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Social housing in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, by Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

Tatiana Bilbao Social Housing

The new housing units are no doubt thoroughly researched - but their execution fails to deliver

This project saw Tatiana Bilbao shortlisted for the Women Architect of the Year Award 2016

A recurring trait in the architecture of Tatiana Bilbao’s studio is that most of the lauded works of recent years have a contextual abundance of nature, but little relation to it.

This does not mean that raw concrete or pink rammed earth – two of the architect’s chosen materials – do not harmonise with nature, but there seemed to be an impulse for using mass in concentrated geometries instead of allowing the volumes to show porosity towards their built environment and not interfere too much with what was already there.

Consider Observatory House, the studio co-designed with and for artist Gabriel Orozco: the project can be seen as poetic architecture, an innovative way of repositioning a pre-existing form (the house is a 1:1 replica of one of the observatories found in Jantar Mantar, India) and echoing the stillness of Casa Malatesta. The house can also be seen as a violation of the cliff by cutting and pasting an esoteric whim into it. As digging and bulldozing is involved, the purity of its geometries is not enough to qualify as a discreet landscape intervention.

Tatiana Bilbao Social Housing

Tatiana Bilbao Social Housing

Source: Ramiro Chaves

Tatiana Bilbao  Social Housing

Tatiana Bilbao Social Housing

Sections - click to expand

Most projects by Bilbao’s studio cannot be conceived without a periphery to transform at its disposal. This largely contrasts with the typical building conditions in the vast, urban parts of Mexico, where insecurity has turned neighbourhoods into hermetic spaces for houses and streets, with security bars all over the ground- and first-floor levels, favouring the notion of safety instead of openness. Under conditions of insecurity, decorum and grace are the unfortunate sacrifice that the urban image of Mexico consistently shares in all of its marginalised zones.

‘Most projects by Bilbao’s studio cannot be conceived without a periphery to transform at its disposal’

So why is it that a studio that, according to a piece in the New York Times, has delivered ‘an eclectic portfolio of work that includes a 10,000ft2 neo-Brutalist palazzo, the masterplan for an art-filled botanical garden and a spiritual refuge in the Jalisco Mountains’ opted to design a modular housing unit with the goal of reproducing it nationwide?

The architect unveiled one of two of the firm’s prototypes for affordable housing at Chicago’s Biennial, a flimsy 1:1 model of a really simple structure, with portions of it begging for karate chops.

TatianaBilbao Housing3

TatianaBilbao Housing3

Source: Ramiro Chaves

Informed by a process of 2,000 interviews, Bilbao’s studio has nailed the biggest concern in all Mexicans’ minds regarding their housing expectations: they want their houses to appear finished. The accompanying text to the model exhibited in Chicago states: ‘Always preserving the outside appearance of a completed house’, involuntarily sounding like something from a Richard Yates novel. The architect has said that: ‘when people are told that if they save enough money there is a possibility of having a second floor in the medium term, they always say “yes, as long as the house doesn’t look unfinished”.

‘A recurring trait in the architecture of Tatiana Bilbao’s studio is that most of the lauded works of recent years have a contextual abundance of nature, but little relation to it’

At first glance, the trouble with this simple, gable-sliced volume is that, given the diversity of geography, materials, climates and topographies found in Mexico, there’s little chance for the prototype to translate well on a national scale – already evident in the example built in Chiapas, with an overimposed relation to the surrounding rainforest landscape.

There are 15-plus such houses by Bilbao in Ciudad Acuña, a suburb south-west of Los Altos de Santa Teresa. A border town with Texas – a 90-minute drive north of Piedras Negras Airport, one of Coahuila’s busiest – the houses were commissioned by the federal government with more to come. The people of Ciudad Acuña have proven to be brutally resilient, with the average income of around US$60 a week per family, who are overseen by a succession of creepy administrators.

Withadditionalbedrooms jpg

Withadditionalbedrooms jpg

Conceptual plan with additional bedrooms

With restaurant

With restaurant

Conceptual plan with restaurant

On 15 January, the ex-governor of Coahuila was arrested in Spain on serious corruption charges. His brother is the current governor. On top of this, in May last year, a tornado gravely damaged more than 3,000 houses. Mexico’s federal administration recently rebranded an old secretariat and turned it into the Ministry of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development, conceived to work quickly on similar contingencies by offering brand-new housing developments and even rebuilding entire villages, such as La Pintada, Guerrero in 2014. The houses in Coahuila by Bilbao’s studio are part of this joint effort so, to some extent, they exist as emergency architecture.

‘The randomness of organising the different volumes is supposed to generate flexibility in spaces but, instead, produces confusing results’

At architecture school in Mexico City, we were shown images of developments by GEO, a national housing company, as an example of the one thing to avoid when designing housing units – tens of thousands of homes somewhere in Mexico, illustrating the desolation of suburbia. What layman can honestly compare the work of GEO with Bilbao’s houses and say that one is the product of frivolous, greedy capitalism while the other is an act of cohesiveness, restraint in the usage of materials, and the product of architectural discourse?

TatianaBilbao SocialHousing5

TatianaBilbao SocialHousing5

Source: Ramiro Chaves

At the housing cluster, immersed in an urban situation, Bilbao has assembled a man-made landscape of neighbouring houses. Adjacent to the housing, a couple of traffic islands with restrained urban elements, a serpentine path and a modest-coloured stone pattern offer little to no shadow to the inhabitants –  in a city with an average temperature of 35°C and heavy rains in the summer.

The randomness of organising the different volumes is supposed to generate flexibility in spaces but, instead, produces confusing results. When one mirrored house faces another, a deserted terrace shared by both is created. This is a trait that exhibits how a play on coloured wooden pieces might work well as an exercise in spatial configuration, but if the project results in later demolition, and by suggesting the possibility of duplicating the built area of some houses, the goal of presenting its inhabitants with a finished unit is rendered moot. Some of these spaces are begging for a balcony. The subtext of having to work hard to get work done at home is almost perverse. Where does leisure fit in this space? All of Los Altos de Santa Teresa and the neighbouring Las Aves share this monotony. Bilbao’s prototype is one of many repeatable housing typologies that appear through this part of Ciudad Acuña’s streets, the others are more traditional looking, with streets named after saints. Only seven parks exist in what feels like a cartoon loop of houses and ‘uninspired-traffic-islands-cum-public space’.

Colouraxo jpg

Colouraxo jpg

Conceptual volumetric studies

Some of the nearby houses on sale are advertised as floodproof. Will these houses resist another tornado? Some of the slopes in the irregular topography should help. One of this prototype’s highlights is that its walls are made of 150 x 200 x 400mm cinderblock, which, in terms of architectural character, is more soothing than using sheets of drywall – now the standard material for residential construction. The familiarity and sturdiness of cinderblock is superior to standard prefabricated house construction. But the houses start showing problems in their interconnection, which is precariously achieved by building fences between them.

A 1m-high wooden fence in Mexico is laughable – it is definitely more pleasant to look at than chicken wire but it will not work for safety purposes, forcing the dwellers to make later alterations. And cornered windows on ground level for protection? I have mixed feelings about the omission of security bars for this part, but can’t help thinking that it’s more a problem about how much we all want to believe in the social contract, but aren’t willing to give the benefit of the doubt, for safety’s sake. We want to sleep safely.

Some of these spaces, particularly the suggested later uses for the connected spaces on the ground floor, feel like a very specific dollhouse where, instead of being delighted by it, you are expected to be aspirational and forced to consider working hard for a better house in the near future.

TatianaBilbao SocialHousing2

TatianaBilbao SocialHousing2

Source: Ramiro Chaves

Both designs (type one and two) occupy a similar floor area ratio but offer different interior configurations: the first one offers more than half of its first-floor area as a grand double-height space for the living and dining room. The internal problems in house two are more serious. Let us remember a vague rule of thumb about bathrooms: lavatories aren’t supposed to face bathroom doors. The whole bathroom plan would have a different intimacy if the lavatory were transposed with the basin. That is what the Neuferts’ Architects’ Data is for. The shower next to the squared airbricks would have worked better with a ventilated view and the possibility for soap or shampoo to go somewhere. The smaller a house, the more important every niche of it should be.

‘The history of social housing in Mexico is a turbulent one’

Another problem is encountered in the floor plan of the second model, with a corridor that becomes a dead-end. This could have been a bigger room, a space for interconnecting the living room’s double height with the upper floor, more storage space (given that these houses do not initially include cupboards for all rooms), or even a balcony if the entire area of the first-floor room were pushed next to the staircase. Residual floor space is almost immoral in projects of this nature.

Section 2 jpg

Section 2 jpg

Section - click to expand

To be fair, if one inspects the floor plans of historically significant showhouse projects in, for example, some of the Vienna Werksbundsiedlung, some of them do include lavatories facing the door. But the good ones don’t. Neutra’s model house doesn’t. Loos’s model doesn’t either. This could be seen as a trivial jibe at an otherwise noble effort, but if this new housing prototype isn’t the ideal place to be obstinate about such minutiae in spatial organisation, where is?

If the Bilbao studio’s contribution to low-income architecture is reduced to sacrificing a terrace in favour of hiding a view of the plastic water tanks, and offering a double-height living room so families can put their TV sets higher, as some of her diagrams suggest, then this is a good project to ponder: what is the added value of a designer label to low-cost architecture?

Since Alejandro Aravena became the first recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, there’s been an air of hope among social housing advocates to substantially address how unsatisfactory it is to pay for architecture. Yet some firms seem bothered by how little recognition architects get, and argue that architecture should be present in every person’s life, as a sort of human right. Tatiana Bilbao, commenting on the issue of affordable housing, feels: ‘It is important that architects get involved in projects of this sort. Architecture is a social necessity, not a luxury.’ There is an arrogance to this pose, in assuming that architects are capable of producing all types of building, andthat the products of architecture are inevitably works of quality. There is a problem in not realising that, after a certain point, one’s work traces an indelible path. In contrast to the architect’s words, Bilbao’s studio has certainly favoured projects that could be deemed ‘luxurious’ – not in the ritzy sense of the word, but in a vastness and exquisiteness that can only be achieved by genius designers and with landscapes to intervene in.

TatianaBilbao axo

TatianaBilbao axo

Conceptual axonometric with different communal uses

The history of social housing in Mexico is a turbulent one. Recently, with major housing companies on the verge of bankruptcy and decades of overall negligence by developers, some architects such as César Guerrero – partner of S-AR, a Monterrey-based architecture firm, and coordinator of non-profit organisation Comunidad Vivex – are making a point of redefining social architecture: ‘Social housing architecture often gets confused with affordable housing or low-cost architecture. I think the latter only deals with economy, with numbers and quantification, whereas the former deals with people, the qualities but, most of all, with people’s participation in the projects, and their involvement in all stages to generate identity, belonging with the built … It’s of little use to offer prototypes in communities if people won’t participate. In social housing, the social aspect is what’s important and not the dwelling itself.’

Next to avenue Sur Poniente very little life, little hope, is visible. An air of blandness seeps through this effort; it feels as though Bilbao has tried to rebrand a tried-and-tested formula for social alienation as a carefully researched project that has been cheaply solved. An as-built study should also be undertaken in some years to see if the model has been successful.

What is problematic about this architecture is that, irrespective of the research undertaken in the creation of the prototype, much of it seems to exist for reasons of taste, and it relies too heavily on ‘niceness’. This is a project that illustrates how architecture must address and prioritise needs, but this has not been tackled successfully here.

TatianaBilbao Housing4

TatianaBilbao Housing4

Source: Ramiro Chaves

Housing in Ciudad Acuña

Architect: Tatiana Bilbao

Project team: Valentina Marchetti, Enrique Silva, Sonia Castañón, Abelardo Bravo, Alejandro Campos, Karen Díaz de León

Photographs: Ramiro Chaves

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