Listen to Alfonso Medina talk about the fact that he employs roughly 70 people—60 at his real estate development and construction firm and 10 at his architecture firm—and it's fairly easy to forget that the guy is only 30. "I mean, I've done this since I was 21 so it's the only way I know of actually doing things," says Medina. "I know that's kind of weird."
Indeed, Medina, who was born in Longview, Texas, and grew up around San Diego, founded his development firm, Taller 38—taller means "studio" in Spanish—even before graduating from college. Its focus is largely on medium-density or high-density projects in Mexico, where his parents are originally from, and he managed to keep it running with projects while simultaneously finishing up his degree in architecture (he studied at two different schools in Mexico) and then as a grad student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC). Since receiving his master's degree in urbanism, he's returned to SCI-ARC as an assistant professor and guest critic, and just finished up a stint as a visiting professor at the École Spéciale d'Architecture in Paris. During those crazy months, Medina was forced to add the City of Light to his already-hectic travel schedule, which involves a fair amount of bouncing back and forth between his offices in NYC and Tijuana.
It was more recently, in 2011, that Medina opened T38 Studio, his full-fledged architectural practice, as a companion to the development firm. "Basically, 75 percent of the work at T38 Studio is for the real estate development," he says. "That was really a tool to be able to do architecture at another scale. At the scale that we're doing it, it would be really difficult if I were trying to find clients when I'm so young. So it's a great opportunity to be able to do both."
Whether it's a competition to reimagine a conceptual 1982 Zaha Hadid design—a feat that won T38 Studio honorable mention last year by Hadid herself—or the renovation of a 12,000-square-foot warehouse into a mixed-use art gallery and nonprofit space in L.A., Medina is steadfastly focused on the idea of creating communities, or, as he says, "creating an exchange point of interactions" among people. "Architecture has that power to really transform not just the spacing that it is, but also the spacing between you and your neighbors," he says. "It's something that's also for me very, very important: that spacing of what you're creating and the impact that your work has on its context."
These values are especially evident in the residential work he's done in Tijuana. "A couple of years ago it was very rough, and that's when we were starting to design and build there," he says. "Our priorities were: How could you use architecture as a tool to create communities and give people that sense of belonging somewhere? Our priority was giving people a good quality of life." For a cluster of single-family homes that started as a quartet and has since expanded to 18 (?), that meant adding green space. "For a long time in Tijuana you didn't see kids on the street because, I mean, you tried to keep them inside the house," he says. "So we put in a park and a way for them to always be outside. So you have a lot of life. You know, what creates that sense of safety is your neighbors—just your neighbors and life happening."
Another project involved plopping four townhouses in an area of Tijuana traditionally reserved for massive 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot single-family homes (?). "In everything we do, we're trying to challenge what the city-planning committee always does. We're always trying to change laws that would better the community," he says. "It's not about an architectural style, but what I'm most interested in is a model of operation—what your range or impact can be as an architect if you operate in different ways. As an architect you have to really be able to talk with different types of audiences, you have to be able to talk to community planners, to be able to try to change policy. It's the only way to have an impact."
Medina and his team have also spent time researching what could eventually become a new way of thinking about affordable housing in Tijuana, which has traditionally been shoddily built and located hours away from city centers. "Fifty percent of the city was developed in illicit ways," he says. "People were just invading pieces of land and self-building, and most of these houses were at first made of cardboard and recycled materials. Those type of developments were informal, and we're trying to transform them into something very formal." Also on his plate: a couple of projects for people who work on his construction crew—"they have built their own houses with few resources, so we are designing a couple of extensions for them"—and various other single-family homes in the area.
Most of this work is designed and built on-spec and, Medina says, the response from homeowners has been overwhelmingly positive so far. In keeping in touch with families who've moved into his projects and discussing with them what works and doesn't, he's noticed that "people really start enjoying architecture. At first they moved in or they bought the project because it was one available option, but in the end they start enjoying and giving that value to architecture, and begin to be able to understand what differences architecture can make."
As for what's next, he believes he can have an impact in the States, as well. "New York I think would be difficult, but in L.A. there's lots of opportunities to do the type of projects that I'm doing in Tijuana. Working in a small scale there's more room to be able to innovate and do different things," he says. "We're really interested in projects that are either art-related or community-related."