All buildings begin as ideas. Yet, not all have an aura to develop into a story of their own, a story uninhibited from the architect’s will and its client’s desires. Like the houses we dwell in, some buildings become our first universe; as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard mentioned, “a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” Few buildings retain their literary sense and inspire a virtual travel through its space and materiality. But there is a building in Tijuana that reflects the desires of three personalities — that through their will and faith they construct the blueprint of not only a physical space but create a universe of emotions that even today resonates as you walk through its doors. This is the story of a doctor, a nun, and three young architects who gave birth to architecture.
Tijuana’s Temporary Monument
The Riedel Medical Building (known today as Del Prado Medical Center) in Tijuana became transformed by spiritual will and a desire to create a state-of-the art cardiology center, open to all who might need specialized care, despite their economic background. A building that today has become one of the leading health centers in the city, yet it has been camouflaged by the rampant urbanization and obscured by a more recent and controversial addition to its principal façade.
The creation of the medical center in 1963 was the effort of Maria Luisa Riedel Betancourt, a tijuanense from a prominent family who financed a small private two-story hospital in what was considered the outskirts of the city, near the Agua Caliente racetrack and the silos of the local flour company, El Rosal.
By the 1970s, the hospital became well known around the region for its outstanding medical care. Riedel Betancourt decided to expand the facilities and build a center with medical offices for the doctors. Riedel Betancourt gave the task of designing the new wing to a member of her family, Livio Santini, a young architect who helped form the first generation of architects who studied in Los Angeles at the newly created Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Santini invited Michael Rotondi (also part of that first generation) and Thom Mayne, principal of the firm Morphosis and instrumental in forming the school.
During the late ’70s, Tijuana was going through radical urban changes — a new downtown was being built, and the manufacturing industry was becoming the major economic sector of the city. The three architects, who were in their late 20s and early 30s, took on the task of designing the medical center in a city that was to them a frontier.
Santini and Rotondi joined Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis to design and build the medical center. Morphosis was then a young firm creating an oeuvre via competitions and small commissions; their design process was known for its provocative drawings and minuscule, detailed models.
In 1977, the firm entered the medical center’s design into the Progressive Architecture Awards and was awarded a citation for the building. The jury hailed the design for its elegance, articulation of spaces, and its sensitivity. One of the jurors, John Dinkeloo, saw it as a futuristic design and mentioned, “It’ll never be built. It will take at least 20 years.” Yet, the architects began construction three years later, in 1980.
It’s a simple building separated into three functional areas and four floors above ground; the building is orientated west and sheathed in green glass block. Constructing an elegantly designed building in Tijuana presented challenges for the young firm. Using local contractors, builders, and all materials from Tijuana (except for some specialty hardware from the U.S.), the building was completed in 1983. After the completion of the new wing, the medical center continued to be a premiere clinic in the region.
Coincidence Became Divine Providence
By the 1980s, one of Riedel Betancourt’s daughters, Patricia Aubanel, had become a cardiologist and returned from the United States to work again in her native Tijuana. Aubanel had a desire to bring modern cardiology back to her country. After studying at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, and Harvard and specializing in interventional cardiology, she found it difficult to practice her specialty in her hometown due to the lack of resources to do so. So, she began to work at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla.
In 1991, Aubanel embarked on a personal and professional journey that would lead her back to what she most desired: a specialized cardiology center in Tijuana. During this time she met a Catholic nun by the name of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who would become her spiritual guide. She was known to the rest of the world as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In Tijuana, Mother Teresa had founded three homes for the poor with her Missionaries of Charity organization and during 1991 had returned to oversee the charity’s work with the city’s poor and elderly.
Aubanel was still working for Scripps Clinic and was making frequent trips to Tijuana, where she cared for patients at the medical center. It was a late December morning of the same year when the doctor received a call from Tijuana’s Bishop Emilio Carlos Berlie Belauzarán, who told her that a special friend was sick and needed a cardiologist to evaluate her condition when she came to visit. The bishop made it clear that he would respect the doctor’s decision if she refused to evaluate her after learning who the particular acquaintance was. When she found out it concerned Mother Teresa, it took Aubanel a couple of hours to contemplate a reply to the bishop’s plea. The doctor decided to go see the nun. After a brief examination, Aubanel realized the severity of her condition, one that could only be resolved and attended to by a handful of people in the world and she was one of them. Coincidence became Divine Providence.
Mother Teresa was immediately admitted to the Del Prado Medical Center, but her critical condition required her to go across the border to Scripps Clinic for heart surgery, a trip that she refused to make. “I won’t be attended to in a hospital that cares for the rich and privileged,” she told Aubanel. If the poor could not have this type of medical care, neither would she. Mother Teresa asked to be operated on at the medical center in Tijuana, but the center did not have the means to undergo such treatment.