Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos Interaction between Art and quotidian life - Taller | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo |
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Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos Interaction between Art and quotidian life

Taller | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo |

Edited By Raymund Ryan - 1 October 2016

Cuatro Caminos is a vibrant urban center on the western boundary of Mexico City. Named for the intersection of routes on this site in Pre-Colombian times, Cuatro Caminos (Four Paths) is an intensification of the myriad forces at play in the vast Mexican capital, rather than any traditional civic form in itself. Today, in addition to its bustling commercial facilities, it is also the terminus of Line 2 of Mexico City’s metro system. The urban morphology is complicated and in transition. The environment is loud and hot. It’s not the most obvious place to discover a new museum dedicated to photography. Funded by the Fondación Pedro Meyer, the Foto Museo seems deliberately removed from other prestigious facilities in the Mexico City cultural scene, and embedded instead in the fabric of the everyday life of contemporary Mexicans. The building doesn’t prance about or stridently beckon its presence. People hurry past without necessarily paying much attention; visitors may have to ask several times for directions. It is aesthetically discreet. Yet its discretion is also, potentially, an advantage, part of a strategy to consider art and quotidian life in harmony, with each reflecting and reinforcing the other. Search on the satellite map and the site still appears as a skinny parking lot; or, more precisely, a skinny cluster of industrial buildings temporarily used to park automobiles. Before that, the structure had been a plastic bottle factory. It has now been sensibly and sensitively refurbished by Taller | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo |, architects known for sober structures like the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (2000), the San Pablo Oztotepec Market (2001) - both on the opposite fringe of Mexico City - and the School of Plastic Arts in Oaxaca (2008). Rocha is also the son of the famed Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide. In terms of scale, the Foto Museo lies between recent expansive commercial galleries and smaller bespoke museums. Unlike the latter, the Foto Museo has no permanent collection. It may recall the first Saatchi Gallery in 1980s London (architect: Max Gordon), the “gold standard” for minimalist gallery spaces, yet is more open and porous. Mexico City benefits of course from a benign climate. Like the Sculpture Center in New York’s Long Island City (architect: Andrew Berman), the Foto Museo enjoys a degree of spatial heterogeneity. A sense of inside and outside. It is in fact an assemblage of inherited structures. Three utilitarian buildings have been refurbished as key components of the new institution: a two-story warehouse perpendicular to the street; a two-story structure parallel to the public realm; and a long, single-story shed extending along the rear of the property, at an angle to the street. The first and second blocks retain - indeed, expose to view - their simple concrete columns and flat roof slabs. The third, elongated volume is free of any columnar interruption. Running north/south, it has a shallow saw-tooth ceiling admitting light from the north, a limpid post-industrial discovery deep in the urban grain of Cuatro Caminos. The block perpendicular to the street and the long shed to the rear are refurbished as exhibition space. The block parallel to the street now functions as offices and educational studios. In-between, and accessed directly from the street, is the foyer for the new institution. The architects have implanted an elevator and minimal decks to connect the blocks next to the street. To the rear, they’ve inserted a small tower, a frame structure including a mezzanine level. Rather than fill in the full building envelope, they keep the interstitial zone free of program, creating a calm vertical patio at the intersection of the museum’s constituent parts. There’s an impressive delicacy to these new insertions, a delicacy that results not so much from aesthetic fashion as it does from a critical understanding of fabrication, structure and assembly. The architects’ agenda is signaled right on the sidewalk with the double entrance doors of ribbed, translucent glass held in a meager, black steel frame; they are typically kept open, allowing for the hustle and bustle of the public street to seep in. The elevator is straight ahead, with glass doors and rear membrane of floor-to-ceiling glass caught between twin blades of poured-in-place concrete. Your eye is attracted to the sunlight beyond. In discussing cultural institutions, technology and social experience are key to any critical checklist. At the Foto Museo, you are not bombarded with new media. The galleries are kept simple. Spaces are not compartmentalized for environmental or security reasons. A new pale concrete floor extends uninterrupted. Walls are white, ceilings black. Yet new metal structures - the steel frame of the tower-like insertion and the canopy-like roof above the patio; the elegantly meager balustrades - are matt grey. It’s a black (or almost black) and white world brought alive by natural light admitted from several sources. The patio and the framed insertions are where the architects’ hand is most evident. The structures are positively Spartan, skeletal or wiry 3D frames allowing contents and activities to be on view. Here the floors of concrete pavers set within a rectilinear metal grid recall both geometric Modernism and vernacular construction methods. The white wall of the refurbished warehouse, conversely, is a solid surface with generous punched openings for easy access and internal views: a game of solid and void, skinny frame and load-bearing wall. The new roof casts a delicate linear shadow onto the patio floor far below. Take the elevator and emerge onto a set of open and shaded terraces, a superimposition of decks and pavilion (intended as a restaurant) with panoramic views across the neighborhood to the foliage of the Panteón Sanctorum cemetery. Here again you sense tectonic authority. Guardrails between columns extend to function as low cantilevered benches, as if the rigor of Mies van der Rohe is in service to the humanistic agenda of Aldo van Eyck and others in Team 10. When operating, the pavilion restaurant should be a urban social hub, an elevated luminous cage in the evolving palimpsest of Cuatro Caminos.

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