MEXICO CITY | Impressions
Places are confluences / flutters of beings / in an instantaneous space / Wind whistles / in the ash trees / fountains / almost liquid light and shadow / voices of water / shine flow are lost / a bundle of reflections / left in my hands
– Excerpt, “Mexico City: Return” by Octavio Paz
Mexico City is a place of contraries and constant motion. It is vast and full: physically, historically, and culturally. The city has experienced, and continues to experience, rampant and rapid urbanization that has implications on both built and social infrastructure, which naturally takes place at a massive scale, given its population size of over 20 million inhabitants. Since Mexico itself is classified as a ‘newly industrialized country’ by the World Bank et al., it is a significant example for other so-called ‘under-developed’ countries with cities that are expected to follow a similar trajectory in the future – and to the rest of the world, since we are all in it together when it comes to global development.
Mexico City was chosen as a destination for Table for 12 because of an existing connection our office has with Arquine – the architecture platform that puts on the largest architecture conference in Latin America by the same name, which was reincarnated this year as Mextrópoli, Primer Festival Internacional de Arquitectura y Ciudad (First International Festival of Architecture and the City). Table for 12 was listed as an event within the larger festival, which took place over the course of March 22-26.
We arrived flying low over the somewhat surreal concrete-jungle of rainbow-coloured buildings and purple-flowering jacaranda trees that stretches to the horizon in every direction. I say ‘low’, but the Valley of Mexico is on average about 2200 meters above sea level, making it 10 times the elevation that we flatlanders are acclimatized to. Apparently it takes about a week for the body to adjust to producing the required number of red blood cells, so we were left panting after a flight of stairs the entire trip. Apparently the almost-phosphorescent purple blooms of the jacaranda tree herald Springtime in this locale, which otherwise hardly notices the passing of seasons.
And so we entered Mexico City, a place where everything flows and flows and flows: the thick traffic constantly honking and cutting off and merging; the Spanish language bubbling and sometimes boiling over; the steady flow of pedestrians at all times of day and night; and the influx of citizens to this gigantic metropolis. Perhaps most significantly, the flow of time is present here: ravaging sidewalks and infrastructure, weathering pyramids and cathedrals while simultaneously growing bird-of-paradise flowers in casual gardens.
This fluidity is perhaps inherent to the site that the city is built upon – it is unstable and requires constant adaptation. Beneath the streets is clayey earth that was once home to the Mexica people, later known as the Aztecs. The Mexicas built the city Tenochtitlan in the 14th century, as we learned in a survey-style visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (designed by iconic Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez). Tenochtitlan was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, which was eventually trained into a vast system of canals and artificial islands of which only those in Xochimilco (pronounced soh-chee-MEEL-koh), located in the southern part of Mexico City, remain today. Physically, the history of the site has created a condition of unstable subsoil that is unfavourable at best and tragic at worst: this being an earthquake zone, the soil conditions lend themselves to massive destruction, as in the devastating earthquake of 1985. Additionally, as is to be expected, a city this scale strains its natural resources, and Mexico City is dealing with a number of ongoing major environmental crises, including water supply, waste disposal, and air pollution.
But these conditions have failed to impede the constant flow of building – the Distrito Federal (what locals – or chilangos – call Mexico City), or the ‘DF’, is home to both world-famous buildings, like the Jumex Museum (architect: David Chipperfield) and the Museo Soumaya (architect: Fernando Romero, son-in-law to Carlos Slim), and to who-knows-how-many small scale buildings, built one floor at a time with strands of rebar left sticking up like candles on a birthday cake, waiting to receive the next storey someday when money comes around. We heard estimates that about 90% of construction is done without an architect, and that many people build their own houses. This is certainly facilitated to an extent by the generous climate, which allows for simple detailing and even for the exclusion of heating and insulation from building design. To compensate, we were told, people simply don extra sweaters in the winter – an interesting insight into the local expectations of ‘comfort’ and building usage, that form a refreshing contrast to those held in Canada.
SECOND DAY | XOCHIMILCO
One of the first things that became obvious about the up-and-coming local architecture community is that it exists in a broader culture of building and creation, and that it is tangibly connected to the larger city. While in Japan, the tradition of craft is embedded in the country’s cultural psyche, in Mexico there seems to be a fighting drive to create better public space for the sake of the chilangos. Architecture and construction are somewhat more accessible in Mexico than in the rest of North America because of a number of factors, including the fact that recent graduates can apply for a license to practice after their bachelor degree. As well, building supplies are relatively inexpensive (often making custom work more financially feasible than importing expensive foreign products), and labour is also inexpensive and abundant. However, because of the ‘easy access’ to architecture, clients don’t want to pay for it and so many architects must also operate as design-build contractors to survive; similarly, many landscape architects do their own landscaping.
We found this out first hand on Sunday from a group of young architects, landscape architects, developers, and ArchDaily folk with whom we shared a morning coffee at Rococó Café Espresso in La Condesa neighbourhood – claimed by many to serve the best coffee in Mexico City – followed by a long afternoon in Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, first touring a heavenly private orchard on one of the chinampas (artificial islands, sometimes referred to as ‘floating gardens’) and then drifting along the canals on a gondola.
We drove to Xochimilco on a newly built tariffed raised highway, which was, according to some, built by the new mayor to please the vast minority of wealthy citizens who commute via private transport. We were warned by our friend and guide-to-be, Gerardo Salinas (Rojkind Arquitectos), to avoid any food in Xochimilco. He remembered coming to Xochimilco as a child (and he is only 40-something), back when it was thriving, to buy aquatic pets and look at the gardens. Now, the ecosystem is in grave danger from pollution and the introduction of foreign species to the canals.
Our first stop was the chinampa owned by Hugo and Carla Sanchez, both of whom are landscape architects. After corralling the group (traveling in a convoy of cars) at the entrance, we walked through a cast iron gate and into paradise. Paradise is hardly a hyperbolic description here – we found ourselves in a thatched/wood pergola with a bar, pool table, and driftwood in the most fantastical forms, and then wandered a little ways to a hill atop which perched a perfect human-sized nest (built for Hugo and Carla’s wedding – imagine!), and then down again into the open-air nurseries where succulents of all shapes and sizes were taking in the hot, hot sun, and finally into an enclosed nursery as charming as the rest, where our tour concluded. Hugo explained that they grew all of the plants that they used in their work, and that they made a conscious effort to use only native species and to plant a wide variety for maximum resilience.
Afterward, we headed to the gondolas, which, historically, were used to transport organic matter and plants. There are still numerous nurseries and plant growers who live and work here, and it was sobering to think of the environmental crisis beneath us as we cruised along the canals, surrounded by other brilliantly painted gondolas with Mexicans celebrating special occasions, (other) tourists taking it all in with wide eyes, and Mariachi bands floating alongside. The atmosphere was bright and jovial, punctuated by the occasional shot of mezcal; one can only hope that the place retains its historic and environmental originality and doesn’t simply become a barren tourist trap.
On our gondola, bouts of laughter alternated with in-depth discussions about architecture culture. An issue that came up frequently is the general sense of confusion among architects about the extent to which they should engage in design versus building versus project management. Some said that the confusion comes from the schools, where architecture students are taught about building from a technical rather than a design perspective, which leads to the production of graduates who are not entirely designers, nor builders, nor interior designers, and end up with the classic ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ syndrome. Eduardo Gorozpe reiterated the difficulty that architects face in competing against non-architects, which often results in the architects being pressured to exploit themselves (and, ultimately, the practice) by providing the design aspect of their services at a low price or for free. There is a national architecture association, La Federación de Colegios de Arquitectos de la República Mexicana (FCARM), that lists, for example, a suggested fee for services, but it has no real clout in terms of actual support or enforcement of rules. Our impression is that many young architects choose not to affiliate with FCARM (it’s not mandatory to do so), considering it to be more of a ‘dinner club’ among the experienced practitioners nearing the end of their careers rather than something relevant to young practices.
It seemed that everyone we spoke with had a concern for the social welfare of the larger population. David Basulto and David Assael, co-founders of ArchDaily, told us about a lecture they had given earlier that weekend as part of Mextrópoli, about the responsibility architects have towards society and about their potential influence on public space. ArchDaily (based in Chile, with an office in Mexico City) capitalizes on the fact that the Internet and advent of social media have increased public access to information about architecture, and try to further increase public awareness as much as possible – the site currently reaches over 7 million readers monthly. They have plans to start offices in other cities experiencing rapid urbanization and are already in the process of expanding into China.
THIRD DAY | MEXTROPOLI
After Xochimilco, the rest of our visit was focused on attending various lectures at the Metropolitan Theatre in the Centro Historico along with other Mextrópoli events. Iwan Baan presented a whirlwind year he spent photographing a different (often obscure) place each week while Juhani Pallasmaa spoke carefully and significantly of the importance of atmosphere in the experience of architecture and current research into the neurological impacts thereof. Bijoy Jain (Studio Mumbai) shared his experience starting his own practice in India following his education in the USA. Apparently working drawings are not widely used in parts of India, and so his studio revised their communication approach with the builders to be primarily through scale models (from which measurements are taken!) and detail sketches, taped to the models.
We also had the chance to take a wonderful spontaneous walking tour through the historic district with Fermin Espinosa, a developer (and architect) who has overseen the construction of numerous buildings around the city – and country – through his company, Factor Eficiencia. Our tour began with a visit to the impressive exhibit, 'Architecture in Mexico 1900–2010: The Construction of Modernity: Works, Design, Art, and Thought’ at the Palacio de Iturbide and also led us to Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución), the main city square, a gorgeous hotel with golden cages of songbirds in the lobby, and the Church of San Francisco, the current iteration of which was built in the early 18th century. Our walk was characterized by the alternating experience of entering a building (pause, lowered voices) and stepping back out into the street, where we were immediately surrounded with street performers, ceramic-tiled walls, vendors, and people. I am grateful we packed that tour in, because the next day(s) two of us were confined to our respective hotel rooms, victims of what we will politely refer to as Montezuma's revenge.
As I lay in bed, I pondered the many since Montezuma II that have called Mexico City home, ranging from the late literary greats Gabriel García Márquez (born in Columbia) and Octavio Paz; to the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and – respectively – their highly politicized murals and personalized surrealism; to architects Luis Barragán and Juan O’Gorman and their cohort who were often also painters and sculptors; and let us not forget the nearly-extinct axolotl (pronounced ACK-suh-LAH-tuhl) salamander, highly researched medically for its regenerative abilities and historically used as a food staple, enjoyed wrapped in corn husks. And still, there is the world’s richest man (2010-2013), Carlos Slim, who co-exists with the – currently – over 20 million common folk who share a complicated colonial heritage.
And so, once I recovered, it seemed only right on the last day to make a pilgrimage across the city to El Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo and El Museo Frida Kahlo - La Casa Azul (Kahlo’s blue house, where the movie Frida was filmed), via public transit, which was an experience and a half in itself, particularly in my broken baby-Spanish (I am eternally grateful for the kindness of strangers). Kahlo and Rivero were deeply committed to Mexican culture – in addition to their own art, they were active politically (as communists – sometimes through art, as in Diego’s murals) and as patrons of Mexican architecture (their studio house and an addition to La Casa Azul were designed by Juan O’Gorman) and of Mexican folk art. La Casa Azul is in the Coyoacán neighbourhood, which was lovely to visit – it is not overly touristy, there is a school nearby, and lots of workers take breaks in the parks. There are beautifully-crafted details to be found: I passed an otherwise nondescript building that had ceramic tiles set at the base along the sidewalk, each with a delicate blue bird. And the parks contain huge trees, plentiful benches, occasional fountains, and, in one, an orange tree was just visible over the stone wall of a churchyard.
At the end of the day, I found my way back to our hotel in the Colonia Polanco, appreciating once more the streets named after philosophers and historical figures – one can find oneself, for example, at the corner of Galileo and Aristoteles. And then in my room, doing a final pack, I made an exciting discovery. Johanna has often cited Finnish appreciation of architecture being evident even in the fact that Alvar Aalto graces their currency; and so I was very pleased to discover on a 500 peso bill (lent to me for the upcoming 4-in-the-morning taxi ride), the familiar faces of Frida and Diego, Diego on the front and Frida on the back in her self portrait, Love's Embrace of the Universe, Earth, (Mexico), I, Diego, and Mr. Xólotl. This is a small but perhaps significant indicator of a nation’s values. Currently, Canada’s bill series features solely politicians and a monarch, a reminder that we need to keep fighting to bring an awareness of architecture (and other) culture to the daily lives of Canadians – and beyond the simple gesture that could put our culture on our money, we need to create a mindset among developers and citizens alike that values putting money into culture.