With its choking traffic and pollution, little public investment, and no coordinated planning, Mexico City seems an unlikely model for urban development. Yet this sprawling hub of 18.5 million people is home to some of the world's most innovative architecture.
It's precisely the challenges of building within such a congested city that have spawned a new model for architecture firms, as documented in an exhibition in New York, "Mexico City Dialogues: New Architectural Practices," at the Center for Architecture until May 7.
The show's models, photographs, and diagrams highlight recent projects by 12 young architects in Mexico City who are literally breaking new ground in a largely unregulated environment that encourages risk-taking. Due to a lack of private and public commissions, this new generation of architecture-school graduates has become developers themselves.
"I'm from Mexico City and I'm very aware young architects had to invent for themselves a different kind of practice," says Enrique Norten, the well-known architect (now based in New York) who proposed the show. "They become their own clients and take their own risks."
José Castillo, curator of the show, calls this modus operandi "expanded practice." In more affluent countries, architects focus on aesthetic refinements such as clerestories and cornices. In Mexico, they work with bricks and mortar, acquiring sites, brokering deals, and navigating the bureaucracy.
Prominent New York architect Bernard Tschumi, former dean of Columbia University's School of Architecture, recently returned from a trip to Mexico City, where he was amazed at the unusual opportunities enjoyed by neophytes. "In New York, to be a young architect is to be 50 years old," Mr. Tschumi explains. "In Mexico City, I was seeing a lot of work done literally by people in their mid-20s, barely out of school."
The reason for such opportunities, Tschumi speculates, is that Mexico isn't bound up by inflexible rules and regulations. He compares this Wild West spirit to the situation in California 20 years ago.
"We in New York were amazed at the incredible freedom Los Angeles architects had," he recalls. "Because of the climate, things could be much lighter and building codes were less constraining, which gives more freedom to experiment."
Strict oversight can hogtie US architects, notes Rick Bell, director of the Center for Architecture. "Our more litigious culture and [regulatory] agencies imbued with a sense of fiduciary and public trust mean [that] those who commission architecture aren't willing to take chances," he says.
The result can be "cookie-cutter solutions and a lot of repetition in terms of the same firms getting the same types of commissions and using the same materials," says Mr. Bell.
At least 100 upstart firms are following this model of "market urbanism" in Mexico City, according to Javier Sánchez, an architect-developer included in the show. When Sánchez graduated from architecture school in 1996, Mexico was in economic crisis and building commissions were scarce.
His firm, Higuera + Sánchez, undertook the initiative to buy a dilapidated warehouse in the Condesa, a neighborhood in transition to a trendy, alternative-lifestyle area. He gutted the interior and created studio lofts - a type of housing that didn't exist in the city - for young professionals, singles, and couples without children. Mr. Sánchez negotiated with banks to convince lenders that these units should be eligible for mortgages. (At the time, new apartments were only two-bedroom units and mortgages available only to traditional, two-income families with children.)
Sánchez not only pioneered a new housing type and mortgage category; he designed a communal space in the heart of the building - a shared staircase and circulation corridor. This interior patio has an additional benefit. With security a major issue in Mexico City, most residential housing is guarded and gated, but Sánchez envisioned a dwelling that does not resemble a fortress. "To have an open courtyard protected by its own inhabitants makes it safe," he says. The residents have become friends and the patio a space for parties.
"By tiny steps, these buildings propose new forms of making urban life better," says Mr. Castillo. "When the state is not able to provide infrastructure and required services, architects must develop strategies to meet the needs of citizens."
Since regulations and zoning are ambiguous in Mexico City, and coordination and planning nearly nonexistent, "these architects don't feel the limits traditional architects have," says Pamela Puchalski, deputy director of the Center for Architecture.
In the exhibition's explanatory text, Jorge Gamboa de Buen, former director of planning in Mexico City, compares these entrepreneurial architects to "social liberators" like Subcommandante Marcos.
Mauricio Rocha, an architect devoted to public works, is another pioneer in Mexico City. With an extremely tight time frame (three months from design to finished construction) and an ultralow budget, he designed a 65-stall market for one of the poorest districts in the city. Knowing the project would be erected by the lowest bidder with incentive to cut costs, Rocha designed the stalls without frills or detailing. The concrete-block stalls are monochromatic cells, animated by the sounds and colors of Mexican life. Stocked with fruits, vegetables, and squawking chickens, the market provides a civic space in an area formerly devoid of amenities.
Projects for the private sector can evince more flair. Michel Rojkind and Derek Dellekamp transformed an old villa in the San Angel residential area into a corporate office for the Falcon company.
Although the idea of blending old and new is rather novel in the city, the architects surrounded the walls of the original house with amber-colored, translucent panels with a honeycomb effect. In between the original walls and the new periphery is a cactus and agave garden, into which golden light pours.
This "expanded practice" model may have relevance to other megacities around the globe. The Center for Architecture, operated by the American Institute of Architects' New York chapter, will hold a symposium May 4, 5, and 7 to examine issues raised by the exhibition. "How to address through architectural practice issues of the environment, traffic, population density, and social injustice is relevant anywhere," Castillo says.
Urban planning has always included an element of utopianism and the possibility of social transformation through the built environment. In Mexico City, architects transform obstacles into opportunities, thus incrementally changing one of the world's largest cities.
As Mr. Norten, the New York-based architect, puts it, "Different solutions emerge from different conditions."