Vivienda Colectiva: Fernanda Canales on Housing and the Human Dimensions of Architecture

Avocet Greenwell

In a global architectural landscape dominated by large practices and big names, Fernanda Canales contributes a wealth of sensitive and thoughtful projects through her design and scholarship. Fernanda was educated at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico and received her PhD in architecture at the Universidad Politécnico de Madrid before opening her own firm, Fernanda Canales Arquitectura in 2002. Canales deftly incorporates her technical training into a successful architecture, design and research practice grounded in locality and site specificity. From large-scale housing projects to intimate domestic settings, no two of her built projects are the same, but they all draw on Mexico’s rich architectural legacy, which she explores in her research and through her practice.

Canales’ extensive research on Mexican architecture—and housing specifically—lends her work a unique blend of exquisite architecture and social responsibility. Her tour-de-force 2-volume Architecture in Mexico, 1900-2010 is a comprehensive examination of Mexican architectural history within its social, political, and artistic context; a heroic and detailed work that accompanied an exhibition she curated. It’s no wonder that her writing and building has been published widely, and she has garnered accolades as a finalist for the 2018 Swiss Architecture Award and a winner of The Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices distinction. Ahead of the translation and republication of her sold-out book Vivienda Colectiva en México, Fernanda Canales discusses her architectural practice and the ways it blends with her research on Mexican social housing.

Avocet Greenwell: You have a very distinctive architectural style. How did it develop?

Fernanda Canales: Each project is a response to the site. I engage in research on the specific conditions of every project. Before doing any sketches, I try to understand the climate, the path of the sun, the weather conditions, the views. I’m part of the generation that formed with the idea of Rem Koolhaas saying “fuck the context.” When I studied architecture my instructors made me believe it was not necessary to visit a site to do a project, but instead to do competitions and work with people on the other side of the world on sites you’ve never visited. I worked that way for a couple of years. I believed technology and media would make everything possible, but after working on a couple of competitions and for a couple of clients, I realized I had to be on the site.  It was way out of fashion from the 1960s; Merleau-Ponty and Norberg-Schulz, those were the readings our professors, the older generation, relied on. My generation had to understand the possibilities of technology and media, while not forgetting the realities of sites and the things that you only understand in person.

One of your projects, the Elena Garro Cultural Center in Mexico City, exemplifies this contextual awareness. Could you tell me more about the project and process?

That project grew out of contradiction. The client was the Mexican Ministry of Culture, and they owned an old abandoned house that had been illegally occupied in the historical neighborhood of Coyoacán. This area is also called the “ungentrifiable neighborhood” because the laws haven’t changed for decades so it is almost entirely 100-year-old houses. They’re huge houses, around 1,000 square meters each, but they’re built for 14 kids that nobody has anymore, so they’re often illegally occupied.

The Ministry of Culture wanted a cultural space with an auditorium, bookstore, and library to provide different services for the community. The brief was to give this house a public condition, but the existing structure could not be touched because of the zoning restrictions in Coyoacán. So how do you open up a house if you’re not allowed to touch the windows or façades? The idea for the project was to build a frame in front of the house, a triple-height public foyer, in order to bring the books onto the street and invite in people who maybe have never read or bought a book before. They might not know how to read. The idea was to invert the public and the private space, making the street, sidewalk, and house one continuous space.

Your project, Casa Bruma, deals with domestic space in a very different way compared to the Cultural Center. The private residence is segmented, creating public space within. How did you approach that project differently than the Cultural Center?

The Cultural Center was built on residual space around a massive central structure, but the opposite happened with the Casa Bruma site, which was approximately ten times the size of the Coyoacán site. It’s a generous amount of space, but because the Casa Bruma site is so steep, it has three very different conditions: the top part is forest, the middle is a transition zone, and the third part has no trees or vegetation. The client wanted the main building to be in the area with no trees, which would have been easy to build because it wasn’t steep, but there are neighbors on all four sides of the site. We thought about putting the house in the middle of the site to protect the views and maintain privacy, but we couldn’t remove any trees. The final design for the house is a response to the site, the views, the climate, and also the strict regulation that made it impossible to touch the existing vegetation. The idea of exploding the house, of breaking apart those volumes, emerged from the fact that there was only space for small separate structures. The interiors need as much sun as possible—you can have a shift in temperature of 30 degrees Celsius each day of the year.  So every volume has its own orientation in relation to varying sun conditions. The disconnected volumes allowed us to design three or four sides with different window orientations. A central courtyard links the different volumes. I have been working for several years to rethink the traditional patio in Mexican culture, trying to find new ways to explore its possibilities. It also aligns with my practice’s focus on inverting—or expanding—the relationship between interior and exterior spaces.

Aerial view of Casa Bruma. Courtesy of Fernanda Canales.

an overhead view of casa bruma - 9 gray rectangular buildings arranged in a circle, 5 with lush green rooves, in a lush green landscape with a stone central area and winding stone paths on the exterior.

You don’t just build buildings, but have an impressive array of books. Your sold-out book, Vivienda Colectiva en México (Gustavo Gili, 2017), for example, emerged from your extensive research on housing in Mexico. How has this research impacted your design projects?

This research is the only way to make sense of the enormous social and economic contrasts we have in Mexico. Architects here work on very different scales—one modest house for a family of five can fit in the closet or bathroom for a wealthy client. There is such a contrast in social and economic conditions. For example, I’m working on high-rise urban housing projects, which have very different conditions compared to small rural projects. There are huge gaps between the rural and the urban, the rich and the poor, the public and the private. Studying history, architecture, and circumstances from different decades allows me to make sense of these contrasts, whether the massive population boom in the 1950s, or the security and economic conditions after the revolution. Understanding different eras gives me a better sense of problems that we think are new, but have actually been around for decades. We always speak about safety and the drug war as if they are recent phenomena, but one hundred years ago we had a revolution and security was as important an issue as it is today. Trying to understand the projects built then and trying to understand what we have now is the only way for me to approach these contrasts.

You’ve spoken at panels in the US assessing the housing crisis, contributing your expertise in relation to housing in Mexico. Do you see similarities in these crises and their architectural responses?  

Mexico has more housing scarcity than other countries, but also more empty and abandoned houses than others. We have more than five million abandoned houses. Most of them are new and because they were built far away from infrastructure and public transport, they’re unsafe and useless to their owners. For example, in the past thirty years, the population of Mexico City grew forty percent while the urban area expanded 260 percent. These contrasting situations don’t make any sense unless you analyze statistics and research studies alongside proposals by architects like Luis Barragán or Juan O’Gorman or Mario Pani; their interests in affordability, in low income housing, in social agenda are very similar to what we need now. We have this important legacy we can easily apply to contemporary issues because those architects dealt with the same cultural situation, economic scarcity, and understanding of local building methods and materials we work with today.

Palacio Social, 2016. This conceptual project seeks to address the more than 5 million abandoned houses in Mexico, the informal economy that contributes to sprawling housing development, and the vast majority (90%) of single-family housing stock. The project is a critical response to these converging factors and their impact on Mexico’s urban extended growth model. Courtesy of Fernanda Canales.

a rendering of a conceptual project - a dense living area that looks like individual modules stacked on top of each other in a metal frame. between the buildings are lush trees,

How is Mexico City recovering from the 2017 earthquake? How have architects contributed to both the short and long-term rebuilding needs?

The reaction to the earthquakes of September 2017 was different than the earthquake of 1985. In ‘85 there were thousands of damaged buildings, but in 2017, in Mexico City, there were only forty; we felt we were doing things better. After a few days, however, it became clear that the destruction that resulted in nearly forty deaths had to do with corruption—many buildings had more floors than regulations permitted and didn’t follow building codes. Another condition became evident: in 2017 the problem wasn’t just Mexico City. The worst destruction occurred in rural communities near Mexico City and as far as Chiapas and Oaxaca, where the earthquake had a terrible impact in low-income communities and remote places. Today, over one year after the earthquake, people are still living without roofs. We, as architects, got together for the first time to respond to situations we are not usually involved in, like rural construction and low-income housing. It’s a way of starting to get involved in places architects are not usually considered, but where we are needed.

Fernanda Canales at work. Courtesy of Fernanda Canales.

Fernanda Canales in a white t shirt and jeans, hair down, sitting on the ground outdoors with papers and working with a row of white Styrofoam cups

How do you measure the impact of your work, whether your design and architectural practice, your research on housing, or your books?

I measure the impact of my design work through the clients living in the spaces I design. If I see clients using the space in ways I never imagined and adapting my design ideas to their own lifestyles–that’s the response, I think, of the building to the users of the space. It’s really different when a baby that wasn’t even born yet when I first signed a project is now a five-year-old kid running through the stairs that I anticipated would be used one day.

I have less feedback from research and writing projects because I don’t see the impact. It’s through the comments of critics and people who have read it, but it’s much more sporadic and difficult to grasp. I think the only way you know if a book makes any sense to people is if it sells out or if they want more. Buildings respond immediately in the way people use them and how the building integrates into the city. When I return to things I’ve written years later, I see it through different eyes because I have some distance from it. For both books and buildings, they offer an understanding of the passage of time; the works become part of something else.

Featured image: The Elena Garro Cultural Center’s street-facing bookstore in Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood. Courtesy of Fernanda Canales.

About the author:

Avocet Greenwell (b. Cincinnati, OH) is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Studies program. They are interested in representation and accessibility in urban and architectural design, and are currently working with the City of Pittsburgh to make Pittsburgh a friendlier city for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Find Avocet on Instagram.

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