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Comunal Taller de Arquitectura: ‘we try to demonstrate that architecture is an exchange of knowledge’

Comunal 2

The winners of the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2019 speak to the AR about architecture as a collective social process, and the emancipatory potential of participative work

Who are you?

Our practice was founded in 2015 in Mexico City by Mariana Ordóñez Grajales, a graduate of the Autonomous University of Yucatán. In 2017 Jesica Amescua Carrera, a graduate of the Universidad Iberoamericana, joined the team. 

We work together with rural communities and indigenous populations in Mexico. For our practice, architecture is not an object, it is rather a participatory social process, alive and open, that allows members of the community to express their ideas, needs and aspirations, always placing them at the centre of projects and decision making.

Our mission is to collaborate in the improvement of living conditions and livability of rural communities in our country through participatory processes that trigger the valuation and rescue of autonomy, the exchange of knowledge, resilience and empowerment, always putting people at the center of the processes.


What kind of work do you do?

Our work is based on ‘Social Production of Habitat’ (PSH), a concept coined by the architect Enrique Ortiz Flores who writes that PSH ‘supports collective self-management processes for involving training, responsible participation, organisation and active solidarity of the inhabitants, it contributes to strengthening community practices, the direct exercise of democracy, the self-esteem of the participants and a more convivial social coexistence.’ Under this premise, we have developed a strategy that consists of six axes in which participation is the main tool:

Investigation: we implement participatory active research processes through which the villagers collect and systematise their local knowledge, allowing us to understand the culture of the place.

Participatory architecture: we detonate knowledge exchange between our team and the communities with the objective of generating collective knowledge and projects appropriate to the socio-cultural, environmental-territorial and economic-productive context of the inhabitants.

Social management: we respect the customs of the communities and their social structure for monitoring projects, decision making, assemblies and dialogues.

Fund management: we raise funds through private agents, foundations, government programs and financing campaigns with our civil association. All funds are self-managed by residents, allowing us to have horizontal and transparent relationships.

Participatory evaluation: we evaluate social processes and projects collaboratively with residents starting to identify collective goals and objectives.

Public policies and regulations: we accompany the communities to defend the right to their habitat generating processes and projects that have an impact on the public policies of the country.


What is it like being an architect in Mexico?

Beyond the profession, to be a woman in a deeply patriarchal country like Mexico is to be in constant resistance. In the profession we need to work hard to have credibility and respect, but on a day-to-day basis it is a matter of survival because we are in constant danger of unstoppable femicides.

In the strictly architectural field there is a hegemonic vision of the role that an architect must play, a discourse instilled from the academy when you are a student. In this sense, we are taught that we are the experts, ‘the professionals’ and everything that is outside that academic production is invalidated. It is under those imaginaries of greatness that colonisation occurs through architectural design.

From our work we try to demonstrate that architecture is a collective social process, a valuable tool for dialogue and interculturality, an exchange of knowledge where local offices should be valued and integrated, as well as the constructive and territorial knowledge of the native peoples.


What is your favorite building technique?

The vernacular constructive systems with local materials since they are the representation of the cosmovision of a culture in a specific territory.

We build ideas together with the communities we work with based always on local knowledge, the needs expressed by the inhabitants, as well as the wisdom they share in the processes of research and territorial understanding. For us, it is an extremely enriching and constant learning process because we are fortunate to hear, directly from the inhabitants, the ancestral wisdom that forms the worldview of the original peoples living in this architecture and territory.


What are your favorite design tools?

Our favorite design tools are those that arise from collective research processes and detonate people’s participation through reflection. An example is the participatory models that we design in each of our social processes to initiate a dialogue and exchange of knowledge between the inhabitants and our team.


What inspires you?

The possibility of making social processes that connect people and strengthen community networks. We firmly believe that the problems we are currently facing at the local and global level can only be addressed collectively.

Comunal Taller de Arquitectura were named the winners of the 2019 AR Emerging Architecture awards, held at the World Architecture Festival in Amsterdam. You can read their profile here, also published in AR November 2019, or view the rest of the shortlist here.