The Avenida Insurgentes is a major thoroughfare running north/south through Mexico City and intersecting, at an oblique angle, the Paseo de la Reforma, the principal artery of the Mexican capital. Reforma has nationalistic monuments and mature trees and, more recently, ambitious skyscrapers lining its edges. Insurgentes is less grand, with a mixture of business premises and apartment houses divided by a steady stream of traffic. Just north of Reforma, a somewhat mysterious structure is aligned flush with Insurgentes. It hovers above an extensive ground plane.
This is a fire station evocatively named Ave Fénix after the phoenix, that mythological bird reborn through fire. The new facility replaces a nightclub that burned down, with tragic loss of life, in October 2000.
Ave Fénix presents itself to the bustling avenue as a glistening façade, a taut billboard stretched across the lot’s eastern boundary with few graphic identifiers or significant clues to actual scale. It is composed from vertical panels that, in instances, are set slightly apart to allow glimpses into the building’s bowels or inner skin. One of these vertical, zipper-like gaps reveals a brilliant red interior. In daylight the façade, bridging an almost continuous void at street level, appears to reflect or mimic the urban sky. At night it is illuminated by recessed, vertical streaks of light such that Ave Fénix participates in the electric scenography of this very contemporary city.
The aluminium panels are held forward of an opaque inner wall. This composite elevation acts not only as a static billboard, to be viewed frontally from across the street, but also - when glimpsed from passing vehicles - as a kinetic marker.
The street and pavement flow directly into the shaded void beneath this elevated façade. There are no gates or shutters. Here, depending on circumstances, the apron-like floor is occupied by trucks and vans and motorcycles all emblazoned in the vivid red-and-white livery of the city’s fire department. It’s a young boy’s dream, all this mobile fire-fighting equipment on immediate display. The red vertical line, noticed on the exterior, is seen to swell inward as a translucent membrane and wrap a curvaceous chamber (its flank carries the names of the station and its commandant). To the right, as if to balance this molten form, a curvilinear void is carved from the ceiling. Daylight enters the garage.
Not only is the garage open to the street and, it appears, the sky, visitors can circulate about the sensuous oval of dark, ruby red glass; observe a skeletal staircase enclosed like a specimen in its bell jar; and return to the public pavement. They become aware of three oculi also cut from the ceiling, and a long slot parallel to Insurgentes that, open to the elements, instigates a kind of anti-vertigo with its tightly framed view to the upper zone of Ave Fénix. Then, to the right, a second stairs is seen rising, against the end wall, to disappear into the roof plane.
At this spacious and dramatic fire station, many components of construction - stairs, beams, glazing, helipad - are exposed to view as in a complex mechanical toy.
Above the fire trucks is a new kind of space, three storeys high. Its floor is punctured by the circular cuts in-filled with industrial grating. Its canopy roof is likewise eroded, mitigating direct sun and rain. The north wall, containing the access stairs, has a façade of flush rectangular panels. The south end is occupied by the sealed red volume animated by reflections and by hints of interior structure. The long internal façade farthest from Insurgentes has an exposed walkway and walls of floor-to-ceiling glass. Facing it, balconies protrude like diving boards through a diaphanous glass screen. They alternate about slim poles of painted steel that ascend from the linear chasm between the floor and this interior elevation.
Ave Fénix harnesses the life of the urban fire station to theatrical effect. The billboard onto Insurgentes screens three storeys of accommodation, with a refectory and games room at first floor level, dormitories above, and a gymnasium plus extra sleeping areas in the uppermost zone. This is a 24-hour facility; thus sunlight is undesirable if personnel need to rest during the day. The stacked balconies, balustraded on two sides only, allow firefighters operate at optimal speed during emergency calls – they access a balcony into the central hall, momentarily transit the void to grab an adjacent pole, and swiftly descend to their vehicles below.
The linear zone to the rear of the site has a store and library immediately off the upper patio. The red translucent volume, rising unimpeded through the full height of the building, has a smooth outer surface. Structure is however exposed on its interior which is furthermore bisected by industrial-style stairways and bridges.
This vivid vertical space functions as a foyer for public access to classrooms (above the library) and a tiered auditorium. The auditorium rises through two storeys, with recreation space on the remaining area of the topmost tray. The front and rear blocks are capped, across the central hall, by a sleek, blade-like ceiling that is punctured by circles of different sizes open to the sky.
This highest layer has more to reveal. The roof functions as a heliport. It also provides cropped views of the city’s rooftops, including Carlos Obregón Santacilia’s robust Monument to the Revolution (1933–1938).
Ave Fénix was designed by two teams of architects working in collaboration. at 103 is an up-and-coming practice led by Julio Amezcua and Francisco Pardo, both recent graduates of Anáhuac University in Mexico City and Columbia University in New York; its name is derived from the studio’s street address, Rio Tiber 103, in the adjacent Cuauhtémoc neighbourhood.
BGP Arquitectura is the office of Bernardo Gómez-Pimienta, formerly a director in TEN Arquitectos (designers of Hotel Habita in fashionable Polanco) and now also Director of the School of Architecture at Anáhuac. On Insurgentes, the architects have together realised a building of contemporary sophistication.