Can Architecture Solve Mexico’s Social and Environmental Problems?


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

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

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

Like the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Holy Virgin Mary in Heaven or the Calakmul “washing machine” building, Casa Luis Barragán attracts tourists and architecture enthusiasts from around 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 most expensive architectural export in the country.

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 spawned a quintessentially Mexican iteration of mid-century modernism that spawned home builders and town planners in a creative explosion between the 1940s and 1970s.

With Barragán, the work of Felix Candela, Ricardo Legorreta, Juan O’Gorman and Ignacio Diaz Morales has been greatly appreciated. Go to Mexico City or Guadalajara and their legacy is still rooted both in the place and in the psyche.

While this surge of creativity may have run out of steam during the economic depression of the 1980s, Mexico’s contemporary architectural landscape is still occupied by a wide range of architects building to solve the country’s social and environmental problems.

From Michel Rojkind’s innovative origami-like shapes to Alberto Kallach’s eco-centric creations or Fernando Romero’s shimmering mushroom shapes, some even become starch producers, arousing the interest of a worldwide 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 business in 2003, designed a courtyard with lattice walls, deliberately referencing a celosia – the breeze wall common throughout Mexico.

Mexican architecture, she said, is “more of a spirit than a style” fueled by a recurring need to “create post-crisis opportunities”.

This feeling is shared by the former colleague of Escobedo, Isabel Abascal, co-founder of the company LANZA Atelier based in Mexico City. While Mexican architects may have different philosophies, they are invariably united by a chaotic social and political context.

“I think this is a time when there is a lot of exchange between architects from 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 must be on the same side of the line. There’s also the fact that architects have to deal with the same amount of scarcity, which has led to similar positions.

I think this is a time when there is a lot of exchange between architects in Mexico, and not only in Mexico City, but also with architects from other cities. Isabelle Abascal, co-founder of LANZA Atelie

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 company 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 believes it will take a lot 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 was finished last year, but it will be in ten years, in 15 years or even in 20 years.

In its use of local artisan bricks, its 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 deliberate. .

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

“Looking inward… maybe not being so outward looking and creating these interior spaces. This is 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 Mexico’s architectural direction. Located over the subduction zone (parts of the earth where one plate of crust slowly slides under another), the tremors present a constant threat to built communities.

In 2017, for example, an earthquake under the town 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 Investigation for Sustainable Development (CIDS), then headed by Mexico City architect Carlos Zedillo, contacted more than 30 architectural firms to help lead the redevelopment of Jojutla.

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

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

Building with a goal

Born in Mexico City into a family of architects, Bilbao has dedicated her career to thinking about town 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 dismayed by the American-style suburban plots that replaced the traditional community-oriented Ejidos in places like Ixtapaluca.

“In Mexico, housing is not just a human right, it is [also] a constitutional right, therefore [the government] had to describe ‘what it means to have a nice 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 just 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 address the housing dilemma in Mexico, both on its own terms and by collaborating with other Mexican architects, striving to build thoughtful, functional and integrated communities.

Her prototype $ 8,000 homes for social housing in Mexico were showcased at the Chicago Biennale in 2015. She also continued to campaign for state-funded communities that not only meet results, but meet needs. low and middle income families.

“In Mexico, the social division is very clear. It’s a daily confrontation between people who have means and people who don’t, ”says Bilbao. “I think the way I understood this 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 an open chapel for a pilgrimage route to Jalisco, a biotechnology center for a technological institution – as well as projects in China, France, the United States and the Guatemala – have all firmly 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 house building is a well-respected tradition stretching back centuries, professional supervision is not.

“It is not well 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 easily work in Mexico without spending years waiting their turn.

“Of course, I studied architecture and I’m an academic myself, but no one has 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, 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 the 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 Bilbao house – one of 32 selected to present the possibilities of low-cost housing – is nestled in the Hidalgo district of Apan. While Barragán built an inward-facing house, not all contemporary architects working in Mexico have this luxury.

This article originally appeared in Examination of the SHEET.

Will Moffitt is the editor of Examination of the SHEET.


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