At the beginning of the 2000s, the Mexican government built several thousand houses with exceptional views: the drainage channel of Ciudad Juárez, in the north of the country. For obvious reasons, families began to leave the place. The authorities then went to the architect Tatiana Bilbao to find a solution. "Basically I told them they were doing everything wrong," he recalls. "And they told me that I would educate the population to ask for better housing, that they were not the problem. They almost closed the door in my face. "
It was the time of the large social housing projects. Rows of identical houses, away from urban centers, without schools where to take children, health centers to go to, or good roads to access. "A social atom bomb. Imagine if you live in a house there. Your address says house number 22, street number 13, unit number 34, "says Bilbao. "You are a number." The architect, one of the most international of the North American country, has just published a book, published by Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, where she advocates a rebellion against what she calls the "shoe boxes" and exposes a model of construction , more humane and dignified, that has more and more followers among the new generations of Mexican architects.
"A house is not just a house." The title of the publication points to an idea that seems basic but that, in the context of Mexican social housing, can become revolutionary. A house is not just four walls and a roof; it is also the environment and the people who live inside. In 2010, Bilbao had the opportunity to move from theory to practice. The Government was planning the development of 600 homes for families displaced by a mudslide that had devastated their homes in the State of Michoacán, in the center of the country. They told him that the design of the house could not be touched, but that he did what he could with the rest.
The place chosen for the project was a valley surrounded by hills and forests. "We're going to use the topography," Bilbao thought then. Instead of building the aligned houses, as was the norm, they would follow an intentional, planned disorder. The goal was to recreate the logic of a town, a place where displaced people wanted to stay and not leave after a short time, as had happened in the Ciudad Juarez urbanization and continues to occur in other urban developments where almost 30% are vacated, according to Bilbao. "Now people do not just want to live there, but houses have been incredibly revalued," he says.
The new discourse is beginning to make its way into the government agencies that finance and plan social housing. Previously dominated by developers and builders, now open more to collaboration with external architects. Vision is also permeating the faculties. When Bilbao went to university, housing was seen as something minor, below the dignity of the new professionals. "The architect, they told us, is to design auditoriums and theaters," he recalls. "The speech has now changed."
Communal is a good example of this generational change. Founded in 2015 by two young architects, Mariana Ordóñez and Jesica Amescua, this firm takes a step further the philosophy of "a house is not just a house". Your model puts the beneficiary at the center of the process. That is, they ask him what he wants. "Participation must stop being seen as something beautiful, photographed, and more like a right," explains Ordóñez.
In their work, it is the inhabitants themselves who produce the materials and build the houses according to their needs. They only accompany the process behind the scenes. Now they are planning a project of 800 homes in Ixtepec, a region of southern Mexico where thousands of families, mostly of indigenous origin, lost their homes as a result of the devastating earthquake of September 2017. "The first thing the inhabitants told us is that we were there hired by them, not the other way around," they recall.
Precisely this week the two architects and a committee of families of Ixtepec will meet with the National Housing Commission (Conavi), the government agency that has to approve the project and provide financing. The project includes the organization of training workshops and the writing of construction manuals. "We are going to tell you that this is what the inhabitants want", they explain with assertiveness.
It is still necessary that the vision advocated by Tatiana Bilbao and Comunal be reflected in public policy. Conavi, for example, has operating rules for housing subsidies that limit the use of traditional construction materials, such as bamboo or wood, as precarious. A stumbling block for this new model of social housing, more human and dignified, that little by little is opening up in offices and plans.