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Sam Grabowska

Current Student—Ph.D in Architecture

Sam Grabowska

Specialization: Design Studies
Advisor: Prof. Linda Groat
Dissertation Committee: Linda Groat (architecture), John McMorrough (architecture), Jason De Leon (cultural anthropology), Erik Mueggler (cultural anthropology)

Working Title:

"Architecture of the Other Side: The Secret Spaces and Human Traces of Unauthorized Border-Crossing in the Arizona Borderlands"

There are some spaces that have escaped the architect's eye; in part because they are invisible and in part because they have not yet been ordained by the profession as 'architecture' proper. But these secret makeshift spaces are often crucial when people are most vulnerable, giving them somewhere to take shelter and to transcend, survive, or escape the confines of their lives. This dissertation sets out to investigate clandestine and informal architecture by looking at the structures that migrants, drug mules, and coyotes build while illicitly crossing the US-Mexico border. Using architecture, cultural anthropology, and archaeology of the contemporary, I have conducted spatial and formal analysis, border-crosser interviews, and collected the objects migrants leave behind in the desert. By triangulating these disciplines and bodies of information, I look at how architecture mediates the intersubjective relationship between built form, political and natural landscapes, and the everyday narratives that chronicle the inner lives of border-crossers. I work to situate architecture between place (a rooted, ritualized, transcendent, and positively valued territory) and non-place (an ephemeral, nomadic, everyday spatial practice and artifact of supermodernity). As such the shelters of marginal space and illegal activities elucidate the essential nature of architecture, clarifying the larger role of built form in our daily lives and highlighting ways in which every spatial practice can be contested and negotiated.

Recent Work:

  • Book Chapter: Grabowska, Sam and John Doering-White. "Material Memories: (Re)Collecting Clandestine Crossings of the US-Mexico Borderlands." Excavating Memory, edited by Maria Starzmann and John Roby. University Press of Florida, forthcoming 2015.
  • Conference Half-Day Intensive - The Authentic Renovated: "The Transgressive Hut: Architecture's Response to Change in the Arizona Borderlands." Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) 45: Building With Change. New Orleans, Louisiana. May, 2014
  • Conference Paper: "The Paradox of 'El Otro Lado': The Materiality, Experience, and Practice of Transgressive Architecture in the Sonoran Borderlands." Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA) 10. Bristol, England. November 2013
  • Conference Half-Day Intensive - Inquest of the Authentic: "Who is the Other in Other Space: Problematizing 'Authenticity' Defined vis a vis Difference." Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) 44. Providence, Rhode Island. June 2013
  • Conference Poster: "Clandestine Architecture int he Sonoran Borderlands: Housing the Invisible Body in a Landscape of Surveillance." Society for American Archaeology (SAA) 78. Honolulu, Hawaii. April 2013
  • Conference Paper: "Unmaking Borders Into Boundaries: Authentic Placemaking in the 21st Century." Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) 43: Emergent Placemaking. Seattle, Washington. June, 2012


  • Rackham Pre-doctoral Fellowship (Fall 2014 – Summer 2015)
  • Dissertation Writing Institute/Sweetland Fellowship (Spring 2014)
  • Rackham Spring/Summer Faculty-Student Research Grant (Spring/Summer 2013)
  • Rackham Student Research Grant (Summer 2012)
  • Rackham Conference Travel Grant (May 2012; April 2013; November 2013)