September 18, 2002

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frequencies

by josh kun

You are aqui

Borders move, just like flags.
Jorge Drexler

IF YOU APPROACH Tijuana from the south, it is a gradual city, unfolding in sprawling, unannounced increments. After the coastal highway bends into the dry mountain foothills and dumps you into the pummeling rush of the city's main arteries, you feel Tijuana's centerlessness, its very un-Latin American layout. Instead of a central plaza, there are grids and squares stacked in horizontal patterns that get crisscrossed by unmarked diagonal streets.

If you approach Tijuana from the north, it is an immediate city. Its residential hillsides packed with makeshift homes loom over south San Diego and announce Tijuana from above like a billboard. Once you exit the border checkpoint, you are dropped into traffic and instantly faced with directional choices and decisions. Coming from the north, Tijuana is a city you don't so much enter as confront.

It is a city defined by its views, a city that can change dramatically depending on where you stand. In the 1989 novella "Everything about Seals," Tijuana writer Federico Campbell captured Tijuana's prism of changing perspectives perfectly, depicting it as the sum of its points of view: from the sea, from San Diego, from inside of a dream, from the top of a colonia hilltop, and more than anything, from the sky, out of the window of an airplane that sees it all.

That same view begins Mixed Feelings, a new documentary by Phillip Rodriguez (airing Sept. 14 on KQED). We see the city's compressed gray geometry as it butts up against the borderline that separates it from the spacious greens of San Diego. It recalls Arturo Cuenca's light-box satellite photograph that watches over the border-crossing lanes on the Mexican side: two geographies, two different colors, radically split and sutured by an imposed horizontal cut with the words "You Are" on the northern half and "Aqui," or Here, on the bottom. Like Cuenca, Rodriguez makes it impossible to think of Tijuana and San Diego without each other (there's no "You are" without the "aqui"), and contrary to all the talk of a post-border world or a transnational border metropolis, Mixed Feelings suggests that the border marks difference more than similarity.

The difference between how San Diego and Tijuana view themselves in terms of landscape and architecture is Mixed Feelings' principal subject. The video is mostly driven by a border binary: San Diego is sterile, suburban, and ordered, and Tijuana is chaotic, alive, and vibrant. The former abides by planning and prototypes, the latter – where city codes and property lines are low priority in the face of mass subsistence economics – by improvisation and spontaneity. Raul Cardenas, the founder of Tijuana design collective Torolab and one of the leaders of Tijuana's next generation of young thinkers (an inspiring list that includes the Nortec Collective, Gerardo Yepiz, Ejival, Sergio Brown, and Yvonne Venegas), calls it emergency architecture. "Out of the emergency of living," he says over shots of homes built of recycled tires, shipping pallets, and garage doors, "what is ephemeral becomes permanent."

Mixed Feelings pits San Diego and Tijuana architects who believe in the power of such emergency architecture (a few of whom too often forget that it is an architecture born out of necessity and extreme poverty) against those who advocate the kind of planned communities and large-scale building projects that San Diego has become synonymous with. It's a refreshing testament to how cities separated by the world's most crossed and militarized border are affecting one another through designs that shape the lives of their people. For Tijuana, a city of two million that continues to grow at a faster rate than its financial, ecological, and civic resources, the dialogue is urgent. As Manuel Guevara, Tijuana's secretary for urban growth, recently told the Los Angeles Times, "There are two Tijuanas. The one already built, where our parents and grandparents live, and the second Tijuana, the one that will be built in the next 20 years."

Because Mixed Feelings is a video about the border – a place where binaries blur and opposites invert – the line that divides its two opposing sides can only hold up for so long, and soon the architects with the staunchest visions become the ones left with the most self-doubt. Indeed, in Campbell's literary Tijuana, the greatest survivors of the border region are the seals, those "halfway-beings" at home only between worlds, where sand meets sea.

Rodriguez ends Mixed Feelings with the same sentiment, a shot of the border wall right where it stops and the ocean begins. The sky is gray, and there is a mist of clouds and sea spray. Torolab's Cardenas wants to build what he calls the Vertex Project at this very spot on the beach, an enclosed footbridge connecting Tijuana and San Diego that would double as a multimedia art space. It would be architecture imagined and built from the border itself, an emblem of new-school border planning and a gateway to the "second Tijuana" that is waiting to be born.

'Mixed Feelings' airs Sept. 14, 5:30 p.m., KQED, channel 9.

Frequencies will be on vacation until Oct. 2.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com