Borderless Studio spans design disciplines to benefit underserved communities

Design Without Borders

Borderless Studio spans design disciplines to benefit underserved communities

Rendering of the California Avenue and CTA Pink Line Station California Station, Chicago, 2021 (Courtesy Borderless Studio)

This article is part of our series of profiles on the Architectural League of New York’s 2022 Emerging Voices winners. The full list can be found here.

Borderless Studio and Felecia Davis presented on their respective work on March 10; more information can be found here.

For Borderless Studio, a name doubles as a mission mandate. “Can we think across disciplines? Can we think through territories? No one belongs to a single identity anymore,” said founder Paola Aguirre Serrano. “We don’t have to choose one thing; we can collaborate, we can exchange.”

That ethos has shone through Borderless’s work from its formal inception in Chicago in 2016, with a focus on research and social equity. Architect Dennis Milam joined in 2019, broadening the practice’s operations to include physical spaces and large-scale installations.

“I was still working at SOM when Paola started [Borderless],” said Milam, “always kind of understanding that I’d join at some point. Well, 2019 became that starting point and I came in to develop the architectural practice.”

A concentric diagram of the firm’s methodology explains it all; ringed around “design values and practice” are justice, agency, creativity, and resilience. “Who doesn’t have access to design?” reads a prompt above justice. The question “How can design create more joyful experiences for everyone?” sits alongside creativity.

aerial photo of a map installed on a playground by borderless studio
Climate and Cultural Resilience Map Installation, Creative Grounds, Chicago, 2020 (Photo by Brandon Biederman)

Borderless has completed projects across Chicago that turn underutilized parking lots (like Chicago Extra-Large in 2017), play courts (2021’s Basketball (Art) Court), and underpasses (the California Avenue Streetscape Vision, 2020) into vibrant, engaging spaces. The 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial, The Available City, proved an ideal venue to promote and build on earlier research, specifically the ongoing Creative Grounds project, which draws attention to the almost 50 schools across the city’s South and West Sides to be shuttered in recent years. In the parking lot of an erstwhile school in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Serrano and Milam erected a colorful woven canopy that acted as a pop-up showcase for community initiatives. The 10-by-10-foot frame-and-canopy structure is intended to be easily replicable in similar sites across the city.

Add an interior retail project on Chicago’s South Side to the mix, and the firm’s built footprint is only growing. With a greater focus on Texan projects on the horizon (the studio has another office in San Antonio) and a move toward the architectural, Borderless lives up to its name more and more every day.