Retooling the American Dream: Teddy Cruz at the GSD

Retooling the American Dream: Teddy Cruz at the GSD

Architect, urbanist, and artist Teddy Cruz visited the GSD to present “Where is Our Collective Imagination? Architecture and the Crisis of the Public” to a standing-room-only audience in Piper Auditorium on Thursday, April 17th. Accompanied by a series of compelling visuals, he addressed issues of global conflict and the need for creative reform by rethinking and rearranging the roles of civic engagement, institutions and artists and designers.

Krzysztof Wodiczko (professor in residence of arts, design, and the public domain) introduced Cruz, an alumnus of the GSD MDes program who has also led design studios at the school. He now heads Estudio Teddy Cruz and is professor of public culture and urbanism at University of California, San Diego. He is also co-director of the Civic Innovation Lab with the City of San Diego in addition to leading other local initiatives, and he represented the US at the 2008 Venice Biennale. Wodiczko referred to Cruz’s renowned work at the Tijuana-San Diego border and his focus on immigration, calling out his focus on “conflict transformation”–not simply conflict resolution.

Following a day full of discussions with students, including a lunch organized by the Harvard Urban Planning Organization, Teddy Cruz began his lecture by declaring an urban and cultural crisis in in the United States. He posed the question “What is the public?” and identified the need to rethink the public realm and consider its role as a battleground, citing Rosa Parks and her rebellion on public transportation as an example. He stressed the power of images to visualize conflict and the moments where conflict is physicalized.

Cruz also asked the questions “Whose territory?” and “Who owns the resources?” when examining public space. In his work, he considers “citizenship as creative act” and “conflict as creative tool.” He brought the example of a group of teenagers and skateboarders in San Diego who occupied and eventually helped create a space for a new skate park below a highway. Using a sense of urgency and communicating with other citizens, they were able to rapidly build a community and transform policies and the urban landscape, navigating and reorganizing power dynamics and institutional capacities in the process.

Presenting further and the challenges of spatializing citizenship and visualizing social exchanges, Cruz cited the need to intervene at the interface between institutions and communities. He called for designers and planners to rethink density and ownership, and provided the example of the “Informal Buddha,” where a community of Vietnamese Buddhists had created a religious center in the middle of a suburban residential community that is characterized by immigrant groups and informal, non-conforming land uses. This shows the need for what he calls the “urbanization of retrofit.”

Cruz described art as “a cognitive tool to access complexity” and called for an expanded role of the architect, who would engage with communities and institutions in addition to considering the physical realm. He wants a new type of debate on the public realm in order to effectively transfer knowledge and ensure the continuity of complex thinking. Cruz believes that designers should include process in their work and quoted Rem Koolhaas, who said that process itself can yield an aesthetic dimension.

Many approaches and possibilities exist for transformations in political and economic processes. Cruz referred specifically to developer spreadsheets as a potential “place for activism” and the economic pro forma as a form of community development.

In response to a question from the audience, Cruz closed the presentation by asking, “What is the American dream after all?” when facing future development decisions and transitions. He urged students and professionals to bring creativity to their work and to go past standard approaches of diplomacy.

My Tam Nguyen (MUP ‘15), who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1992, responded to Teddy Cruz’s visit by saying, “His impact is everywhere, and has elements of urban planning, community organizing, political maneuvering, and international diplomacy… [The presentation] helped to reframe the way I think of institutions and organizing and the increasingly global and interconnected nature of our work.”

Learn more about Teddy Cruz’s work and listen to his TED talk.

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