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Editorial> To The South
William Menking on the importance of Mexican modernism.
The Sunset Chapel in Acapulco, Mexico by Bunker Arquitectura.
Courtesy Bunker Arquitectura

The San Diego architect Teddy Cruz is fond of telling local audiences that “California doesn't end at the Tijuana border but stretches all the way to Mexico City.” Cruz is trying to make the point that the two economies are inextricably linked. Indeed, his own work shows how materials, goods, and culture move constantly back and forth across borders.

Mexico, of course, has had an extraordinary architectural culture—longer than our own. And the work now coming out of that country makes it clear to me just how powerful and creative the visual and intellectual resources are for Mexican architects. And just how much we nortenos can learn from our southern neighbors.

For the fourth year in a row, the just-ended World Architecture Festival in Barcelona was loaded with outstanding work by Mexican architects. I served on the Civic and Community jury (with University of Michigan dean Monica Ponce de Leon and Barcelona architect Fermin Vazquez). The first out of sixteen projects presented was a small private chapel in Acapulco, Mexico by the young Mexico City firm Bunker Arquitectura. The Sunset Chapel is set on a wooded hill over looking the Pacific Ocean just south of the city. The site is dominated by a huge boulder that was impossible to move or break. Ingeniously, the architects of Bunker created a structure emerging from a small base that gently touches the ground and lifts the chapel space some 16 feet up and over the boulder. The concrete structure is windowless, mimicking the giant rock but also looking as if it had been carved by a precise mason. Then at the chapel level, narrow carved windows open up to bathe the space in light and provide stunning views out to the Pacific Ocean and the sunset.

The entire Acapulco structure is very small and simple in plan and elevation but nonetheless a statement of the power of form that we have come to expect from the architecture of the region. From Pre-Columbian cities and monuments and the hybrid Colonial period resulting from Europe crashing into the indigenous cultures, the region produced (but admittedly also destroyed) cities and monuments of an elegance and sophistication absent in North America. Mexico has more sites—29 to be exact—on the UNESCO World Heritage list than any other country in the Americas. Their cities exhibit an urbanism rare north of the border, from Emperor Maximilian's Haussman-inspired Paseo de la Reforma and Puebla's Mexican baroque monuments to the modernism of Acapulco’s seaside resorts. Even the border settlements in Mexico from Tijuana on the Pacific to Reynosa near the Gulf of Mexico exhibit compelling urban and spatial qualities entirely absent from their suburbanized American counterparts just across the border.

The Mexican tradition of modern architecture while it borrows heavily from European and American influences is a unique formulation that rivals any in the Americas, arguably excepting Brazil. It has produced outstanding structures like The Institute of Hygiene in Popotla (1925) by Jose Villagran and the Ciudad Universitaria complex (begun in 1950) outside Mexico City by a collaborative of talented designers to the extraordinary structures of Luis Barragán and Spaniard Felix Candela.

In recent years through Emerging Voices and Young Practices, the Architectural League has been highlighting many firms, like Bunker, that are too interesting to ignore, among them Productora, Tatiana Bilbao, Frida Escobedo, and Ivan Juarez. (And see our Studio Visit in this issue with Fernando Romero of FREE). In October, the Bronx Museum held a two-day conference on Latin America, while last night I attended a lively panel on the same at Pratt, and Barry Bergdoll of MoMA is planning an exhibition on Central and South America. The vibrant work to the south of us has long been there, it’s about time we started paying attention.

William Menking