Essay by Tag Christof
Photography by Jake Michaels

May 01 2015

Architecture is both the most and least powerful of the design disciplines. Most, because no other has the out-and-out capacity for so thoroughly shaping human experience. Least, because in the modern marketplace economy, it has become primarily a tool for profit-seeking developers. Architect Alfonso Medina is a rare pragmatist whose practice, T38, walks the line between good business and high-impact good design.

The world’s human population has crested seven billion en route to a projected more than nine billion by 2050. The need for good, holistic urbanism has never been more urgent, yet the same old pattern of profiteering development continues apace—strip malls, subpar housing stock, suburbs. It doesn’t take a scholar to deduce that market force alone does not a healthy city make, but developers have little incentive for change. Policymakers feign concern while quietly ignoring the problem, mostly because more bad big box buildings mean fuller tax coffers. Architecture, meanwhile, is left to function within the narrow bandwidth allowed by policy, regulations and cost constraints.

Despite their seeming powerlessness in this status quo, architects will be critical in solving what amounts to a complex systems problem. In theory, their built-in toolkit of construction plus criticality certainly makes them better qualified than developers and politicians. But when given unlimited agency, architects have a long history of turning out impossible concepts meant to solve all built-environment ills, all at once. Dymaxion World, Arcosanti, Ville Radieuse and Pruitt-Igoe are all names that echo in the annals of Big Architectural Ideas that either never left the ground or failed spectacularly. Each made sweeping (and naive) assumptions about human beings, and all espoused ripping up existing political and economic frameworks instead of inciting change from within.

T38 is a young practice, built on earnest principles of practical urbanism and marked by spare and handsome forms. On the face of it, the studio’s work might fall in line with any number of others building contemporary and photogenic structures in Japan or Chile or Europe—T38’s work is tidy, bright and eminently modern. But form is just a fraction of its story.

I’m not interested in doing a great building. I’m interested in doing a great city.

The firm is headed by Alfonso Medina, a bright and idealistic young architect who was born in east Texas and raised in Tijuana. Medina studied at the prestigious Tecnológico de Monterrey before going on to postgrad at SCI-Arc, and now lectures both there and at the École Superieure d’Architecture in Paris. T38 is off to an auspicious start: over the past couple of years alone, the NYC-based practice has exhibited at Storefront for Art & Architecture, won 1st prize in an international competition for new housing ideas for Boston, was called out as one of Curbed’s “Young Guns” and this year was named one of “New York’s Most Promising Young Architects”.

The T in T38 is for taller—Spanish for atelier or workshop—and is a nod to Medina’s emphasis on collaboration. “I learned most of what I know about construction from the masons, carpenters and craftsmen doing the work,” he told us. And so he and the obreros work interdependently, with Medina relying on them for on-the-ground know-how and even entrusting them with a degree of decision making—a far cry from the conventional arrangement, in which the architect gives site marching orders that may not be deviated from.

The way Medina builds is indicative of a broader attitude towards community which lies at heart of his practice. Whereas most architects design, build and then move quickly onto the next project, he maintains relationships with a building’s users long after the antiseptic, pre-use photos have been taken. To him, it is an opportunity to learn about and fine-tune his own work. “You get to see, from ground-level, which aspects of the practice work and which don’t. We establish relationships that last for years with every one of the inhabitants of our projects. That’s how we build communities.”

Medina is an urbanist at heart, his propensity cemented by time spent under the tutelage of Peter Zellner at SCI-Arc, and evident in his speculative projects, which include an award-winning open-source apartment complex. The studio’s focus on community has brought a special relevance to its principal work in Tijuana, Medina’s one-time hometown. The fiercely entrepreneurial city bathed in Baja California sunshine and once synonymous with easy living was long battered by drug violence, but is on the mend for the first time in a generation. The tourists, investment and positive associations that were driven away in equal measure by years of strife are slowly but surely returning, and Medina has seized upon the upturn as a golden opportunity to sow the seeds for a better Tijuana.

Amongst a backdrop of urban decay, T38 has set about creating communities from scratch. By acting as both architect and developer on plots of reclaimed land, Medina is able to commission and design alongside future residents. In this way, he also maintains a vital connection across the life of the development. A few years on, what began with communities of single-family homes—most of which have made the rounds on the world’s design blogs thanks to their elemental attractiveness—has since grown to also include even more accessible but still handsome complexes of flats. In an area of the city filled with SoCal style McMansions, Medina even successfully lobbied to have zoning rules changed so that a single structure of four modern townhouses could be built on a site formerly designated for one single-family house.

Beyond creating the immediate communities, Medina hopes that the development might even attract residents away from sprawling San Diego—many of them native Tijuaneros driven away during the years of violence. These smaller, more contemporary homes near the city’s center potentially offer better quality of life (and far better design) than might be accessible to them in suburban southern California. Especially with the uptick in business that is sure to follow, T38’s work in the city stands a chance of becoming a real source of pride for a city that could certainly use it.

Tijuana has been a crucible for T38, and a proving ground for exactly the type of pragmatic urbanism that will have the most tangible long-term impact: solid design, quality construction, good business, long term engagement. Medina has set his sights far beyond Tijuana, and has even begun to think about what he might build if given the chance in his current hometown. “Right now I’m interested in how Manhattan is evolving. You have these ridiculous towers built for the ultra rich—apartments that start at $20 million and go to over $100 million. But the thing is, nobody will live in them. They sit empty for most of the year. And that creates a bubble that pushes prices to a point where it becomes affordable only for wealthy people. If Manhattan becomes a city with only one class, then it dies.”

Construction recently wrapped on The Mistake Room, a well-received new contemporary art center he designed in Los Angeles. It opened with an exhibition by Oscar Murillo and was the culmination of a longstanding friendship with its curator and others behind the project. “For me, doing the architecture, was just the finishing touch. Being part of the team that put it together is the interesting part.”