Can architecture solve Mexico’s social and environmental problems?

Marked only by a solid white wall with a sliding door and panel, the former hideaway of Mexico’s most famous architect looks like any of the other modest little homes tucked away on Calle de General Francisco Ramírez in the west of Mexico.

While the simple cement facades stand taller than the surrounding structures, it’s the interior of the place that tells you this is the former home of Guadalajara-born Luis Barragán. There are the splashes of pink and yellow, the playful use of light and space, the interplay between the inner and outer worlds.

Forest house by LANZA Atelier. (Photo courtesy of the architect)

Like the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven or the “washing machine” building in Calakmul, Casa Luis Barragán attracts tourists and architecture enthusiasts from all over the world to glimpse its unique blend of clinical modernism and Mexican vernacular. Winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1980, its creator and former resident remains the country’s most expensive architectural export.

If Barragán’s style was unique, however, his marriage of Aztec and Mayan culture with styles imported from Europe and the United States was not. This syncretism gave rise to a quintessentially Mexican iteration of mid-century modernism that spawned homebuilders and urban planners in a creative explosion between the 1940s and 1970s.

Along with Barragán, the work of Felix Candela, Ricardo Legorreta, Juan O’Gorman and Ignacio Diaz Morales was highly appreciated. Go to Mexico City or Guadalajara and their legacy is still embedded in both location and psyche.

While this burst of creativity may have waned during the economic depression of the 1980s, Mexico’s contemporary architectural landscape is still occupied by a wide range of architects who build to solve the country’s social and environmental problems.

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From Michel Rojkind’s innovative origami-like shapes to Alberto Kallach’s eco-concentrated creations or Fernando Romero’s shimmering mushroom shapes, some even become starchitects, arousing the interest of a global audience.

Hidden Opportunities

In 2018, Frida Escobedo became the youngest architect and the first Mexican woman to design the Serpentine Pavilion in London. Escobedo, who founded his own company in 2003, designed a lattice-walled courtyard, deliberately referencing a celosia – the common breeze wall throughout Mexico.

Mexican architecture, she said, “resembles a spirit more than a style” encouraged by a recurring urge to “create opportunity out of crisis”.

That sentiment is echoed by Escobedo’s former colleague, Isabel Abascal, co-founder of Mexico City-based company LANZA Atelier. While Mexican architects may have different philosophies, they are invariably united by a chaotic social and political context.

“I think it’s a time when there’s a lot of exchange between architects in Mexico, and not just in Mexico City, but also with architects from other cities,” says Abascal.

“Maybe it has to do with the social and political situation in the country which is so urgent and so problematic. Architects have to be on the same side of the line. There is also the fact that architects have to face the same amount of scarcity, leading to similar positions.

I think it’s a time when there are a lot of exchanges between architects in Mexico, and not only in Mexico City, but also with architects from other cities. Isabelle Abascal, co-founder of LANZA Atelier

Based in Mexico City and Madrid since 2015, LANZA Atelier has built a reputation for its bold design philosophy that treats almost everything as an architectural project in itself. This includes folding chairs, dining tables and public restrooms.

Most recently, the firm was commissioned to design Forest House, a low-slung residential property formed in dialogue with a forest outside the town of Ocoyoacac. Built as a quiet home for a young family, the property was officially completed last year. In truth, Abascal thinks it will take much longer to thrive.

The natural order

“We want nature to take over in a very dramatic and beautiful way,” she explains. “We don’t think the project will be finished last year, but it will be in ten years, in 15 years or even in 20 years.”

In its use of local handcrafted brick, playful use of clean lines and curves, and its union with a rugged natural environment, it is hard not to see clear overlaps with Barragán’s work, even if they are not not deliberate.

“Barragan was a very specific character and there are a lot of things about his personality that influenced his work, but there are [of his] lessons that I think every Mexican architect has internalized,” she explains.

“Looking in…maybe not being so outward looking and creating those inner spaces. It’s something that I see repeating itself.

Ventura House by Tatiana Bilbao. (Photo courtesy of the architect)

Along with current socio-economic issues, earthquakes continue to shape the architectural direction of Mexico. Located on the subduction zone (parts of the earth where one slab of crust slowly slides under another), earthquake tremors present a constant threat to built communities.

In 2017, for example, an earthquake beneath the city of Jojutla destroyed up to 3,000 structures, including historic churches and chapels, as well as schools, squares, businesses and homes, were damaged or destroyed.

Infonavit’s Center for Sustainable Development Investigation (CIDS), then headed by Mexico City-based architect Carlos Zedillo, approached more than 30 architectural firms to help lead the redevelopment of Jojutla.

Invariably, these tragedies serve a dual purpose: necessitating redevelopment projects while pushing architects to build sturdier structures in urban centers. In some cases, earthquakes can shape entire architectural careers.

“I think one of the things that affected me the most was the earthquake in 1985 because I lived in a very central area which was very affected by it,” says Tatiana Bilbao. “It really made me realize how things are built.”

Build with purpose

Born in Mexico into a family of architects, Bilbao has spent her career thinking about urban planning in a country where 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.

When the 1985 earthquake forced the government to mass-produce housing for millions of homes, Bilbao was appalled by the American-style suburban plots that replaced traditional community-oriented Ejidos in places like Ixtapaluca.

“In Mexico, housing is not only a human right, it is [also] a constitutional right, therefore [the government] had to describe ‘what it means to have a pleasant and dignified place to live'”, explains Bilbao.

“This description is very specific and imposes a way of life that a large part of the population of this country does not have, for example the Mayan people.”

In Mexico, housing is not only a human right, it is [also] a constitutional right, therefore [the government] was to describe ‘what it means to have a nice and dignified place to live’. Tatiana Bilbao by Tatiana Bilbao ESTUDIO

Bilbao has worked tirelessly to counter Mexico’s housing dilemma, both on its own terms and by collaborating with other Mexican architects, striving to build thoughtful, functional and integrated communities.

Her $8,000 prototype homes for social housing in Mexico were featured at the Chicago Biennale in 2015. She has also continued to campaign for publicly funded communities that not only meet financial need, but meet needs of low and middle income families.

“In Mexico, there is a very clear social division. It’s a daily confrontation of people who have means and people who don’t,” says Bilbao. “I think the way I understood that is that we all work in the places that we have. I don’t work for the poor… we all live in this context.

Design without borders

A diverse portfolio that includes the Culiacán Botanical Garden, a master plan and open chapel for a pilgrimage route in Jalisco, a biotech center for a tech institution – plus projects in China, France, the United States and the Guatemala – have all solidly established Bilbao’s reputation internationally. In 2019, she received the Marcus Prize.

Back in Mexico City, however, Bilbao is frustrated with the lack of respect for architecture as a profession. While home building is a well-respected tradition that dates back centuries, professional supervision is not.

“It’s not very respected. People don’t understand why they have to pay an architect, but they understand why they have to pay for bricks,” she says.

The lack of formal institutions in the country has its advantages, fostering what Bilbao and Abascal describe as an informal exchange of ideas between contemporaries and colleagues from rival companies. Fewer professional and legislative barriers to entry also mean that young architects can work easily in Mexico without spending years waiting for their turn.

“Of course, I studied architecture and I am an academic myself, but no one ever asked me for my degree,” says Abascal. “I don’t want to infantilize Mexican architecture at all. It’s not that, but I think things are more flexible here.

For Abascal, a generational dialogue continues to be one of the most positive aspects of Mexican architecture. The country’s architects continue to be united by the unique set of social and political circumstances in which they work.

“I think contemporary Mexican architecture, not in our generation but in older generations, is going to be recognized a lot more,” she says. “And I think as a younger generation…we’re going to continue to have these very fluid exchanges with them.”

The prototype house in Bilbao – one of 32 selected to showcase the possibilities of low-cost housing – is nestled in the Hidalgo neighborhood in Apan. While Barragán built an inward-looking house, not all contemporary architects working in Mexico have that luxury.

This article originally appeared in LEAF Review.

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