The following essay has been excerpted from Tatiana Bilbao’s A House is Not Just a House: Projects on Housing, ed. Isabelle Kirkham-Lewitt (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2018). The book is the second in the series “Transcripts on Housing,” organized by Hilary Sample, as part of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s Housing Studio.
I want to start with a little history of Mexico City, because I became more political and interested in participating in the topic of housing once I learned and understood it. It seems the government has always been trying to catch up with housing demand. The 1940s marked the start of the massive construction of social housing in Mexico. Obviously, the ’40s was a supermodern moment, influenced completely by the International Style. One of the first large social-housing units in Mexico City was the Unidad Miguel Alemán by Mario Pani, built in 1947. A later project of his, the Centro Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco, which was built in 1958, is representative of the type of government housing being built during the period. Obviously, Modernism had its problems and multifamily housing at this scale reflected them, but right now I must say that many of these complexes are not bad places to live. They are in the middle of the city. Tlatelolco is right along Avenue Reforma–the city’s most important thoroughfare, lined with skyscrapers due to its development potential.
In the middle of the 20th century, there were really interesting experimentations happening with different materials, expressions, and building types, like Unidad Santa Fe, also built by Pani (in 1957), which featured a wide variety of unit sizes catering to different family structures. Others were experimenting with the way organizations were set up to provide housing. Normally the government would finance, construct, and allocate these buildings—they would give or sell houses to the people for a very cheap price, to be paid in small payments. But suddenly, as was the case with architect Teodoro González de León in Guadalajara in 1959, collaborations began with factory owners to create housing for employees. This was a different and new typology of social housing in Mexico; and simultaneously, many architects were actively thinking about public space and public environments. Unidad Independencia by José María Gutiérrez Trujillo, from the 1960s, incorporated incredible cultural programs, like a theater, a library, and so on. A lot of architects, well-renowned practitioners, were working through and building serious social housing at this time.
Things started to really change in the 1980s. I think the evolution of housing into what we know it to be today is the result of many things, but there were a few key moments. First, in 1985, there was a big earthquake—many of these multifamily buildings in Tlatelolco and Juárez fell down, prompting people to flee the city to escape these conditions. The government, faced with an even greater need for housing on top of the already overdue demand for it, realized they needed to create a new system to build more houses every year. Then, in 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari decided to squash the ejido, which was the traditional communal way of owning land, and let people start selling their shares. For the first time, the ejidos were privatized and opened up to the market. This created an incredible business for people who shared ownership in these types of properties, mostly agricultural land in the outskirts of the city, and initiated a system that involved private developers in the creation of social housing for the government. And the thing is that the combination of cheap land that could now be bought from these former ejidos, and the incentives or subsidies by the government to privatize and develop them, created new models of housing.
This, I think, was the moment when things got really bad. It ushered in a mentality of mass-produced housing. Market-rate housing for low- to middle-income populations became big business. Overnight, developments like the one in Ixtapaluca—projects with 20,000 identical houses—started to sprout up all over suburban areas in Mexico. They were supposedly a good model because they fulfilled demand. By 2000, the new government under President Vicente Fox announced that they would create 2 million more houses for Mexico. And they did: 2.5 million houses were built over the course of six years. The only way the possibility of building this became a reality was by allowing developers to engage in questionable practices.
Obviously, this was largely inspired by the American model of suburbia from the 1940s and 1950s that sold an idyllic image of domestic life outside the city. Developers in Mexico justified these projects by saying, “Who doesn’t want a house with a pitched roof, a parking space in the front, and a little garden and yard to create the perfect little family?” Of course, this model has been powerful in shaping the way we live in the world—it’s been copied all over—but we didn’t really suffer from the effects of it in Mexico until the 1990s. Importing Levittown did a lot of damage here. It introduced a new middle-class model. The problem is when you apply this Levittown car-centric model to a lower-middle-class demographic that does not have access to opportunities for upward mobility. You need infrastructure, roads, and schools. And when you don’t have those things, you end up producing places like Ixtapaluca: repetitive houses in the middle of nowhere, far away from the city centers, with no infrastructure, no roads, no cars, no schools, no health services, no jobs. Living here becomes a nightmare. You can paint them in bright, lively colors, but the situation underneath is just as bleak and horrible.
This exists all over the country. Developers can hardly resist the opportunity of buying cheap land—it doesn’t matter where or how far from the existing city. You can sell the story of these little dream houses near the mountains, but in reality, life is very harsh there. Sometimes the city grows enough to integrate these developments. But when it does not, these places pose a real urban-planning problem. Once 20,000 units are built, services have to arrive, because at that point, with 60,000 people living there, it is the size of a medium-size town. So, infrastructure eventually arrives, but in a poorly planned, haphazard way. The city, which was not planning to support these places, now has to bear the burden. If it didn’t, there would be no roads to and from these developments. There would be no livelihood. Still, these new suburban places end up in areas and municipalities with very little money. These environments are a consequence of Mexican political divisions where taxes are not distributed by the need or number of people in a municipality, but through a federal distribution—so it’s incredibly uneven and entirely political, on who curried whose favor. As a result, these municipalities seldom have the resources for proper infrastructural maintenance. And I am not talking about landscaping or sidewalks. They do not have money for electricity or a proper police force; they do not have money for sewage. These are blighted islands.
The worst part of living in places like this is how identity and individuality are continually denigrated and negated. In such an identically reproduced environment, families are slotted and rendered visible to the state like an array of bricks, products in a store, or numbers in a developer’s bottom line. We have to regain the idea that housing is for people.
I understand that “business” might be necessary to produce the amount of housing that we need in the world, but we can’t forget that housing is a human right. Houses are not just for sale. Houses are for people, and we have to think of them first and last. That is why landscape—by which I mean everything found in and around the sites where we build—is so primary in my practice. Architecture is always immersed in its surroundings—it impacts everything around it and, in turn, is impacted by everything around it. I think architects are always building the city even if we’re only focused on architecture itself. I do not completely see a separation between architects, landscape architects, urban designers, or urban planners. The context surrounding a house becomes part of the house immediately. A house cannot survive on its own. This is a responsibility sometimes forgotten by us architects.
“You’re Doing Everything Wrong”
So, I got really political about the state of housing in Mexico. I was shocked that for almost 25 years there were no architects tackling the problem of housing at that scale. There were only developers. Of course, these developers had their in-house architects working with them, but in general, there were few architects here in the profession and in academia engaging in a productive, critical discussion—the focus was instead on remaking Mexico’s image as a nation coming into newfound wealth, a successful and aspiring neoliberal economy. It was important for me to regain a certain sense of empowerment and to begin to create a new dialogue.
Almost instinctively, my first reaction was to go to Infonavit, the federally owned bank that grants massive housing loans and funds the construction of many of these new units. And I basically told them, “You’re doing everything wrong.” Of course, they shut the door in my face. They were building 3 million houses per year and thought they were doing good work. But the government was beginning to lose money as people started to abandon their homes and realize that these places were desolate frontiers—hardly proper places to live. These developments are now almost 30 percent abandoned. So, there were 15 million units built and only 11 million are still occupied. Very quickly, the government started holding all this bad credit—unpaid mortgages—and developers were losing money because the units stopped selling. There was too much empty inventory. Even as it became clear that the government could not build these developments anymore, there were, and still continue to be, lots of people living in these places. The question became, how do you integrate these places back into the city? In places like Monterrey, the General Zuazua housing estate is over an hour away from the city by highway. The city as we know it would have to extend and grow an unimaginable amount or develop in unsustainable low-density patterns to reach these new suburbs.
I started talking to other architects, and we started having group meetings to discuss and get closer to the real problematic here: how to start reconvening new city centers and creating satellite urban environments instead of isolated neighborhoods. This is when we began to work with Infonavit—not only discussing and being political about it, but truly collaborating, which is something I really wanted. Of course, there are many ways that architects can approach the problem of housing politically, both from within and outside systemic constraints, and projects that are well thought out have an important role in the practice. But in Mexico, faced with such a dire situation, we had to find ways to make a positive change, and for us that meant to build—and to work with institutional partners in situations we were not always at ease with.
At the time, Infonavit was only invested in the house as a unit. The only rules that existed for developers were related to designing pretty much just the house. Each house had to be 43 square meters (460 square feet), which is not a lot of space. When you are unable to do something bigger due to financial constraints, you have to start thinking of the environment. I always use the same argument about New York. People in the city will pay millions of dollars for a tiny studio in a horrible building. Why? Because of the jobs, the infrastructure, the culture, et cetera, that is around you. But when you build a 43-square-meter house in the middle of nowhere with nothing available, things become very bad, even if the house is incredibly well designed.
With this argument, we were hired by SEDESOL, the government department responsible for development efforts in Mexico, to work on a 600-unit development for families displaced by a catastrophic mudslide in Angangueo, Michoacán. When we arrived at the project, there was already a local architect on board and a proposed design scheme for an array of identical boxes lined along flat, straight roads. SEDESOL said that we could start reimagining the place, doing the master plan, but that we couldn’t rethink the design of the house. We said, “Okay, we can work with that.” The house was not very well designed, but for us it was way more important to understand the place and to start talking about the topography, the geology, the weather, and so on. Because, I mean, with these developments, developers really just spot a site on Google Maps, arrive with the same plan they use for every other place in the country, cut out the limits of the site, and go ahead with production. Instead, we analyzed the site as we do with any other project. The goal was to design the neighborhood more like a little town or city with a center and different densities. We were allowed to use the house as a unit—to stack it, densify it, and multiply it. This was very important to us. One of our main arguments against an identical array of houses was that people would live there for two years and then, as soon as they could, go back to the hills where they were living before. Sooner or later, another mudslide would wipe out their houses again. Residents cherished the beautiful homes they had, homes with views in the middle of this incredible landscape that they really cared about. Nobody will stay if you put them in a little repetitive box.
So, we used different configurations of the houses, working with the natural topography to create a situation that is a little bit more organic and even a little bit more urban. In some cases, we had a dense four-unit building; other times, a less dense, shared two-unit duplex or a one-unit house. And incredibly enough, this really became home for many of the occupants. Now people not only want to live there, but the houses have an incredible resale value, unlike those in other developments. Normally, people that acquire a house in one of these developments will spend all their savings or get deductions from their monthly salary to pay for it. And then they cannot resell it because the value is pretty much zero. Nobody wants to buy these houses. But in this case, in our project, the houses are being sold for almost double what people got in representational value, because they got them due to this disaster. So, this is a good sign, no? The bigger question is how we start to design value into housing. While financial models and resale prices might be the indicator of value right now, we can imagine a better system in which value is actually determined by the quality of life in these homes. Even though the houses here are not incredibly well designed, and they’re not what we would have loved to do, creating a new urban setting or semiurban setting really helped.
Houses for $8K
In Mexico, what we call social housing is actually for people that have a formal job, which doesn’t even come close to covering the full spectrum of people in dire need of housing across the country. There is a government program in Mexico that certifies a kind of affordable housing for the poorest people in the most rural areas of the country—people with no formal income or access to credit and who cannot afford a house in one of the other massive social housing developments I touched on earlier. These programs are not part of Infonavit but part of other governmental organizations that provide subsidies for the construction of housing, such as CONAVI and FONHAPO, as well as some other socially conscious private-sector financial creditors committed to advancing the public interest by minimizing their profits.
The need for housing like this in lower-class populations is incredible, and so the program has been subsidizing the development of new houses that could be built for $8,000. This is not a price we can build with in the U.S., but we can build with that money in Mexico. It’s not a lot, but we can do it. Many different companies, contractors, et cetera have been working with the government to develop new models of houses, because in Mexico all of this is privatized. There are almost 100 models on the market, and they are being built all over the country. They are all archetypal houses, you know, like with pitched roofs—all super compact, 43 square meters, and not flexible enough to allow for any kind of growth. The program places a lot of restrictions on what the house can be.
We were hired by a financial institution to design another model. And when the commission arrived at our office, I thought that if we were going to do something at all, we really needed to give the possibility of adaptability—more flexibility, more space, and more growth. Because the problem is that these houses are built the same way in Chihuahua, which is in the north of Mexico, in the desert as they are in the tropical jungle in the south of the country. There is no adaptability to weather conditions or respect for cultural traditions. I thought that it was important for the office to focus on trying to change that. In the beginning we said, “Okay, we’re going to do a house that has a flat roof, that moves, grows, opens, continues, blah, blah, blah.” For three months, more or less, we discussed these various options in the office. And one day I realized that we were really only designing for our own thoughts, for how we think people live or for what we think people want.
We started to conduct interviews in the field with potential clients. We did almost 2,000 interviews—very quick interviews, simple and graphic, in order to understand what local people wanted. And one incredible conclusion we found is that everyone really did want a house that looked like a house, which is indicative of how deep this image of the archetypal house has permeated into Mexican society and become a part of it. I found this super interesting, because in Mexico, when people build their own houses, they traditionally build them with flat roofs and leave the steel bars sticking out of the top. The landscape of the whole country is covered with construction like this. In the past, the steel bars have really been a symbol of hope—a way of saying, “I’m going to do the second floor when I have more money.” It was a statement and promise of future growth.
However, when the second floor wasn’t built, and usually it wasn’t, the steel bars became a representation of failure—the failure to grow. So nowadays, nobody wants a house that does not have the appearance of being finished. So, yes, while all of the models for low-income housing are this archetypal house, the reason was much less about an ideal than it was related to the fact that it represented a finished product.
The problem became how to design a house that looks finished but that actually has the possibility of expansion. And we, in fact, already had a design for a modular house that we did in Ordos in China. Instead of searching for months and months for a new model, we decided to use one we had in our books. For us, in this project, modularity was the way to create a new, more adaptable model. And we discovered that it was a great starting point. The modularity meant that we could divide the house into parts and volumes with different material variations—we could use bricks or more formal, stronger materials in some modules, and more temporary, lighter materials in others. This way, the house could be expandable; it could be transformable. It was important to show the many possibilities for this house, that it can continue to be flexible and accommodate different living conditions and family situations—because, for example, the “normal” two-child family is not necessarily representative of how the majority of Mexicans live today. People use their homes for many things: to work, to sell things, to make their livelihood. Even though the government regulates the possibilities of these houses—it says that you have to have two bedrooms, a kitchen, et cetera, with these minimum sizes—we are trying to understand ways to navigate around these laws to design more flexible and open spaces. In the office we find ourselves asking a series of questions, like, how can we use exterior conditions to integrate more possibilities into the house and the other way around? How can you transform interior living spaces into more communal, shared spaces? What about shared kitchens? What helps the community also helps your own space. So how can we incorporate these ideas into the unit of the house and propose more organic ways of expansion?
We first built two prototypes: one in Chiapas from adobe bricks, and one from wood panels. Then we built the prototype again at the 2015 Chicago Biennial. It was incredibly important for us to show the house adapted to different environments and contexts. For example, in Chiapas they use outside kitchens with an open stove and an exterior bathroom with a dry toilet. The plan has to change to accommodate these differences. We also explored the possibility of getting and using local material: wood pallets, compacted-earth bricks, concrete bricks, regular bricks, depending on the availability of the material in each place. Temporary materials, like pallets, let us play with what is open and usable space—for example, for grain storage, et cetera.
I should say that even though the house has the possibility for change, we do really consider it to be site specific: specifically designed for Mexico. We were asked again by Infonavit to test and build 23 of our houses in a development in this little town on the border with Texas called Acuña. The town was hit by a tornado that damaged 580 houses and completely destroyed 23 of them. And we agreed, because it gave us the chance to see how adaptable our model was in a new context. This time we had to use only concrete and concrete blocks because these people needed a house that was really, really strong—temporary materials would not be able to stand up against future tornadoes. The material was crucial to thinking about the future longevity of these houses.
The interesting tension for me was that our units were built alongside the other 580 units from the 1990s—all built with the same amount of money, same square meters, same lot, same everything. The new units would have double the interior space, with the possibility of growth. I thought that this was going to create a huge social problem. But surprisingly, and fortunately, it has not, because these houses were the ones that were completely destroyed in the first place. The rest of the community was relieved and thinking, “Well, at least we did not completely lose our house like they did.”
People are already starting to adapt their houses, painting them, building small rooms, adding exterior terraces. What is exciting is that literally after moving in, people started to invade and take ownership of their houses, and really transform them. And that for me was an incredible opportunity to understand whether or not the house worked. What I understand right now is that architecture needs to be way more informed by the organic manner of building processes, by people who understand how to build their own spaces. I think we, as architects, need to incorporate this knowledge more and more, and really intuit the way people already build and intervene in their environments.
Obviously, it would be ideal to rework the systemic shortcomings that enable these housing crises to happen and to ensure that everyone has access to decent affordable housing by, for example, setting a quota of mandated units or regulating industry profits to reduce reckless speculation. This is why we find it important to develop experimental “passion projects,” even if they have little chance of coming to fruition.
However, as it stands, there is not only an incredible need but some really interesting work conditions that can be improved right now. So, you do have to be a bit Janus-faced about your modus operandi. I do not mean conforming to institutional standards and simply throwing a new coat of paint on the houses within these blighted islands and calling it a day. These places require inventive interventions and sometimes downright crazy-sounding solutions. But you never know: institutions like Infonavit have in some cases really opened up to listen. Sometimes these far-off schemes do actually get built.