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Chopo Museum by TEN Arquitectos, Mexico City, Mexico

A 100-year-old iron and glass pavilion gets a new least of life through TEN Arquitectos’ bold yet simple building-within-a-building. Photography by Luis Goroda

Nineteenth-century architects spent much of their time concealing triumphs of engineering behind bombastic masonry; you might think of the Paris Opera as the Eiffel Tower in drag. Mexico City boasts several circa-1900 wedding cakes, but one of its most appealing structures of that era is a cathedral of industry, prefabricated in Germany and a direct heir of the Crystal Palace.

The soaring cast-iron frame and lacy turrets originally served as a pavilion exhibiting art and machines in Düsseldorf. In 1903, a Mexican firm imported and reassembled the sections in the upscale residential neighbourhood of Santa Maria la Ribera.

Used in turn as a machinery showroom, a museum of natural history, and an all-purpose space for concerts, events, and film shoots, the pavilion later became an adventurous public arts centre administered by the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Misleadingly, it is called the Chopo Museum.

In 2004, TEN Arquitectos won a competition to transform the interior and enhance the historic structure; the practice’s masterly fusion of old and new was inaugurated a month ago. The challenge was to accommodate an ambitious programme of climate-controlled galleries, performance and service spaces, without overwhelming the shell.

Other contestants proposed a detached building to the rear, but they were constrained by height restrictions and the difficulty of excavating in a city where the water table is close to the surface. TEN developed an autonomous hybrid structure of concrete and steel that reaches down two levels with 200- and 300-seat theatres opening onto a sunken lobby, and rises through two levels of galleries linked by ramps to a library tucked beneath the 25m-high roof.

The simple, bold concept triples the building’s usable space and takes users on a scenic tour of the pavilion, from floor to ceiling. Though massive and muscular, the linear block seems to float in the void; an upper level is cantilevered through the short south side, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

The projecting wing shelters the new loading dock, but it gives little hint of the drama within. There, the 19th and 21st centuries are linked in a loose embrace; each flatters the other. The pavilion was a daring display of contemporary technology in its day: rational, lightweight, portable and resilient. It has been assembled twice and has survived a century of seismic shocks with no need of a retrofit to meet current codes.

TEN matched this functionalist aesthetic with exposed steel beams and trusses, poured concrete, laminated glass, and industrial stairs cascading from each deck. Elevator shafts are clad in ply to add warmth and tactility. Glass balustrades and reflective white resin floors amplify the abundant natural light and mirror the traceries of walls and windows.

New construction avoids stepping on the concrete pads that support the cast-iron frame. The proximity of old and new is especially rewarding in the open-sided library, where the roof trusses and folded-wood ceiling hover protectively over the tables and book stacks. ‘Every curator asks for a big box,’ says TEN principal Enrique Norten, ‘but that can be interpreted in many different ways.

At Chopo, we discovered that less than 20 per cent of the exhibits were likely to require extensive climate control. By enclosing only a few galleries, we greatly reduced the cost of mechanical equipment and energy consumption.’ The lack of barriers allows curators to blur the divide between circulation and display, demystifying the works they show. A cantilevered mezzanine holds a café that should become the social hub of a museum with few walls and a succession of spaces that welcome every kind of performance.

Architect TEN Arquitectos, Mexico City, Mexico
Project team Enrique Norten, Salvador Arroyo, Jorge Pérez, Natalia Lomelí, Victoria Grossi, Carlos Marín, Marina Muñoz, Verónica Chávez, Fausto Alvarado, Jonathan Barraza, Mateo Riestra, Ernesto Orrante, Ricardo Orozco, Christian Joffroy, Mariana Narváez, Miguel Ríos

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It used to be a great building inside.
    Now, a new building was built inside it.
    No grandeur is left, no respect for the great old building wich was the main feature of the museum itself.

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