Covadonga Conversations

Emerging architectural practices in Mexico City

Rosamund Diamond + Helen Thomas

During the summer of 2017 we held a series of conversations with a group of seven architects from different countries – Spain, India, Mexico and Germany, all practicing in Mexico City. On the surface, informal meetings at the Covadonga bar in the Roma Norte neighbourhood and long friendships constitute their principal connection. They are tied together in many ways, however, having spent time in Europe – mostly in the office of Herzog & de Meuron, and in Mexico, where the studio of Tatiana Bilbao provides a nexus. Conversations have continued from London and following the autumn earthquakes of 2017, which for some meant finding a new office space.

The architects we interviewed are Max von Werz of Max von Werz Arquitectos, and Israel Alvarez and Mariana Tello of Módulo 11, who shared a floor of an office tower until the 2017 earthquake. The other four are Christoph Zeller and Ingrid Moye of Zeller Moye, and Blanca Bravo Reyes and Udayan Mazumdar who have both worked for Bilbao since moving to Mexico. Von Werz, is the common link between them, and before settling in Mexico City he spent in his year out from studying at the Architectural Association as Bilbao's first employee. Each member of the group, except von Werz who worked for David Chipperfield, worked for Herzog & de Meuron in Basel and London. In these European practices, they gained experience of managing substantial projects and learnt how the procedural structures of large, professional offices maintain consistent quality. Brava Reyes and Mazumdar were employed by Bilbao because, according to Brava Reyes, "Tatiana wanted people with more work experience, used to dealing with everyday life on a complex project, and with strategic capabilities." Bilbao's office offers considerable design involvement to its younger architects. Unlike the European practices which have "developed languages and processes", and more conventionally hierarchical Mexican practices, Bilbao's, which has grown swiftly to over 50 with 30% of its architects non-Mexicans, maintains a fluid approach to collaboration and authorship  in its office and with other practices,This is an essential factor of its success.

(Not) Another Tower was undoubtedly the messiest tower exhibited at the Chicago Architecture Biennal in 2017. This comprised Bilbao’s response to Johnston Lee’s brief for 16 international architectural practices invited to contribute to their Vertical City: a Hypostyle Hall stage set made up of a 4 x 4 grid of 1:24 models, one by each contributor. Contrary to the other installations, which generally fulfilled the ambition for solid, single material tower and column constructions, Bilbao’s was a 14-storey frame bulging with heterogeneous proposals by 15 newer, less established Mexican practices, including von Werz and Módulo 11, who she had invited to collaborate. Jostling ensued for sites on the lowest, more visible levels, in an ironic reversal of real estate logic.

Bilbao’s contribution to Vertical City is typical of her approach to architectural practice. In the opinion of Bravo Reyes, “she is an effective operator, getting work into the office and herself known. She is collaborative - that is her superpower. She's a good spokesperson for Mexican architecture and she really does her best to bring others in and give them a platform.” Permeating the Mexican architectural scene, this sense of sharing arises, in the words of von Werz, from “the sheer quantity of work, which means that there is enough to go round. Sometimes people are too busy to work on a project and it gets passed along, or they might collaborate with other people. That kind of open social format exists not only within the architectural scene, but also generally.” In Mexico City a multi-faceted discourse on the manifestation and dissemination of architecture takes place in different locations. Some of these are formalised and have specific outcomes, such as the exhibitions, publications and events produced by Liga, set up by Productora in 2011, or Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura, founded in 2012, and some are more spontaneous networks and groups, such as the salons held at the architecture/art production studio Tezontle.

The Covadonga group is characterised by an openness of exchange with the free availability of work resulting from a generous non-competitive environment in which to discuss architecture. Rather than signalling a dissipation of power, it generates a strong position. There are some common themes in how these emerging practices operate. Alvarez describes the collective quality of architectural production in terms of the process of building: “In Mexico a piece of concrete has a story behind it, there are a lot of hands behind the construction of a column, for example. In Europe it is very different – it is an abstract production process. Here the story is related to people. The perfectly resolved detail is not the most important thing, it is the big picture, an overall vision created by a group of people with different skills that matters.” The architecture of the Covadonga group reveals their connections with the European practices where they worked in the formal resolution of their designs, but the less regulated system in Mexico, including a greater accommodation of design risk by clients, offers them design freedoms and opportunities to investigate new possibilities that are almost impossible in Europe. Zeller refers to the open attitude of clients to experimentation as "playfulness, not just in terms of the materials but with all the processes".

The work of the Covadonga group arises partly from direct collaborative methods, compelled by the Mexican conditions of cheap construction labour and home produced versus costly imported products. Their use of handwork in construction can be interpreted through the economic and social conditions, the adaptation of simple standardised elements universal to Mexico, and an inversion of the mass production of more complex products familiar from their European experience. In many of their projects, there is a direct approach to developing design through its making. Zeller points out that "the fact that you have readily available craftsmanship, and that this is cheaper than a product off the shelf, means that you can invent everything as a designer. You develop the wall, the window etc from scratch, you're almost working like a modernist 100 years ago." But this craftsmanship is not the same as the European conception of craft practice. As von Werz says, "while we have this romantic notion of craft as this refined, noble tradition, it is something largely absent from Mexican construction. At least on projects with average budgets, and certainly public housing projects, only unskilled labour is on hand, and a palette of quite ordinary building materials. The challenge becomes how to use the toolkit of very basic techniques and processes to your advantage." This approach has resulted in the aesthetishisation of cheap, repetitive elements in installations such as Zeller & Moye's Popo at the Museo Tamayo and Frida Escobedo’s at El Eco, 2010, and her use of purpose drilled cement roof tiles in this year's Serpentine Pavilion, London.

Their interpretation of re-use relates to the accumulative way in which Mexico City has developed, as von Werz describes, "in layers that are often in contradiction, but then unexpectedly blend together the mixed culture, the mestizaje1, to form a coherent whole". Existing buildings are treated as more than physical shells, supporting recent policies of inner city re-densification and mixed use. Von Werz's OMR in Roma uses additive techniques including a "thickened wall" and standard materials including steel profiles to reconfigure a mid 20th century building as a gallery.

Housing for workers is a major theme in Mexican architectural debates. In his Introduction to the first issue of Vivienda INFONAVIT2, Carlos Zedillo outlined his strategic intent as Head of its Research Centre for Sustainable Development (CIDS), within this huge government institution that provides financing for workers to purchase homes. Formalised in 2016, Zedillo’s experimental department grew out of a four-year process of collaborative research within which a framework coalesced for the commissioning of emerging practices to engage with the morphological and typological problems arising from the long-term institutional provision of mass housing. These are most strikingly communicated in images of the huge dormitory towns constructed by one of Mexico’s largest housing developers, Casas GEO. Composed of relentlessly repetitive identical units in gridded rows, devoid of infrastructure, they are almost completely disconnected from the cities they encircle.

Zedillo's response was to create programmes with specific agendas, such as the physical rehabilitation of public space, where often resident-led briefs for parks and communal facilities were fulfilled by the young practices that he commissioned. Different members of the Covadonga group have taken part in this process. Modulo 11, for example, have designed and constructed various public space projects, such as the park at Rinconada del Los Angeles, 2015. This was inspired by the polygonal basalt formations of the area, a source of local pride. It was important that the materials and construction be robust and easy to maintain. As Mazumdar3 states, “with social housing the issue of maintenance of the buildings and the environment is important. A project has to be sustainable so that it costs the inhabitants as little as possible to maintain.” He continues, “Rules exist for environmental control but they are not regulated. Taking them on board is influenced by social aspiration. On the other hand, INFINOVIT pushes this agenda, and the projects commissioned by CIDS are as self-sufficient as possible.”

These ambitions were inherent in ‘Vivienda Unifamiliar Regional: 32 Entidades, 32 Arquitectos, 32 Propuestos’, an initiative bringing together Mexican architectural offices for the development of experimental housing prototypes for specific locations4, some by more established practices such as Tatiana Bilbao, Alberto Kalach, Taller de Arquitectura5 and Dellacamp Arquitectos; and others less well known, including Fernanda Canales, Rozana Montiel and Modulo 11.

In their response to Zedillo’s brief, Alvarez and Tello addressed various concerns, for example to the hot, dry climate of Nuevo Leon, with reference to the area's vernacular housing, and the requirements for a dwelling that could grow and shrink. These investigations were to inform a later project commissioned by Zedillo, after the destructive earthquakes of autumn 2017, in which 19 offices have been commissioned to design housing for 40 families from a remote rural community in Oaxaca State, epicentre of the earthquake. Here, the employment of vernacular materials and construction techniques is an essential component of proposals responding to the requirements of displaced families, whose form of living is very different to the urban or suburban dweller. Framing this activity are the questions of the flawed project of modernism frequently raised in the debates amongst Mexican architects, often articulated within Arquine6. On the issue of technology, Wonne Ickx, a Belgian director at Productora, questioned current conversations on the most robust way to construct housing in earthquake zones poking fun at ‘La Edad del Barro', the Mud Age7 – on one side are the proponents for concrete frames and blockwork, on the other those for local vernacular methods, using earth construction, timber and palm trees. This world of architecture, although produced out of what every member of the Covadonga group describes as “the bubble” – the lively, bohemian and relatively safe area of Mexico City defined by the Condesa and Roma Norte districts, exists on a different plane to what von Werz describes as "a glossy global architecture of mass-produced materials, disconnected from a large proportion of Mexican reality."

1 Mestizaje has been described as "interbreeding and cultural intermixing of Spanish and American Indian people" with the origin of the term's use in the 1940s OED Online
2 INFONAVIT Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores
3 Several INFONOVIT commissioned projects have been developed in Bilbao’s studio
4 Exhibited in 2014
5 Mauricio Rocha and Gabriella Carillo
6 For example In January 2014, Juan José Kochen published an article called ‘Vivienda ¿para que?’ that described the problematic housing conditions that Zedillo was already challenging,
7 Arquine, 23 November, 2013