“Here is the connection” - words mentioned by Scottish-born American artist David Byrne while holding a prop brain in his hands during his recent “American Utopia tour”.
He shares how studies reveal that at birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as stars in the Milky Way, and almost all the neurons the brain will ever have. During the first years of life, the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes.
As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500 but by age two or three, it is about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.
So, what are we eliminating? What connections are we losing? In a world where we are trying to re-establish social broken tissues through architecture as a platform and where “what we built ends up building us”, where is the connection?
Growing up in Mexico City where the current population is 22 million people, you learn to hold on to every creative synapse as a survival mechanism. You are challenged all the time as an individual, even just by walking in the streets. Your connections are your street smarts and the more you have the better.
Mexico is one of the places where people are ingenious by necessity because of a collapsed system. If the city was a brain, it is as though a loss of neurons from system collapse had encouraged an informal city of growing synapses. This informal Mexico appears in various layers. You can watch it pop up magnificently each day as the city wakes up. The street vendors are some of the best soloists in this performance. They defend their interests in Mexico City, because they are able to successfully take advantage of certain structural features of the Mexican state.
The informal markets that take over the streets and fill them with a vibrant pink color, the cuida coches (people that take care of your car in the street while you run your errands) are hanging around the street as this becomes their office space for the day and sometimes night. You can watch the pop-up quesadilla and taco stands that start gathering a crowd as soon as they are installed in the early morning.
And if you are very aware and pay closer attention, you then realize that whatever they are selling in the street is a direct reflection of the tangible need in that space. These human synapses responding to community yearnings are organic, alive and pulsating to the beat of the inhabitants of this great metropolis.
Reflecting on how such yearnings become real has taken me on a magnificent learning ride in projects we have designed and built in the studio that I can only begin to reconstruct here. I have found that discarded or overlooked talents and genius are everywhere waiting to be embraced and restored. In architecture these precious synapses of a responsibly built future are called “craft”.
Built on craft… When I was designing the PR34 House back in 2001, I remember that we wanted the result to be a metal seamless finish without any panels that you would normally see in architecture façades. We imagined two elegant structures interacting effortlessly like dancers. I needed to look in different places to find the correct craftsmen for the job and not be limited to the construction industry alone. We found them on the street in body shops, repairing wrecked cars and making them like new again, craftsmen who loved their jobs and were proud of what they did. The idea that this kind of love could be built into a house I had designed blew my mind. But it went beyond that; the love of their craft by these workers transformed the entire process of construction and finally organically enveloped the joyful clients living it.
People go by a piece of striking architecture and they typically ask: who lives there, who owns that? I would rather ask, who bent that wood or cut that beam? Who made that curve and how? I feel the building’s humanity in the individual craft of each gesture. The energy of their hands is embedded in the work as a sign of the times. I think that was part of the success of PR34. The original ballet vision of mine was close to the truth but the music was in the craft that gave the dancers their stage.
In each project I have learned the cultural importance of architecture, from using local craftsmen for the manufacturing of construction elements, to creating opportunities for the inclusion of public space in buildings that rarely think about such facilities. Can a grocery store or a cinema be created in such a way that human contact and civic unity are enhanced and not simply channeled from entrance to point of purchase?
The cultural elements of architecture and this human connectivity cannot be add-ons. Using local craftspeople for the manufacturing of construction elements speaks to each project as an act of community. Mobilizing citizens and local expertise and traditional crafts in the creation of a project invites culture into every aspect of the project. People can see themselves or their connections through craft. Living in an era of digital images, the need for tangibility and realness arises.
“Craft slows things down while it increases the intelligence of the whole. Traditional techniques take more time, but they maintain and enrich the importance of human connection”. If we engage people and expand their curiosity, we mobilize a powerful force for change and civic vitality. If caring about all of us is seen as an architectural element at every stage of creation, we will have better outcomes.
From architect to trusted advisor… While working for Nestlé on a private invited competition… I remember that the brief suggested a type of stage design within the existing chocolate factory for children to visit with their schools and come out with a better understanding of how things where made there. I remember asking my team: “Is that all we can do? Can the project be more to the immediate community? Can a project paid by one person or company give back to a broader community and have a positive impact to its surroundings?”
We did some research on chocolate museums in Mexico. Our first piece of data was the surprising discovery that there were not any. Without really understanding back then what we were doing, we took the risk of presenting an extended proposal that would include the Nestlé “chocolate museum”.
Not only did we not follow the brief, we actually reprogramed it and won the competition. This propelled us from designers or architects to “trusted advisors”, suddenly closer to the brain of the entire enterprise. We learned the power of meaningful client relationships where you are expected to speak your mind and make the best project possible.
Can architecture become a platform for social reconstruction? Most of our projects completed until now at Rojkind Arquitectos have been about being advisors to our clients, making sure we are not only building with bricks, concrete, glass, etc… but also rebuilding social structures that have been fractured in our communities over time.
Designing for “other” things to happen
“Picking up where governments and city planners are failing”.
Questioning what a building can do requires a broader conversation that goes beyond the architect and the client. The more skilled thinkers are involved in the conversation, the better the result. In order to change the original brief or scope that clients had asked us, we have been fortunate enough to work with sociologists, anthropologists, landscape designers, urban planners, policy makers, lawyers, financial experts, etc., to create the best solutions and give back to communities, even in projects like the Liverpool Interlomas department store located in a car-dependent suburb in the state of Mexico, where the lack of public spaces, public transportation and lack of people walking is shocking. So besides being asked to design the façade of an anchor department store - a task that went from working parametrically from a 3D model directly into fabrication without the bureaucracy of any 2D drawings - we also asked what more we could do for the store’s surroundings?
We worked with the client to use the rooftop of the building where you would normally find oversized equipment. We cleaned it up and converted it into an outdoor park area that hosts events while creating an interior food hall where people can have a nice time. Tangible evidence of how this can restore social connections came as the store changed its hours during weekends until 2 AM because people loved hanging out there.
I love digital fabrication and computational design as much as the next architect, but as a citizen of Mexico City I believe that whatever technology we use to create each space or structure we must invite the individual citizen into our space to make it their own. Technology is in fact a part of this explosion of creative human improvisation that all of Civilization is built on. Creation by necessity… creativity by necessity. Survival as creativity. All of our spaces should acknowledge and encourage this experience of creativity. It should embrace and connect to the power of people and their impulses to craft things around them. And that is why in my company we talk a lot about going “from digital design to local fabrication”.
If you have ever heard me speak or had a conversation with me, I always overuse this phrase “why cannot we invite people to do this or that…?”; I did not invent it obviously but my observations of the world around me have taught me that the key challenge facing urban planning and architecture is creating a proper invitation. How do we approach the people who embody the craft of humanity and mobilize them for the hard work of the future? It is not a method or a grand strategy; it is a simple invitation, an expression of respect and politeness and compassion, and this is something I believe deeply. When I approach someone on the street during a run because I am curious, I show my respect, ask questions and embrace what they are doing and - without fail - a fountain of information about craft and soul and friendship comes out. Suddenly we are collaborators. People working hard to survive as I have seen all of my life in Mexico City scare so many of the educated elites of this world and yet these survivors embody the will to live. This is the life force that we must enshrine in our work.
“But craftsmanship, manual work, will always remain.”
Take the example of a simple grocery store we created in Mexico City in a neighborhood with enormous issues of food security and people on the edge of poverty as well as prosperous citizens demoralized by their long commutes and the pointless urban struggle of traveling long distances to supply their households. Our project was an invitation to the people not simply to shop for food but to be involved in the harvesting and planting of it. We built a vast green produce farm on the roof and made the space
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