Mexico’s unique alchemy of bountiful land, natural resources, inexpensive labor, and mild climate has long offered local architects, as well as progressive émigré architects from the European continent, countless sites of experimentation. The opportune blend has produced a vast collection of building “prototypes.” The Mexico City–based architect Fernanda Canales has been an earnest and committed chronicler of this canon. Her latest book is an extensive catalogue of housing projects, nicely bound and published in a handsome volume by Actar. Canales argues that housing the society’s population should be at the top of any country’s agenda—that it is the collective pooling of individual particularities and idiosyncrasies that makes for civilization. Yet in this notion lies the challenge of the book: how to synthesize concisely this broad array of singularities?
Architectural publications typically combine words and images to best put forth a perspective on the works shown. But Canales’s book does something decidedly different. It is split into two parts, texts and drawings. Canales repeatedly argues that the house, in its relation to its site, history, and occupant, is the essential building block of the world we produce. The world is currently in dire shape, she contends, and framing housing issues in a more human-centric way, making cities more ecologically, is necessary to save it. Channeling Aldo Rossi, she claims that a transformation in society is inconceivable without a change in architectural form. Domestic space is a setting for intervention, the stage upon which “a new life can be realized.”
The bulk of the book consists of images of 70 multifamily projects, designed over the course of 100 years (between 1917 and 2017), intertwined with short statements by architects involved in housing during that period, including Luis Barragán, Alejandro Zohn, Tatiana Bilbao, and Zeller and Moye. The group of projects is sorted and reformatted by Canales and her team to compose a new whole. “What is shown are attitudes,” writes Canales.
While the book argues for an individualistic conception of the home in relation to society, the chosen representation of the projects in fact strips them of all their character and singularity. The axonometric used to depict each project flattens it and reduces it to monochromatic graphics floating disconnected on a white page—the sites are merely city grids, devoid of buildings and life. The perspective of the citizen-dweller is absent. In their deconstruction, the question arises, what is there of the projects’ attitudes to discern?
The book does a great job of consolidating an impressive selection of buildings, and includes many projects that offer even the connoisseur something new. Yet what we see on the page matters. How can one represent the vast array of collective lives in a personal manner? There might have been ways to maintain some of the buildings’ and their inhabitants’ personalities—a unit plan depicting how life might occur, an indication of where collective spaces appear, and some information about how many homes the building contains. Thankfully, Canales ends the book with the addresses of the buildings, so we can go and see for ourselves the inhabitants in their relation to the city around them.
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