An architecture school rises in Tijuana’s red light zone

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An architecture school rises in Tijuana's red light zone

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An architecture school rises in Tijuana's red light zone
Students of the Architecture Free School (Escuela Libre de Arquitectura) visit a residential development in Tijuana / Photo: Marcus Yam

La Coahuila is not the sort of neighborhood anyone would mistake for an architecture and design district. But here in Tijuana’s red light zone, a place better known for its tumble-down bars, by-the-hour hotels and risque floor shows than anything to do with Modernism, a new architecture school is turning the design field on its head.

Within view of the U.S.-Mexico border, inside a bland, three-story office building that once housed a medical clinic for sex workers, the Escuela Libre de Arquitectura (Architecture Free School) was founded by Tijuana architect Jorge Gracia with its surroundings very much in mind.

“I didn’t want to be off in the suburbs somewhere, off in some neighborhood full of towers,” Gracia says. “I wanted to be right in the middle of things.”

Indeed, from his sunny corner office, it is possible to take in not only panoramic views of the monumental steel arch that greets visitors to the city but a working girl in hot pants on the street below, cellphone tucked protectively in her cleavage.

It is the Tijuana context that shapes everything about this unorthodox school, which opened in fall 2014. Tijuana is a singular juncture of the handmade and the high-tech, a city that boasts one of Mexico’s most developed manufacturing centers, in a country where roughly half the population lives under the poverty line. Far from the Mexican centers of power, it is a place that pragmatically makes do with the never-ending flow of ideas and material that wash in from the U.S. […]

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