Disrupting Housing: New Paradigms in Mexican Collective Living
Organized by Jesús Vassallo
Rice University School of Architecture, Houston
What does it mean to disrupt housing? Is it a call to radically rethink the relationship between housing, policy, and property? Or does it signal a change in the way domestic space reflects our social rituals and political habits? Indeed, the question of housing holds in constant tension the abstraction of capital and the material realities of everyday life, with architecture constantly framing, negotiating, and texturing this relationship. Through this critical lens, “Disrupting Housing: New Paradigms in Mexican Collective Living,” a symposium organized by Rice Architecture Gus Wortham Assistant Professor Jesús Vassallo and held on March 5-6 at Rice University, invited eight Mexican practices to discuss their current work, examining the status of collective housing today through the lenses of labor, property, and ecology. Placing in dialogue the divergent models of Mexican and American housing development, the symposium sought new ways to define our common interests beyond the binary of public and private space, positioning architecture as an ideal format through which to imagine our relationship to the city, its environments, and its governing structures. Situated within the context of Houston, characterized by a formulaic pattern of development that often reflects the financial mechanisms of private ownership more than the communal life of a city, the symposium imagined how more diverse forms of collective life could offer a disruption to our dominant typologies of housing and property.
The symposium began with a talk by Surella Segú and Armando Hashimoto of the practice El Cielo presenting an ongoing project with INFONAVIT, Mexico’s institute for worker housing founded in 1972. INFONAVIT, the largest mortgage lender in Mexico, has been funding the construction of millions of affordable single-family homes across Mexico for the last 50 years. However, the development patterns have produced a sprawling landscape of repetitive housing models in isolated exurban enclaves. Millions of these houses are now abandoned due to patterns of rural migration to urban centers, lack of connections to municipal services, and the financial difficulties experienced by these underserved communities. Collaborating with INFONAVIT on their recent initiatives to reclaim and revitalize these neighborhoods, El Cielo works through pedagogy, research, exhibition, and design initiatives to equip these communities with new public spaces and updated collective and economic infrastructures.
Next, Jorge Ambrosi and Gabriela Etchegaray of the practice Ambrosi Etchegaray presented a series of recently completed housing projects in Mexico City. Seeking new forms of collectivity, they analyzed the typological conditions of domesticity through frameworks as diverse as Umberto Eco’s “The Open Work,” medieval monastic typologies like the Certosa del Galluzzo, and the Justus van Effen worker housing complex in Rotterdam. Representing their built work through analytical axonometrics rather than through photography, the architects centered their discussion around the precise relationship between shared amenities and private space. Through projects such as the Edificio IT, completed in 2016 in Mexico City, Ambrosi Etchegaray’s presentation looked toward communal typologies as a counter to the individual home, deploying a simple set of spatial rules and relationships to produce more collective formats for life in the city.
Following Ambrosi Etchegaray, Luis Aldrete presented his recent work in housing. Placing in dialogue the formal compositions of Lucien Hervé’s photography with the material textures of pre-Columbian archaeological sites such as Monte Albán, Aldrete situated his work through the interplay of Mesoamerican indigenous histories and the threads of modernist discourse in Mexico. Describing projects such as the Common Places installation in Mexico City, his recently completed Rinconada Margaritas housing towers in Guadalajara, and Albergues Ruta del Peregrino, a series of temporary shelters along a 117-km pilgrimage route in Jalisco, Aldrete discussed the typological and temporal spectrums of collective housing in Mexico.
Continuing this discussion of the influence of modernist housing prototypes in Mexico, Salvador Macías and Magui Peredo, the final speakers of the day, began with a provocative juxtaposition of a Mayan hut and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House — arguing for an equivalency between the two models for living. Working through a precise dialogue between structure and cladding, Macías and Peredo showed housing projects such as the recently completed González Luna Building in Guadalajara, as well as cultural buildings like the Maria Montessori Mazatlán School in Mazatlán. Through the use of spatial shifts and scalar hybrids, their work reveals the tensions between interiority and communal programs in housing. Experimenting with the relationship between material and enclosure, their projects produce new environments of intimacy and introspection that are in constant dialogue with collective space.
The symposium continued for a second day, beginning with a presentation by ReUrbano, a real estate developer in Mexico City led by Rodrigo Rivero Borrell and Alberto Kritzler. Focused on the preservation of Mexico City’s architectural heritage through adaptive reuse, the firm works to create new alliances between architects, lawyers, businesspeople, and community leaders. Strategizing how to shift the value proposition of real estate development through an overlay of public policy, architecture, and public infrastructure, ReUrbano offers a developer model that is reprioritizing social housing and public space in Mexico City.
The second speaker, Hector Barroso, began with a provocative image of Mario Pani’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas that revealed tense juxtaposition of Mexican architectural heritage: pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, and Modernist. By positioning domestic space in this layered history, Barroso argued that housing mediates the relationship between the collective spaces of the city and the private interior. In work such as the 2017 Entre Pinos Housing and the AM8 and Parral Building, both under construction, Barroso deploys traditional Mexican housing typologies composed of patios, terraces, and courtyards, to make visible the social formats reflected in vernacular building types, creating a series of microclimates through the play of scale and material, light, and temperature.
Following Barroso, Alfonso Enciso and Alfonso Garduño presented work by their practice Anonimous + G3. Building in the periphery of Querétaro, Mexico, a city characterized by horizontal sprawl and low-density development, both firms presented housing projects that promote vertical living as a new form of life for the region. Juxtaposing their projects, Aira (by Anonimous) and Vista Santiago (by G3), with an image of the Acueducto de Querétaro, they conceptualized housing as an iconic infrastructure that has the capacity to create co-dependent communities with a diversity of inhabitants.
The final presentation of the symposium was by Diego Ricalde, co-founder of Estudio MMX. He presented a comparative analysis of three projects through the lens of typological legibility, focusing on the relationship between programmatic organization and internal social structures. One project outlined a revitalization of the vecindades (Spanish for “neighborhoods”) of Mexico City, low-income multifamily housing composed of small dwelling units that surround a shared central courtyard. Through the introduction of new transitional spaces, terraced gardens, and collective amenities within these cloistered streets, Ricalde argued for an architecture in which “nothing works but everything moves.” Outlining the systems of exchange at stake in these housing prototypes, he urged the development of financial models that balance profit with public good, working to update historic typologies of housing in Mexico City in order to produce a new condition for collective life.
The concluding conversation centered around this relationship between housing and the financial structures that govern development, framing collectivity not only as an architectural typology but more profoundly as an ethos of social life. The quality of the projects — through their inventiveness of type, detailing, and material craft — embodied architecture’s capacity to radically impact the conditions of everyday life. Beyond the spatial inventiveness that these housing typologies offer, what models of practice give architects more agency in the development of new political formats and financial models for cooperative life? While some of the projects recognized the limitations of architectural form by developing in parallel new economic strategies for social housing, the fact that much of the work was high-end housing for private clients more broadly reflects the loss of progressive housing policies in both Mexico and the United States. Housing cannot be separated from questions of equity, affordability, and access: How much does it cost, and who does it serve? The projects, many of which were framed through an architectural lineage that reflected the richness of Mexico’s social and environmental histories, could begin to reflect an equally radical agenda for housing, one that more explicitly frames the political project of collective life. The symposium highlighted the intimate entanglement of space and policy, positing that it is within this entanglement that architecture’s capacity to restructure and reclaim our communal bonds lies. As we witness the dismantling of the relationship between space and our social forms, a truly disruptive housing is latent in this promise of collective life: a promise to reclaim equity, support, and solidarity through architecture.
Brittany Utting is an assistant professor at the Rice School of Architecture.