Sensitive engagements with communities activate simple architectural forms
Winner of the 2017 Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture
Mexico might be a large country, but its inequalities are larger. The country can look like a rich European neighbourhood at one bus stop and a war-torn region at the next. With the current upheaval in all sorts of national affairs, the problem of disparity seems to be finally twisting the arms of the country’s civil society to look for pro-activeness from the inside. The time has come to ask who is getting paid to build all of this disparity. Look closely or just ask a few recently graduated architects working for Mexico’s most famous practices, and the same questions will arise: who’s for real and who’s just being an opportunist? Who is building an illegal ranch for a corrupt governor? Who is ‘greenwashing’ austerity and getting richer? The bluntness of these questions is becoming vital for a true vindication of architecture as an ethical endeavour.
On the wall of Rozana Montiel’s small studio in Mexico City’s Colonia Condesa, a handwritten note says: ‘Question the money source’. On another wall, another few words – in English this time: ‘A single IDEA from the human mind can build cities’. The current mood on the street invites scepticism of such an obtuse display of motivation, and wariness of positive aphorisms, but there is nothing cynical about the practice’s approach to problem solving.
‘Our design depends on the nuances we find in each project, whether public or private’
After graduating from Universidad Iberoamericana (IBERO) in 1996, working for two years with architect Diego Villaseñor and studying for a Masters in Theory and Critique of Architecture at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in 2000, her career as an independent architect spans an almost 1:1 ratio of built projects and design research. Many of her investigations deal with the built environment, but her interests are not exclusively material. One of her older investigations explores how lenses and optical instruments alter the perception of space. Another considers how a series of unused buildings in Mexico City might create a network of usages. One activity feeds the other: ‘Research is an essential aspect of my studio’, Montiel comments. ‘Our design depends on the nuances we find in each project, whether public or private.’
She has recently completed two urban rehabilitation projects in sensitive areas of the country. Built in the 1980s, the housing clusters of Azcapotzalco’s San Pablo Xalpa look like any other anonymous residential towers, exuding idleness and abandon-ment. Security is an understandable concern in the Mexican capital’s north-west – a few days before our visit, an off-duty policeman tried to stop a robbery on a bus a few blocks away from San Pablo Xalpa and ended up being shot by the criminals – but fences sometimes appear to be erected with no particular purpose, exacerbating divisions rather than appeasing tensions. And, even fenced off, some of the green areas are strewn with litter. As the inhabitants used to put up temporary tarpaulins to celebrate special occasions, Común-Unidad (Common Unity) aims to formalise communal gatherings and encourage recreational activities in the street. Over a three-month period, Montiel and her team asked residents what they thought was needed to improve the residential unit’s courtyards. The low-cost interventions to engage with people in a ludic, innovative way, and assess their needs and aspirations are what she calls ‘site-actions’. She argues that ‘when people become engaged in the betterment of their community they care more for each other’.
Placemaking, an idea she insists on, is ‘a process more than it is a product – the added value of emphasising the process is that we take into account social capital’. In San Pablo Xalpa, the built intervention is minimal yet elegant and efficient. A series of welded steel profiles support a semi-translucent roof, and the small room is used for zumba lessons, film screenings and birthday parties, including the important quinceañera celebrations – when I visited, there were traces of sticky tape on the beams, balloon strings left over from a previous event, and I was told that the space gets cleaned once a week by the neighbours. The idea is to extend the residents’ apartments out into the public realm. The steel modules are equipped for different activities – blackboards, climbing walls, handrails and nets are attached to the structure – and, around the corner, an existing small library was refurbished as part of Montiel’s intervention. One of the tower blocks’ residents was away during the construction period of Común-Unidad and was pleasantly surprised upon his return – his mother had been sending him photographs of the project’s progress but he was sceptical and even questioned the veracity of the pictures.
When asked by a client to build ‘a rooftop to protect a basketball courtyard from the sun, heat and rain’ in Lago de Puente, in the suburbs of Veracruz, the architect rapidly proposed an entire community centre, using ‘the exact same space and little more than the original budget’. Cancha seemed an obvious proposal after they observed a dramatic lack of public space and urban amenities in the area. ‘We seek our content in our context, we don’t work on purely formal terms’, says Montiel. Inspired by the Greek agora, the portico structure aims to make the outdoors inhabitable, even in hot temperatures, and welcomes a wide range of uses between its columns: steps and miradors, ladders and hammocks, a play room and open-air gym. The vegetation helps to provide shade and create a unified habitat, complete with a small library, a multi-use room and toilet facilities. When the developer realised the positive impact and added value the project brought to the surrounding social housing – an inspiration for future commissions, perhaps – he invited a biologist working in the natural reserve to set up a herbal clinic with a botanical garden, where the community is taught the benefits of local medicinal plants. As a result of proactive cooperation, the ‘healing effect’ of the project was immediate.
Cancha was built amid one of the vilest cases of systematic corruption in recent memory in the state of Veracruz, involving unspeakable acts of personal illicit enrichment of the now fugitive ex-governor Javier Duarte. Despite the circumstances, Cancha was able to get off the ground. Politics are, inevitably, part of the discussion. ‘All architecture is political’, says Montiel, ‘we become political the moment we build in, with, or for the polis, the city. Everyday decisions build the city. We can read in daily spaces the political priorities of our society. Architecture has the power to shape civic behaviour because, more than laying bricks, it lays the founding principles of public and social exchanges.’
What is exemplary about Montiel’s studio is that it works within the residual shapes of modernity and, unlike some of its contemporaries, does not seem to be anxious about repeating its massiveness. There is a disposition to take a project as a chance to understand its context – Montiel is no formalist, and she doesn’t respond to the whims of a certain style. Although she acts with some preconceptions of shapes and materials, the approach is closer to how an industrial engineer might operate. ‘We often re-signify common elements by placing the accent on different formal approaches and building systems. We also re-draw entire sites – redrawing is a way of looking closer at the real, of picking up details that are crucial in transforming reality’, she explains.
‘I feel very comfortable being small. I want to grow but I don’t want to have a big office’
Montiel tries to personally supervise each construction, at least fortnightly. There is a caveat to having a ‘hands-on’ approach as most of the time there won’t be a salary for this type of management, but she agrees that supervision is key for assuring certain things that simply cannot be delegated. She compares the idea of a studio’s size to how the quality of a restaurant degrades once it grows and becomes a large chain. There are no towers to be lauded, no airports, no museums in her portfolio. ‘I feel very comfortable being small. I want to grow but I don’t want to have a big office – I feel that you can quickly lose control and quality.’
She is currently finishing a house in Tepoztlán, Morelos, made of stone, raw concrete and teak – the kind of project that gets called ‘exquisite’ in interior design publications. She is quick to differentiate between ‘austerity chic’ and luxury.
‘I think it is possible to change our vision of what luxury is. If we understand luxury solely as financial excess and extravagance, we are still in a wasteful mentality, but if we understand luxury as a wholesome space that has a positive impact on the quality of life people lead, then luxury is possible for everyone.’ The problem is that, just as a politician will always discuss the good of the people regardless of inclination, the notion of ‘social’ is almost universally believed by architects, taken as a given, to the point of becoming empty rhetoric; in reality, most architecture exists between the vacillations of favouring an aesthetic and making do with a seldom ideal budget.
Currently on the drawing board are social housing projects, Rural House and Extra Room, where Montiel experiments with low-cost, lighter and more sustainable materials that perform particularly well in hot climates – bamboo and thermic recycled polyaluminium. ‘As an architect, I too shape the political vision of the city’s major stakeholders by making them aware of the human aspects enabled by functional striking design. And I’m glad to see my opinions and recommendations have been welcomed, valued and respected. The city I aim for is one where public space becomes participatory, where people can appropriate space and develop a sense of community and identity.’
‘If we understand luxury as a wholesome space that has a positive impact on the quality of life people lead, then luxury is possible for everyone’
Many of Mexico’s ills are born in not realising the vastness of its extension and failing to set realistic goals by its leaders. There’s no lack of leadership, but a lack of willingness to approach scarcity in serious terms. To say Montiel’s studio is driven, talented and laser-beam focused would be to place its work next to the lot of designers receiving praise for building scaled-down versions of malls, good looking apartment buildings, or illegally financed properties. But given the country’s undeniably grim hour, the lack of impudence in her studio is what makes its work a good case-study on how an ethical approach to building in an urban context might ameliorate what is already there. As far as urban architecture studios go, this might be as grounded as they get.