Finding Community at Mextrópoli 2019
Produced by Arquine, Mexico City
With over 21 million inhabitants, Mexico City is the most populated metropolis in the Western Hemisphere and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. Mextrópoli, a wide-ranging annual festival of architecture and urbanism organized by the multimedia entity Arquine, engaged with the city’s spatial and cultural boundaries with this year’s theme: Donde termina la ciudad — where the city ends.
Staging events and exhibitions around the city for over a week in March — including bike tours, pavilions, workshops, and panel discussions — the festival culminated in two days of talks at the Teatro Metropólitan, talks that included 2016 Pritzker Prize laureate Alejandro Aravena, David Chipperfield, and Dominique Perrault, among a strong field of designers, theorists, and advocates from around the world.
Aravena, based in Santiago, Chile, gave the keynote presentation, making a pitch to increase the availability of affordable housing. The concept is based on partially constructing houses that are built out as minimal legal dwellings and later completed by the owners as they can afford to expand. Elemental, led by Aravena, first used this model in Constitución, Chile, after an earthquake of 8.8 magnitude destroyed 80 percent of the town’s buildings.
The units are organized in long parallel rows of connected houses with gable roofs. Only half of the available area is complete when the houses are sold, and they can be rather simply extended within the existing structural framework. Aravena believes this approach can be an international model for providing housing at minimum cost and maximum flexibility. In 2016, he made the plans available for free to anyone interested in developing them.
Other socially minded presentations included Rozana Montiel’s (Mexico City) — projects that established spaces for children to play within harsh urban environments and used creative design to improve community life and educational facilities. Marina Otero (Rotterdam, Netherlands) presented a more radical project documenting a participatory design scheme for an urban squatter community in Rotterdam, while Mariam Kamara of Niger discussed how developing public space in her hometown of Niamey could facilitate the freer movement of women in the predominantly Muslim city.
MMX, a team of four designers based in Mexico City who received the (New York) Architectural League Prize in 2012, presented an enviable set of projects that skewed more toward design than social concerns. In particular, their pavilion Jardines Centrales Jojutla showed an elegant finesse with ingenious simplicity and a modest scale. The public pavilion and walkway is composed of intersecting arches that can be extended to create covered walkways or larger shaded areas. It beautifully defies any particular vintage or authorship.
Contributing one of the more historically engaged presentations was British architect David Chipperfield, who embarked on a detailed discussion about Berlin’s Museum Island and its fraught past: The Neues Museum, originally completed in 1859 as an accessory to Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum, was largely destroyed during World War II. Chipperfield, after winning, in 1997, the competition to rebuild the Neues Museum, spent more than a decade navigating the complex architectural, historical, and cultural terrain of reunified Berlin.
The situation illustrates the importance of maintaining cultural institutions as a link to the past, but it also shows how easily the past can be erased or manipulated through architectural interventions or reconstructions that contribute to cultural memory loss. Chipperfield chose the difficult path of not restoring the Neues Museum to its original splendor, instead exposing the past destruction and neglect while stitching the museum back together with subdued and respectful gestures. One can’t help but think of the images coming out of Syria of the absolute destruction of cities with very long histories of their own and wonder whether there will ever be an opportunity to have these kinds of conversations about how, or even if, they get rebuilt.
With Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier proposed moving vehicle transportation underground to keep the ground plane free for people to move about. Dominique Perrault and Philippe Bélaval’s urban proposal for Paris, the Mission Île de la Cité, responds to the historic fabric of the city center by inverting that strategy, pulling pedestrian traffic underground and to the edges of the Seine. The small island in the heart of Paris, home to the recently scorched Notre Dame, has not been the subject of a comprehensive redevelopment plan since Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann’s efforts of the 19th century.
While early modernism in general — and Corb in particular — were eager to destroy the cloying historic sentimentality of neoclassical Europe, Perrault’s proposal, presented to French President François Hollande in 2016, weaves its way around and under the iconic monuments and plazas that have come to define Paris. Pedestrian bridges and subterranean circulation through the island create new freedom of movement that appears to be quite ingenious, freeing pedestrians from street traffic above and creating a more direct engagement with the river.
This year marked the sixth year of the Mextrópoli festival, a yearly event established to encourage and promote architectural culture, urban regeneration, and the artistic heritage of Mexico City. Arquine, perhaps best known for its formidable magazine, is the group responsible for Mextrópoli and is a locus of activity dedicated to the construction of architectural culture through various media, including social networks, radio, contests, congresses, festivals, and postgraduate education. The quarterly magazine started in 1997 and by 2000 had begun publishing books, of which there are now more than 180.
On a personal note, it was slightly bewildering to see the multitudes of professionals and students who traveled from far across Mexico to attend the festival. The Teatro Metropólitan, reported to have over 3,000 seats, felt remarkably full both days during the nearly ceaseless presentations. It was also impressive to meet many architects from across Latin America who travel annually to the event.
Beyond the theater, exhibitions were staged within historic and beautiful spaces, such as the Museo de la Ciudad de México (Dominique Perrault, David Chipperfield) and the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (SOM, CC Arquitectos), which further elaborated on the presentations. SOM’s “Arte + Ingeniería + Arquitectura” highlighted the firm’s commitment to furthering the field regarding constructional and structural ingenuity with dozens of models showing joints, shell structures at various scales, and megatower typologies. Perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum regarding scale and craft was PRAXIS, a survey of work by Manuel Cervantes Céspedes (CC Arquitectos). The Mexico City-based architect and 2015 winner of the Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices award opened up his sketchbooks next to models and images, reinforcing the strong connection between what Juhani Pallasmaa calls the “thinking hand” and good architecture. The beauty and balance of the built works seem entirely encoded within the precise and evocative freehand sketching. Instructors will be jointly inspiring and shaming students for decades by showing Céspedes’ talents at mapping space and materials with the simplest of means.
In “The Economy of Cities,” Jane Jacobs encourages urbanists to take heart in struggling with the problems facing cities, as long as they are free enough to work toward their own solutions and to copy those that other cities have already solved. “Practical problems that persist and accumulate in cities are symptoms of arrested development,” Jacobs writes, adding: “Many evils conventionally blamed upon progress are, rather, evils of stagnation.” Mextrópoli feels like a community working to solve its own problems while looking outward to find successful examples wherever they may exist. This involves a global community coalescing around creative solutions and the realization that the decisions any major city makes now carry repercussions for everyone on the planet. In this sense, the city never truly ends.
Stephen (Chick) Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.