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Imagining New Uses for Mexico City's Bursting Metro Buildings

Welcome to The Architect's City, the first in a monthly series which will invite an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers.

[A rendering of a green roof atop one of the Mexico City metro buildings. All images courtesy of Rozana Montiel.]

Mexico City can be seen as a collection of small cities, sprawling into one another: barely contained within a thin infrastructural, political, and economic skin, staunchly divided along the lines of income, vaguely combustible. These cities are home to a vibrant art and architecture community—Mexico City is increasingly represented in such awards as the Architectural League's Emerging Voices, at global art fairs, in glossy magazines. Yet the city can at times feel like a Wild West of urban planning, simultaneously rife with glamour and necessity. Its public transportation bursts at every seam, poor citizens erect informal architecture with minimal supervision and safety, and crowded parks and urban public space provide often-inadequate support, all while internationally-recognized local architects involve themselves to varying degrees with the city's issues and opportunities.

This is the context into which architect Rozana Montiel launched her Mexico City-based architecture firm, Periférica Studio: the team searched for unused buildings that might be repurposed as vertical public space. Inspired by Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi's 1982 Pompéia Factory Leisure Center, a recreation hub in downtown Sao Paulo tailored from a warehouse that had once housed a 1920s drum factory, Montiel wanted to see if any structures in downtown Mexico City might offer up similar possibilities for public use.

Two of her staff returned to the office with the same image, or nearly the same: a broad, white, seventies-era façade lined with boxy, rounded windows, slanting down and into the building, reflecting the street below. The buildings were retro, almost toothy-looking, and many appeared derelict. Investigation ensued.

"We hadn't realized there were so many of them," says Montiel. "Everyone has seen them and recognizes the façades, but not many know: there are 22 buildings."

Each of these buildings sits above a metro station, and all are nearly identical. The façades vary only in height and width. Inside, the buildings reveal open floor plans and effective cross-ventilation. All 22 are connected by the three main subway lines of Mexico City's 12-line system.

[The main lines of Mexico City's metro system.]

When Mexico City's first metro lines were engineered and constructed in the late sixties and early seventies, the expropriation and purchase of the required land for subway access—prime real estate in the city's busiest neighborhoods—had to be justified. Not only would these buildings atop the city's primary metro stops house some of the stations' technical needs, but they also could be rented out or occupied by government offices. The transportation authority conducted studies on revenue and load-bearing requirements for each station's building and used pre-fabricated facades by one of the country's main construction companies, ICA. Interiors would be simple. Though Montiel searched for a designer, no texts revealed an identity.

Over the years, the buildings provided office space for the metro system. But four decades later, they exist suspended in various stages of neglect and informal adaptation. Some are used for storage space, one as a makeshift parking garage; a few house an office worker or two, inhabiting one floor of four, and others are entirely abandoned. At some point, two were retrofitted as music and nursing schools; whether they are still in use is unclear. All are underutilized at the center of a city whose edges slink ever outward.

Brazil's Bo Bardi shunned the words "sports" and "culture" for their competitive and highbrow connotations, yet the various buildings of her SESC Pompéia — some of which were erected after her successful adaptation of the original factory—offer space for the neighborhood to engage in just such activities. The SESC Pompéia complex connects mini-communities of different activities, which take place on separate floors, via slanted concrete air-bridges that even now feel vaguely futuristic.

Montiel's idea for the Mexican capital twists this concept: as she explains them, Mexico City's 22 metro buildings are one large complex already, connected by an underground network. Their uniformity reinforces this concept. "The idea was the re-reading of these buildings: as cultural centers, recreation centers, sports clubs, all strengthened by the transportation network of the metro," she says. "More than an architectural reconstruction—because that's minimal—it's a social construction."

Within a single structure, individual floors would offer specific activities encompassing sports, culture, and education. Within the larger network, single buildings would provide contextual uses: "you can leave your child at one that has a nursery and go play a sport at another nearby," Montiel says. Half of the network's buildings sit in pairs at six central metro stops, offering twinned uses. And another half-dozen of the buildings stretch over six stories high, tall in certain Mexico City neighborhoods, so she imagines green roofs or cafes, horizontal public space stacked atop vertical.

As each building was constructed with strength rather than visual appeal in mind, the structures lend themselves easily to a second reading. Speculative possibilities abound: An indoor basketball court reveals itself on a first floor, its ceiling height extended by removing the ceiling above. The entirely open floor plan, interrupted only by concrete columns, transforms itself into an art or dance class. Like Bo Bardi's plan, Montiel's proposal envisions each floor as a distinct community.

Located as they are above the downtown stations into which workers from the city's outskirts flood during daylight hours, the buildings' recreational activities might relieve some pressure from the heaving transportation systems below during rush hours, staggering workers' travel times as they take advantage of offerings. With matching façades, a sole visual identity establishes each building as larger than a single structure. Adjustment to the needs of a larger network seems simple. And just like that, Mexico City's various cities have one more building, even if it's composed of twenty-two.

· Official site: Periferica Arquitectura [Periferica Arquitectura]
· Mexico City coverage [Curbed]