MEXICO CITY | Dinner
If we are not our colours, aromas, our people, what are we? Nothing.
– Frida Kahlo
Our city is a very divided city, separated by railway tracks, by rivers, by languages and cultures, by poverty, and by wealth.
– Robert-Falcon Ouellette
The Table for 12 Mexico City dinner took place as part of the larger Mextrópoli, Primer Festival Internacional de Arquitectura y Ciudad (First International Festival of Architecture and the City). This year was the first iteration of Mextrópoli, which evolved from the Arquine Congress, and is likewise directed by Miquel Adria (Editor, Arquine) and Andrea Griborio (Congreso Arquine Executive Manager). The festival was presented in partnership with the Mexico City government. A full list of dinner guests can be found here.
Speaking with Gerardo Salinas (Rojkind Arquitectos) the day before the event, Johanna had expressed some concern about whether the Table for 12 dinner would come together with the last-minute planning that had happened, which was such a different experience than in other cities where the dinner location and guests were confirmed months in advance. Gerardo reassured her that of course it would work out, and that, in fact, “You can’t plan in advance in Mexico – do it three days before and everyone rearranges their schedule to make it work. Three months before, no one would come.” And so we made our way to Rosetta Restaurant in the up-and-coming Colonia Roma area, where it all came together exactly as envisioned.
Jose Castillo, co-founder of arquitectura 911sc, curated the dinner and was of immense help to us in terms of coordinating and facilitating the event. The venue, Rosetta, is housed in a charming old mansion, restored and converted from an art gallery by Chef Elena Reygadas and her husband, architect Jaime Serra. Chef Reygada, born in Mexico, undertook her training in London with Italian chefs. The geography of her educational journey is similar to that of the architects and designers who were our dinner guests, the majority of whom went to school abroad and returned after to practice.
We climbed a flight of stairs to a room on the second floor with glass doors opening onto little balconies perched over the street. The walls were decorated with the occasional spare, almost folk-art-like tracing of various flora and fauna, along with a vivid tapestry of lizards, and a wide mirror. This decor, together with the wooden floors, high ceiling, and antique furniture, contributed to a somewhat formal but quirky old-world atmosphere, a backdrop that complemented the evening’s discussion, which would range from the country’s pre-colonial days to the distant future.
After almost everyone had arrived and greeted each other (the two-kiss greeting is typical here), we found our seats and the room erupted with lively chatter. Eventually, Johanna gathered everyone’s attention to her presentation that summarized the Table for 12 journey thus far and concluded with some leading questions.
Dinner itself was from a customized prix fixe menu; we began with delicious bread made in-house followed by a raw tuna dish and then a salad of blood oranges and beets, and progressed to the main course (I chose the goat-cheese stuffed hand-made ravioli), and concluded with a simple dessert featuring grapefruit. Each menu item was deliciously straightforward and approachable, suitable for the discussion, which itself was authentic and to the point. When conversation got carried away (which it did several times, debates accelerating into Spanish), the next course would arrive and the food would rein us back in.
The discussion began with Miquel Adria’s observation that Mexico has numerous architecture schools (13, in fact) and yet the majority of our dinner guests had gone to school abroad, often in the United States. Fortunately for Mexico, it seems that many of them are starting to return to practice, bringing back with them a vision and motivation to make their native land a better place. A major advantage to practicing in Mexico is that it is significantly easier to be young and have built work here than in the rest of North America, since you can practice right out of school. When asked how architects get clients in a context where architects aren’t legally required for construction, Michael Rojkind described the informal approach to networking that happens: perhaps as a recent graduate, you start with a closet reno for a friend that turns into a kitchen reno, and then you’re recommended to a friend of your friend, and it gains momentum from there (not so different from anywhere else). From a legal standpoint, however, liability for larger projects is held not by the architect, as in Canada, but by the Director in Charge of Construction (DRO), who is often a civil engineer.
Soon, a theme that had been an undercurrent to the discussions about architecture culture throughout our visit, arose again – that architects have a responsibility to contribute to society by helping to design good cities rather than (isolated) good buildings. Michel Rojkind succinctly put it thus: “is it what the building is doing in itself, or what the building is doing for society?” – clearly believing, himself, in the latter. Gerardo had told us earlier about Rojkind Arquitectos’ efforts to bring ‘added value’ to their projects, a difficult undertaking when the ‘added value’ of public space, for example, is far less lucrative than parking. However, when one considers their project Cineteca Nacional S. XXI, which includes an outdoor amphitheatre that has become a hugely popular public space for a diverse social demographic, the ‘added value’ is undeniable. Since reopening, the Cineteca has experienced an increase of almost 30% attendance compared to the previous year .
The desire for social spaces that can be used by everyone was repeated over and over by those present at the dinner. The question becomes, then, how best to approach development? Should the approach be to develop for a progressive society (for example, with the ‘Eco-bici’ bike rentals), or to address the needs of those who are suffering the most, for there are many in the city that live in poverty? And one must keep in mind that the nature of architecture itself partly determines the pace at which development can happen – Jose Castillo observed that, unlike food culture, that sees chefs play out their ‘claim for relevance’ on a daily basis, architects are limited to a much slower pace, perhaps completing a building a year.
These questions are further complicated by problems with corruption at the government level when it comes to the distribution of projects. We were told that the same elite few are chosen for projects time and again (not excluding those in the room with us, who readily admitted that it’s problematic) – and even that there have been dirty transactions where bribes will be offered for certain teams to be eliminated from competitions. It seems that the architecture scene here tends to be somewhat exclusive, perhaps largely because architecture is typically studied by middle class society (an unfortunate scenario prevalent elsewhere, too, of course). Significantly, Alejandro observed that the ‘problem’ with lack of cultural awareness by the public goes far beyond the realm of architecture; that Mexico is a country of many and huge differences, and does not yet have a substantial, consolidated middle class (as does Chile, he compared) that would be conducive to creating better culture. Often, then, even if there is interesting work going on elsewhere it remains under the radar. And so, Jose Castillo asked the somewhat daunting question: “What are we to do in the context of a failed democratic liberal state?” He believes that there are multiple solutions, all requiring democratic spirit and commitment, and which can only be found through open discussions within the city that mitigate the asymmetries of knowledge and access to power. Ultimately, transparency is required for democracy to flourish.
This being the larger context, what can architects do to help remedy the situation? One thing is to learn from the mistakes of previous generations: Michel Rojkind spoke of the need for architects to stop engaging in petty fighting amongst themselves like their predecessors, which is crucial in order to have social progress. He noted that a relatively recent development in Mexican architecture culture is that firms will get together to discuss and share international competition work beforehand in order to ensure it is varied and strong, so that they look good as a nation. Ana Elena Mallet observed that her parents’ generation said that the city was ‘fucked up’ in the late 60s and early 70s because citizens never participated, a disappointing change following what had been a movement for better education and cultural awareness in the 50s, largely implemented through UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico). She stressed that today architects must be active citizens – that it’s not enough to ‘just’ be a professional. Rather, we all need to engage with the hyper-local, personal condition first and foremost, starting at the neighbourhood level. Wonne Ickx (Productora) perhaps put it best, when he said that, “as an architect, you have to be radically optimistic always – it’s part of the profession.”
There are a number of incredibly inspiring developments amidst all of the problems, one being the Laboratorio Para la Ciudad (labplc) – a government-funded interdisciplinary cultural platform or laboratory, brought to life by Gabriella Gómez-Mont, founder and director. The mandate of labplc is to critically re-imagine the city, with a specific goal to foster dialogue between government, civil society, private sector and NGOs, and to inspire creative cross pollination, incubation projects, and other provocations. Another frequently referenced positive initiative is the afore-mentioned Eco-bici bike-sharing network. Many commend Eco-bici for re-establishing the bike as an acceptable mode of transport, recovering it from the stigma of poverty. One last exciting development to mention is the Lisboa 7 project by at.103 (represented at our dinner by Francisco Pardo), an experimental high-density, low- and middle-income housing project in a central urban area.
Ultimately, it became clear that despite the conditions of social inequality and the context of corruption at the government level, there is hope and progress being made towards sustainable and urban thinking, and towards addressing broader social issues. While the quantity of people and degree of political corruption is certainly more extreme in Mexico, the experience is not unlike that of Winnipeg. In a recent article by Robert-Falcon Ouellette, program director of the Aboriginal Focus Programs at the University of Manitoba, about reconciliation for aboriginal people, he writes that, “Our city is a very divided city, separated by railway tracks, by rivers, by languages and cultures, by poverty, and by wealth. We have created mutually exclusive spaces we share only during [Winnipeg] Jets games.”  A sobering picture, certainly, yet the context in which I came across it seems hopeful, being a presentation on mobility [and a critique of the neoliberal influences thereon] by guest presenter Karina Cardona Claros at the 2nd Winnipeg Urbanist Meet-up, a new monthly start-up organized at the grassroots level, which was well attended by a diverse crowd with a clear thirst for positive change.
There is much to be learned from Mexico City, and from our fellow citizens and neighbours – our chilangas equivalent – here in Winnipeg. While there is much to be sifted through, reflected upon, addressed, reconciled, and changed, there are a few simple but effective lessons and reminders that we can take away from the Table and keep with us throughout our daily endeavours: let’s embrace our neighbourhoods, let’s be generous, and let’s stay radically optimistic.
1. "Cineteca Nacional S. XXI / Rojkind Arquitectos" 19 Feb 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=478325>
2. Castillo, Jose. “Living in a Fifth (or Sixth) Courtyard”. Architecture does [not] matter: Lisboa7 by At 103. Mexico, DF: Arquine, 2013.
3. Pardo, Francisco. “Form Follows Strategy”. Ibid.
4. Ouellette, Robert-Falcon. “Reconciliation in a very divided city”, Winnipeg Free Press, April 22, 2014.