Two Mexico City studios from the GSD joined forces with the Loeb Fellows to explore the sprawling cosmopolis and apply their creative imaginations to addressing urban problems.
The Loeb Fellowship has continued its tradition of joining a GSD studio trip each spring semester. This year the Fellows, Sally Young and Jim Stockard traveled to Mexico City with Felipe Correa’s studio "Between Geometry and Geography: Mexico City.” They coincided there with "Flexible Leviathan: Reconsidering Scale and Fixity in the Contemporary Metropolis,” led by José Castillo and Diane Davis. The two studios embarked on what Castillo terms a "sectional tour” of the city by minibus, passing through some 700 feet in elevation change.
Mexico City spreads over a wide and variable geography, with peaks, ridges, ravines and plains. Thus, it is very difficult to get an overall sense of the city. However, the sectional tour sliced right through a seemingly vast, irreconcilable urban monster in order to distill important features about the city.
The minibus picked up the Loeb Fellows in city center, where a man and his canine friend were commuting via bicycle, a mode of travel regaining momentum in Mexico City. It headed west to Santa Fe, which is a sleek burst of high-rise office towers. The development is the latest business district in Mexico City. It might be the ideal suburban enclave if not for the choking traffic facing residents and visitors.
Topography and geography go hand-in-hand with policy decisions, land tenure, and urban investment. In one particularly drastic example, the minibus traveled on a ridge straddling two ravines.
On one side of the hill is a dense settlement of self-built houses, while on the other is a gated community, accessed through a tunnel guarded by armed guards 24-7. These gated communities are privileged by huge subsidies from the government in order to exist.
Thus, Castillo revealed the extreme inequities in access to and dispersal of civic services in Mexico City.
Heading east, back towards city center, the minibus negotiated the narrow streets that are packed with vehicles, pedestrians, and street markets. Castillo pointed out how shared street principles create a thriving street culture.
Correa’s studio is investigating the role of architecture and design within urban works and infrastructure such as the periferico.
The tour arrived at Iztapalapa, the most populated, most dense and most marginalized delegación (borough) in Mexico City. Following recent elections, borough president Delegado Jesús Valencia and his team have three years to enact visible improvement in the urban form.
Within the borders of Iztapalapa is Central de Abastos, the largest market in the world by volume traded daily. Yet there are also microcosms of urban life. For example, streets are lined with street vendors around the clock.
The minibus rolled on to Faro del Oriente, an arts and cultural center that runs free visual arts, sculpture, dance, music and multimedia classes.
La Montada, the site for the Flexible Leviathan studio, awaits proposals to redesign an area that currently hosts a mounted police center, housing, and a water retention pond. The mix of housing includes government subsidized housing developments, as well as self-built houses. These residents do not have land tenure, however they hold political power and voice with the delegación.
As the "sectional tour” came to a close, Loeb Fellows and students participated in a discussion with Delegado Jesús Valencia and his team about potential areas for economic development and urban transformation.
After the return of the Loebs and students to Cambridge, Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron visited Mexico City on invitation by Revista Ensamble, an architecture and design magazine. They delivered a lecture, "Potentials in Architecture,” to discuss how architecture can be harnessed for social interaction in public commissions.
On a tour with the Mexico City government, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron visited Iztapalapa. Within Iztapalapa, La Montada is one of the sites being considered for a "thematic neighborhood" under the emerging city plans. The visits however have caused ripples of controversy throughout online communities in Mexico City. Some blogs are questioning why the delegación is reaching out to a foreign university and foreign architects for urban planning ideas.
Flexible Leviathan thus is participating in a visionary studio brief, yet also grounded with a real client, real site, and very real contestations over territory and development. The delegación realizes the need to infuse policy-making with public participation in order to realize urban transformation that is effective and has lasting impact.