MuAC is the acronym for the Museo universitario Arte Contemporaneo (university Museum of Contemporary Art) at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the southern zone of Mexico City. The university played a seminal role in the history of modern Mexican architecture, with buildings by such important figures as Mario Pani, Juan O’Gorman and Félix Candela distributed about a broad plateau. South of the main campus, a clutch of buildings for the visual and performing arts rise from a field of solidified lava; they have now been joined by MuAC, the latest work by one of Mexico’s master architects, Teodoro González de Léon.
From the air, MuAC is most likely seen as a great circular disk, a geometric symbol missing a thin slice toward the south, where an open plaza is graced with a totemic sculpture by Rufino Tamayo and a linear, recessed pool. From the ground, whether viewed by car or on foot, that diagram is a little less clear. The curving concrete palisade is broken through by several projecting boxes; it is the south-facing façade that demands attention, if not respect and curiosity. Unlike the principal concrete wrapper, this wall is made from flush sheets of glass canted at a shocking 45° angle and reflecting, in principle, the plaza pool. This is the civic face of the institution.
The canting of this giant vitrine mitigates the impact of the hot Mexican sun. Its expanse and iconicity is characteristic of González de Léon’s architecture, as with the monumental facades of the renovated National Auditorium (1992) in Mexico City and of the Mexican Embassies in Brasilia (1972) and Berlin (2001). However, unlike the architect’s earlier Brutalist works, many of them in collaboration with the late Abraham Zabludovsky, MuAC is marked by the sleekness of its surfaces – not only the sloping and curved exterior but the airy interior labyrinth of exposed concrete, glass, and flat ceilings striped with flush channels that admit copious natural light.
It’s quickly apparent that the circular theme is limited to the outer ring wall. The interior is almost uniformly orthogonal and composed primarily of constituent pavilions arranged about internal streets and discreet patios. A key decision by González de Léon was to pierce the museum with a broad, communal thoroughfare that permits students and faculty (should security guards be assigned) traverse the museum’s light-filled foyer during their daily perambulations on campus. Here the Agora, MuAC’s educational facility, is on view to the east whereas a descending staircase offers glimpses to a large archive area and a surprisingly elegant restaurant on the lower floor.
This lower floor nestles into the natural lava topography with a glass-floored external deck to the east and more mundane delivery docks to the north. There’s an auditorium with an intended capacity of 300; and splendid offices for MuAC officials at the base of the canted glass façade. With the upper gallery sequence determining MuAC’s plan, González de Léon has not risked any casual “throw of the dice”. There’s a logic to his placement of rooms, a strict planning module with limited number of doorways and, on occasion, raised ceilings that allow those halls read as cubic extrusions above the roof. Thus MuAC aims for informality in a rather formal way.