Curtis Woodhouse was sure that the worst of Tijuana in the old days was what the rest of Mexico must look like. But he doesn't think so anymore, not since he visited the country with a group of UCLA classmates.
"Most of us had really not experienced Mexico. Some people had been to the border. . . . (The trip broke) down a lot of stereotypical barriers," said Woodhouse, who visited Mexico earlier this year. "There is a whole language of architecture there that really has nothing to do with what you see" in Tijuana.
Together with 35 other students from the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and the Universidad La Iberoamericana in Mexico City, Woodhouse took part in a cultural exchange program aimed at fostering a better understanding between Mexico and the United States.
The students were instructed to design a community center for the city of Patzcuaro, complete with workshop areas, a school of tourism and a medical center.
Both groups of students met in Mexico City in February. The contingent from UCLA stayed with students from La Ibero, who introduced their American counterparts to the elegant Colonial patios and private courtyards where Mexican families like to spend their time.
After three days in Mexico City, the students and their professors took an all-night train ride to Patzcuaro, a centuries-old city in the state of Michoacan in central Mexico.
"We were all goggle-eyed, especially the Americans. Mexican architecture is soul-stirring," said Rafael Serrano, a Spaniard who studies at UCLA.
In addition to looking for an approach that would blend into the surrounding area as well as enhance its architectural heritage, the students gained valuable experience in human interaction, according to Ricardo Legorreta, a well-known Mexican architect who teaches at UCLA and La Ibero.
By living together for eight days in Mexico in February and for a week in Los Angeles in April, the students got to know one another better, said Legorreta, who coordinated the program.
Sofia Vivas from La Ibero and Rick Mascia from UCLA, for instance, struck up a friendship in Mexico City and upon meeting again in Los Angeles said they had shared the same worries, goals and aspirations.
Other students focused on their differences.
"In trying to preserve things as archeological elements (the Americans) show a nostalgic tendency that causes their designs to lose character," Jose Maria Nava from La Ibero said about traditional approaches to the project.
"People who live in Mexico may not realize how unique their culture is. . . . Coming from somewhere else, we can appreciate it and realize the importance of preserving it," Sheila Spencer from UCLA suggested.
For Jorge Ballina Garza, architecture dean at La Ibero, the exchange was positive because "contact with other people (from different nationalities) makes one think back on one's values. (Others) see things one is liable to overlook."
Meanwhile, Anita Mermel, assistant dean at the UCLA School of Architecture, added that the trip awoke the students to a new area of architecture that has probably become as valuable to them as the culture itself.
Mermel also hopes publicity from the exchange will attract more Latino students to the school. Latinos account for 8% of the student body at the School of Architecture.
But the exchange ended with an ironic twist since the students' designs are not going to be used for practical purposes. Scale models of their designs were displayed at UCLA in mid-April.
"Patzcuaro does not have the financial capability to build a community center. Neither has there been a request by the (Mexican) government to do the work," Ballina Garza said.
After all, the students added, it was all for the sake of completing an academic exercise.
"The student has to brainstorm in order to understand many things. It's part of the course and of the speculation that goes with it," Rocio Suarez from La Ibero said.
In any case, the inability to go ahead with the construction phase of the project raised at worst a few complaints.
"It is a very special feeling because one already knows the project is not going to be built, but one still wishes it could be . . . " Nava said. "It is a feeling of frustrated resignation."