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Moral Design from Mexico

The work of architectural collective Somos Mexas.

By Arts & Culture

The work of architectural collective Somos Mexas


Atea Building - Photo by Moritz Bernoully

Atea Building – Photo by Moritz Bernoully

This past April, I attended a First Friday event at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago for the first time ever. From that night, I keep a vivid memory of a curious performance from the “industrial avant-gospel” band ONO. Little did I know that I would encounter a photo of their front man on a PowerPoint slide in an artist talk some 1689 miles away in Mexico City, as Jesús Lopez, member of the architect collective Somos Mexas, recounted his formative travels throughout the USA.

Somos Mexas was founded in 2007 by a group of young architects studying at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Disappointed by what existing institutions could offer them both as architects and as artists, they decided to fill this creative opportunity gap by creating their own collective. During a post-graduation trip that Lopez took throughout the USA, he encountered collectives such as the Mid-Coast Free School and alternative or underground projects such as Bitchfork, here in Chicago. Inspired by these different instances of community-based emerging art, he eventually flew back to Mexico with the idea of creating a space for similar initiatives to develop. In 2011, in the district of La Merced, Somos Mexas found a 2150-square foot space that they named Atea.

La Merced is a historical neighborhood of Mexico City. Gathering some of the oldest monuments of the colonial era, it was also one of the areas established by the Mexicas as they founded the ancient city of Tenochitlán in 1325. Despite its rich cultural and historical heritage, La Merced is a fairly poor and marginalized area where spaces for artistic development and expression are practically inexistent.

Photo by Alexia Casanova

Photo by Alexia Casanova

The link between artists, architects, designers and the communities they evolve within is central to the work of Somos Mexas. Although the low rent made La Merced one of the rare spots in the city where they could offer such an amazing space, Somos Mexas also chose this area for the creative potential that it presented.

The amount, breadth and quality of projects that Somos Mexas has created and collaborated on since they first came together is mind blowing. In 2010, they participated in the 14th contest of the online architecture review Arquine. Participants had to design a sheltering solution for migrants from Central America who stop in Mexico as they travel to the northern border where they then try to cross into the United States. Somos Mexas proposed “El Faro del Migrante,” an initiative which had a central element of a backpack filled with everything they had identified, thanks to thorough investigation, as useful, if not vital, to migrants. Although they did not win the contest, Somos Mexas did receive a well deserved honorific mention.

After I heard Somos Mexas speak about their interest and field of action, I knew I could not leave Mexico City without visiting their space in La Merced. Atea is located on the second floor of a rectangular, grey cement building. As you enter the parking lot leading to the building, you can’t help but stop for a few minutes and admire the graffiti that decorates the sides. Atea is divided into three main areas: the art gallery, the studio and the rooftop.

Photo by Alexia Casanova

Photo by Alexia Casanova

In their gallery space, Somos Mexas not only exhibit their own work, but they also invite many artists, both emerging and well established, such as Mexican artists Balam Bartolomé and Pablo Rasgado. They have also had the opportunity to exhibit works by one of their most important inspirations, the Spanish architect Santiago Cirugeda. A self-proclaimed “social architect,” Cirugeda is famous for his Recetas Urbanas (“Urban Recipes”), a series of architectural proposals for urban interventions made available online for public use in an effort to encourage citizens to act on their living environments.

Somos Mexas collaborated with Recetas Urbanas to develop Estrategias Subversivas de Ocupación Urbana (“Subversive Strategies for Urban Occupation”) in September 2012. The project offered various workshops aiming to “reactivate space in urban environment.” These workshops took place over five weekends, during which participants were encouraged to interact and engage with public spaces through ephemeral architecture, recycling, and strategies of occupation. From these workshops emerged interesting initiatives such as a guide on how to create swings for children to play while their parents work on the street, and a pedestrian crossing that can sprout on the street where most needed.

The studio part of Atea is filled with too many things and projects in process to name them all. A bunch of colourful bike frames are hung on one of the walls; they are the creation of a girl who goes by the name Eli de Bicla and recently started collaborating with Somos Mexa for her brand/project “Básica.” As I am given an informal tour of the space, I am introduced to Nayeli, who is working on the Modopactua project: recycling old textiles to make new fabrics stamped with fresh designs which are then used to make deckchairs and various other things that I wished I could have bought.

Modopactua - Photo by Alexia Casanova

Modopactua – Photo by Alexia Casanova

Somos Mexas aren’t running out of inspiration or opportunities– far from it. Last year they were invited to take part in the Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture where they presented SPACE BORDER/TIME BORDER, an investigation about phenomenons of urban borders in Mexico City. Continuing on to explore cross-disciplinary projects, Somos Mexas will be collaborating with the graffiti collective Indeleble for a festival of “urban pictography.”

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