The Cañón de Alacrán (Scorpion's Canyon) is a rough and craggy valley that butts up to the U.S. border wall just west of Tijuana, Mexico. It winds through an arid landscape of garbage-strewn arroyos, yucca and sagebrush, without paved roads or sewerage. Roughly 93,000 inhabitants, many of them refugees from Central America, live there in illegal squatter settlements inside roughly built lean-tos, tents and ad hoc shacks made from scavenged refuse.
Until now, the area's impoverished population has made do with these rudimentary shelters. But deep within the fractured landscape, a bold new experiment in social housing is being realized. It's called El Santuario Frontera, or the Border Sanctuary, a live-work collective for homeless refugees.
The sanctuary's designers, Teddy Cruz, a Guatemalan-born architect, and Fonna Forman, a political scientist from Milwaukee, have been working on both sides of the border for more than a decade, studying the transient population and the process of informal urbanization taking place. Professors at the University of California, San Diego, where they lead a cross-disciplinary design practice, Cruz and Forman see an increasingly urgent need for humanitarian shelter, as more and more immigrants flee northward, many to escape climate change, drug cartels or political oppression. Some — blocked, deported or caught in the U.S. immigration system — have been camped at the border for years.
Cruz and Forman observed how the refugees recycled the waste materials of San Diego and built ingenious shelters in slow, incremental stages with leftover debris from construction sites and landfills.
"Out of necessity, everything becomes useful," Cruz said. "Time itself becomes a material."
Working with two activist pastors, Gustavo Banda Aceves and his wife, Zaida Guillén, who have been running a refugee camp in the Alacrán canyon since 2016, they set out to develop not just emergency housing but also a stable community that made use of the resources at hand.
The project's design team created drawings and architectural models and brought them back to community members for their suggestions. They eventually came up with a multitiered master plan designed to house 350 homeless immigrants.
It is a modern, pared-down pueblo, like the ancient stacked dwellings of Taos, N.M. But instead of adobe, the housing is being built with concrete and modern steel framing that can be easily expanded and replicated in other parts of the canyon to accommodate the growing population.
The project's first phase — its foundation — was funded by the sale of a precious chair: a 1951 oak-and-lacquered-metal Kangourou armchair by French designer Jean Prouvé. Robert M. Rubin, a collector and cultural historian, sold the piece for $400,000 at a Sotheby's auction two years ago and donated the proceeds. The eroded hillside south of a stream that runs through the canyon was terraced and reinforced with retaining walls created from boulders held in place by metal mesh. This yielded a base on which to build the two-story Sanctuary as well as help to restore and stabilize the natural topography.
The second phase has involved the construction of three pavilion-type structures with gridlike frameworks of reinforced concrete. The upper level has been assembled with prefabricated steel framing donated by Mecalux, a Tijuana manufacturer of industrial storage racks. Inspired by Prouvé's prefabricated metal housing of the 1950s, Cruz realized that with a few adjustments, the structural ribs and struts, which were bolted together like a large-scale Erector set, could be easily repurposed for dwelling purposes.
The Mecalux framework will be topped with low-pitched butterfly roofs made from corrugated metal and plastic gutters that run through the valleys to collect rainwater and direct it into an underground storage tank. (The water will be used for irrigation.)
Once the roofing is completed, selected immigrant families will move into their appointed bays within the unfinished pavilions, tents and all, and begin to build their own sections with plywood and recycled materials. According to Cruz, this process will begin by the end of October.
"There's a kind of rough script regarding how the interiors of the framework will evolve," he said.
Lorena Branks, a Tijuana-based architect, will organize the infill work, while David Deutsch, a New York artist, donated $650,000 through his PARC Foundation to create a pair of cooperative workshops on a pedestrian street that runs between two of the pavilions.
One workshop, which is expected to be assembled by early November, will teach the immigrants skills for completing their own structures. The other will be an industrial laundry operated by residents to generate revenue.
"It's an important project," Deutsch said. "Teddy and Fonna have made a relentless effort to provide relief for a desperate housing situation. They're building space for people who need it the most."
Plans are already afoot to build a 24,000-square-foot community center a mile south of the sanctuary. The four-story structure — which will also make use of the Mecalux framing system — is called La Casa del Pueblo and will include a high school, social services, a medical clinic, a small theater and an open-air market.
"We're trying to reimagine the migrant shelter as a more permanent infrastructure of inclusion and economic self-reliance," Forman said. "We're designing for long-term sustainability."