“Why are you showing us this?” a visitor asked in an irritated voice as she strolled through the exhibition room of Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura. She was confronted by a simple paper cone cup made in Mexico. The original piece was designed in the United States by Leo Hulseman, a former employee of the Dixie Company who would later open the Solo Cup Company, one of the largest coffee lid and cup providers in the world. The visitor was viewing Happiness is a Cold or Hot Sponge, an exhibition curated by Guillermo Santamarina, a well-established contemporary art curator who has been organizing exhibitions in Mexico since the 1980s. Apart from selecting specific objects, Santamarina commissioned a respected underground writer, Guillermo Fadanelli, to develop fictional stories for each one of them. Objects that already had historical fact sheets were now complemented by a poetic approach. At the same time, Archivo shared why these “simple” pieces are considered extraordinary, hidden behind the veil of their universality, usefulness, and permanence in production lines. “Everyday we are in contact with objects designed with such genius that we forget they even exist, and it is only when they are exhibited in a museum or written about in a book that we realize the transcendence good design has in our lives,” writes art historian María García Holley on her critical approach on Happiness is a Cold and Hot Sponge. For us at Archivo, this is a reigning fact, and our mission is set towards making this affirmation a reality for our public, sensitizing our visitors on the importance of design in our daily lives throughout our program and activities.
Inside its wonderful modernist premises, Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura is a space devoted to collect, think, and promote design and architecture through multiple outlets. Open to the public since April of 2012, it is through very ubiquitous objects that we intend to fulfill our mission: understanding these pieces as indexes that allow us to speak about culture in an experimental, non-academic form.
The project was initiated in 2008 by architect Fernando Romero, Archivo’s only patron, who realized that there was an opportunity to acquire design objects in Mexico and abroad, responding to a context of economic crisis that reigned the global arena. With that framework in mind, we started to build a study design collection that could allow people to confront design icons, references not yet offered by any other space in Mexico City. A historical ABC of design for a local public that we knew lacked this design conscience.
Archivo exercises different public programming. Industrial design is embedded inside our collection and curatorial program, whilst architecture is approached more through practice than through reflective exercises. On the one hand, Archivo’s main research line is the Genealogy Series. This research is structured around a historical approach by which we revisit selected epitomes of Mexican idiosyncratic design: foreign design objects that have been transformed into local classics and reclaimed as Mexico’s own. After two successful chapters in the series—the Corona folding chair and the Panam sneaker—the program will continue its third iteration focusing on the Volkswagen Beetle, an icon representing an important historical moment for Mexico City. On the other hand, the Archivo Pavilion is an initiative that asks architects from around the globe to enhance the use of the space’s Barraganian garden.1 The open call contest is currently approaching its second iteration, a perfect time to reflect upon Pedro&Juana’s winning proposal for the inaugural edition, its interaction with the space and the visitors, and the possibilities it has opened for future pavilions.
Genealogy Series: The Volkswagen Beetle
Mexico City has gone from being one of the most polluted places on earth to a city that has taken action and that deals effectively with nearly 3.7 million registered vehicles circulating at the absurd rate of a 6 km/H in 2013.2 This shift in environmental conscience started in 1982, when the IMECA (Índice Metropolitano de la Calidad del Aire / Metropolitan Index for Air Quality) was established as a measuring tool that recorded the contaminant agents polluting the air. The IMECA started to gain mainstream momentum during the early 90s as the smog crisis peaked and entered public health-concerning levels. This crisis was triggered as the two million vehicles mark was reached. The IMECA’s “Hoy No Circula” or “No-Drive Days” program restricted vehicle circulation during weekdays depending on the last digit of the car’s license plate, reducing traffic by a fifth. Furthermore, when particularly alarming IMECA levels were reached, the “Hoy No Circula” program would double its control and school classes would be suspended for the day. At the beginning, this program was put in place only during the winter months; but, because of its high levels of effectiveness, it was established as a permanent rule in the following years. “Hoy No Circula” is still in place today and continues to expand its restrictions in the pursuit of environmental well-being.
Mexico City’s regent (as the PRI used to call the Mayor, who was appointed by the president in those days), Manuel Camacho Solís introduced another program that also proved to be an effective tool to control pollution. This new program was directed towards automotive technology through the introduction of the catalytic converter, transforming the design of an omnipresent car model, dating back four decades: the Volkswagen Beetle Sedan. But it wasn’t until Camacho Solís utilized the Volkswagen Beetle as a way to deliver his political agenda to the capitalinos, not only for public transportation (city taxis), that the Beetle became a true icon.
The catalytic converter was to be installed in every vehicle circulating in the city, starting with the Beetle taxis. This gave way to another crucial transformation in the image of Mexico City: the strategic use of color. From then on, the traditional yellow of the Beetle taxi that characterized the end of the 80s, adopted a more “ecological” hue to represent a modernized fleet. And so, the Vocho—a chilango slang term to refer the Beetle Sedan—turned green. This change in hue, not only represented a government move towards the improvement of the city’s pollution problem, but also spearheaded the “green” movement into the mainstream.
Although a genealogical approach can prove itself ironic at times—for example, when design created outside Mexico forges the country’s identity—several of these objects have helped to draw the face of Mexico through our recent history. Everyone can relate to the ordinary objects inside of the series, which reveals one of the powers of design for us as cultural interpreters. The universal quality of these objects makes design accessible to a larger demographic bracket. Another main interest behind this research is understanding the moment when all the objects of the series become icons. For this effect, these studies try to identify the turning points and the circumstances that position them as icons inside popular culture. Thanks to fashion and other disciplines, these pieces acquire symbolic values, transforming the way we perceive them. Hopefully, the research from the Genealogy Series will also help place them within our own design history, enriching the current documentation of design history in Mexico.3
Public Programming: The Archivo Pavilion
And just like this, with nothing more to say, and even less to offer, I welcome you to the new “Mud Age.”
Wonne Ickx, in partnership with Abel Perles, Carlos Bedoya, and Victor Jaime, form PRODUCTORA, one of the most interesting architecture firms operating from Mexico City nowadays. Besides his work as an architect, Ickx constantly reflects about his own discipline. In La Edad del Barro (The Mud Age), a text he wrote for Arquine magazine, the architect recognizes how a new trend of materials, textures, and techniques has taken over the high-tech components that mainstreamed the architectural market since the 1990s.4 Ickx reveals that “the basic, the elementary, the essential, the vernacular, the primitive, the traditional and, even the precarious, have been crucial concepts that have become the protecting Palapa that free the architects of the legacy of accusations that have been subjected in the last years: as egocentric individuals and friends of the mere visual spectacle.” Ickx takes the tropicalization so far as to evidence the rhetoric of all of this new low-tech approach, for the most part considered by him superficial.
One generation after Ickx, we find Pedro&Juana, a young architectural atelier composed of Ana Paula Ruiz Galindo (Pedro) and Mecky Reuss (Juana) founded in Mexico City after graduating from SCI-Arc. Their entry for the Archivo Pavilion competition rapidly set itself apart from a pool of four hundred proposals submitted from all over the world. Through an anonymous jury process, Pedro&Juana won the chance to construct a temporary installation inside Archivo’s gardens by proposing to use a singular unit, a handmade clay pot. This pot became the unit used to construct a grid of 750 pots that formed the small amphitheater that has functioned as a concert hall, presentation pavilion, party location, children’s playground, etc. It has ultimately become part of our design collection.
The process of building the pavilion was a kind of experiment, mostly due to the fact that we didn’t know how we were going to build it. Its construction became a challenge as we confronted with several vicissitudes that made it hard to reach a simple solution. Running the risk of failure, these challenges were overcome in great part through the group of artisans that helped us mold around eighty clay pieces a week to reach our deadline that marked Archivo’s first anniversary.
The use of local craft was undeniably appealing to this project as it spoke directly about the way construction processes happen in Mexico. All of the aspects mentioned above generated a solid proposal, in a way separating itself from Ickx’ accusations of superficiality directed toward this type of exercises. This project, at the verge of completing its temporary existence, has been a total success and I hope this sets a high standard for our next call of entries, bound to take place in November of this year.
Mexico City nourishes its inhabitants with millions of stimuli that charge us with an intense quantity of aesthetic references. It has been described as a buoyant creative scene, made possible for the most part by flexibility and a relative affordability (currently threatened by the natural course of gentrification). It possesses a strong contemporary art scene present in the global arena crowned by some of the most important collections of contemporary art in Latin America. Architecture is another prolific area of cultural production in our contemporary realm. A generation of young architects, now in their forties, have become well-established and have provided a very diverse body of work and approach to the discipline.
Industrial design, on the other hand, is a much younger discipline still struggling to find its place in contemporary culture. Spaces for its reflection are not common and design curators struggle to position the discipline as a proper form of cultural production in its own right. With a charged vernacular design environment, delivering something new is complicated and often falls on the verge of auto-folklore. This surplus of referents is often verbalized as a virtue but can also cloud a designer’s perspective, preventing them from being able to interpret these references appropriately to produce a contemporary one.
I hope that through the different initiatives of Archivo we begin to address these issues, identifying icons of the everyday through the Genealogy Series but also using the upcoming Archivo pavilions to create a new language that can accurately communicate our state of design with the outside world.