by Elena Tomlinson, M.Arch Student
The first encounter with Distrito Federal, Mexico is marked by the endlessness, monotony, and grittiness of its metro system. The first impression however, had already been made ahead of time. The existing conditions of our site were charged with the familiar discourse of crisis — the ominous presence of “la mancha urbana” threatening to put an undeserved end to the “Venice of the New World.” Such was the premise of the Mexico City studio — a joint effort between UC Berkeley, Universidad Iberro-Americana, and the California College of the Arts. Our field trip was intended to be a search for Mexico City’s beauty, but also an anticipated encounter with some of its grim reality. The biggest surprise was that Mexico City lives with its abjection in relative peace — a compromise that seemed to mock our Panglossian zeal as architecture students, our belief that everything will be designed for the best and that we would stop encroachment on the canals of Xochimilco with the best of all possible archaeology museums.
Professor René Davids’ assigned program was provocative. He prompted us to re-think the city and the chinampas through alchemical experimentation, film-making, and landscape interventions. In other words, employing a cross-disciplinary methodology of design would allow us to transgress the space of the archaeological museum and challenge its status as merely a venue of entertainment. Instead, we were to act as curators by critically questioning the art object. The program was designed to unsettle our indifference for the artifact and to help us overcome our museum fatigue. The studio also prompted us to accept the two mutually exclusive but intimately connected forms of urbanity in Mexico City — characterized by informal settlements and unsustainable growth on one hand, and affluent enclaves and gated communities on the other hand. Ironically, the site of our museum mirrored the fragmentation of its larger urban context by being divided into a fenced off island or chinampa on the western half, and an informal settlement on the east.
The design process for the Xochimilco Archaeological Museum was fraught with resolving the tensions between formal and informal, cultural anxieties and political biases, and rural traditions and urban futures. The catalog of all possible solutions that was presented in our final review, speaks to the irreconcilability of some these elements. For example, in some cases the informal settlement was romanticized and left intact, while in others the site was treated as tabula rasa. Our design solutions attempted to bridge the divide between existing living patterns on the site and the actual topography and urban form. But what if we had considered our informal settlement less as an image, but more as a narrative, a process? Less than a space, or built fabric and more as a boundary? All in all, the Mexico City studio strenuously challenged our beliefs in physical determinism and our optimistic design approach by urging us to surrender to the complex, intricate, and contested nature of urban design.
The Mexico City studio conducted during Spring 2007 explored the manner in which the physical and conceptual understanding of landscape can enrich current forms of architectural and urban design practice. The Xochimilco area of Mexico City is well known for its extended series of canals — the remaining vestiges of an ancient system of lakes stretching for most of the valley of Anahuac in the middle of which Tenochtitlan, the impressive capital of the Aztecs, was located. Originally drained by the conquistadors to reproduce the conditions found in Spain, today the lake-bed is almost entirely occupied by Mexico City. The loss of subterranean water has had various ecological ramifications including: the gradual sinking of large parts of the city, loss of natural habitats, depletion of native vegetation, and the obsolescence of traditional agricultural methods of cultivation in the middle of the water called chinampas. Often referred to, incorrectly, as “floating gardens,” the chinampas were in fact, stationary artificial islands created by staking out the shallow lake bed and then fencing in the area with wattle. The fenced-off area was then layered with mud, lake sediment, and decaying vegetation, which eventually brought it above the level of the lake. Chinampas were separated by channels wide enough for a canoe to pass.
The worsening environmental situation in Xochimilco has generated a demand to conserve its landscapes and artifacts while also integrating them to the needs of modern society. The creation of an Archeological Site Museum and Botanical Park was seen as an important catalyst for this goal. Arguing that archeological exhibits need to be conserved within their contexts rather than as objects of display based on their aesthetic values, the studio attempted to connect each exhibit to the historical relationship between nature and man.
To understand the social, political, and environmental context of design, and in order to foster collaboration with Mexican students, architects and landscape designers, UC Berkeley students visited Mexico from January 8th to the 15th. Students were asked to research Mexican culture, artists, and architects; study precedents; create films; and collect rubbings and photographs of the building/construction sites in Mexico. They were also required to draw and research twenty pieces displayed at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City which would be exhibited in the Xochimilco Archeological Museum. Throughout their design process, students were frequently asked to switch from the urban to the museum-interior scale and vice-versa.
The program for the Archeological Museum was developed in conjunction with students from the Universidad Iberoamericana of Mexico City headed by Isaac Broid, Mauricio Rocha and Luis Villafranca, and an advanced studio from the California College of Arts (CCA) in San Francisco headed by Sandra Vivanco. Mid-semester review for the studio took place along with the CCA and Mexican students at a grand review held at the CCA. The objective of the international studio was to encourage cooperation and collaboration among higher educational institutions in the United States and Mexico, increase the knowledge of cultures and institutions in both countries, and help prepare students to work throughout North America. The work of the three schools was exhibited in the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco from May 18 to June 1, 2007 and will also be exhibited at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City later this year.