On a recent trip abroad, architect and urban planner José Castillo was struck by a conversation with Mexico’s tourism attaché in Asia. Mexican tourism, the attaché remarked, has changed; it was the ancient pyramids and sandy beaches of the country that once drew visitors to it. Today however, architecture and design—and food—prevail.
The issue of food may be of little wonder. Mexican cuisine has indeed become more popular than ever in both the high and low ends of the culinary spectrum, and food in general is not only what one eats for dinner but also a hobby and an obsessive conversation topic. Yet for local design to come to the same level of acclaim and reputation is, at any rate, quite astonishing. It may be, though, that food and architecture are not so far apart. These are both highly creative and productive professions, as well as ones with a rich history, a theory, and many layers of tradition.
The capital of Mexico is the country’s mecca for both of these contemporary attractions. It is a chaotic metropolis with over 21 million inhabitants living in high density within a volcanic valley. “In Mexico City, everything comes in large amounts”, says Castillo who, together with a design team led by him, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, and Carlos Gershenson, was recently chosen as the 2014 winner of the Audi Urban Initiative award—a lucrative prize of 100,000 Euros awarded biannually by the German car company to an innovative urban project. The team’s proposal, titled “An Operating System for the City”, reacted to complex mobility questions in Mexico City by combining original crowd-sourced traffic data with a physical and spatial understanding. “For a commuter,” Castillo explains, “it may take 90 minutes to travel between two relatively proximate places. There is always a schizophrenic sense of simultaneous pleasure and frustration here: we love it and hate it. But these challenges, however problematic, call for us architects to think of resolutions.”
Challenges for architects and planners are abundant here. Beside its enormous size and continuous process of sprawling, its traffic, and its financial and political difficulties, law and order have a different interpretation when translated to the local dialect. Crossing border control in the city’s airport—an architectural mess soon to be replaced by a shiny new one designed by Norman Foster in collaboration with FR-EE (the practice of architect Fernando Romero)—a long drive through the notoriously known Periferico highway reaches the heart of the city. Urban palaces of faded colonial glory combine intimately with Aztec temples, modernist remains, and sparkling new buildings. A strong sense of appetite for updated architecture is felt almost everywhere here, and a rare and exciting energy to act, change, move, and create.
Generally speaking, the spotlight of the architectural field has a tendency to shift over geographies and focus, for a while, on a particular place. In the nineties, for example, Holland was the go-to place for provocative contemporary architecture, with the likes of OMA and MVRDV. Switzerland shined later with Herzog and de Meuron and other practices, followed by Japan’s post-bubble scene with SANAA, Atelier Bow Wow, Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito, and later Junya Ishigami. While China and the Arab Emirates make waves in the design world, they both fail to create a strong local character and focus more on importing global brands.
Mexico, however, is a different case. It nourishes architectural education and innovation within, and attracts international firms at the same time. “Me-Mo”, short for Mexican-Moment, is a term invented by local architects. When did this city, until recently famous for its corruption, violence, and drug trafficking, become the world’s leader in contemporary design?
Jose Castillo and his firm, Arquitectura 911sc, are relatively young members of a large group of Mexican architects that have been gaining increasing international acclaim in the last decade. Most of these designers, like Tatiana Bilbao, Fernando Romero, Alberto Kalach, Enrique Norten, Isaac Broid, Michel Rojkind, and Mauricio Rocha, successfully established practices with a strong aesthetic language and a defined character. Some of them have also extended their reach, and opened branches of their practices in different countries. There are few other places in the world today, however, with such a long list of dominant designers.
“I believe there is rather a special sense of generosity in Mexico, sort of like a Latin family”, says Wonne Ickx, one of four founding partners of the Mexico City based architecture office ‘Productora’. “For example,” Ickx continues, “in 2008, Tatiana Bilbao was invited to participate in the international project ‘Ordos 100’ in China.” The project, curated by artist Ai Wei Wei and architects Herzog and de Meuron, commissioned 100 international architects to design 100 villas for a new residential development. Bilbao did not keep the cards to herself, but chose to connect the project’s leaders to nine other Mexican offices, with Productora included.
Later on, Ickx and his office continued to collaborate with different local firms. A current project on their boards, for instance, is a winning competition entry for a new cultural auditorium in Cuernavaca, Morelos, on which they worked with Isaac Broid. The project’s triangular shape echoes that of the Aztec Teopanzolco Pyramid, situated right across from it. The clean-cut form of the project is characteristic of Productora’s work, which Ickx calls “objective” – referring to both neutrality and formal objectification.
Frida Escobedo, a 34-year-old architect who established her own practice for architecture and public art projects in Mexico City, reaffirms the communal notion of the local scene. “I don’t really think there is a clear hierarchical age division between architects here. There are mutual preoccupations that connect us, an approach towards architecture and its relation to public space, and to the aging of materials and ideas”, she says. After studying at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Escobedo went back to continue her practice in Mexico, which she finds fertile as a ground for young architects to actually get their designs executed. She, too, had a chance to collaborate with numerous other firms, while also completing a large number of ambitious individual projects and exhibitions. Her recently completed Hotel Boca Chica (Acapulco) and La Tallera Siqueiros museum (Cuernavaca, Morelos), displayed exceptional material sensibility and historical understanding, and established her as a prominent young voice in her country and abroad.
Decades have passed since Mexico last received architectural recognition prior to this current wave. Luis Barragan, the country’s most influential modern architect, was honored with a Pritzker Prize in 1980, years after the completion of his master works. Barragan, whose own house is a museum today and a pilgrimage site for many architects internationally, was the only Mexican to receive the Pritzker, ever. After traveling all over Europe and briefly meeting Le Corbusier in France, Barragan practiced in Mexico City from 1936 until his death in 1988. He developed a language that became synonymous with Mexican Modernism, and is regarded as an unparalleled genius that connected modern and archaic, universal and local, saturated colors and exposed materials, art and architecture.
Yet Barragan, too, liked to collaborate. Perhaps less with architects and more with artists, he learned about light manipulation and mixing color pigments, eventually coming to the specific effects that his sculptural spaces achieve - spaces so unique they can only be fully understood in person. Despite his singular recognition in his generation, modernism in Mexico spanned far beyond Barragan. This was a prosperous period for local architecture, with phenomenal designers like Mario Pani, Juan O’Gorman, Felix Candela, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Agustin Hernandez, Ricardo Legorreta, Mathias Goeritz, and more.
Many modernist buildings stayed in tact and are worth visiting, in order to perceive the city’s complicated past beyond the extraordinary houses of Barragan. The UNAM (Autonomous University of Mexico) campus includes various impressive projects and is a good example of large-scale axial planning, in which the ornamented central library by Juan O’Gorman is a highlight. Other notable examples include ‘Parroquia de la Medalla Milagrosa’ church and ‘Los Manantiales’ restaurant (Felix Candela), ‘Torres de Satélite’ sculpture (Luis Barragán, Jesús Reyes Ferreira, and Mathias Goeritz), the National Museum of Anthropology (Pedro Ramirez Vazquez), ‘Torre Insignia’ (Mario Pani), Hotel Camino Real (Ricardo Legorreta), and the Diego Rivera studio house (O’Gorman) – for its architecture, if the art alone wasn’t enough. Dozens more projects, from Mies van der Rohe’s Bacardi office building to the remains of the 1968 Olympic-Games stadiums and facilities, could go into this list as well.
“Mexico is one of the only countries to have had a successful 20th century revolution”, says Diane E. Davis, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University who has written extensively on Mexico City, including the book ‘Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century’ (1994). “The political shift in Mexico City, in any case, was fairly recent”, she continues. “People could elect their own mayor only since the nineties, while before that this was an appointment made by the country’s president. New people came into power, with ideas and will to do things in a new and different way. Today, there are many architects and creative professionals in governance positions. I think one of the exciting things about Mexico City is that it tries to move forward to a more modern future, to insert itself into the global-city branding game, but it is doing so in great attention to its culture and its history, and in innovative ways.”
Walking along the northern edge of the fashionable Polanco neighborhood, an unusual vista opens up: situated across from each other, two relatively new museum buildings show off stark architectural contradiction. On the one side, there is the virtuosic Soumaya Museum designed by Fernando Romero – a digital-looking organic shape cladded by aluminum tiles; on the other, the more traditional but nonetheless bold Jumex Museum, designed by British architect David Chipperfield. An interesting relationship exists between the two structures, which seem to enjoy and defy each other’s presence simultaneously. As two private art museums, funded by two different and extremely wealthy patrons, the museums symbolize the extreme economic gaps that exist in Mexico, and underline many problematic aspects of spatial and cultural dominance. And yet, they also stand for Mexico City’s mutual appreciation and support of both local and international designers, as well as its openness toward new and daring architecture.
Mexico City is a phenomenon in both the local and the international level. An increasing number of architects have moved here to practice in the last few years. Some explain it with the lack of work in other Spanish-speaking countries. Others come because of love for the city and its lifestyle, and acknowledge the ambitious opportunities that this architectural scene provides. Christoph Zeller and Ingrid Moye, for example, are a young architect-couple that are splitting their practice between Mexico City and Berlin. “Ingrid is Mexican”, Zeller explains, “and we met while working together at SANAA and at Herzog and de Meuron. When we decided to open our own practice, we thought Mexico City would be a good base. We felt there is more room here for experimentation – in theory and practice. In Europe, and especially in Berlin, there is a lot of critical reconstruction. The historical context is dominating and new projects are cautious with a heavy responsibility of repairing. Here, there are other problems of course. The city is out of control, but it is also free. It welcomes an international direction like ours, and also maintains a strong cultural identity.” Zeller and Moye have designed numerous galleries and other cultural spaces in Mexico City, and are currently collaborating with Fernando Romero on a future design gallery called ‘Archivo’.
“Mexico City could be quite violent, but in architecture it is certainly going through a transformation”, says Emmanuel Picault, who runs a practice with his partner Ludwig Godefroy. The two are both originally from Normandy, and only met after moving to Mexico City separately. ‘M. N. Roy’, a nightclub they designed together, is one of the more surprising and impressive interior spaces. Cladded almost completely by wooden strips, the club resembles a dark tribal temple with a pyramid shape. “We like to call it ‘Neo-Pre-Hispanic’. We’re proud to use local materials, vernacular techniques, and to draw from the architectural history of this place”, adds Godefroy. After their success with M. N. Roy, the two designed a series of restaurants and private projects in Mexico City and in Paris.
Beside his job as an architect, Picault owns a Mexican furniture gallery in the city, called ‘Chic by Accident’. Among other designers, he sells pieces by Luis Barragan. “This is a constantly surprising and inspiring place”, he says. “If you live here, it is not only because it’s cheap, but because you love it and feel a strong link to this city.”
Daniel Rauchwerger is an architect and writer based in Cambridge, MA. He contributes regularly to various publications, including Haaretz Newspaper, Harvard Design Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, and Architizer.