Tijuana — James Hubbell, nearly 71 years old and still inclined to daydreams of dragonfly wings, steers his white Dodge van with eerie calm through hellish binational traffic. Behind him, he keeps at hand a tape measure, a bag of mortar, a builder's level, several trowels, a tube of sun block. Ahead, as usual, lies a building site.
"I don't really know why I do it, except it's an excuse to do something," Hubbell has just been saying. "I just like to build."
For more than four decades, Hubbell has been shaping walls that undulate, roofs that swoop and stained-glass designs of intricate abstraction. Known among his admirers as a sort of mystic with dirt under his fingernails, Hubbell has never landed a million-dollar commission or won a Pritzker Prize, architecture's top honor. In fact, as he is quick to admit, he is neither trained as an architect nor licensed as one in the state of California. But he has conceived and built parks on three continents, lectured at UC Berkeley and Vladivostok, Russia, and designed (with licensed co-signers) several custom homes in California and Washington.
His palace doors hang in Abu Dhabi. Perhaps his most widely known design, a jewel-box chapel that seems to flutter in the breeze, stands in the elite Northern California community of Sea Ranch. And every June, when he and his wife throw open the doors of their home in the mountains east of San Diego for a single day, hundreds of San Diegans show up to gape at all the sinuous shapes and shake hands with the soft-spoken, blue-eyed host. He calls his style "the architecture of jubilation."
So why does he drive south across the border at least once a month, then veer inland, turn off the main highway, climb a series of rustic roads and pull the Dodge to halt on a hilltop lot amid the heat and dust of a bedraggled Tijuana colonia?
Because he has clients here, scores of them, from preschool through sixth grade. For the last dozen years, Hubbell has served as in-house artist and designer, volunteer wrangler and construction-site grunt to the Colegio Esperanza and Jardin de Ninos La Esperanza, a struggling nonprofit kindergarten and an elementary school founded by a crusading mother from San Diego County.
A few strides from Hubbell's parking spot on the Tijuana hilltop stands the campus, a complex of buildings bearing all the telltale Hubbell signs, from curved surfaces to mosaic tile work to recycled materials. On the bathroom walls, blue dogs cavort with red-winged birds. On another wall, stylized horses stand against shell-fringed starry skies. Outside, a tall, twisting trellis, devised by a group from UC San Diego's short-lived architecture school, throws shade on a sitting area with a broad view of the colonia.
Inevitably, this marriage of site, design and social mission stops newcomers in their tracks.
"Es un cuento. It's a story, like a fantasy world, when you first arrive," says Tijuana architecture student Erendira Gonzalez, 26, who started volunteering at the site about a year ago. "It seems out of place, with all those curves. But since I've been going more, I see that it connects with the place, with the houses around it.... From the moment you go in, you sense that it's a special place."
This is the riddle built into much of Hubbell's work: Organically inspired and whimsically suggestive, his projects look as if neither designer nor occupant should harbor a care in the world. In fact, however, Hubbell's entire career has been shaped by his social agenda and his refusal to work the way most architects do.
In many respects, the school is an emblem for all of this. But for the man who designed it, there's nothing complicated here.
"It was an excuse to build something," says Hubbell. "I'm always looking for those excuses."
Students and volunteers
The sun is high, the roosters have retired, and the dogs are curled up in the shade. It's a working Saturday on the hilltop, and the volunteer crew at the Esperanza schools is larger than usual -- more than 50 workers, including several Mexican architecture students and a group from the San Diego Junior Chamber of Commerce, all laboring amid thick Tijuana dust and the scent of distant trash fires.
With noon approaching, one group of volunteers stacks stones and cement to fortify a wall. A second group is tiling nearby steps, while a third digs a trench in the garden. Others sort tile or pilot wheelbarrows, and a gaggle of neighborhood kids is inexpertly washing the volunteers' cars at 50 cents per vehicle.
Around the corner, several mothers from the neighborhood are tiling the curb in front.
Hubbell, unshaven and grubby in a polo shirt but pacific as ever, chalks in the outline of a stylized white rose, then shambles off to sort through broken tiles for the right colors.