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Pátzcuaro Criminal Courts in Mexico by TALLER | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo

Calls for transparency in the judicial system in Mexico have inspired a novel architectural approach

Winner of the 2017 Architect of the Year award

For years now, the Mexican judicial system has seemed to be in a permanent crisis. This might appear an excessive remark but justice in Mexico can be an incomprehensible bureaucratic labyrinth. A nasty trial could be anybody’s worst nightmare. Until recently, every judicial process had to be carried out in a written form, often making trials extremely slow. An ordinary scene in a criminal court could pan out something like this: a closed dark space with two desks, two typewriters and two bureaucrats wearing brown suit, brown tie and brown shirt; behind them, an opening in the wall with metal bars where the accused appears. The judge and both lawyers, defendant and prosecutor, appear ready to declare with the pomposity that the occasion deserves. Every phrase they say is typed by the bureaucrats, and at the end a file is registered. The ritual ends; later, maybe weeks, probably months, the judge will examine the document and when he has an opinion he will recall the defendant, the prosecutor and the accused, however many times necessary for him to reach a verdict. Added to this, one of those incomprehensible Mexican laws is the one where a suspect can be detained in jail until his innocence is proved; then we are deep into a nightmare of any autocratic regime invented by Kafka or Arno Schmidt.

In 2008, a constitutional reform, to be complied with by every criminal court in the country by 2017, was approved, proposing that all trials are carried out in oral communication and are open to the general public. This is intended to make justice far quicker and more transparent. Bit by bit, the new system has been introduced in different Mexican states, including Michoacán. This transition involves not only modifying existing laws and people’s habits but also the spaces where all the trials take place.

‘The challenge was to create spaces that could be used for trials in the traditional way and, eventually, transform those same spaces into new oral judgment court’

In 2012, the architects of TALLER | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo were renovating a pair of historic buildings in the city of Morelia, capital of Michoacán, where the new Mariano Matamoros Theater was to be housed. This kind of intervention is an example of a concern that has always been at the centre of Carrillo and Rocha’s work. How to find a balance between the language of extant architecture and contemporary architectural expressions? How to insert a new building in the historic layers of an urban core without destroying them while simultaneously making an impact? Perhaps their most successful intervention in this regard is the Academic and Cultural Center San Pablo in Oaxaca where they transformed a colonial convent into a cultural institution which is today one of the main references in the life of the city. The strategy in both interventions is pretty much the same, almost like a recipe: tectonic sobriety, modular rigour in all structures, and the plastic strength of contemporary materials that confront the past in a sympathetic way. The Matamoros Theater caught the attention of the attorney general of the state of Michoacán, who was really interested in achieving spatially the same spirit of the transition that he expected to get in the judicial system, so he invited the architects to propose solutions for different criminal courts throughout the state.

The first design experiments were carried out in the cities of Charo and Uruapan. The challenge was to create spaces that could be used for trials in the traditional way and, eventually, transform those same spaces into new oral judgment courts. The logical answer was to design flexible spaces. The ideas shown in these first two courts inspired the authorities to consider Carrillo and Rocha for the competition for the design of the building of the oral judgment courts in Pátzcuaro, which they went on to win. This building was meant to be the first to take into account the new oral judgment trials as a design premise.

Court floor plan

Court floor plan

Ground floor plan - click to expand

Pátzcuaro is a town on the southern shore of the lake of the same name. Its urban core is divided in two, the pier area and downtown, which is further south. The criminal courts are not in either of these two sections; they are on the eastern outskirts, near a main highway surrounded by a more rural context along the slope of some small hills. This mild slope was the starting point for the organisation of the architectural plan and section, where a series of rectangular buildings are terraced according to the existing topography. Nevertheless, the conceptual focus of the project comes from another idea, as Carrillo says: ‘The main problem we had to cope with in this building was to find a way to comply with very strict security rules while at the same time proposing an idea of space that would give everyone a feeling of freedom and transparency. We needed barriers but also a sense of aperture. We decided then to deal with the project as a walled city where the wall could be understood more as a limit, and the inner spaces could be experienced as an open town.’ So, as in medieval cities, a stone wall shaped as an oval, with heights that vary between 5 and 8 metres, surrounds the entire compound.

Carrillo and Rocha usually like to arrange all the pieces of a project in an orthogonal ordered modulation. This is no exception. The stone oval surrounds an arrangement of transversal strips alternately composed by voids or buildings. Most of the built rectangular strips are brick constructions with sloped tiled roofs that respond to the climatic conditions of a region where rain is abundant. The voids are the gardens overlooked by the buildings. The public access is in the central section of the ellipse; people enter discreetly by a crack in the wall where they directly meet the main part of the building, the two trial courts; two symmetrical wooden boxes, abstract reminiscences of the traditional houses of the region, the Michoacán Trojes. On the inside they are efficient sounding boards, whereas on the outside, both boxes – separated by the main garden – form an almost metaphysical scene. The northernmost part of the project, the lowest point of the terrain, contains the waiting rooms for the accused prisoners, with direct vehicular access. The prisoners also have a direct hallway taking them to the courts. The contiguous building strip incorporates the judges’ offices, again with their own independent corridors.

‘We wanted to be able to see through the whole building, letting light produce a playful game of shadows and reflections’

Two fundamental things Carrillo and Rocha have learned from the work of Louis Kahn are the use of geometric order, and the creation of particular atmospheres by natural light control. In this building, the alternate disposition of volumes and voids is the clue for synthesising both premises. The security control conditions required by the programme demanded the use of different corridors for different users. The public, judges and prisoners have different trajectories and specific spaces that converge in the trial courts. The architects’ strategy of dividing the programme into three different zones allowed the simplification of the routes, creating a rational geometric order in the building. This same strategy works for creating the light atmosphere. Glass facades and brick lattices achieve a constant visual transparency in all spaces. ‘We wanted to be able to see through the whole building, letting light produce a playful game of shadows and reflections in the different materials and emphasising in a subtle way the transitions between spaces’, says Carrillo. These reflections are the ones that give a particular quality to the luminosity of the spaces. Somehow you feel that you are always walking through a light filter with a permanent notion of the passing of time during the day. A contrast is created with the gloomy feeling of the stone corridor that goes along the perimeter, which receives its light from small upper windows and from a series of cracks that break up the stone wall, allowing tiny fragments of the exterior world to come into view.

Another level of understanding this project, emerges from the tectonic rigour. Beyond the deployment of transparencies, sloped roofs and the reinterpretation of local houses, the most powerful element of the building is the surrounding stoned wall. From the inside it is never perceived as an oppressive barrier, and from the outside it acquires a strong presence in the landscape in which it is inserted. It is impossible not to notice the influence of Mesoamerican architecture in this gesture; an emphatic statement anchored to the site topography, that is the way in which this building can be understood. That is also the way to understand the archaeological site of Las Yácatas of Tzintzuntzan on the Lake Pátzcuaro shore, a mere 10 kilometres away. The ruins that are visible today show us a ceremonial centre built upon a hillside with stunning lake views where a platform was created and on top of it a series of rectangular and elliptical buildings adapted to the topography. Sounds familiar? And as you stroll along the inside platform, where the buildings cover the lake’s view, there are small divisions between buildings – pauses that let you take a peek, the lake appearing as in a monumental crack.

Court section

Court section

Section AA - click to expand

Trying to understand this strong influence, it will be interesting to see the constructed result of the competition-winning proposal by Carrillo and Rocha, the renovation and extension of the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City, that stone monolith designed by Diego Rivera and constructed by Juan O’Gorman in the mid-20th century. A neo-Pre-Hispanic manifesto removed from any notion of modernity. Mexican brutalism avant la lettre. Faced with this powerful discourse, the architects have affirmed their usual dictum: to aim for order, and to keep the virtue of knowing how to be discreet without going unnoticed.

The original project for Pátzcuaro Courts included a landscape proposal by Hugo Sánchez and Tonatiuh Martínez of Entorno Taller de Paisaje. Lush endemic vegetation covered all of the open spaces between buildings so they could be understood not as simple transitions but as gardens with an autonomous life. This should have affirmed another of Carrillo’s interests, ‘in our more recent explorations, we have tried to start designing our projects from the voids, letting these be the ones that set the tone for the rest of the ensemble’. The intention was to create out of this small interior world a tiny paradise where buildings can become translucent pavilions open to nature. But it was just a fantasy, none of this happened. It is a pity that the original gardens couldn’t be carried out. Now we can only see simple grass platforms, not a single plant. In the end, the sensitivity of the justice department bureaucrats wasn’t enough; they thought it an unnecessary expense with lots of maintenance costs. Mexican justice little by little tries to be more efficient but is still far from being poetic.

‘The most important thing for us is the change that a space can bring about in human relationships’

But perhaps the most important thing about this work is that it underlined a change, long overdue, in the Mexican judicial system, that has to be approached from many aspects, not only from a legal point of view. In the end, this was a change for society as a whole. Carrillo and Rocha had the privilege of translating this transition into architecture, the tectonic interpretation of a certain kind of justice. As Carrillo mentions: ‘The most important thing for us is the change that a space can bring about in human relationships. Our first attempts at designing the projects in Charo and Uruapan had plenty of mistakes because we didn’t understand all of the human interactions that were happening there; in Pátzcuaro, I think we understood them a little better, so we proposed a clear and straightforward solution, and nowadays the space is working relatively well’. 

It is difficult to work with the justice system in Michoacán, a state where there has been a drug-trafficking war for more than 10 years with no end in sight. Corruption is part of daily life, and the very idea of a criminal court leads the imagination down the most obscure paths. Architecture must teach that no matter how violent a situation is, it is possible to solve the oxymoron of generating open and clear spaces where security and control can be maintained, not only thinking of them as a spatial problem, but as a metaphorical one. Justice or violence are not limits but dialogue opportunities. Apparently, the criminal courts for oral judgment in Pátzcuaro close a cycle of works for Carrillo and Rocha; however, the learning cycle of trial courts poses a question that could be addressed in other projects under different circumstances. How to intervene ethically in public buildings? How to manifest personal or collective political principles in architecture, not with a theoretical discourse but using the tectonic language itself? A hard task indeed. 

Criminal Courts for Oral Trials

Architect: TALLER | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo

Photographs: Onnis Luque

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