To architect Ersela Kripa, “borders are much thicker than we imagine.” She and her partner Stephen Mueller of AGENCY are building on the strong legacy of theory and practice at the U.S.-Mexico border with their students at Texas Tech University El Paso.
This past fall, their students at TTU-El Paso produced FLASH Installation: Architecture at Rush Hour, a daylong “tactical occupation” of an underused bus terminal at the El Paso-Juárez border.
On a map, the border is easy to depict and define. But its implications run deeper and elude precise definition. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Chicana writer, activist, and cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa muses on the border’s many meanings:
“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”
Juárez and El Paso form a bi-national metropolis. When Kripa and Mueller arrived in Texas this September to teach at TTU-El Paso, they were intent on engaging with the surrounding space. Housed in an active Amtrak train station, the school’s identity is tied to the flow of goods and people across borders. In conversation with AN, Kripa explained that “cross-border issues are a daily way of being” for her students. In her and Mueller’s fall studios, students range in age from 20–50 and many work full-time in addition to their studies. Around 30 percent of students cross the border every day for school.
TTU-El Paso hopes to grow its architecture program around critical engagement with border culture. To that end, TTU-El Paso staged its third Beaux Arts Ball in October. To accommodate attendees, food trucks, and a dance floor, a lightly used bus parking lot was selected for the venue. The theme: “being reflective.”
Student volunteers erected FLASH Installation: Architecture at Rush Hour to provide a light-filled canopy for the ball and spark conversation around the heavily policed, yet highly porous, border. Apache Barricade & Sign, a local, woman-owned company, lent the studio 256 brand-new, orange reflective traffic barrels for the day. Students spent eight hours rigging them to the bus station’s ceiling in a 16 by 16 configuration at varying heights. Below, an installation of 300 ground reflectors marked a temporary dance floor on the asphalt.
Why traffic barrels? The temporary structures, Kripa explained, are a “spatial manifestation of a politics of directing flow. It’s an extension of politics—infrastructure that enacts the law.” The impermanent pieces of transit infrastructure underscore the permanence of the bus canopy.
The pair hopes to reactivate the bus depot annually with their students. “As architects who are not only interested in making beautiful space, we at AGENCY feel profound obligation to expose what’s happening. We [architects] are well equipped to uncover inequality and injustice.”
Socially engaged work is the status quo for Kripa and Mueller (hence the name of the interdisciplinary practice they cofounded in 2006). The pair won the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2010, and during this time, Kripa and Mueller studied the forced movement of the Roma, addressing its housing crisis amid a city of overlapping networks, real and imagined.