The Gibbs College of Architecture recently welcomed its first Herb Greene Teaching Fellow, Renè Peralta. Renè has been a professor in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, professor of Urban Design at the University of Washington in St. Louis and, from 2012-2014, was Director of the Master of Science in Architecture at Woodbury University in San Diego. In addition to his endeavors in academia, Renè has co-edited two books, Here is Tijuana (2006) and Temporary Paradise: A Commemorative Edition (2018), and serves as the co-director of Generica Architecture.

GCA communications intern Kathryn (K) sat down with Renè (RP) to discuss his plans during his time at OU, his research in urbanism and Mexican science fiction, social justice work in Tijuana, and how a love for music drove him toward a career in architecture. Read on for highlights from their conversation.

Image: Here is Tijuana (2006) and Temporary Paradise: A Commemorative Edition (2018), co-edited by Renè Peralta.

K: Would you tell me a little bit about what brings you to OU? 

RP: The reason that I’m here at OU is special. I was elected as a Herb Greene Teaching Fellow, and it’s the first fellowship that has been awarded, so I’m very proud and honored to be here. It’s a 2-year position that I just began, so I’ll be spending the next couple of years here teaching and trying to work on some projects that I’ve wanted to work on for a long time, especially some more speculative projects that I have in mind.  

K: What are some of the projects that you’re thinking about? 

RP: I have a big idea of what they are. Some of the work I do concerns urbanism, specifically cross-border regional urban design, because I am from a cross-border area: San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Most of my research has been on that.

The speculative part would be about the future of cities within a border, especially in North America, South America, and Central America, and their potential to become new hubs, or maybe even become more important than countries. I think when cities come together, they become very strong economically and culturally. That’s what has happened in Southern California, where cities tend to depend more on each other than their respective countries, so that’s an interesting idea I want to look at.

Image: The border between the cities of Tijuana and San Diego. Photo by: Alfonso Caraveo

RP: I’ve also been researching Mexican science fiction that originates from the border. Interestingly, science fiction as a genre is very new in Mexico. They didn’t have their first science fiction literature convention until the 1980s. In the United States, it’s more than 100 years old and is a very popular and respected genre. In Mexico, it isn’t; it’s kind of for the few who like that genre. So, as I was looking into it, I realized that a lot of the writers were from the border, and I was really interested in why that was. I think it has to do with the history of science fiction in the United States, but also the fiction that happens on the border and enables stories, so I wanted to research why that hasn’t been an instrument for architectural thinking in the Americas.

So, as I was looking into [Mexican science fiction], I realized that a lot of the writers were from the border, and I was really interested in why that was. I think it has to do with the history of science fiction in the United States, but also the fiction that happens on the border and enables stories….

Renè Peralta

If you remember the ‘60s in Europe with archigram, there was a touch of science fiction in the architectural mood of the time, and it accomplished great things. I was wondering why in Latin America and Mexico we didn’t have that, and if it’s still possible to bring that speculative thinking to architecture in the Americas. I’m not going to go through the whole thesis, but usually in Latin America, the inspirational work for architects is speculative realism, which is another type of literature that is more socio-cultural than science fiction. That’s another project I can do.

Then there are some smaller things I’ve been working on that have to do with social justice work, especially with housing for low-income residents. I’ve been working with that in Mexico, and I think there’s a department here that would be interesting to share that knowledge with. So, there’s a lot to do. 

K: What inspired that passion for science fiction and made you want to explore that more? 

RP: The city of Tijuana in northern Mexico, where I’m from, is a relatively new city. It’s probably only 128 years old. The rest of the cities in Mexico, though, are all 400, 500, 700 years old, so they have a long and very strong cultural history. But Tijuana doesn’t, so I didn’t have much to grab onto. I looked at literature and television while I was growing up, especially American television because I was so close to the border. That’s how we learned English, basically, by listening to American radio stations and watching American TV that came through the airwaves. I think that and being from a place that was pretty open to anything got me into watching more American television.

Tijuana is a little dystopic. It’s a little weird place that doesn’t really have a nice form or the Spanish plazas like the other cities of Mexico, and if you look at science fiction, cities are usually dystopic.

Renè Peralta

Also, Tijuana is a little dystopic. It’s a little weird place that doesn’t really have a nice form or the Spanish plazas like the other cities of Mexico, and if you look at science fiction, cities are usually dystopic. So, for a long time I’ve been interested in looking at that. Plus, there are very interesting scientific and political ideas of the future in science fiction, and I think for new cities, those are important. Things like smart cities and other things that we’re looking at today pose a lot of political and ethical decisions and questions, and science fiction sometimes has something to say about that, so that’s also why I was interested in it. The place I come from has really allowed me to look at that. 

Image: HYPERMEXA is a collaborative project Renè is working on with Charles Glaubitz, illustrator, and Alejandro Santander, architect. The project deals with topics of science fiction, comic representation, urbanism and architecture as a narrative.

K: Is that why you’ve also started working with the organization in Tijuana that does assisted self-built housing? 

RP: In Tijuana, as an architect, you have to do a lot of things. I always taught; I was teaching in San Diego. But in Tijuana, it’s really difficult to just have a client-based business or office. You have to find a way to design your own projects and then make them happen. For instance, with housing, most of the time it’s built by the residents. The more money a resident has, the more expertise they can buy. They can get an engineer, architect, and sometimes a mason or construction worker to build the house. Other times, they can’t afford to do that. Because of this, my wife and I are part of an organization called Fundación Esperanza.

But in Tijuana, it’s really difficult to just have a client-based business or office. You have to find a way to design your own projects and then make them happen.

Renè Peralta

We work on the periphery of the city, specifically where people have their own land already but have never made enough money to build a good house. They’ve probably built what they have as a house from scrap that came from the U.S. They will buy garage doors that were used in the United States then taken to Mexico and sold as walls; tires that were sold as retaining wall systems that sometimes don’t work. A lot of these houses are made from things that were recycled in one way or another, but these houses are not well-built to live in and pose a lot of health issues. 

The foundation helps families build their houses little by little out of concrete block, with the help of many volunteers from all over the world. But what I believe to be the most important part of this program is that we don’t work with individual families; we work with groups of families in a community. They get together and we show them how to create their own community board with a president, treasurer, etcetera, and each one of them has to pay about $20 a week into their house. In the program they learn home-financing, how to take care of the environment and recycle, a lot about plants and species, and many other things that help them build that first house. They’re in the program for about 8 months before they get the chance to start building their house. Then when the time comes to build the first house for the first family, they all have to participate.

It’s incredible because this organization has been around for 25 years, and now these communities have funds of roughly $200,000 to $300,000 that they can led to others hoping to get started. So as an organization, we’re almost hands-off now, because the work has taken on a life of its own. The idea of building houses is one reason to work with the foundation, but the big idea is to empower people to take control of their own lives. We technically don’t give them anything because they eventually pay off the house, but it’s a great program. I think it could be replicated in the United States even though its financial system is different from Mexico’s. It would be interesting to look into that, especially in places like San Diego and Los Angeles where the homeless population is quickly growing.  

K: Growing up around that lifestyle and experiencing those things, what made you want to go into architecture?  

RP: I guess what pushed me toward something creative was the fact that I come from a family of musicians. My great grandfather, grandfather, dad, and uncles were all musicians, and that’s how they made their life. They did very well, especially living at the border. When my grandfather was a musician, it was during Prohibition, so there were a lot of customers coming across the border to the cabarets and bars, and there was music 24 hours a day. When my father and uncles became musicians in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, there was still a lot of work because of men and women coming from the naval bases in San Diego.

I guess what pushed me toward something creative was the fact that I come from a family of musicians. My great grandfather, grandfather, dad, and uncles were all musicians, and that’s how they made their life. They did very well, especially living at the border.

Renè Peralta

However, that mostly ended in the 1980s when Tijuana became more of a manufacturing town that a tourism town. Because of that, my father decided that all of his children would not be musicians, unless it was later in their lives after they had established other careers. So, my brother became a doctor, my sister a nutritionist, and I was interested in drawing. I took a few drawing classes, eventually upgraded to drafting, and then from there I continued into architecture. So, I guess it’s because I wasn’t allowed to be a musician (laughs). 

K: Do you think you would’ve been a musician had that been an option for you? 

RP: I probably would’ve been.  

K: Do you play any instruments? 

RP: I play percussion. I actually learned after I graduated, and my brother is a musician, too. We all eventually did it, but we also did it how my dad wanted–after we had other professions- because he knew it was a really hard life as a musician. He was a pianist and had a teacher by the age of 8, then was playing in the cabarets and bars by the time he was 16. He made a living from it until the day he died, but that is a really romantic view of the life of a musician. It’s a tough life. But architecture life is tough, too. 

K: What do you think is the toughest thing about architecture life? 

RP:  If you don’t conform to a 9 to 5 profession and are always searching ideas, it becomes a 24-hour endeavor. You’re always thinking about it, working on it, and doing a lot of things that don’t create revenue yet because it’s a lot of pro-bono work. You hope someday you will make money, but for now, you’re just doing things in the hopes of getting an idea. That’s hard to do, especially if you have a family, a house, rent to pay; it’s hard to balance those desires with what you have to do as an architect. But it can happen. 

K: On the other hand, what is your favorite part of being an architect and the work you do?   

RP: I’ve done a little bit of everything, and I enjoy that. After I studied in England, I came back and worked on the Getty Garden in Los Angeles. I stayed with that landscape architecture office for a few years and learned a lot about landscape architecture and planning. Then I worked with a lot of artists building large performance and sculptural pieces, and seeing artists work on the architectural scale was another great experience. Then the nonprofit stuff I’ve been doing for the past 7 or 8 years has taught me a lot: how a non-profit operates, what communities need in order to survive and become better places and people. In academia, I’ve never left a school after teaching without having learned from students and other faculty. I’m very lucky that I’ve taught at schools that have allowed me to work on my projects and come up with my own studio or seminars. That’s great because it keeps you going. It lets you know that people like what you do and are interested in it. Overall, the profession isn’t sitting at a desk waiting for a client, and I like that. 

I would say being an architect opens so many doors. I know so many architects who are now filmmakers, interior or industrial designers, car designers, amazing writers, and amazing musicians.

Renè Peralta

K: If you had any piece of advice for someone who’s thinking of going into architecture or someone whose dad is saying, “You’re not going to be a musician, get that idea out of your head,” what would you tell them? 

RP: I would say being an architect opens so many doors. I know so many architects who are now filmmakers, interior or industrial designers, car designers, amazing writers, and amazing musicians. Yes, being an architect is about buildings, but in architecture school you learn a set of tools and a way of thinking that makes it easy for you to move into other design disciplines very quickly. There are a bunch of possibilities, so go for it. There are so many things to do as an architect. 

To learn about more of the work Renè has done, view the gallery below, or visit his website, http://www.generica.com.mx/.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Header photo: Stephan Falke