Reyes and Cruz put ethics above architecture

Biba Dow

Cruz’s Manufactured Sites modular frame system enables houses to be built from waste materials.

Pedro Reyes and Teddy Cruz
Tate Modern, London SE1


Architecture Foundation’s Architecture and Art Series
3/5 stars

Design is incidental in the socially responsible work shown by architect Teddy Cruz and artist Pedro Reyes at their Architecture Foundation lecture

Architect Teddy Cruz began the second lecture in the Architecture Foundation’s new series by quoting US general David Petraeus’s description of the contemporary soldier as someone who needs to be “a social worker, versed in many languages”. With unstoppable eloquence, he launched into a description of his work in forging communities and working as an agent for change in promoting “ground-up” redevelopment.

Cruz was born in Guatemala and now practises in San Diego. The work of his practice, Estudio Teddy Cruz, is research based. It focuses on structuring and guiding development, rather than designing buildings. It is as if in getting to the roots of the context for his projects, either side of the Mexican-Californian border, he has become immersed in the social problems and inequalities found there and diverted his energies into social transformation. The architecture comes later.

Pedro Reyes is a Mexican artist who trained as an architect. He works in Mexico City. His projects are pitched as social and political commentary and involve collaboration with his audience. Witty and haunting, they demand action.

In his recent work to celebrate 200 years of Mexican independence and 100 years since the revolution, he put together a suitcase kit of parts of social and cultural initiatives, each one documented on a postcard that, together, formed part of a constellation of 50,000. The kits were sent to 30,000 schools, which each selected a favourite event to re-enact. The schools then formed their own exhibitions, bringing back to life 200 years of accumulated history.

Both Cruz and Reyes use their creative energies to empower the oppressed and exploited. They are preoccupied with the extreme disparities in quality of life between the poor and the powerful, whether between suburban Californian wealth and poor migrant workers, or between the drug cartels and the civilians of Mexico.

They are concerned with creating work that is an agency for transformation, where their role is as an interlocutor. Their drawings aim to be “a participatory act”. Reyes comments: “The design process in architecture is concerned with drawing the object, but it lacks tools to draw the social interplay.”

They are preoccupied with the extreme disparities in quality of life between the poor and the powerful

Reyes’s 2008 project, Palas por Pistolas (guns for shovels) set up a gun amnesty where the military collected guns that were then melted down in a foundry and formed into shovels for planting trees. The project started in Culiacan, the western Mexican city with the highest rate of handgun deaths in the country. As many as 1,527 guns were collected and transformed into the same number of shovels, used to plant the same number of trees.

The amnesty was organised through a supermarket chain, which provided coupons in exchange. A gun could be exchanged for a washing machine, for instance. Reyes described the poignancy of seeing the military, normally impotent in the face of drug-cartel operations, transforming guns from agents of death into agents of life. The trees were planted by school children, and the project is now taking place across the country.

In a similar way, Cruz assisted in the redevelopment of the Nicaraguan village of La Prusia, firstly by building a road to connect the village to nearby Granada, where most of the residents work. He helped the residents form a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and development and construction company to manage and construct the buildings they needed. They learnt valuable skills along the way and established themselves as community stakeholders.

Other projects range from supporting a group of skateboarding teenagers take control of a piece of land beneath a highway for a skateboard park, forming themselves into an NGO in the process, and the “McMansion retrofitted” re-evaluation of low-density south Californian sprawl. This involves putting families and businesses into suburban houses as they fall victim to the economic collapse of the American dream. Cruz injects them with multi-cultural intensity, converting into Buddhist temples, for example.

The pair spoke with energy and compelling mutual regard, but I was left feeling that, however valuable the ground work was, an architectural result was lacking.

Originla print headline - Ethics above architecture

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