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Pillar of the community: Comunal Taller de Arquitectura, Mexico

By sharing the authorship of their architecture with the local people with whom they work in rural Mexico, Comunal are challenging the authority of the architect

Comunal Taller de Arquitectura are the winners of the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2019. View the shortlist here

When Mariana Ordóñez Grajales and Jesica Amescua Carrera of Mexican practice Comunal first visited the village of Tepetzintan in rural Puebla in 2013, what struck them was the abundance of natural materials such as bamboo, wood and stone within the community’s reach – but that remained almost entirely unexploited. The bamboo growing nearby was seen as a nuisance by the Nahua people, who uprooted and discarded it to make space for coffee and corn fields. To convince the local people that these materials could be used to create the new homes they desperately needed, the architects designed a prototype house with them – a bamboo structure above stone foundations, with diagonal bamboo screen doors and shutters, a brick porch and diamonds punched out of the brickwork like a patterned rug.

‘The prototype has opened a dialogue about recognising indigenous building systems, giving the architect an important opportunity to influence public housing policy’

Once the design was decided by the village, Comunal facilitated a series of workshops, training the residents to work with the two local bamboo species to build shelters. The construction of the protoype house relied entirely on collective donations –known as tequio – from the villagers themselves: from the land it was built on and the labour to build it, to the bamboo and stone from which it was made. ‘Architecture is not an object’, the pair claim. ‘It is rather a participatory social process, alive and open.’

In 2016, CONAVI, the national housing commission in Mexico, decided to withdraw subsidies for self-built homes constructed from materials such as bamboo, straw and wood, considering them precarious and unsafe. These new regulations denied financial support to those who chose to build with the readily available materials with which people had built for generations. To allow those living in rural communities to continue to receive subsidies for new homes, Comunal collaborated with the Unión de Cooperativas Tosepan Titataniske, which represents over 34,000 Nahuan and Totonacan families in Puebla, to design a version of the bamboo-frame house but with COMUNAL a concrete structure. Looking for loopholes in CONAVI’s restrictive regulations, the house still used bamboo for the veranda and roof, with screens of jostling bricks sitting between the concrete columns and blockwork foundations. The prototype, built again in Tepetzintan, was approved by CONAVI and has opened a dialogue with the institution about recognising indigenous building systems, giving Comunal an important opportunity to influence public housing policy.

Comunal site plan

Comunal site plan

Click to download

Inspired by the construction workshops held by the architects in Tepetzintan since 2013, students approached them in 2016 to guide the design and construction of new classrooms and facilities for 70 pupils that could also be used as a community training centre to tackle a chronic shortage of space at the local high school.

Keen to ‘rescue the ancestral wisdom of their community, avoid migration and the rupture of families’, the students proposed gardens where they could grow vegetables, engage in milpa (a traditional and sustainable system for growing corn, beans and squash), and grow herbs for traditional medicine that could then be tested in a kitchen laboratory. The first phase of the project depended once again on tequio; beginning in the summer of 2017 with the cutting of 500 bamboo sticks donated by students’ parents, it then attracted donations from private building material companies and the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

Comunal floorplan and section

Comunal floorplan and section

Click to download

Influenced by Enrique Ortiz Flores’s ideas of the Producción Social del Hábitat (the social production of habitat), Comunal insist that the people they work with and for are as much the authors of the buildings as they are, and that architecture is not only a building process, but also ‘an exchange of knowledge’ and a tool for dialogue between cultures. ‘We are taught that we are the experts, “the professionals” and everything that is outside academic production is invalid’, the pair protest. ‘It is under those imaginaries of greatness that colonisation occurs through architectural design.’

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today

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