Photo by Robert Burroughs
"Tijuana’s identity crisis is created by Americans who come there looking for 'original' Mexican things."
Mention the word “architecture” in the same breath as “Tijuana,” and most people think of brightly painted stucco curio shops or pastel-colored, two-story restaurants on Revolution Street, home of the striped burros and photographers, trinket vendors, beggars, strolling musicians, and tourists. Tijuana began, after all, as a 1920s frontier town of block-long wooden saloons and gambling halls'.
"Manuel Rosen co-designed the cultural center."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Today, the town is being recast in a new mold: serious, modernist, international. City of the concrete highway, the shopping mall, the high-rise office buildings. The old Tijuana is nearly extinct, the sex shows in dark Latin speakeasies relegated to a back lot — the zona norte — of the downtown.
Now, as you enter Tijuana at the San Ysidro crossing, the highway funnels you into the Zona del Rio, where Mexico’s young technocrats are trying to create a world of urban order. The River Zone is the rebirth of Tijuana, an architecture in progress. Le Corbusier’s machine-age city — efficient corridors of concrete and glass boxes — gone south of the border. In the midst of the parade of office buildings, apartment complexes, and shopping centers is a sandstone-colored globe in the embrace of a low, modem, rectangular structure. Like some extraterrestrial orb set gently on the river plain against the backdrop of overdeveloped hills, it is the Cultural Center of Tijuana (CECUT), completed in 1982. Manuel Rosen co-designed the cultural center with one of Mexico’s legendary 20th-century architects, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez.
"It’s different in Mexico. In Mexico, we have shame."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Rosen moved to California eight years ago and now lives in La Jolla. He spent most of his life in Mexico City, where he studied architecture at the Academy of St. Charles in what is now the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He grew up around some of Mexico’s great artists — Rivera, Siqueiros, Barragan — who were friends of the family.
"To penetrate the stone walls of the culture of Mexico is not easy."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Rosen’s creative touch can be seen in the design of such buildings as the Japanese Lyceum, the Olympic Natorium, and the Japanese Embassy, all in Mexico City. More recently he’s worked on both sides of the border, on the Warren apartment complex at UCSD in La Jolla, in design competitions for the Ibero American University in Tijuana, and on a Japanese religious sanctuary in Pasadena.
LH: The concept of “Mexican” architecture in the United States seems to be a difficult one. San Diego has its share of Mexican-looking buildings, but most were built by U.S. architects during the Mission and Spanish colonial revival eras early in this century. What can Mexican architecture mean for this region?
MR: The problem is that the average person in San Diego doesn’t know what Mexican architecture is. My clients often ask me for a building with “Mexican flavor?’ but when I press them, they can’t tell me what that means.
LH: So, is it safe to say that in San Diego, “Mexican architecture” often turns out to be U.S. citizens’ fantasy of what they think Mexican architecture is?
MR: Sure. It’s like putting jack cheese on California Mexican food. There’s no jack cheese in Mexico, but here everything that is called Mexican food has jack cheese on it. The same thing happens with architecture. Americans create what they call ‘Mexican’ architecture. That’s what they like. That’s what they get.
LH: So, your American clients aren’t really asking for Mexican architecture, they’re asking for an image of Mexico that serves their needs. Can this change?
MR: I don’t think most Americans want to learn about Mexican architecture. They’re not really interested. Architecture in the United States is an imposition by the mass media, developers, and builders. Nobody worries to teach the people what good architecture is. I’m not just talking about Mexican architecture, I’m talking about architecture in general. I don’t think there is a knowledge of what architecture is, what design is, except what we see in magazines and through promotion on TV It’s a pity.
LH: Let me ask you about architecture along the border. San Diego and Tijuana lie side by side, but they are miles apart culturally. How would you describe what is happening here?
MR: The populations on both sides are exploding. But within the emerging conurbation, we can never forget that these are two different cultures, with different concepts of time, family, and space. In Tijuana, there is tremendous poverty, and you see a lot of people in the streets — children, everything. But they’re always with someone else. They’re never alone. In the United States, in San Diego, the homeless are on the streets and all alone. You never see them with anybody, with children, friends. You see homeless people passing each other on the street, and, even then, they don’t say hello to each other. People in the United States are afraid to interact in the public arena. There’s no touching in public, no hugging, no caressing of children. The consequences of this are dreadful. You’re becoming dehumanized.
LH: You mentioned different notions of family and space in the United States and in Mexico. Could you elaborate?
MR: In the first place, Latin people have a different concept of home. Home is the place where they throw down their roots and have children. They want the children to be together with them until they marry. Even after they marry, they want them to remain nearby. In the United States, people are more mobile. They move from city to city. The concept of children is different. Once they grow up, they’re on their own, and let them do the best they can.
LH: How would you compare architecture in Mexico and the United States?
MR: In the United States, the way people specialize limits creativity. An architect is not a specialist. An architect is a creator of spaces, and I don’t care what the spaces are, whether they’re hospitals, theaters, office buildings, or penitentiaries. Here in the United States, you have architects who specialize in bathrooms, others in kitchens, or in windows. I’m not sure Americans want to make a statement with their architecture. Everyone is trying to get a commission, then do it as soon as possible, as fast as possible. During the building phase, except on the really big projects, architects don’t even supervise their own work; they turn it over to the builder. So when changes are made, there’s often no consultation with the architects. The architect disappears. He becomes a draftsman. It’s different in Mexico. In Mexico, we have shame. Architects are ashamed of doing something they don’t like. I don’t see that as much here in the U.S. There is a total lack of respect towards the architect. There seems to be a tremendous misunderstanding about what the architect is and what he does. In the U.S., when a real estate agent sells a house, he makes six percent. For that same house, the architect, who went through hell to do it, with all kinds of fights and aggravation, he probably makes four or five percent. Out of that he has to pay off his consultants. It’s ridiculous, it just doesn’t pencil.
LH: For someone visiting Tijuana for the first time, one of the memorable sights is the cultural center building. It has become one of the city’s great landmarks. What were you and your colleague Pedro Ramirez Vazquez trying to achieve with this building?
MR: We were asked by Mrs. Lopez Portillo, the wife of the president of Mexico, to design an inaugural cultural building. We proposed that the project ought to be grander in scale — a cultural center. We wanted to design a center with a promotional museum where people could see what Mexico is all about. For many years, Tijuana’s image was of a place of prostitution, a place to get drunk. That was it. That, of course, has changed, and we wanted the cultural center to be part of the change, to represent the cultural heritage of Mexico. We designed an Omnimax theater in the shape of a spherical screen — this allowed us to take advantage of the geometry and express it on the outside. The shape of the building — a ball — was shocking; we thought it would give it a unique image. We also created a great plaza, so you could feel the openness, which is something we inherited from our pre-Columbian ancestors, and from the Spanish. In my architecture, you will see weight, a heaviness, a strong interest in light and shadows, and exposure to the surrounding environment. The environment must not be forgotten. It amazes me to see buildings by the ocean, right by the ocean, where you could smell the ocean and get the breeze, and they’re fully, fully enclosed. The concept of the window is forgotten.
LH: After the center was built, almost everyone in Tijuana started calling it la bola. It must be satisfying to have something you designed become part of the lexicon of Tijuana, along with expressions like la linea.
MR: Well, in fact, we had a lot of problems in the beginning. People felt initially that the whole concept was an imposition. The government never let the citizens participate. This was wrong. So it took at least two years for the people to finally accept it and start going to visit.
LH: The cultural center is unique in its color and texture. Could you comment on this?
MR: The building is made of exposed aggregate in concrete. We used Formica for the forming. Concrete is usually gray and it ages badly, so we bought an aggregate — called San Diego Buff — which we fed into the mixture. We ended up putting a cement plant on the building site, so we could control the amount of aggregate we put into the cement. Other buildings, such as the Plaza Rio Tijuana shopping center, started using the same material.
LH: What is the reason for the small hole at the center of each block of material?
MR: The blocks were obviously made by the Formica forms, which have a tensor that holds wood, which, as you pour the concrete, keeps it from expanding. Once you take off the form, you normally close up the small holes, but we decided to leave them. They were a lot of fun. It gave a movement and rhythm to the design of the buildings. We often say that we conceived this from the beginning, but that’s not really so.
LH: What was your thinking about the museum building adjacent to the Omnimax theater?
MR: The idea was to create a low, rectangular building. We made the ceiling “float,” to create room for light to enter the museum. Often with museums, once you get inside, you don’t know where you are. It could be any place — Washington, D.C., New York, or Mexico City. The idea was that as you went through the museum, you should feel that you are in Tijuana. So we designed large windows through which you could see the mountains, hills, houses, and people, to make you conscious of where you are. We also wanted to bring the people from outside into the feeling of the museum. We want people to walk in the plaza. We want people to play, eat in the plaza. We want them to participate and to discuss, to really share. Even inside the museum, the cafeteria, for example, is open. When you go there you participate in what’s happening around you. You see the exhibits, the people moving around. We also created the ramp. We wanted people to walk on the ramp; that’s one of the best ways to discover the space. You’re up above, you look down on the museum and get the feeling of the whole space, the game of forms.
LH: What did you try to achieve with the exterior of the project?
MR: Originally, we brought in some Japanese landscape architects who worked with us in Mexico City. They designed the plantings around the museum. We also put in the sculpture garden in the back of the museum, with replicas of originals. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to maintain the gardens. There’s just not enough money for upkeep.
LH: With all the new construction going on in the River Zone, what kind of dialogue is there between the cultural center and its surroundings?
MR: There are a few dreadful buildings nearby. Some try to be Michael-Graves-in-Mexico structures. They don’t work at all. LH: But at least the center has generated a push for creative architecture in the River Zone. At least architects aren’t designing another round of dull concrete office buildings there. They’re trying to be more artistic, even if they aren’t always succeeding.
LH: But at least the center has generated a push for creative architecture in the River Zone. At least architects aren’t designing another round of dull concrete office buildings there. They’re trying to be more artistic, even if they aren’t always succeeding.
MR: I don’t think it’s only the fact that the cultural center is there. As I said earlier, we Mexicans are driven by the concept of shame. We want to build something we can be proud of. If it’s not good, we feel very ashamed. I’ve known architects — friends of mine — who had to do something they didn’t believe in. When you asked them whether they had done the buildings, they denied it.
LH: You have often stated that Tijuana is a more pedestrian-oriented city than San Diego. There’s no question that the cultural center is designed for pedestrians, with the plaza, the food vendors around the perimeter, the sculpture garden. It encourages people to walk. In Tijuana and other Mexican cities, a lot of people do walk. But, at the same time, isn’t it true that the trend is shifting toward automobile-oriented designs? In Tijuana’s River Zone, it is difficult to walk. For example, you can’t even travel by foot safely from the cultural center to the Pueblo Amigo shopping center across the boulevard. There are no pedestrian walkways, and with heavy traffic, you have to sprint to avoid oncoming vehicles and get to the other side.
MR: Well, Tijuana is influenced by the international cities of the world. Tijuana is going to be like them, and so it will become more automobile-oriented. But there are ways of preserving a pedestrian scale. We originally proposed putting a banking center complex in the River Zone, with bridges connecting one side of the street to the other. For economic reasons, those bridges weren’t built. But also, the planning concept for this boulevard has been changed. Originally, it had parks, but instead it has become very commercialized. One innovative concept that was unfortunately forgotten was to divide the River Zone into blocks. On the first block, as you entered from the U.S., we were going to do a convention center with a hotel. Next there would be a block of office buildings, then in the third block, the center. Beyond that would be shopping centers, and then more hotels. There was a concept of continuity where people would be able to walk from one place to another on the same side of the street. But other things started developing, not necessarily according to the original plan. People bought and sold land, and finally people are doing anything they want. It’s become anarchic.
LH: So I gather you’re not too crazy about having car rental lots and tile warehouses next door to restaurants and office buildings in the River Zone.
MR: Even the mini-shopping centers like Pueblo Amigo are depressing. They look old and dirty. They have no dignity, no openness. If small towns in Mexico
were really like that, my God, the people in the towns would be dead by now.
LH: Pueblo Amigo attempted to recreate the Mexican colonial town, with its arched doorways, red tiled roofs, wooden balconies...
MR: But that’s signography. There’s nothing real about it. Pueblo Amigo wanted to be something very important. It was supposed to be a statement. It’s dreadful. We also have these postmodern shopping centers. I call their architecture modemudo. They’re not modem or contemporary but an exaggeration of those elements, without making any sense. I find these places unattractive. There’s nothing to them. I prefer the Plaza Rio Tijuana shopping center.
LH: Plaza Rio Tijuana never pretended to be anything more than a regional shopping mall.
MR: There are incredible numbers of people there all the time, walking, eating in restaurants. It’s different. It’s alive.
LH: Is Pueblo Amigo a metaphor for Tijuana, a shopping center or a city in search of an identity?
MR: Tijuana’s identity crisis is created by Americans who come there looking for “original” Mexican things. There’s a story told in Mexico about an American who went to Cuernavaca, Mexico. A large skull was offered to him for sale. It was the skull of Cortez, he was told. He asked, “Is it original?” And the Mexican vendor said, “Of course it’s original.” So he bought it. Then, a few days later in a different town, a boy approaches him with a small skull for sale and says, “This is the skull of Cortez.” The American asks, “Is it original?” The Mexican boy replies, “Yes.” The American says, “But how can it be original, if this one I already bought was the original?” The boy answers, “But this is Cortez when he was young.” So, in Tijuana many people think, if you build something that is typical, the Americans will go crazy about it. That’s who they cater to.
LH: What kind of city do you think Tijuana residents want?
MR: Tijuana is a hybrid city, something in between the U.S. and Mexico. Now that the city is changing, you will start to see more contemporary architecture: the cultural center, the towers of Agua Caliente, the Baby Rock discotheque. Simple, contemporary architecture. There are some extraordinary homes in the hills of Chapultepec. Really good architecture. There’s some good building along the coast, very Mediterranean, with a touch of Mexico.
LH: But cities or regions often like to think of themselves as unique. They like to think they have their own identity. What will Tijuana’s be?
MR: It’s going to take time for Tijuana to have an architectural identity. In the first place, there are very few local architects in Tijuana. The School of Architecture [at the Ibero American University] has just created the first generation of young architects. They are just beginning to get the cumulus of knowledge to begin creating. They
are learning what the local advantages are in terms of nature, materials. Eventually, they will end up with an architecture that they will be able to call their own.
LH: Is it also a problem that Tijuana’s history is mostly one in which the architecture was ‘recreational’ — building for American consumption?
MR: No, I think in Tijuana they never had a chance to use materials that were Mexican, because everything was imported from the United States. For instance, in Mexico, you don’t build homes with 2x4s, with wood. That’s archaic. But in the U.S., you’re still building with wood, like 200 years ago. The great lumber consortiums impose the use of lumber on the construction industry. Concrete is expensive in the U.S. because of hand labor, but with wood, anybody frames here. You go to the beach and get some
surfers, and they come back and frame your house, and when they’re through, they go back to surfing, and that’s it. Of course, you often end up with a house where you don’t have one wall that is 90 degrees with the other. That’s the system.
LH: If wood is, as you say, archaic, what would substitute for wood in San Diego?
MR: Block, brick, stone, anything.
LH: What do you think of the so-called “mission revival” and “Spanish colonial revival” architectural styles in San Diego and around Southern California?
MR: The heritage in this part of the country is no doubt Mexican or Spanish. But with all those missions that came here, few people understand them. Michael Graves calls his Capistrano library “mission-inspired,” but I wonder. It’s not easy to translate the mission style into modern architecture. In New Mexico, the Pueblo style is great. The Santa Fe railroad station in downtown San Diego is good architecture. Some of the neighborhoods, like Mission Hills or Kensington, work because they are low-key. They don’t try to make a statement. Old Town is like a stage set, but it’s a nice stage set.
LH: It’s been said that Mexicans reject U.S.-inspired postmodern architecture, yet there’s evidence of this style in recent building along Northern Mexico’s border. What do you think about this?
MR: In Mexico, we’re always eager to have foreign things come in to visit us — people, culture, and so forth. But we’re also eager to see them go away and take everything with them. To penetrate the stone walls of the culture of Mexico is not easy.