Common Walls Make Good Neighbors

In the courtyard garden of the Casa Lamm cultural center—an impeccably restored turn-of-the-century mansion in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood—is a soaring geometric structure of glass and wood. The Lamm Restaurant, which was designed by Liwerant Macotela Monjaraz Serrano Arquitectos and opened earlier this year, provides a striking yet harmonious contrast to the elegant mansion that it adjoins. The old house’s exterior forms two of the restaurant’s walls; the other two are made of enormous sliding glass panels that open entirely, leaving only a teakwood deck and a thin white roof seemingly suspended in air.

The French neoclassical—style mansion was completed in 1911, just after the start of the Mexican Revolution and the demise of the dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz. The once opulent neighborhood declined slowly until the devastating earthquake of 1985 dealt it a final blow. But Casa Lamm’s 1993 restoration triggered a cultural revival in Colonia Roma, bringing artists and galleries to the area. The center’s small classrooms host art history and literature seminars, and there is a vast bookstore, an art gallery, and a 15,000-volume library on art and architecture—the biggest in Latin America. Lamm Restaurant was designed to complement these resources. “Culture can be a fun thing, and you can integrate all these services together so people can have a complete experience. We thought we needed candy to draw more people here to the books and classes and gallery,” says Alberto Cinta, one of the restaurant’s three owners. Cinta also wanted to emulate the European practice of mixing old buildings with contemporary structures, which is practically unheard of in Mexico.

“My father was educated that you take out the old building and build a new one,” explains architect Juan Pablo Serrano, whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, all named Francisco Serrano, are important Mexican architects who represent key architectural movements of the last 100 years. “My generation is not working on expanding the city but on converting the old neighborhoods to make them contemporary. We like to deal with old buildings, to understand the original structural concept, construction, and materials, and bring them out if they were covered. Metal and glass and the contemporary use of natural and artificial light enrich the old buildings.”

It took 30 meetings and six months for the Istituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and the heritage organization Sitios Patrimoniales to approve the design for the addition to the historic landmark. “They asked for the structure to be removable,” Serrano says. “In ten years if the restaurant is not going well, they can take it out and get back to the original house.” Earthquakes were another important consideration: downtown Mexico City was built upon the original lake of the Aztecs, which makes it particularly susceptible to earthquake damage. “The metal structure moves with the force instead of resisting it,” Serrano says of the restaurant’s design, which has just four slim metal support columns. A freestanding transparent stair leading from the mansion’s basement bookstore up to the café and through to the restaurant connects the old and new structures like a glass bridge. “We are trying to let the flow of people join the complex together. And this two-story corridor bridges the two styles, the new surrounded by the old,” Serrano explains.

Two of the design’s themes—drawing the outdoors inside, with two interior trees and a square metal pond that reflects the garden, and the use of cubic forms, such as table lamps with shades of handmade amate paper and modular furniture—reference work by Mexican architects Luis Barragán and Ricardo Legorreta. “Barragán synthesized the bright colors of Mexican vernacular architecture with the simple geometry of Modern architecture,” Serrano says. “All contemporary Mexican architects start with Barragán and Legorreta. I have worked with Legorreta for several years, and all those geometric shapes are of course in our architecture.” At a turning point for Mexico—the effects of globalization are rushing in, and 71 years of one-party rule have come to an end—this update of a European-style mansion using contemporary forms and materials influenced by the indigenous past reflects the full circle of Mexican architectural history.

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