Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Let’s get this bit out of the way: Mexico City is dense, Mexico City is colourful, and Mexico City is a place of contrasts. That is to say, in a haze of pollution you can eat tapas on the roof of a boutique hotel designed by Enrique Norton – or scoff down quesadillas on the street, sheltered by a tarp hung between a fence and a lamp post. The city’s famous outdoor markets sell local crafts and produce alongside imported Chinese sundries. Icons of Mexican modernism are tangled in an urban fabric dating back centuries. For a number of young architects, designers, and curators practicing in its colonias (neighbourhoods), Mexico City is more than clichéd observation; it’s an opportunity to refashion the narrative.

I. The Garden: Colonia Ampliación Daniel Garza

I’m sitting in the garden of Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura with Regina Pozo. She is director and curator of this private design collection of Mexican architect Fernando Romero and his wife Soumaya Slim, which is housed and exhibited in a modern residence designed in 1952 by Arturo Chavéz Paz. In 2011, Romero garnered attention with the Museo Soumaya, a private institution he designed for his father-in-law, the billionaire Carlos Slim. The towering mushroom-cloud shaped building, clad in metal panels, embodies Romero’s desire to insert a global architectural language into his hometown.

The flashy museum, however, is not particularly well-loved. With Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura, which opened to the public in 2012 and is housed in a remodelled modern home, Romero and Pozo take a more nuanced approach to historicising the artefacts, employing local designers and writers to help frame a collection of some 1,500 national and international pieces of industrial design and an extensive library of architecture publications.

In the Archivo’s lush oasis, the subject is discourse. “How do we speak about a contemporary Mexico City?” asks Pozo. Her question reflects her restlessness with the twin tropes of Mexican modernism and traditional handicraft, hallmarks the city has yet to overcome. Indeed, the collection’s neighbouring property is Casa Estudio Luis Barragán, the famous architect’s UNESCO-preserved home and pilgrimage site. But across the street is the contemporary art gallery LABOR.

Perhaps to investigate what Mexican design means in a global context, in 2012, Archivo partnered with Domus magazine to launch a competition for a backyard pavilion. Pozo and I are seated on the winning design: an assemblage of ceramic pots designed by Mexican design duo Pedro&Juana. Six hundred pots make up the pavilion: some are filled with earth and plants, others capped to provide seating. Pozo compares the shape of the pots to the Jalisco chimneys used to distill tequila, some of which sit in the Barragán garden next door.

Although the unfinished clay and verdant succulents suggest something rustic or informal, there is nothing ad hoc about the arrangement. Pedro&Juana’s Ana Paula Ruiz Galindo, Mecky Reuss and Gustavo Arroyo, created a digital model to control the placement of each pot and worked closely with local artisans to develop a profile for the clay components.

In a city where labour is cheap and rapid prototyping is still rare, Ruiz Galindo and Reuss walk a line between analogue and digital, between craft and fabrication. Their projects often use specifically designed objects to create larger spatial dynamics. For instance, when David Chipperfield’s marble-clad Museo Jumex opened late last year, across from Museo Soumaya, curator Jose Esparza commissioned Pedro&Juana to create a series of tables for the opening weekend public events. Each table had bendable legs and could transform into benches or, when joined together, create a stage.

The project also included a performance piece entitled Sesiones Puerquito, or pig roast. Throughout the last day of events, the smell of pork drifted through the galleries.

Sesiones Puerquito is one answer to Pozo’s question of what is a contemporary design discourse in Mexico City. By introducing the communal ritual of roasting a pig on an outdoor terrace and eating it in the halls of Chipperfield’s refined museum, the architects used design to wryly insert everyday practice into the pageantry of global cultural enterprise. Is it subversion or a celebration of the local? It’s hard to know, but Reuss smiles when he admits that pork fat dribbled onto the marble terrace.

2. The Rooftop: Colonia Cuauhtémoc

In a penthouse conference room atop a nondescript office building, architect Francisco Pardo gives me a brief overview of manufacturing in Mexico over the last three decades: the economic hit the country took as manufacturing moved to Asia in the 1990s and demand from the north dried up, the subsequent slump in innovation and abundant low-skill labour force, and the more recent re-emergence of artisanal handicraft for design objects. Pardo’s interests, however, lie with the lowly concrete block, a construction material ubiquitous across the city and across Latin America.

Pardo founded the firm AT103 with Julio Amezcua in 2001. Although The Architecture League in New York named them an Emerging Voices winner in 2009, the multidisciplinary practice is part of an established generation of Mexican architects, which includes Michel Rojkind and Derek Dellekamp. The firm is currently developing a staggeringly comprehensive plan for housing and mixed use development above all the metro stations in Mexico City.

The broad scheme would establish criteria for densification along transit routes and incentives for developers to embark upon considered designs.

In the 2013 book Architecture Does (Not) Matter, AT103 chronicle their housing project Lisboa 7 through photographs, analytical drawings, and essays. It is an ode to the concrete block, and an investigation into how reducing architecture to fundamentals allowed the firm to radically reinterpret housing. Their scheme breaks down the massing into six narrow buildings, each honeycombed with courtyards and windows for maximum light and ventilation. “Form follows strategy”, Pardo quips. The blocks were left bare to reduce the cost of the enlarged exterior envelope.

There’s something deeply resonant in a generation of architects embracing the austerity of a heavy, modular building component. At the height of Mexico’s housing boom, track after track of bunker-like houses built from concrete blocks sprawled out of the cities.

In 2010 architect Frida Escobedo created an installation of concrete blocks at Museo Experimental El Eco. She filled the museum’s courtyard with layers of grey blocks, which could be restacked by viewers/users to create seating or surfaces. Escobedo critiqued the very genteel notion of a pavilion, by asking viewers to participate as complicit labourers in the courtyard construction.

Escobedo also celebrated blocks in her design for La Tallera de Siqueiros, a renovation of the home and studio of artist and activist David Alfaro Siqueiros in Cuernavaca. She used a tall perimeter wall made of unfinished perforated blocks to unify a collection of freestanding buildings dating from the mid-sixties. Her skilful wrapping of the complex is not about fetishising the informal. If anything, it’s about affect: concrete latticework produces plays of light and shadow. In an act of calculated redundancy, her pattern of triangle-shaped openings repeats and repeats until it pushes past any informal reference – decoration on the cheap – and hovers on the op-art threshold between atmosphere and abstraction.

3. The Street: Colonia Roma Sur

The offices of architectural practice Productora are located above the city grid in one of Mexico City’s earliest high-rises, a wedge of international style designed by Augusto H. Alavarez and Juan Sordo Madaleno. Architects Abel Perles, Carlos Bedoya, Victor Jaime, and Wonne Ickx founded the practice in 2006. (And have their own tower currently under construction, the CAF Headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, a 36-storey monolith sitting on a gridded base.) From their wedge-shaped penthouse perch on the top floor, the four architects create designs with astounding geometric precision.

In 2011, Productora joined forces with art curator Ruth Estevez and opened LIGA, Space for Architecture, a gallery dedicated to the work of Latin American architects, in the small lobby of their office building on Insurgentes Avenue. In exhibiting architecture from designers based in Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, the curators set forth a clear agenda: to engage in architectural discourse all the way from the US/Mexico border to the South Pole. Over the past three years, they’ve produced thirteen exhibitions and a number of public events.

LIGA’s curators relish the initiative’s smallness, but like Archivo, they possess a desire to operate outside of the local, to scale up. When LIGA was invited by José Esparza to participate in the 2013 Architecture Triennial in Lisbon, Portugal, they asked the Mexico City-based practice MMX Studio to create an installation in the second floor gallery of MUDE (Museum of Design and Fashion of Lisbon). MMX Studio is a collective composed of architects Jorge Arvizu, Diego Ricalde, Emmanuel Ramírez, and Ignacio Del Rio.

Entitled Coexistences, their piece reproduced LIGA’s footprint some thirty times within the larger Lisbon gallery. In the piece, the physical space of the LIGA gallery (outlined in deep vermilion fabric) was treated as modular, not unlike a ceramic pot or brick, and iterated accordingly, illustrating the small gallery’s potential reach.

LIGA’s executive director Marielsa Castro walks me through the current exhibition; on view is work by Argentine architect Diego Arraigada – he’s built an armature to connect the gallery’s two windows. She guides me outside and points to the building’s original sign, which reads Liga de Bíblica: Bible League. Now, the catechism is architectural. Still, it is hard not to take pleasure in how Arraigada’s inside-out/outside-in installation perfectly frames the taco vendor grilling up carnitas and tortillas.