Alumni Spotlight: Paola Aguirre Serrano MAUD ’11
“My work is multi-layered and multi-disciplinary; sometimes it’s civic art, sometimes it’s planning, sometimes it’s community engagement, sometimes it’s architecture, sometimes it’s landscape design, and sometimes it’s a combination of everything.”
— Paola Aguirre Serrano
Paola Aguirre Serrano MAUD ’11, is a GSD Alumni Council member and the founder of Borderless Studio, an urban design and research practice based in Chicago and San Antonio, focused on collaborative, interdisciplinary projects and civic engagement proposals that address the complexity of urban systems, spatial justice, and equitable design. Her experience includes working with government agencies, non-profit organizations, universities, and architecture/urban design offices in Mexico and the United States in projects at various scales—from neighborhoods to entire regions.
Where were you in your life and career when you decided to apply to the GSD?
I went to undergrad for architecture; very quickly after graduating, I had this fantastic opportunity to work with the government in my hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, a community along the US-Mexico border. The municipal planning agency I worked with (IMPLAN) reached out to Alex Krieger MCP ’77, [Professor in Practice of Urban Design] at the GSD; he had been working with riverfronts in cities all over the U.S, and we asked if he wanted to [engage his students] to study the Chuviscar River in Chihuahua. He said yes, and that was the start of our relationship with the GSD.
It was a fascinating experience to host students from the GSD while sharing the aspirations we had for our city. I was very inspired by the experience and started learning more about the program. I had been working in urban planning for a number of years, but I was basically self-taught. After the experience with the GSD studio in Chihuahua, I realized that I needed more training because—working with the government and for the public—I knew that it was only going to get more challenging.
What drew you to pursue a Masters of Architecture in Urban Design?
At the time when I started, there was a lot of enthusiasm around the urban design program because it’s very unique. It felt like this gray area in which everyone was still figuring out how to operate. I knew that I wanted to be more on the architectural side with an urban influence and understanding, but I was always very uncomfortable with being put in a box in terms of practice, people saying: “you can only be a planner” or “you can only be an architect.” I wanted to understand it all, and to practice horizontally across different areas of work.
Can you share with us the origins and evolution of Borderless as a design practice?
The idea for Borderless started at the GSD; a Latin student group that I was involved in organized small exhibitions and programs because we wanted an excuse to have a conversation about the border between the United States and Latin America. People always end up talking about the same things when it comes to border communities. Borderless came from a place of wanting to talk about how cities are connected in different ways—water systems, environmental aspects, economic dynamics, multicultural identities: a combination of everything.
Growing up in Chihuahua and now reimagining how we design and plan border communities—how is your upbringing significant in terms of the work you are doing today?
The Latino culture planning efforts and the U.S. initiatives are very different, and it’s really fascinating having to design these hybrid processes. My experience having worked in government was foundational. Right now, for example, we’re working on a housing project near the eastern border of Brownsville, Texas—the majority of the population is Mexican or Latino. Being from Chihuahua, I can empathize and understand their culture; I can speak their language. The conversations we have with people need to happen in Spanish, but they also need to be meaningful and engaging.
We’re always thinking: how do we make this accessible and relevant to the communities that we’re working with? Our priorities as planners and designers need to align with the priorities of the community. The combination of empathy, experience, and knowledge helps me to engage with communities in a meaningful way in order to better understand what those priorities are.
You have also taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How would you say discourse and education around urban design have changed in terms of how it is taught today versus when you were a student?
Since I started teaching at the Art Institute, I started to engage students in thinking about inequities and wealth disparities as a way of pedagogy. In recent years, especially during the pandemic, the impact of inequities became more visible than ever. It’s not that they weren’t there, they just weren’t considered as relevant for research and work. As designers, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves. We have to understand the root cause of problems in order to think of effective repairs, and particularly the role that design has played in the inequities that we experience today.
Looking ahead to the next decade as a designer, how do we build a new best practice? What changes do you hope to see in the field as a whole?
Designers have not done a good job engaging with communities of color. The majority of my work has prioritized working with black and brown communities; it’s very hard to pitch design as something positive to communities who have experienced decades of racism, neglect, disinvestment. That needs to change.
Also, I’m highly invested in climate resilience. Living between Chicago, Chihuahua, and San Antonio—I’m gaining more awareness of how our communities are going to experience huge challenges to adapt to changing climate and environmental conditions that are putting pressure on our infrastructure. These challenges need to be addressed on multiple scales—food systems, health systems, etc. These systems are very connected to climate and we need to think about how the design system responds to climate change as well.
How can designers continue to act as leaders in their field?
Traditionally, designers have had very little decision-making power. We are often just called at the end of project processes for design production, when we have the capacity to contribute so much more in the early stages or incubation of ideas. That puts pressure on our ability to wear multiple hats, to be more engaged and collaborate with other sectors, and seek to be part of larger conversations impacting funding and policy in our cities. When it comes to climate change policy, as designers, we are going to have to leverage our understanding of urban complexity at the global scale, while being able to translate strategies to local contexts. In the next couple of decades, we are going to see very dramatic changes in the ways our cities are designed. So how do we, as designers, become more active participants in decision-making spaces? How do we propose new collaborative frameworks to advocate for spatial justice and equitable design? That’s what I’m interested in.
Check out the links below to learn more about Paola’s work:
Creative Grounds is an initiative led by Borderless to explore the role of schools after the largest public schools closure in Chicago’s history, bring awareness to the impact of this inequity, and to engage community in collaborative interventions reimagining the role of social infrastructure.
The Reclaiming Space project features a design installation in collaboration with Chicago’s Park District’s T.R.A.C.E. program (Teens Re-Imagining Art, Community & Environment) to reactivate the area of an existing handball court at Hamilton Park in the Southside of Chicago.
Borderless collaborated in the creation of these design guidelines for access to essential public urban facilities.
Paola serves on the Scholarly Advisory Council for the National Museum of the American Latino in Washington, D.C. The committee discusses and advises in items related to museum content: curatorial, collections, exhibitions, public program, education approach, and community engagement.
Paola also serves as part of the Curatorial Team for Exhibit Columbus – a biannual design festival that commissions/features designers/design installations to celebrate the legacy and future of design; she was previously a featured contributor in 2019.