Cruz control: How Katrina will reshape borders

Devastation in the Gulf Region and grander ideas about urban identity may seem like odd bedfellows­ but they are inextricably tied. The infrastructure of New Orleans, the focus of post-hurricane angst and retrospection, has been shattered. But, more importantly, the ways in which its citizens identify themselves in terms of their own city will forever be changed.

Architect Teddy Cruz's keynote address for the "Growing Urban Habitats" symposium at the School of Architecture September 2-3 underscored issues of urban identity along borders and within communities. The symposium, a follow-up to the "Urban Habitats" competition ["Prone to please: Habitat picks green affordability" of July 21], came on the heels of Hurricane Katrina.

What happens when borders undermine the identity of a city? For 40 years, New Orleans partially defined itself as a city with levees that could withstand Category 3 hurricanes. Since they were constructed in the 1960s, these canal walls had defeated incoming hurricanes, creating an– as it turned out, unrealistic– sense of invincibility in its citizens.

Laissez-faire urbanism­ the fact that New Orleans has been painfully slow in addressing infrastructural needs since the '60s­ reflected an equally easy and fluid community that prided itself on a particular lifestyle. To a city of boundless energy and informality, the idea of boundaries seemed almost antithetical­ except for its woefully inadequate levees.

Post-hurricane, New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast will have to reevaluate themselves. New walls will have to be built that can withstand increasingly stronger storms. But undoubtedly these walls will have an adverse effect on the identity of the citizens.

Imagine living among enormous slurry walls, earthen levees, and barricades. New Orleans­ the Big Easy­ is not the kind of community that you'd associate with such forbidding images. Then the question becomes how to rebuild a necessarily boundless way of life while at the same time constructing a physical environment that is about protection.

Cruz spoke about "The New Border Atlas," which challenges our notion that borders are a political and physical means of control. While Tijuana and San Diego were Cruz's explicit topics of discussion, New Orleans' new border­ or lack thereof­ lent a sense of urgency to the architect's words.

Raw materials, cultural practices– and, most of all, people– define the fluid relationship between San Diego and Tijuana. Despite the seemingly rigid national checkpoints, an informal economy has developed in which discarded materials from the United States are recycled to construct entire communities in Mexico. In the other direction, laborers migrate north to build Southern California's McMansions.

While the border is characterized by its walls and bottleneck checkpoints, it doesn't actually exist in the social realm. It is, for Cruz, a "critical threshold" where the formal and the informal are at constant odds, where political boundaries are visible, but social exchanges are invisible.

But this opposition has in turn produced a new kind of ad-hoc and experimental urbanism. In addition, it has produced a new urban identity– less exclusive and political and more inclusive and social. Tijuana and San Diego are communities that thrive on a border that mutually defines their urban identities.

Ad-hoc urbanism may not be the solution for New Orleans-­ in fact, safety demands a contrived and planned solution. But, Cruz's notion of an invisible border is something to strive for.

The idea is to maintain the inclusive identities of Gulf cities while excluding natural threats. Will it be possible to construct borders and barriers among the cities of the Gulf Region­ and then make them socially invisible?

Teddy Cruz during final deliberations for the competition