by Raul Cardenas Osuna and Torolab

In Tijuana, on Boulevard Agua Caliente a traffic jam stretches for miles. The drivers wait to cross the border into the United States. On the other side of the palm-lined median, traffic is light. Raul Cardenas Osuna downshifts and accelerates around a small truck. The architect and designer waves in the general direction of a large spherical building rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror, "Designed by a Mexican architect. Inspired by Le Courbousier." He points out other sites along the way, making this impromptu trip a land-speed record for architecture tours. He drives in the absent-minded way that people in their home towns do, with the difference that for Raul, lanes and stop signs are apparently optional. He does eventually stop however, pulling to the side of the boulevard opposite the bullfighting stadium.

The large ramshackle construction of scaffolding and mismatched corrugated metal looks like it could collapse at any moment. "To me, this represents Tijuana," Raul says looking out at the stadium, "It was built to be temporary twenty years ago. When people go in they do this [he crosses him self] because they are scared it will fall down. This structure was not meant to be here so long, but in that is something about Tijuana--here the temporary becomes permanent."

Once a prohibition-era boomtown, people from Latin America and other parts of Mexico continue to make their way to Tijuana at a rate (the city currently has a 14% annual population increase) that makes it the fastest growing city in the world. Many come to Tijuana believing the myth--still perpetuated today--that Tijuana is an easy jumping off point for entering illegally into the United States. With 98% of the U.S. Border Patrol stationed in San Ysidro, newcomers soon discover otherwise. Their savings exhausted and unable to find housing, many immigrants construct dwellings in the hills and take jobs in the maquiladoras--facilities run by corporations from around the world taking advantage of Tijuana's special status as a duty-free industrial import zone. Initially just passing through, they find them selves settled with a job and a home. For Raul Cardenas Osuna understanding the magnetic pull that this place exerts on residents and newcomers alike is essential for his art.

In many ways Tijuana is the future. Around the globe municipalities are decades away from experiencing the sort of population and resource-scarcity problems that are routine in Tijuana. The socioeconomic pressures exerted on the city and its inhabitants are enormous. For example, the city's housing gap (the discrepancybetween available housing and number of residents) is on the order of a million homes. In some areas of the city, neighborhoods have waited a decade for public utilities to reach them. It's challenges like these that Raul addresses with his work--what he calls "proposal art."

Disenfranchised with the protest art that had become the standard art-world reaction to the border region, Raul began developing projects inspired by and adapted to life in Tijuana. "The focus of my work is on comfort and quality of life. That's what people here in Tijuana need," Raul explains. In recent years his work has been getting attention outside of his home town. His designs have been featured in museum and gallery shows throughout North America and Europe, his clothing label is selling through a number of distribution channels, and his paintings have sold to the likes of Peter Gabriel and David Bowie.

In 1995 Raul founded Torolab. The workshop has become a handy framework for his multi-disciplinary collaborations. One of the initial Torolab efforts has been documenting he shanty town architecture that has sprung up in the hillsides around Tijuana. Initially a last resort for those who couldn't afford or simply couldn't find housing, these hillside communities have grown more and more entrenched over the years. The older neighborhoods date back fifteen to twenty years. Residents have constructed dwellings from old garage doors, used lumber, and salvaged paint of every color. The resulting mosaic has developed outside of any form of zoning or urban planning. That's not to say however that forms aren't emerging. Common areas have been planted with trees and gardens. Systems of stairs and raised walkways make the steep hillside easier to negotiate. On one steep embankment, old tires half-buried in the slope form a graceful curving staircase. Raul and his associate Marcela Cardenas investigate how the residents of these squatted neighborhoods recycle materials and use found objects. Their work has had its share of challenges. "They are very protective of their communities. We had to go in with hidden cameras after they chased us with guns."

Documenting the shanty towns is the first step in developing an architecture adapted to life in Tijuana. Drawing inspiration from his documentation work, Raul has created S.O.S. a back-pack that folds out into a temporary shelter. For camouflage, he has adorned the structure with advertisements--as ubiquitous in the urban setting as foliage in the forest.

Our border to the south is a disquieting place--an institutional purgatory where the conservatory and bureaucratic forces of our society are at their most visible. INS guards sit slumped in raised chairs like bored kings scrutinizing an endless line of supplicants. Heading south at mile zero of I-5, signs reading "caution" but then "prohibido" in Spanish hint at the grim political reality ahead. In Tijuana the border is a constant presence. "[Tijuana] is probably the only beach front city in the world that turns its back on the ocean. All the streets point to the border. There are probably people that live here who don't know that Tijuana is on the ocean. One of Raul's latest designs has the border as its focal point.

The Vertex is a footbridge designed to perch on any border wall--a sort of after-market border crossing. The structure could be transported by truck from one location to another along the U.S-Mexican border, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Once balanced on a wall, additional struts further stabilize the Vertex's central corridor. The overall effect is reminiscent of a Japanime space station. Raul's design addresses security needs while allowing for the free exchange of information from one side to another. Security scanners double as communication devices. As items are scanned, the x-ray images appear on the sides of the bridge like billboard ads. Walls screens on either end of the Vertex allow family members and friends to send images and text across without crossing the border themselves.

At the Centro Cultural de Tijuana, a scale model of the Vertex flickers in the light of four separate projectors. Images from the projectors are focused on different panels of the model, approximating the wall screens called for in the design. For the moment, the Vertex exists only as a CAD wire-frame and this scale architectural model, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. A fully-realized Vertex would break several U.S. Federal Laws, including unregulated transmission of information across and international boundary. Raul knows that the Vertex could never be built. In fact, that's his point. "The Presidents of the United States and Mexico would have to both say, 'Build it' which will never happen. That's what I want people to think about."

At night Raul drives up into the Agua Caliente Hills. Far below the flickering lights of Tijuana and San Diego ripple like reflections in a pool of water. It's impossible to say where one city begins and the other ends. Like spaceships, a line of helicopters hover several hundred feet above the border, their spotlights visible of miles. Raul is silent, watching the strange and beautiful panorama below.