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Tezontle: ‘Form follows decay’

This Mexico City-based practice reinvents primitivism and succeeds in being original while embracing the context

‘We love the idea of abstract non-programmatic architecture’, say Carlos Matos and Lucas Cantu, suggestive of ‘infinite ways to appropriate a single space.’ For the co-founders of Mexico City’s Tezontle studio, the starting point is always sculpture. Totem-like arrangements of found items and cast pieces are staged on the ‘inspiration table’ in their studio.

The young duo is constantly accumulating a wonderful collection of found stones and building materials, everyday objects and collective treasures. 

Deliberately, the architects chose to settle in the Mexican capital’s historic centre to be immersed in its chaotic effervescence. They liken it to an immense factory-cum-market, with metal milling and risograph printing, where shops supply rubber parts and exotic stones, antiquarian books and washing-machine components. Some of which, immediately adopted, lands straight onto their studio’s inspiration table – newly certified jewels. In the backdrop, the expanse of the city is a joyful architectural jumble of periods and styles, where lumps of Tenochtitlán coexist with colonial vestiges and Modernist masterpieces – parts of city collaged together.

View from our studio in mexico city´s cebtro historico

View from our studio in mexico city´s cebtro historico

Tezontle’s studio space in Mexico City’s  historic centre. Courtesy of Tezontle

Historically, the country has provided a unique experimental ground to the artists it welcomed. Land of the wonderful and the unexpected, Mexico witnessed the arrival of Félix Candela and his extra thin concrete shells, it welcomed Surrealist poet Edward James and his towering sculptures at Las Pozas (where Tezontle organises a design workshop every summer), it enabled film director Alejandro Jodorowsky to reinvent himself as a comic-book artist, it inspired Mathias Goeritz to reconnect the tectonic and the spiritual in his Manifiesto de la Arquitectura Emocional. As the latter is still an influence for Matos and Cantu, they admit they are ‘reviving old ideas’, before adding ‘we copy all the time so it is hard to see anything we do as unique’.

‘Tezontle injects new life into the old’

When asked to complete the sentence ‘Form follows …’, Tezontle founders pick ‘decay’. With all the mystical tales and cultural richness that come with it, ‘Form follows decay’ implies a sense of continuity with the past. Decay is by definition incomplete, and Tezontle injects new life into the old, creates ‘innovative formal and material narratives’ and joins the historical lineage of its predecessors in its playful approach with the Mexican context.

The outcome is an architecture that is part folly, part archaeology. Currently on the drawing board are residential units for Bahía Guadalupe, on the coast of Guerrero. Conceived as look-alike ruins, the stacked elements’ raw connection to the surrounding nature makes them almost reminiscent of pre-Hispanic sites hidden in the depths of luxurious jungle vegetation. Both unidentified and unexpected. The visualisations’ rocky textures and earthy pigments demonstrate that inspiration comes straight from the ground – unsurprisingly then, Tezontle is the name of a reddish and porous volcanic rock widely used in local construction.

´cascabel´

´cascabel´

Stacked concrete column ‘Cascabel’. Courtesy of Tezontle

Clients effectively present Matos and Cantu with the challenge of transforming their sculptural pieces into inhabitable spaces. At the design stage, the lack of constraint in scale frees up their imagination and lets them focus on geometric compositions. Working through sculpture, they ‘aim to scale the medium until it becomes spatial’. Advocates of ‘no-scale’, they explain its irrelevance enables ‘the sculptural to become the architectural, and vice versa’. Casting is their process of preference. Anything is a potential mould – even a ventilation grid – and anything is a potential aggregate. The hand chiselling of raw material can be the source of welcome surprises. Bamboo walls can turn to concrete. Mock-ups suddenly become monuments.

Ongoing projects include an in-situ installation at Richard Neutra’s VDL House in LA as part of the Tu casa es mi casa residency programme; a mixed-use sculptural garden in the Caribbean town of Tulum; and the museography for Archivo’s México Ciudad Diseño:02 exhibition about the capital’s history told through objects – as well as a variety of small-scale sculptural commissions.

‘A playground with no apparent limitations, Tezontle reinvents primitivism and succeeds in being original while embracing the context’

As they explain, Mexico is ‘for good and bad reasons, a place where people have almost absolute freedom of will. This can have terrible consequences when historical buildings are torn down to build parking lots or when cenotes get filled to become the foundations of a new Walmart, but it is also this impunity that keeps people busy and allows for the creation of “something new”’. Pleased to enjoy a playground with no apparent limitations, Tezontle reinvents primitivism and succeeds in being original while embracing the context its founders are part and product of.