A Sanctuary Takes Form, Framed Round Migrants

A Sanctuary Takes Shape, Framed Around Migrants

This article is part of our latest design special on Multi-Generation Living and New Definitions of Family.

The Cañón de Alacrán (Scorpion Gorge) is a rough and rugged valley that borders the U.S. border wall west of Tijuana, Mexico. It meanders through a dry landscape of arroyos, yucca and sagebrush strewn with garbage, without paved roads or sewers. Around 93,000 residents, many of them refugees from Central America, live there in illegal squatter settlements in roughly built sheds, tents and ad-hoc huts made from cleared rubbish.

So far, the impoverished population of the area has been content with these rudimentary accommodations. But deep in the rugged landscape, a bold new experiment in social housing is being realized. It's called El Santuario Frontera, or the Border Sanctuary, a live work collective for homeless refugees.

The sanctuary's designers, Teddy Cruz, a Guatemalan architect, and Fonna Forman, a political scientist from Milwaukee, have worked on both sides of the border for more than a decade, studying the volatile population and the process of informal urbanization. The professors at the University of California San Diego, where they run an interdisciplinary design office, see Mr. Cruz and Ms. Forman an increasingly urgent need for humanitarian housing as more and more immigrants flee north, many to escape climate change, drug cartels or political Oppression. Some – blocked, deported, or trapped in the United States' immigration system – have been encamped on the border for years.

Mr. Cruz and Ms. Forman watched as the refugees recycled San Diego's waste materials and, in slow, incremental steps, built elaborate shelters using remains from construction sites and landfills. "Everything becomes useful out of necessity," said Cruz. "Time itself becomes material."

Together with the two activist pastors Gustavo Banda Aceves and his wife Zaida Guillén, who have been running a refugee camp in the Alacrán Gorge since 2016, they have set themselves the goal of developing not just an emergency shelter, but a stable community that uses the resources of Hand.

The project's design team created drawings and architectural models and brought them back to community members for their suggestions. They eventually developed a multi-tiered master plan that was to accommodate 350 homeless immigrants.

It's a modern, pared-back pueblo, like the old stacked dwellings of Taos, NM but instead of adobe bricks, the enclosure is built with concrete and modern steel frames that can be easily expanded and replicated in other parts of the canyon to accommodate the growing population .

The first phase of the project – its creation – was financed through the sale of a precious chair: a 1951 Kangourou armchair made of oak and lacquered metal by the French designer Jean Prouvé. Robert M. Rubin, a collector and cultural historian, sold the piece two years ago at a Sotheby’s auction for $ 400,000 and donated the proceeds. The eroded slope south of a stream that flows through the gorge has been terraced and with Retaining walls made of boulders held in place by metal grids. This provided a foundation on which the two-story sanctuary could be built and the natural topography restored and stabilized.

In the second phase, three pavilion-like structures with grid-shaped structures made of reinforced concrete were erected. The upper level was provided with prefabricated steel frames donated by Mecalux, a manufacturer of industrial storage racks from Tijuana. Inspired by Prouvé's prefabricated metal housings from the 1950s, Mr. Cruz realized that the structural ribs and struts screwed together like a large-format erector set could easily be converted for residential purposes with just a few adjustments.

The Mecalux framework is crowned with flat butterfly roofs made of corrugated iron and plastic gutters that run through the valleys to collect rainwater and channel it into an underground storage tank. (The water is used for irrigation.)

Once the canopy is complete, selected immigrant families move into their designated bays in the unfinished pavilions, tents, and everything, and begin building their own sections of plywood and recycled materials. This process will begin at the end of October, according to Mr. Cruz.

"There's kind of a rough script of how the inside of the framework will play out," he said. "It's about modularity, working in partnership and sweat equity."

Lorena Branks, a Tijuana-based architect, will organize the infill work, while David Deutsch, a New York artist, donated $ 650,000 through his PARC Foundation to create a pair of collaborative workshops on a pedestrian street between two of the pavilions.

A workshop, which is expected to be put together at the beginning of November, will teach the migrants the skills needed to complete their own structures. The other will be a commercial laundry run by local residents to generate income. “It's an important project,” said Mr. Deutsch. “Teddy and Fonna have worked tirelessly to create a desperate living situation. They create space for people who need it most. "

There are already plans to build a 24,000 square foot community center a mile south of the sanctuary. The four-story building, which will also use the Mecalux framing system, is called La Casa del Pueblo and will include a high school, social services, medical clinic, small theater and an open-air market.

"We are trying to redesign migrant accommodation as a more permanent infrastructure of inclusion and economic self-sufficiency," said Forman. "We build on long-term sustainability."


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