials is high. TRP, or The Reuse People, got its start in Southern California as Building Materials Distributors in 1993 in the wake of the Tijuana floods. It has since grown into a nationwide company that has by its own estimation kept over 350,000 tons of reusable materials out of landfills by salvaging up to 80% of obsolete buildings.
With construction and demolition waste comprising roughly 25% of U.S. landfill content nationwide, there are regional, national, and even global implications of this type of redistribution of salvaged materials. Extended to the reclamation of further waste from industrial manufacturing, packaging, and shipping, this ethos of thrift could very well represent a new vision for urban development in a world of diminishing resources. As urban populations swell as a result of human migration, it may be time to reevaluate the logic of traditional waste streams — as well as that particularly American predilection for newness. And, while many will argue that there is no dignity in poverty, there is a certain resilience and undeniable humanity in the ability to make use of what is available to put a roof over one’s head, to protect and shelter one’s family, to create uniquely personal spaces for work, for play, for love, for ritual.
Three sisters, residents of the Ejido Chilpancingo area of eastern Tijuana, pose outside their home built from recycled materials. Photo by Maria Teresa Fernández.
This is not about romanticizing the modern-day shantytown; it is about shedding light on one of the most dynamic border regions in the world, the boundary between present and future, and choices about how our cities develop and grow. Most importantly, it is about how the very real issues of shifting and expanding populations, poverty, and urban sprawl are being tackled head-on by individual households and families with both tenacity and creativity. In the words of the late Samuel Mockbee, iconoclastic architect and creator of the acclaimed Rural Studio in Auburn, Alabama: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul” .
Mike Yengling, an architectural historian by training, is an independent writer and photographer who has worked as an environmental planner for the California State Parks system since 2013. His vocation has taken him to locales as far-flung as Norway, Italy, Jamaica, the backwoods of West Virginia, and 43 different counties in Iowa. He is currently involved with several nominations to the National Register of Historic Places and would love to see Friendship Park, a binational meeting place on the U.S.-Mexico border, added to this list. At the 2015 California Preservation Conference he spoke about the demise of historic fire lookout towers on public lands, a topic he continues to explore in depth. A native of faraway Virginia, he’s managed to steep himself in the local flavors of the San Diego and northern Baja California region and now struggles to imagine life without ceviche tostadas or fresh limes.