Aula, the Spanish word for a university classroom or lecture hall, is the acronym of an occasional journal: Architecture and Urbanism in Las Américas. It was founded in 1996 by architect and historian Robert Alexander González, Ph.D., AIA, who since 2011 has directed Texas Tech University’s architecture program in El Paso. Between March 29 and April 1, González and the Texas Tech College of Architecture hosted AULA’s fourth symposium, which was held at the El Paso Museum of Art. González and co-chairs Rafael Longoria, AIA, professor of architecture at the University of Houston, and Kristine Stiphany, Ph.D, AIA, assistant professor of architecture at Texas Tech University’s Lubbock campus, focused on the theme of “Porous Borders.” They invited symposium participants to present papers that looked at borders as sites of contestation and resistance, dissolution and synthesis, and transgression and reciprocity.
González recruited an impressive lineup of invited speakers to contribute to the discussion of borders. The first was San Francisco-based, Mexican-born artist Ana Teresa Fernández, who impressed the opening night audience with her audacious, multimedia works/performances: She painted a section of the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence, on the beach outside Tijuana, sky blue. By choosing a shade of blue that corresponded to the color of the Pacific Ocean and the sky above, Fernández created the illusion — from a distance — that a segment of the wall had been removed, thus rendering the international boundary dividing the beach in two nothing more than what it once had been: an imaginary line in the sand.
Ronald Rael of Rael San Fratello, associate professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary,” began his address describing his “discovery” of the border as an architectural design instructor bringing students to Presidio to visit Simone Swan’s adobe workshop. Rael’s exploration of earth as an archaic building material — visible in his studio’s “store” for Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa installation (2005) in Valentine, and Mud House in Marfa (2009) — led him to cross the borderline to his current involvement with the 3-D printing of architecture.
Architect Elaine Molinar, AIA, a native of El Paso and a founder of Snøhetta who is also that firm’s managing principal for the Americas, presented an array of Snøhetta’s globally distributed building projects. She made the point that, regardless of location, architects are constantly called on to negotiate sites, limits, edges, and problematic alignments — which, for Snøhetta, have a way of becoming the architecture.
The symposium sessions drew on presenters from Texas Tech’s El Paso program (Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller); Tech’s main campus (Dean Jim Williamson, Kristine Stiphany, and Peter Raab); the University of New Mexico (Dean Geraldine Forbes Isais, Assoc. AIA; Associate Dean Tim B. Castillo; Ane González Lara; and Alexander Webb); The University of Texas at Austin (landscape architect Gabriel Díaz Montemayor); Texas A&M International University, Laredo (filmmaker Marcela Morán); the University of California, Berkeley (Michael Dear, Ph.D., author of “Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide”); the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (Gustavo Leclerc); the New York Institute of Technology (architect William J. Palmore); and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (San Juan, Puerto Rico, architect Francisco J. Rodríguez-Súarez, AIA, president). Topics ranged from Houston architect Celeste Ponce Woodfill’s photo survey of site conditions at Texas’ border crossings, to Stephen Mueller’s investigation of the U.S. military’s strategic uses of dust, to El Paso native William J. Palmore’s exploration of the brick tenements constructed in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio a hundred years ago to house refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution. One of the most remarkable presentations came from Mauricio Addor Neto and Gabriel da Silva Martínez Ribeiro, architecture students from the Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie in São Paulo, Brazil, who showed their brilliant second-prize-winning entry to the India|Pakistan Border of Peace international competition of 2016.
Supplementing the symposium sessions was an architectural walking tour of downtown El Paso led by architect and Texas Tech El Paso instructor Morris Brown, FAIA. This was followed by a visit to the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez across the border, a spectacular concrete, glass, and fiberglass pavilion designed by Mexico City architects Pedro Ramírez Vázquez and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca in 1964 (Texas Architect, October 1965), which was led by Kerry Doyle of the Rubin Center at the University of Texas at El Paso. Transborder businesswoman Cecilia Ochoa Levine then escorted participants to the site in Juárez’s Chamizal district, where Pope Francis had officiated at an open-air Mass in February 2016. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron have designed the Centro Comunitario “El Punto” to be constructed on this site. Cecilia Levine is one of the Juárez civic leaders raising funds to construct this combined church and community center, which will be built of adobe blocks.
AULA’s “Porous Borders” symposium demonstrated that the subject of borders offers rich opportunities for architectural speculation. Not one of the symposium participants spoke in favor of building still more walls, barricades, or obstacles: Porosity was clearly the consensus preference. Robert González’s provocation was to convene the symposium in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, where geography itself drives home the point that the border — the Rio Grande/Río Bravo del Norte — unites, rather than divides, this dramatic urban landscape.
Stephen Fox is a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.