Mexico is getting terrible press for drug-related violence—to the point that many wonder if it’s safe to venture South of the Border. You get a very different perspective on these troubles from Mexico City, a vibrant metropolis that’s far from the gun battles in Ciudad Juárez. Corruption—along with pollution and gross economic inequalities— are ubiquitous, but the mood in the capital is surprisingly buoyant. That’s especially true among younger architects who are cultivating a new level of inventiveness here, responding creatively to context and social needs. Frugal or refined, high- or low-tech, their work shares a lack of pretension and marks a sharp break from the ponderous monumentality of Teodoro González de Léon, Ricardo Legorreta, and other establishment firms.
There’s a warm collegiality among the younger practitioners of Mexico City, a rare and welcome phenomenon in this often cutthroat profession. Many were at school together, collaborate professionally, and meet socially in the Condesa and Polanco districts. Veteran architect Benjamin Romano explains the optimism that sustains him and his colleagues at a time when peers in the U.S. and Europe are struggling for jobs and laying off staff: “Mexicans have endured so many financial crises that they prefer to put their money into bricks, not banks, providing their own funding for construction,” he said.
Enrique Norten led the way, establishing TEN Arquitectos in 1986 and a second office in New York in 2003. Over the past two decades, he has progressed from crisp cubic houses and condo blocks to the Habita Hotel (where he wrapped the concrete skeleton of an existing building in translucent glass) and on to large-scale commercial and residential projects in both cities. He was one of the first to reject the “Mexican architect” tag as disparaging, and his work has a cool universality. That’s evident in his latest building: a bold addition to the Chopo Museum in the Santa María de Ribera district. The linear steel-and-concrete block appears to float within the lofty void of a prefabricated cast-iron hall imported from Germany a century ago, and formerly used as a museum of natural history. Now it’s an animated, university-administered center for contemporary arts. The addition contains ramped galleries on two levels and a library at the top beneath the old ceiling vault. A small theater and cinema are located below the ground floor, and are accessed from a sunken central lobby. The clean lines, open spaces, and glass-railed staircases of the addition complement the springy elegance of the old hall, a bold contemporary statement in its own day.
Alberto Kalach is a near- contemporary of Norten and established his office, Taller de Arquitectura X, around the same time. He developed a visionary plan for the capital, Return to the City of the Lakes, and has realized a few exceptional buildings. Casa GGG has the mystery of a pre-Columbian temple, but it’s stripped to essentials: a massive bunker, admitting narrow shafts of light from above and opening onto gardens. More recently, Kalach transformed a carpentry workshop in the Colonia Roma district into the Kurimanzutto Gallery for contemporary art. Like Chopo, it establishes a lively dialogue between old and new. Glass endwalls and a roof lantern in the wood-vaulted gallery pull in abundant natural light, and flush-glazed windows in the street facade serve a suite of offices. The sculpture court has some of the sublime simplicity of Luis Barragán’s spaces, and the gallery opens up to a sybaritic garden in the rear.
Fernando Romero worked with Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, and was project director for OMA’s Casa de Música in Porto, Portugal. That influence shows in the theoretical manifestos and radical visions he has conceived in his Laboratory of Architecture (LAR), which he opened in 1999. The Soumaya Museum, now under construction in the Nuevo Polanco district, is his most ambitious work to date: a stack of galleries for an eclectic private collection, linked by ramps and wrapped in a flared shell of ceramic tiles that resembles an asymmetrical cooling tower. An ambitious project nearby is Benjamin Romano’s Torre Tres Picos, a ten-story office tower shoehorned onto a small traffic island in a busy intersection. Two walls are clad in steel, the third in glass, and each facade has a distinctive character. Romano is also starting the Torre Reforma in Mexico City, which when completed will be the tallest in Latin America at just over 750 feet.
Michel Rojkind was a drummer in a rock band before launching his architectural practice in 1998. A pierced eyebrow and assertive manner set him off from his understated peers, but he’s quickly won acclaim and major clients, notably for the Nestlé factory and chocolate museum in Querétaro. The Tamayo Museum, jointly designed with BIG of Copenhagen, is currently mired in political turmoil, but construction has begun on Rojkind Arquitectos’ 40-story mixed-use tower on Paseo Reforma, the most prestigious boulevard in Mexico City. It will house retail, condos, and a five-star hotel at the top in a shaft that is stepped back in nine sections with a fragmented, angled glass facade.
Architect-developer Javier Sánchez’s firm JSA has designed more than 30 elegant condo blocks in the Condesa district, and is now branching out into large-scale work for a leading construction company in the capital, and for the Ministry of Education and Health in Tlaxcala. Despite his commercial success, Sanchez has a deep sensitivity toward the historical core of Mexico City, rehabilitating two tenement blocks for poor migrants, and extending the Spanish Cultural Center, which occupies a 17th-century house overlooking the cathedral. Sánchez’s bold addition provides new program spaces and offices on a vacant site to the rear. The upper stories are set back from the narrow street and lit from concrete louvers that filter the light, and a roof terrace shaded by a retractable awning links the two buildings.
Tatiana Bilbao is a major talent and is currently adding staff to handle 40 varied projects scattered around the country. Surprisingly, these do not include Mexico City. Her ambitious proposal for a circular plaza to serve as the city’s bicentennial monument was not accepted, and an impressive gallery for a leading art patron is difficult to access. This year, Bilbao was selected by New York’s Architectural League to be one of its Emerging Voices (as was Michel Rojkind).
Overall, the action and talent in Mexican architecture are still focused on Mexico City. When the latest batch of projects is complete, the capital may well be recognized as one of the architectural centers of the world. But while these architects are by nature and inclination collaborative, there have been few over-the-border exchanges with U.S. architects. It’s our loss, for we have much to learn from the way this new generation of Mexican practitioners are finding fresh solutions to old problems.