Flying low into Mexico City is a special experience, a conflation of aeronautics and urban sprawl. The mountains open to reveal a vast capital city with rampant urbanization far from its symbolic centre in the Zocalo. The shadow of the jetliner washes and folds over the roofs and yards of a seemingly endless carpet of city blocks. It brushes several isolated high-rises and jumps multi-lane traffic arteries, infested with SUVs, ageing buses and the ubiquitous Volkswagen taxis, before rejoining its host wings and fuselage on the approach runway to Benito Juarez International Airport.
This is the Mexico City analysed, dissected and catalogued by the young architectural practice LCM in its 2000 publication ZMVM. LCM stands for Laboratorio de la Ciudad de México, ZMVM for Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México. Recently LCM changed its name to LAR: Laboratory of Architecture. If such titles assembled from initials suggest OMA, MVRDV and other contemporary Dutch practices, then it is not surprising that Fernando Romero, the key personality in LCM/LAR, worked for Rem Koolhaas and OMA (the Office for Metropolitan Architecture) from 1997 to 2000. Based in Mexico City, Romero’s ambitions are also global.
ZMVM presents Mexico City as one of the world’s most populous conurbations, second only to Tokyo, growing from a core of 27.14km2 in 1900 to an expanse measuring 1,325.76 km2 today. Corralled into eleven chapters with titles such as Water, Infrastructure, Education and Youth, ZMVM mixes statistics with images of everyday life: butcher shops, customised villas, shantytowns, car bumper stickers. This portrait of a city - a manifesto almost - is unsentimental, full of energy, and with an eye for image.
LAR’s most recent addition to metropolitan Mexico is its tallest building yet. This exceptionally skinny apartment tower is a totemic element thirty-four storeys high at Santa Fe south of the city centre. There are three apartments per floor, attached snugly to the service core but expanding towards perimeter windows stretched across the external skin. Two of the apartments are arranged symmetrically about the core whereas the third - in reality a residence in the skies - occupies the largest portion of the pie-like plan. All fan outwards to a panorama of fast-evolving urban roofscape.
The site was formerly a rubbish dump. With a kind of brutal pragmatism, perhaps more reminiscent of contemporary China than either the United States or Europe, the area is being developed with office towers, apartment blocks, and "the biggest shopping centre in Mexico". LCM/LAR first identified the site, seeing potential in an unorthodox, triangular property that had not appealed to mainstream investors with preconceptions of rectilinear planning; the young practice was even responsible for an initial down payment on the site. However, six months before completion 75% of the units had been sold.
Above five levels of parking, with a sports club to one side of the base, the Santa Fe tower is a smooth object clad in aluminium panels that were manufactured in China. It’s not exactly as the architects first envisaged it—there were supposed to be shading fins, and a gradation of grey across the external skin—but these architects are very conscious of their professional reputation in the context of Mexican economics and politics. They seem to have achieved this ambitious project both as an independent building project and as an iconic element adding to a reading of the contemporary city.
The Romero team re-interprets the legacy of international Modernism, both its rectilinear and curvaceous strands. Such previous projects as the so-called Doll’s House in Mexico City and a fantastical vacation home at Ixtapa on the Pacific coast used radical curves in a manner reminiscent of the Austrian visionary Friedrich Kiesler. Other built works, including a branch office for Inbursa Bank and the bank headquarters in the Palmas neighbourhood, are consciously glazed boxes in the manner of Craig Ellwood in 1960s Los Angeles or, more recently, Romero’s former employer Rem Koolhaas.
The branch office is situated at a busy corner in one of Mexico City’s most fashionable districts, close to Chapultepec Park. It’s a single glazed volume raised free above the illuminated automobile court at street level and reached via an exposed, open-thread staircase. Animated by synchronised grey-blue light, it is clad in translucent panels typically used for the screens of automatic teller (ATM) bank machines. As night falls, the bank becomes an urban lantern.
A few blocks away, the Palmas Corporative Building houses private offices for the owner of Inbursa Bank (he also owns an impressive collection of Rodin sculpture). The building replaces several domestic houses, but retains a single roof datum due to pre-existing height restrictions. The new design presents itself as a blade of deep blue glass, a single gesture tweaked only by the entryway, by a protruding beam perpendicular to the façade, and a indentation to one side. The rooftop beam houses an electronic sign, signalling to passing motorists, whereas the indentation responds to the requirements of money delivery vans.
It is tempting to characterise LAR’s work as simultaneously strategic (that sense of the importance of planning), iconic (the power of singular gesture), and pragmatic (an ability to facilitate often mundane restrictions). As at the Cinna Bar, a nearby lounge renovated by the practice, glass is manipulated for its glamorous potential. If the external skin of the Cinna Bar (China Bar) is red, and therefore emotional, the Palmas Corporative Building is blue and cool and plays tonal games with the sky. The blue is also close to the bank’s corporate colour.
Interiors are lined in white Arabescatto marble that leads to a grand central staircase. With a habitable lower floor, where the site slopes away from the main road, the total structure accommodates more than 500 employees. Yet only 18 elite individuals occupy the uppermost floor, and this hierarchical arrangement determines the rhythm of the vertical glazing pattern to the exterior.
As Romero and his collaborators revealed in ZMVM, the contemporary city is structured by many simultaneous systems. In the Mexico City of LAR, architecture operates between permanence and the transitory.