When Alfonso Medina, 31, talks about T38 Studio, the architecture firm and real estate corporation he founded in 2009, he quotes Machiavelli: “I believe the greatest good to be done is that to be done to one’s own city.” It’s an unexpectedly grounded sentiment for such a nomad—Medina was born two hours east of Dallas, Texas; received his bachelor’s in architecture from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, in Mexico’s northeastern-most state, Neuvo León; studied abroad at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, in Barcelona, Spain; taught as a visiting professor at the École Spéciale d’Architecture, in Paris; and lives with his wife, a jewelry designer, in New York.
But he’s always returned to Tijuana, Mexico, the embattled bordertown where he spent his youth and where he’s now helping to transform the housing stock. Below, Medina told us how he has grown his unconventional practice.
Tijuana is the border, the land of nobody—you’re not in Mexico, not in the [United] States. Around 2006, it started getting really dangerous. People wouldn’t go to restaurants. Businesses closed. Anyone who could move to San Diego moved. When I went to get my master’s, in 2009, I wanted to see how architecture could shape people’s lives. I changed my practice to figure out how people could live a decent life in a city with no street life. Now, it’s a post-traumatic city. You can feel the creative energy in the restaurants, the art, the graphic design.
On T38 Studio’s model:
We find sites, design, build, and sell. Our architecture side only works for our real estate side—we have no other clients. It wasn’t a matter of choosing to set the business up that way, that’s just how it started.
When I went to do my undergrad in Monterrey, I had the opportunity to build a couple of houses in Tijuana, so I took a year off from school and moved there. My mom owned the plot for the first house I built, so we already had a client. That’s the only way I knew how to do it. As long as the house didn’t fall I was happy.
Gradually, I learned how to build. I formed a team of craftsmen. After I went back to study in Monterrey, I bought another piece of land and designed two more houses. My office just kept growing in that same way. Now we have almost 80 full-time employees—carpenters, welders, masons, plumbers, electricians, engineers, and architects. I grew up on construction sites—my father was an architect and a builder, and one of his electricians still works with me. These guys are family.
We’ve already developed over 40 houses in Tijuana—single-family and multifamily units, townhouses. We won a competition last week to design an 86-unit apartment building. For Tijuana, these are upper-middle class houses. People in higher-income areas of Tijuana look at San Diego as the best city in the world. But it’s all suburbs, McMansions, bad architecture. I’m interested in bringing good architecture to Tijuana, and it doesn’t have to be designed by my team. After graduating, I invited Peter Zellner, Assoc. AIA, to design a house there. We’re giving the opportunity to commission real architecture for people who don’t know design, who would have bought any house. They start understanding what architecture is.
On low-income housing:
It’s a huge industry in Mexico. Many of the units are built in the middle of nowhere, hours away from city center and any job source. They’re built quickly and sold quickly—people are buying houses with $100 down payments. After six months, they find that transportation is half of their income. Hundreds of thousands throughout Mexico have been abandoned. We’ve been looking at models for low-income housing, and we’re very interested in all housing—that’s what cities are made of, that’s what saves people’s lives.
We’re very close. I’m the one handing over the keys. A light switch doesn’t work, they call me. Right now, we have an intern in our Tijuana office who grew up in the third house I built. His mom said he studied architecture because of the house. It’s his third week at the firm. It’s incredible. It’s become a way of life. It’s all I do.