Exhibit Highlights Mexico’s New Breed of Architects
With a population of 18.5 million people, Mexico City is one of the exploding megalopolises of the 21st century, yet it faces obstacles to its own physical growth: uncertain business cycles; ambiguous zoning; arcane laws; and ever-new social groups. At an instructive point in the story of his city, Mexican architect, academic, and journalist José Castillo has put together Mexico City Dialogues: New Architectural Practices, an exhibit on show through May 7 at New York’s Center for Architecture. Dialogues features 14 projects by a dozen young Mexican architects, rendered through diagrams, photographs, aerial images, and text. We spoke with Castillo about how the challenging realities of Mexico City shape the work of these architects, as well as how this new generation is combining improvisation with traditional building methods.
What do you mean when you suggest that Mexico City is a laboratory for the design problems that will be faced by big cities in the future?
A few years ago, for the first time in history, the world’s urban population was higher than its rural population. If we think of some of the problems that all cities, but most of all large cities, will have to deal with in the next century—problems of social equity, sustainability, clean air, waste management—they are found exponentially in Mexico City. They are exacerbated here. Sixty percent of the city’s housing is built without architects or planners. And economic growth: If you compare Mexico City—as a country, not a city—its gross domestic product (GDP) would be the 28th largest in the world. To manage the economy for such a city is a remarkable task, and it opens up remarkable opportunities [for architects] as well.
What is the current building climate in Mexico?
As the timeline in the exhibition shows, Mexico City has been growing exponentially in the last 100 years, but with an inconsistent economy. We have had a yearly growth of nearly 10 percent, which is very large, but then we have bust cycles in which we are in an inflation pattern of 120 percent. Apparently we’re not in a boom cycle right now, but we are in a stable position. This is good news, because we can now plan and finance. We can do all the things that come before design.
How do some architects subvert Mexico City’s building constraints?
For a complex project here, you usually need a specialist to interpret the city’s building code. The studio of Javier Sanchez is very familiar with the code. These architects know the cracks in the code, where they can challenge it and push it to the limit. There are ambiguities in the code and the architects are taking the rule to its extreme. They are working within the legal limits, but at the same time they are subverting it, in a tiny fashion, from within.
Why is it important for international architects to look at Mexico City right now?
Mexico City is a megacity, but it is on the flipside of the architectural world. This is a condition specific to Mexico City. We’re neither Lagos nor Tokyo: we’re not on the edge of the developing world, but we’re not in a place where most of the urban problems have been dealt with. There isn’t an urgency in Tokyo like there is in Mexico City. And that offers opportunities for architects and planners here.
The show seems to be a very particular mix of projects. What was your selection process?
One of my conditions was to show built and commissioned work. Another was to focus on the young blood, the 40-years-old-and-younger practitioners. I also wanted to find people who were creatively developing answers to those problems specific to Mexico City and critically engaging with the city.
[Further], I was interested in the notion of expanded practices. What are architects doing besides sitting at their computer making beautiful renderings? More than half of the people [whose projects are featured in the exhibit] are involved in teaching. Some are curators or collaborate with curators and artists. I wanted to find the means that architects are developing to have a successful practice.
What kind of comparisons does the show draw between young Mexican and New York architects?
Comparisons are never direct, but one is the notion of young architects doing public work. The case of Mauricio Rocha is relevant. How many young architects are involved with public commissions? The assumption that public projects must be done by older architects is being challenged in Mexico City. Rocha’s project was started when he was 32 years old and finished when he was 38. It’s hard to see these things happening in New York.
What can Mexican architects learn from their New York counterparts?
The Center for Architecture and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are lessons for us. That there is an institution making a huge effort to bring architecture into the public domain is amazing. Nothing like that has ever existed in Mexico. Another thing is the issue of young architects. They’re taking risks, and to do that in the context of New York City is commendable. I’m also happy to see that many young firms are either women-led or women are partners in the firm.
Are you optimistic about where Mexico City is headed?
We have so many tasks to do here, but the city, itself, is a raw material. If we have such an effusive and rich raw material, I have only optimism about the work we will be doing in the next decade or so.