On Tuesday afternoon last week, there weren’t too many people waiting for the Amtrak train at Union Depot in Downtown El Paso.
But on the other side of the ticket station, there was a hum of creativity that made the old train station feel even more alive.
The historic train station also houses the El Paso campus of the Texas Tech School of Architecture, where Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller have their offices.
Kripa is the director of the Texas Tech College of Architecture El Paso, associate professor and director of projects at POST, the research center at the college of architecture.
Mueller is a research assistant professor at the college of architecture and is the director of research at POST. The two are married and are founding partners of AGENCY, their interdisciplinary architecture firm.
Last year, the two authored the book “Fronts: Military Urbanisms and the Developing World,” which explores urbanism, militarization and the spaces where the two intersect.
Kripa was born in Albania and has been in the U.S. since her last year of high school. She and Mueller met at Columbia University during grad school. The couple first came to El Paso in 2015, fell in love with the city and stayed.
Kripa and Mueller spoke to El Paso Inc. last week about Texas Tech’s architecture program, how war and the pandemic have changed architecture, and their work overseeing the revival of a 100-year-old home in Central El Paso.
Q: Where are you from, and how did you first get to El Paso?
Kripa: I’m originally from Albania. I grew up in probably the harshest form of communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe. In the 1990s when the regime fell, there was civil war everywhere. My brother and I, just like all the other kids, left the country.
I was a refugee in Greece when I was 12 years old. We lived there for three and a half years, worked and I went to school. Then we were caught and deported and went back to Albania.
There was an exchange program between Albania and the U.S. that my dad read about, and we thought for my final year of high school it would be nice to learn English, be in another country.
The plan was to come here for a year to finish high school, and then I was meant to go back to Albania and probably go to college in Europe somewhere.
Then civil war happened, the second wave. This was kinda the spillover from the Kosovo crisis when President Clinton and NATO intervened in Kosovo. It was 1996, so I was able to file for political asylum here.
That process took about eight years, to go from a J-1 exchange student visa to political asylum, then it was a five-year process from political asylum to a green card, and then a passport.
During that process, the courts were saying I was considered a pending case, which meant I had a work permit and a study permit. I studied undergraduate architecture in New Jersey. At the end of undergraduate, I received my green card.
I worked in New Jersey then decided to go back to grad school at Columbia University in New York, which is where I met Stephen, who became my partner and husband.
We decided to collaborate and start our practice informally while we were in grad school. We graduated and worked in New York for several years, got our licenses and we decided in 2008, which was the complete economic downturn and failure, to launch our practice.
That was very weird timing, but that got us a fellowship. We lived in Rome for a year to work on our research, which became a book.
We were on a road trip through the Southwest and stopped in El Paso, and completely fell in love with it. We didn’t know anyone, we drove in on I-10 and saw the lights at night, and it was just this magical moment.
We met with the former director, whose position I have now here at Texas Tech, he showed us the school and mentioned Texas Tech was hiring faculty. We both applied and were awarded full-time positions.
We moved here in 2015 without knowing anyone. It’s been an incredible six years, and we love it.
Stephen went to the University of Kansas for undergraduate and then Columbia for graduate.
Q: How big is the architecture school now?
Kripa: The school right now, we have about 50 students. We offer a bachelor of science in architecture, and we educate students on their third and fourth year of undergrad only.
We have a great collaboration and contract with El Paso Community College, so our students complete their first and second years there.
We graduate between 15 and 27 every year. Of those students, about 10 or 15 move on to continue their master’s studies. I’d say five or so receive full scholarships to ivy league schools.
Q: What’s El Paso’s architecture market like, and are you seeing students wanting to stay or come back after they graduate?
Mueller (via phone): Our students, we see that a lot of them with a degree from Texas Tech, or after they’ve gone on to get their masters, they land jobs with some of the local firms.
A lot of our other students, if they don’t go the purely architectural route, they’ll take jobs in construction management. Some go on to UTEP and get a master’s degree in construction management or administration, and go on to lead some of the larger construction or civil engineering endeavors around the city.
There’s a lot of different pathways for the talent we’re developing at the school to find ways to practice in the city. El Paso historically has been a tighter market than other cities in the Southwest, but we’re seeing it really ramp up and there seems to be a lot of opportunity for the design professions and construction and engineering around the region.
Q: Do you have any favorite El Paso buildings or neighborhoods?
Kripa: The El Paso Downtown core area seems to have a higher concentration of really well-built historic buildings than other cities its size. I absolutely love the Abdou building, which is kind of like a mini Flatiron Building.
Yesterday we were at an event at the Plaza Hotel, and that’s an absolutely beautiful building. El Paso has some really important buildings nationally and regionally.
This building we’re in, this was designed by a really important architect, Daniel Burnham, who also designed the plan for Chicago and was one of the important architects at the turn of the century.
Mueller: We also love the character of a lot of the neighborhoods, the historic neighborhoods like Sunset Heights. We recently bought a home, so we became our own client for a renovation project in the Rio Grande historical district, just up the hill from Downtown.
The quality of the historic homes, and the fabric of the city in and around Downtown, are really amazing. There’s a lot of potential to really revitalize some of these areas with renovation projects or small interventions urbanistically.
Q: Could you talk about your book, “Fronts: Military Urbanisms and the Developing World”?
Kripa: The book took about six years to write. In our private practice, we do a lot of public art, public installations, buildings and renovations, standard client-based work, but we also have a really active research wing.
We were interested in the intersections of militarization and urbanization. We were interested in constructing the history of the militarization of urban space.
There are many books that cover the history of urbanism, but not many books that talk about how military training and warfare have impacted the development of cities.
We were essentially scraping congressional hearing documents, budgetary appropriations, a lot of legal documentation to look at how the U.S. military is constructing physical spaces for military training.
There are 500 of these sites that we could uncover around the world. There’s about 30 of the ones we’re interested in as urbanists. The 30 we’re interested in describe the mock cities they built for training as very specific small towns with 23 to 26 buildings and have to have a police station, embassy, downtown, office building.
They become these kind of fake replicas of cities, but they are built physically. They’re everywhere, and some of them take older existing civilian towns that might have failed.
These relationships we’re exploring in the book are to get to the question about what are our rights in urban spaces and public spaces if they are constantly imaged and surveilled and threatened by military intervention, whether it’s here or abroad.
Mueller: They’re not all in the middle of the desert. A lot of them are in the middle of the desert on an Air Force base, some of them are in heavily forested areas, tundra environments. It’s interesting as we’re kind of zooming around the globe and looking at these sites, how similar all of them are even if they’re in radically different places.
There is this urban development out there in the periphery that nobody hears about, it’s sort of this fake urbanism that develops on the fringes of military installations and other environments.
Q: What’s your perspective on how architecture has evolved with how the world is right now?
Kripa: Many architects and architecture colleges and schools are really rethinking the idea of living post-pandemic because it seems as though pandemics will continue to happen more often.
There are conferences, design competitions, through which the architecture discipline and profession is really trying to rethink living together with continuous threats.
Our focus here and at the research center is to look at climate change, global warming, as the primary lens through which architecture needs to change.
Mueller: People are outside a lot, and we’re using outdoor spaces around our homes and in our cities a lot differently. One of the things we were recognizing, especially in environments like ours where there’s a high amount of sunlight and airborne particulates, we could be outside and in the shade but still exposed to pretty high levels of radiation that are bouncing or scattering into the shade from all the particle matter into the air.
Architects and urban planners, it’s become kind of standard practice to do a shadow study, to understand how daylight travels and where shade might be made.
We wanted to invent a tool that could produce analysis that’s easy to grasp and understand on the amount of radiation that’s entering a space. One of the biggest factors is how much sky you can see from your position in the shade based on how many trees or buildings are surrounding you.
Q: Could you talk more about your house renovation project?
Kripa: It’s been an absolutely beautiful process because we’re our own client. We can have very long conversations with each other about the project. When we first bought the house we had plans in mind, and now as we live through it, it seems as though every new week we’re in the house the priorities have changed and we’re living in the space differently.
The idea is to restore it to its very original kind of character, with all the materials back then when it was built in 1918. Some of the other additions or modifications that were made in the ’50s and later, we’ll kind of update them with era-appropriate kinds of materials and fixtures.
Mueller: A lot of the work we’ve done around El Paso in and around El Paso are these design-build installations where we’re not only the architect, we’re also the fabricator and installer building these complex and pretty impactful material assemblies that get to be deployed.
That combination, we’re trying to map that onto the house. The house needs pretty basic work that every house might need but we also want to flex our design muscle and pull in some of this hands-on approach and build some custom elements, and utilize some of our strengths as people that use advanced technology to get things done cheaper and faster and hopefully better than they might be done otherwise.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.