As Trump goals to construct a wall, Los Angeles structure college SCI-Arc builds bridges to Mexico

A young architecture student pulls up a representation of a triangular city block on a projector in a modest office on the outskirts of Colonia Juarez, Mexico.

“The best corner is occupied by a McDonald’s,” he says, pointing to the circuit diagram on the screen. “I would start by demolishing McDonald’s.”

The statement is greeted with laughter by two dozen architecture students from Mexico and the United States who are part of a binational initiative launched by the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles last year. You are in Colonia Juárez on this sunny Friday in early February to present ideas on how the disused structures and unused land in the district could be converted into affordable housing units.

For students from the United States – particularly those from Southern California – the sprawling urban context of Mexico City and its diverse neighborhoods provides a familiar model for learning.

Mexico City, like Los Angeles, has “a lot to do”, says the architect Francisco Pardo, who works at the faculty of SCI-Arc and the Mexican Universidad Iberoamericana and coordinates the SCI-Arc Mexico initiative. “There are many different small cities that make up one big city.”

Nevertheless, the cities are at different stages of development.

“With 21 million people [Mexico City] is much bigger than Los Angeles, ”says architect and SCI-Arc Vice Director John Enright. “But it has similar problems with pollution, traffic and housing. At the urban level, it’s the much denser type of city Los Angeles may be approaching. If Mexico City is a middle-aged city and LA is a youth city, there may be things we learn. “

The architect Francisco Pardo (seated, with a beard) from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City listens to student presentations in a joint studio session with SCI-Arc.

The architect Francisco Pardo (seated, with a beard) from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City listens to student presentations in a joint studio session with SCI-Arc.

(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

To this end, Enright and Pardo brought their respective students from SCI-Arc and the Universidad Iberoamericana together to study Colonia Juárez as a group block by block. As part of the contract, they deal with issues of urban renewal and affordable housing – a topic that is just as topical in Mexico City as it is in Los Angeles.

SCI-Arc Mexico started long before the US presidential election and Donald Trump came to power. However, the current political climate, filled with news of border walls and travel bans, makes the exchange more important.

For this month’s meeting, US students spent two weeks in Mexico City doing research. In the spring, the Mexican students will travel to SCI-Arc to meet with their US colleagues and have their final projects reviewed by a jury of architects. This intensive time together enables students from both nations to exchange knowledge and design approaches.

Travel has always been an integral part of the SCI-Arc curriculum. However, SCI-Arc Mexico is a deeper commitment to questions of design and urban planning in Latin America.

For SCI-Arc it’s not just about planning occasional trips. It’s about having a regular presence in the city – including an office where students and faculty can gather and work.

“It’s triple,” says Enright of the initiative’s goals. “Our students at SCI-Arc will have a place to visit when they are in Mexico City, a home base. Here you can reach Mexican architects and potential students who would like to learn more about SCI-Arc. And it is a place for exhibitions, symposia and other programs for SCI-Arc faculties and scientists. “

In connection with this exchange, the school has also developed a scholarship for Mexican nationals who wish to complete their studies at SCI-Arc in the USA

The program occupies space in the same office building where Mexico City-based Pardo, founder of Francisco Pardo Arquitectos, maintains his private studio. (The building, once a company headquarters, now functions as a design center with private architecture offices and high-quality ateliers for furniture design.)

It is an exchange that offers students from all sides a unique learning opportunity.

“It’s an enormous learning curve for the Mexican students,” says Pardo. “They are used to a more classic education, a 19th century style of presenting their work, the faculty evaluates them and that’s it. But in the US system they get criticism from architects, they have to present themselves to a jury , they have to defend their work. It matures a lot.

“And it’s important for US students to see a city like Mexico City. You can see the social question. SCI-Arc is very experimental, but sometimes the social question is left out. This is very important here. Not every building is a new museum in Los Angeles. There are many other things that are going on. “

Administrations come and go, but ideas have longer legs.

John Enright, SCI-Arc

A student takes notes in a design studio jointly hosted by SCI-Arc and the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

A student takes notes in a design studio jointly hosted by SCI-Arc and the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

SCI-Arc Mexico – not a full-fledged school, but rather a hub for satellite programming – is part of an ongoing series of such rooms that are being developed by SCI-Arc worldwide. The school already has a similar initiative in Shanghai. And this fall, Enright expects to open the doors of the SCI-Arc Bogotá in Colombia.

“Architecture is global and SCI-Arc is global,” says Enright. “We have 56% international students from 40 different countries.”

And Mexico City has some interesting architectural case studies to learn from. The city’s urban landscape encompasses everything from the remains of pre-Columbian pyramids to groundbreaking modernist works by personalities like Luis Barragán.

The history of Colonia Juárez, for example, is written in its buildings: beaux-arts structures and Empire style mansions that date back to the district’s settlement in the late 19th century meet modern office buildings that came after the area Mexico City was engulfed by larger ones in the 20th century. Once upon a time, Colonia Juárez was prestigious; then it wasn’t – when wealthy residents fled to more clayey developments in the late 20th century and earthquakes took their toll.

“There are levels of architecture – literally,” says Pardo. “Los Angeles is younger so there aren’t that many shifts.”

Students are pulling these layers back to see how they can create a model that will better meet the urgent housing needs of the city – a model that may one day influence approaches to housing and urban backfilling in Southern California.

Even as political relations between the US and Mexico keep getting cooler, the SCI-Arc program is cementing ties between designers and thinkers on both sides of the border.

“Our convictions at SCI-Arc have always been one of openness and open collegial debate,” says Enright. “Administrations come and go, but ideas have longer legs. That is our attitude towards it. “

Pardo agrees.

“Politics does not take into account that these connections already exist,” he says. “You always existed.”

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