New Housing Paradigms in Mexico
Jesús Vassallo and Sebastián López Cardozo (Eds.)
Park Books, 2022
With a more-than-generous use of white space and its large-print text totaling only around 75 of the book’s 316 pages, on first impression, “Nueva Vivienda” appears to aim itself at the profession’s weakness for picture books. However, the book packs its main value into its minimal prose. It opens with a short back story on the origin of the project as a conference at Rice University about housing design in Mexico. It then dives into a dense essay on the history of 20th- and 21st-century housing policy and development in Mexico. Alternating Q&A-style conversations with architects whose work was featured at the conference and collections of images from three different scales of housing projects follow, and the editors then conclude with their own takeaways from the preceding sections.
The opening essay by Surella Segú and Armando Hashimoto contains enough information to fill a semester-long class. Although this makes it challenging to absorb in a single read, it provides depth and grounding for the conversations that follow by offering insight into elements impacting housing design in Mexico and how those do and do not overlap with conditions in the United States. While the two countries differ significantly in their histories, cultures, policies, geography, and climate, they share a desire for ownership of one’s home, the need to connect with both nature and community, and the challenges of overcoming existing sprawl and providing housing at a cost that aligns with wages.
Although at times it felt like too much information to take in at once, it left me wishing for more details about some of the referenced projects, especially Mexico City’s El Rosario. As it is described in the essay, this neighborhood sounds very much like what is held as the ideal we should all be designing toward: a mixed-use city-within-a-city where housing, services, commercial and entertainment venues, and social programs intermingle in a way that can adapt over time to support a full life and resilient community. With one of the stated goals of the book being to open pathways for U.S. architects to learn from Mexican ones, this would have been an excellent chance to dive further into successes, challenges, and/or failures of implementing this ideal.
The conversations that follow do offer some of this dialogue, with the architects discussing the realities they work within and what they are trying to achieve at the various scales of single-family, infill, and high-rise housing design. Most of the book centers on work in and around Mexico City, but a few of the architects also work in places like Guadalajara and spoke about what they encounter in the different locations and the impact that context has on their projects. One factor they call particular attention to is the quality and quantity of public spaces designed into the existing fabric of Mexico City. In cities without this amenity, housing projects themselves must take on the task of creating public spaces — at a minimum for their own residents, but preferably in ways that serve the surrounding community as well.
While I’m not generally a fan of Q&A formats, in this case it worked well to allow the architects to speak for themselves and the discussions to wander beyond the initial questions posed. With each conversation including roughly half a dozen people, though, the decision to list their names on the opening page of each conversation and then only use initials to identify speakers made it difficult to keep track of who was speaking. Color-coded highlighters help with that, however. The larger shortfall was the lack of references between the text and the collections of images that follow. The projects themselves are rarely, if ever, referenced, and only one or two of the architects mention which firm they work with. This puts the burden on the reader to puzzle out which projects belong to which architects and what connection this association might have to the thoughts they are sharing in the conversations.
The photographs show some beautiful buildings that I would love to visit — and preferably tour with the architects, to hear their thoughts on the designs. The accompanying drawings, however, are tiny and simplified to the point of providing almost no information. Even a north arrow or section/elevation reference marker would have helped. I also would have liked to see commentary from the architects in these sections, contextualizing their projects within the preceding conversations.
Discussion of the example projects, in fact, doesn’t come until the latter part of the editors’ summation and is given from their perspective. While this does provide some bridging between what felt like two separate books published in one binding, it comes late and requires a lot of paging back through the book to find the images of each project as it is discussed.
For all that, I think this book achieves its goal. It is not a how-to manual and doesn’t strive to offer preformed solutions. If anything, it nudges people away from a one-size-fits-all mentality, showing what people can come up with when they design for the unique needs and opportunities of each project, and allowing some architects you may not know yet to introduce themselves and their design philosophies. The lasting impression of “Nueva Vivienda” is that the cohort of Mexican architects it features are thoughtful designers who care about their communities and have ideas and expertise architects in other countries can and should learn from. Sitting down with any or all of them to discuss design over a bottle of wine would be an evening well spent.
Pamela da Graça, AIA, is an architect at The Arkitex Studio in Bryan and chair-elect of the TxA Publications Committee.