At the beginning of the twentieth century, Tijuana survived on agriculture and livestock farming. Its few buildings were made of wood, usually brought from San Diego. The architecture of California at the time reflected the European arts and crafts movement, and was epitomized by the work of Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. The Greene brothers in particular discovered in California an ideal setting to develop their interpretation of the arts and crafts movement: deep eaves, open and covered porticos, and the veranda as a continuation of the house.
The residential architecture of the border adopted this vocabulary by simplifying its forms but maintaining its principal characteristics. It was astonishing to see prefabricated arts and crafts homes crossing the border destined for Mexican communities. Since the homes were pre-fabs, Tijuana architects limited their designs to details applied to these ready-made homes. Following to the Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915, at which the organizers intended to construct "the city that the conquistadores dreamt of for New Spain," a "Spanish Revival" style spread along the west coast and into Mexico, a style of architecture that is still predominant in Tijuana.
By 1980, Tijuana's Rio Zone, with its large avenues, expressways, and shopping malls along with the massive institutional architecture of the Tijuana Cultural Center suggested that Tijuana was moving towards modernity. Yet, the architecture constructed in this new zone lacks a vision of modernity and is subordinated to the demands of real estate markets, foregoing the opportunity to respond to the city's spatial needs. Furthermore, Tijuana's schools of architecture are not taking the initiative to design academic models based on an understanding of the changing needs of the city. This creates a situation of confusion that is reflected in the work of young architects and leaves for future generations the responsibility of developing a critical response.
Today Tijuana is characterized by its intense flow of migrants: ninety million border crossings take place every year. The city attracts migrants from all areas of Mexico and Latin America, as well as an enormous number of tourists (including Americans of Mexican heritage), all of whom bring their distinct cultural identities to the region.
The architecture of Tijuana is often searching for its own language and this search has resulted in an architecture with strong ties to modern functionalism. It is an architecture that attempts to merge modernism with the decorative motifs of characteristic Mexican architecture. Out of this emerges an architecture assembled of garage doors as advocated by an English architect; an organic architecture designed by an American architect; and an architecture of necessity that utilizes car tires as an earth-retaining system. A contemporary movement of young architects emulates the work of Rem Koolhaas, but mostly in its formal characteristics rather than in its conceptual agenda. The residential developments of California still exert a strong influence, primarily in their mass production and emphasis on stylistic details over spatial concerns. This same concern for stylistic detail is replicated in the residential and commercial architecture in Tijuana.
Tijuana is an experimental laboratory, a city that reinvents itself on a daily basis and a place where architects confront an indeterminate urban environment that requires a restructuring of the discipline. It is as easy to yield to the stylistic desires of a client as it is difficult to find a translation of the chaotic without intending to order it or recreate it.
In Tijuana, the architect's desire is to contain the thousand individual dreams of its citizens within the space of the city.
Armando Garcia Orso is an architect and director if the Baja California Institute of Culture (ICBC) in Tijuana.