City as border zone
Architects Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller, founders of El Paso firm AGENCY, discuss the reality and rhetoric of the US–Mexico border.
An interview with AGENCY, a winner of the 2018 Emerging Voices competition.
In 2015, architects Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller traveled around the American Southwest studying militarized urban spaces for their upcoming book. While en route to a New Mexico ghost town that now serves as a security training compound (complete with mock Afghan village), they stopped in El Paso—and found themselves fascinated by the city’s binational culture. They moved to the city later that year.
Sarah Wesseler, The Architectural League’s digital editor, spoke with them about El Paso and its implications for their work.
How have your experiences in El Paso affected your view of the political conversations about the border happening in the US today?
Ersela: The reality of life here has been really flattened into a one-liner in the rest of the nation. People are talking about a border wall but ignoring the fact that Mexican culture has existed here for centuries.
There are 2.2 million inhabitants in Juarez and about 800,000 in El Paso, and it’s really one culture. There are families that live on both sides of the border. The border fence is very prominent—it cuts through both downtowns that otherwise would be connected—but most people here commute from one country to the other every day.
So it’s frustrating that the political conversation focuses on either national security or a border wall. Our work looks at other issues that either construct or dissolve the boundaries between the two cities and the two nations, not really thinking about the silly wall one-liner.
Stephen: We try to identify factors that limit communication between the two countries so that we can open the floodgates in some way.
For instance, there aren’t many databases that share geospatial or environmental information between the two national jurisdictions. So some of our projects provide different ways of sharing resources like these.
You’ve spoken in the past about having students commute from Mexico to attend your classes. Can you tell me more about the school?
Ersela: We teach at a satellite campus of Texas Tech. It’s about 10 years old. The main campus is six hours away in Lubbock, and they recognized the need for an architecture school in this region.
Our school is exactly on the border—the border fence is maybe 50 yards away. The school is housed within a functioning train station downtown, a Daniel Burnham building.
Stephen: Our student body is nearly 100% Hispanic. There’s a very high level of Hispanic faculty as well. It’s very unique among architecture schools in the States and reflects the uniqueness of the region and its demographics within the US.
Ersela: Something like 30% of our students are from Juarez. They cross the border every day to go to school. Their struggle to gain an education is very different from your standard student’s. Issues like staying late in studio take a different form. You can’t really just drive back to Juarez at 3AM.
But there are funny things, like when the students need materials for models, they’ll cross over to Juarez and get their plexiglass or whatever because it’s cheaper there.
Tell me about some of AGENCY’s current work dealing with the border.
Stephen: One project we’ve been working on looks at dust and airborne particulate as a vector which ignores borders, yet defines border space.
Here in El Paso and Juarez, the Chihuahuan Desert really characterizes the landscape and the atmosphere.
Dust storms and dust migration are an issue in terms of visibility, but also public health. Dust is a vector for allergens and pathogens, especially the fine dust that travels over the border. Ingesting it can affect people’s health in very terrible ways.
We’re proposing to measure and visualize some of the dust events in the area. Right now there are air quality monitoring stations that report on regional transmissions and air quality on a daily and monthly basis; satellite imagery is sometimes used to track dust storms. But our research is uncovering a need for a finer-scale visualization and, perhaps, response mechanism.
So we’re working on the prototype. It’s a very low-cost deployable infrastructure that could be installed on individual properties on both sides of the border. We’re looking at two communities right now, both relatively low-resource, one in Mexico and one in New Mexico.
We’re hoping to deploy a field of these sensors to not only create this new source of data, but also create an advocacy and awareness campaign around the public health issues. We want to emphasize that they’re tied directly to our treatment of the built environment. A lot of the airborne particulate is kicked up by demolition and construction. As a result, there’s desertification in the region and deforestation in the watershed, which has introduced a lot of what we’re calling this “continent in the sky.”
Ersela: Another project we’re working on—my students are looking at a site which used to be a copper smelter. These kinds of infrastructures are prevalent on the border, in jurisdictional bubbles. My students are looking at air pollution and aquifer contamination that occurred as a result of this location exactly on the border.
We’re doing this research in collaboration with Kathy Velikov at University of Michigan. Her students are looking at binational water policy here in El Paso and Juarez. I’m looking at earth and soil contamination, and Stephen’s studio is looking at air contamination and dust. So we’re imagining constructing a sectional study of the border.
This is part of a larger collaboration that Tatiana Bilbao at Columbia University GSAPP started, involving architecture programs from across the US and Mexico. One of the goals is to refocus the border conversation on questions of infrastructure, design, and longstanding cultural relationships. It’s a clear rebuttal to the current political rhetoric.
Stephen: This is representative of this condition we find ourselves in. We’re participating in larger continental conversations that conceive of the border space as transformative in today’s culture, and we’re one of the few voices at the border. El Paso is the only large metropolitan area that literally spans the border; our architecture school is the only one literally and physically on the margin.
Ersela, you spent several years as a refugee during your childhood. How does that affect your work today?
Ersela: I grew up in Albania and fled in 1990, at the fall of communism. I ended up being an undocumented immigrant in Greece for about four years; I went to school with fake documents. So I completely understand the psychology of having to find the hole in the border fence.
In my work, I’m always looking at who’s left out of the conversation, who’s not at the decision-making table, and how the people without a voice are being affected. That’s who I was. Even before I left Albania, I grew up in a politically persecuted family; we were relegated to lesser housing, fewer rations of food, couldn’t really pursue higher education.
So I’m always looking at who’s at the worse end of the deal.