These days, with the advent of each next global crisis, members of the architecture and design profession ask themselves what they can do to make things better. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic is no different. In the past month, we’ve seen online tools to assess alternative COVID-19 care sites, webinars on 3D printing medical devices, open-source templates for making emergency face masks and shields, AI designed to monitor and keep construction workers at safe distances from one another, a proposal for turning container ships into floating hospitals, and even a design for a park with hedgerows that would ensure visitors maintain six feet of separation.
I’m sure many more design-related solutions are in the works, and that’s a good thing. The World Health Organization has already noted an increase in infectious diseases around the globe, and only expects the situation to worsen as the climate continues to warm. So, along with the now-normal escalating occurrences of devastating heatwaves, storms, droughts, and wildfires (not to mention dwindling biodiversity and swelling social inequity), it seems we may have to grow accustomed to pandemic as well. Policy precedes design, so let’s hope that architects and designers are called on early and often as we decide how to shape the built environment for this new world. Who else should we count on to ensure that the measures society puts into place are as effective and equitable as can be?
But, in the meantime, while we’re all cooped up, working from home if we’re lucky enough to still have a job, nursing our own version of the dystopian present, and waiting to see what the world will be like after shelter-in-place orders are rolled back, let’s take a moment to recount the last time Texas Architects gathered face-to-face to share camaraderie and enthusiasm for the life of design: the 2020 Design Conference in El Paso, which took place February 28 to March 1 and was aptly titled “Passage.” There isn’t space here to recap all of the stimulating tours and lectures (they pack a lot into these events), but here are a few highlights.
Activities kicked off a day early with an optional architectural tour of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, led by historian Stephen Fox. About half of the 80 conference attendees came along for the ride to see such notable locations as the empty site of a possible Herzog & de Meuron-designed Catholic community center; the house of deceased singer Juan Gabriel; the Pedro Ramírez Vázquez-designed museum of art (1963); the Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, which was most recently rebuilt in the 1970s by Oscar Sanchez Cordero, and the neighboring 17th-century Franciscan mission; and the Kentucky Bar, a remnant of the Prohibition era, when several Bourbon distillers moved their operations to Juárez. The city is still in rather shabby condition and barely out of the shadow of the years-long narco war that turned it into the murder capital of the world, but signs of revitalization are percolating. While we were there, wandering around downtown on foot, workers were repaving the main drag, by hand, with stone — possibly to accommodate the hordes of Americans who flock across the border each year to purchase affordable prescription medication.
Back stateside, we found downtown El Paso in the midst of its own revitalization. Several of the city’s Trost & Trost-designed monuments are being renovated as residences, offices, and hotels, and a brand-new streetcar is in operation. As William J. Palmore, an El Paso native and associate professor of architecture at the New York Institute of Technology, told us in his lecture, El Paso has its own “Medici” responsible for most of this urban reinvestment: Paul Foster, who made a bundle in the refining business and doesn’t mind laying some of it down on civic-minded philanthropy. The question remains as to what will happen to Segundo Barrio, the neighborhood beside downtown that is home to an historic immigrant community and the tenements that were erected by avaricious landlords to pick their pockets. Look for Palmore’s essay on the tenements in the next issue of TA.
The other three lectures by practicing architects took us to Tijuana, where Jorge Gracia of Gracia Studio runs a hands-on, design-build practice and an architecture school; the 2018 Venice Biennale, where Jorge Ambrosi of Ambrosi Etchegaray showed their design for the Mexican Pavilion, a geographical survey of Mexico that essayed to “see beyond the physical reality of the territory to the social”; and points around the world with Elaine Molinar (another El Paso native) of Snøhetta, who walked us through a number of projects, including the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, the renovation of 550 Madison (Philip Johnson’s famous “Chippendale” building), and the El Paso Children’s Museum, a typology that has blossomed in recent years as concerns have grown about the stunted cognitive development that often accompanies sedentary childhoods. It should wrap up construction in 2022 — if, by that time, we’re again allowing children to run and play freely with each other.