Learning from Mexico City

Mexico City—covering a sprawling 600 square miles with a population of 18 million—is a difficult place to get a handle on. It is famously, seductively chaotic. Several private buses run competing routes on the main avenues and boulevards. Gleaming skyscrapers overshadow centuries-old Beaux Arts monuments as a sea of people move through neighborhoods in constant change. And now some of the country’s brightest young architects have come together specifically to make sense of it all.

Nearly a year ago Tatiana Bilbao, Derek Dellekamp, Michel Rojkind (who also have their own practices), and full-time director Arturo Ortiz started the research institute MXDF, which aims to document the expanding city and then undertake projects to breathe life into otherwise unused parts of the urban landscape. “We were very concerned that architects have little to do with the decisions being made in the city,” Dellekamp explains.

MXDF works in close collaboration with Mexico City’s four main universities: Universidad Iberoamericana, Universidad An�huac, Universidad Nacional Aut�noma de M�xico, and Universidad La Salle. The institute’s workshops and research groups provide a real-life supplementary component to the schools’ urban-planning curriculum for 35 students a year. As a result, MXDF is already beating out local firms and winning projects to do master-planning studies and proposals for the government and private developers.

Since the inauguration of Vicente Fox, the first president in more than 70 years not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the city has prospered. “There was a real estate boom, and people are now becoming more aware of architecture,” Bilbao says. One of MXDF’s current projects is a master plan linking La Colonia Pensil, the site of an old oil refinery, with the prosperous neighboring area Polanco. “For one reason or another, Pensil hasn’t been part of that development,” Dellekamp says. “We are creating new schemes to use Polanco’s potential toward urban redevelopment in other neighborhoods.” The architects are conducting research seminars of the area to identify the source of the problem—perhaps that the neighborhoods have very different pedestrian characteristics, housing qualities, or poor circulation patterns.

Some students who have become particularly engaged with the project have stayed beyond their allotted semesters to continue their research, which the architects are proud of. “The more the students know about their city, the better architects they will be at any scale,” Rojkind says.

Building conditions in Mexico City are vastly different than they were ten years ago, and that makes this the right moment for a project like MXDF. “In the end, decision makers in the city can rely on us to do research for the interests of the city, not private interests,” Rojkind says. “We have the students, and we have the will.”

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