The female force behind Mexico City-based practice Comunal discusses how participatory design empowers communities, why architecture education should be more inclusive, and what it takes to work within their country’s economic and political contexts.

Trained at the Autonomous University of Yucatán in Mexico, Mariana Ordóñez Grajales started Comunal in 2015, but it wasn’t until 2017 that her current partner Jesica Amescua Carrera joined. They met while teaching as part of a workshop on Regenerative Architecture at the Universidad Iberoamericana, led by colleague and mutual friend Juan Casillas. During their first joint project – the Rural Productive School, a prime example of the studio’s participatory design approach – they hit it off and have been allies ever since. ‘It was pure magic!’ says Ordóñez Grajales. ‘I had previously tried to find an associate, but was never able to find someone with the same visions and goals. I believe much of the success of our alliance is the horizontal relationship. That would never have been possible with a man in the patriarchal context of Latin America.’

Although the duo’s office is in Mexico City, the real work happens in the country’s rural areas, where they collaborate with local communities to improve habitability.

You are a women-run studio in a country that I feel has been a springboard for quite some strong female-led offices – from Frida Escobedo, Gabriela Carrillo and Fernanda Canales to Tatiana Bilbao. What’s the secret?

MARIANA ORDÓÑEZ GRAJALES: Resistance! In our professional life we face daily challenges for being young women, such as mansplaining, sexual harassment and not being given the same credit as our male colleagues. Beyond our personal experience, our country is facing a level of violence against women never seen before. In 2019 there were almost 3,000 victims of femicide in our country; in December alone there was one every 27 hours. Being a woman in Mexico is resistance. Being a woman who works in a highly patriarchal industry is resistance. From Comunal we shout #VivasNosQueremos! #NiUnaMás! (#LiveWeWant! #NotOneMore!).

Besides the issues you face as females, what are the other challenges that come with starting an architecture practice in Mexico City? 

MOG: In our case, the challenges already started during our academic years. It became evident that there is quite a hegemonic vision of the role of the architect. We are taught that we, as architects, are the only holders of great ideas and solutions to habitability problems, which completely excludes other types and sources of knowledge. We are rigorously taught the technical and artistic side of architecture – form, function, composition, spatial relationships, construction details and so on. But the human aspects – from cultural identity to people’s ideals and aspirations – are often overlooked. To us these are the most relevant.

JESICA AMESCUA CARRERA: It was a battle to find an academic discourse that approached architecture as a participatory social process that arises from the exchange of knowledge between different actors, not only academics. One that would recognize the vast amount of building skill that the native cultures of our country possess. But we experienced, with great disappointment, the rejection of some professors who refused to tutor projects that addressed participatory and sociocultural aspects in architecture.

So the academic landscape – especially architectural courses – can be limiting?

MOG: Yes and this is directly impacting the social and professional aspects of life. In Mexico there is a very large economic inequality. Very few have the privilege of going to university and there is only a small social circle that has the contacts to develop those great architectural projects taught in classrooms – think museums, hospitals and large residential developments. 

Why do we continue to train architecture students for the economic reality of a select few?

JAC: So, why do we continue to train architecture students for the economic reality of a select few? We believe that both universities and professional practices should include and recognize the diverse economic, political and cultural realities that exist in our country. Today, 70 per cent of the homes in Mexico are built without technical advice and through self-construction processes. Our practice focuses on improving habitability in local rural communities, and we do so through collaborative design processes.

Carried out collaboratively with the Union of Cooperatives Tosepan Tepetzintán, Social Housing Production: Exercise II responds to the customs and traditions of Nahuatl people. The permeable kitchen helps to expel the smoke from burning firewood. Photo: Onnis Luque

If you talk about a collaborative approach towards architecture, what do you think the role and responsibility of an architect should entail?

MOG: We believe that the main objective of our role as architects is to demonstrate that architecture is a social, living, dynamic and open activity in which it’s necessary to recognize people as ‘subjects of action’ and not as ‘objects of intervention’. It implies abandoning the idea of ​​‘author’ to meet the role of facilitator, mediator and technical advisor. People should always be at the centre of the project and the decision making process.
 JAC: We view architecture as a tool that can help improve people’s quality of life, as long as it is carried out in an inclusive way. We understand our profession as a service that should be available to everyone, regardless of the social, economic and cultural context.

Architecture is a social, living, dynamic and open activity in which it’s necessary to recognize people as "subjects of action" and not as "objects of intervention"

What does Mexico’s economic context mean for your work?

MOG: Without doubt, the economic aspect is one of the factors that makes young people move away from participatory architecture. The first question we get when speaking at conferences is: How do you pay your rent and personal expenses? Even though there’s a lot of interest in developing community-centred practises, there are only few economic strategies to do so. In addition, this work is often confused with volunteering or humanitarian labour, free of charge. This way of thinking demonstrates a lot of ignorance and classism. It’s assumed that professionals only work on such social projects for charity, not to tackle a complex professional challenge that deserves to be a full-time job.

JAC: Public policy does not finance participatory community projects because they go against the logic of government programmes, which only seek to increase the popularity of politicians through short-term results. Social processes that could trigger major changes and could be measured through qualitative indicators in the medium-to-long term are disregarded financially.

So how do you finance socially orientated architecture projects?

MOG: Private parties, too, unfortunately find very few economic, fiscal and social incentives to engage in the well-being of rural communities in a committed way. However, there are some companies that seek to have a positive social impact through donations and knowledge transfer. Novaceramic and Rotoplas, for instance, with which we collaborated on projects in Sierra Norte de Puebla.

JAC: The projects we work on contemplate the economic context and have autonomy as their main objective. Proposals build on local knowledge, traditional trades, local materials and construction systems that trigger production chains. The funding process always begins in the communities. Contributions vary from providing local materials or labour to economic contributions and lodging and food. In addition, we carry out funding campaigns, workshops and conferences to support the projects.

Productive Rural School was project-managed, designed and self-built by students in Tepetzintán with the objective of reviving traditional knowledge, utilizing local production chains and preventing young people from migrating.

Can you give an example?

MOG: The Rural Productive School. Students from the community of the rural Mexican village Tepetzintan came up with this concept during a series of participatory design workshops. Besides restoring traditional trades and techniques, they were interested in setting up culturally appropriate education to avoid the migration of young people and reduce disintegration of families in the communities. The local youth proposed an educational space dedicated to generating productive workshops that will enable them to have local jobs and thus prevent migration to cities. The school was completely self-built, using local materials such as bamboo and stone.

JAC: Nowadays more women attend. They carry out workshops for the production of organic gardens and biofertilizers, and the conservation of traditional embroidery. Also, students have been able to develop local crafts through technical construction workshops with bamboo, furniture, carpentry and blacksmithing. In addition, adult women are receiving training to produce jams and traditional medicine from local plants, which is generating an income for families.

At the World Architecture Festival in Amsterdam, the jury of the Emerging Designer award cited your fight against a political lobby that is vastly supportive of replicable, commercial housing development over housing seen as a human right. Can you explain? 

MOG: The Political Constitution of our country recognizes housing as a right of all Mexicans. However, this is far from the national reality. In the 1980s, with the arrival of neoliberalism and President Salinas de Gortari, the Mexican State stopped providing housing and left the production up to private developers. Housing ceased to be a right and instead became a market asset. Then, in 2000, President Vicente Fox focused on the massive construction of houses, from a commercial perspective. Many were located outside urban centres where land was cheap. Quality and access to urban equipment and public space were set aside. This generated territorial, economic and social crises, forcing many residents to leave the houses because of the long commutes, violence and lousy housing quality. Both in rural areas and in cities, the same housing models were repeated regardless of the environmental context and the needs of families.

In the case of rural communities, housing construction has been an act of colonization that imposes itself on traditional ways of living

Social Housing Production: Exercise I – conducted in conjunction with the Tepetzintán community – explored the creation of a culturally appropriate residential model using local materials such as bamboo, stone and wood.

JAC: In the case of rural communities, housing construction has been an act of colonization that imposes itself on traditional ways of living. It eliminates people’s participation in the management and production of their habitat and denies the use of local materials and traditional construction systems. Federal subsidies for construction and self-construction only allow the production of houses with industrialized materials.

Yet, your work revolves around regional conservation . . .

MOG: We work together with the communities to defend their right to self-determination and to preserve the elements that constitute their cultural identity and habitat. We recognize housing as a right and as a cultural asset that derives from the symbiotic relationship that communities have with their territory. We always start by listening in order to understand all dimensions of the local ways of living – from cultural to territorial and everything in between. Once we do, it is our turn to contribute to the dialogue with proposals for structural improvements to traditional housing, and to demonstrate that it is feasible to build with traditional materials today. The way in which we carry out these improvements is always based on local construction wisdom, recognizing that the communities safeguard ancestral knowledge of their territory and are the only ones who know the construction techniques they have generated over the years. 

JAC: After the earthquakes in 2017, the federal government’s strategy for reconstruction was to provide electronic cards conditioned to purchase industrial materials at urban suppliers. Local producers of traditional materials suffered severe damage. As a response, in collaboration with Unitierra and Comité Ixtepecano, we decided to work together with native communities in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Through participatory processes, we could reinforce the autonomy of the Ixtepecan familias and make improvements to the damaged traditional houses made of Adobe and Bajareque, construction systems based on mud and straw. These modifications do not seek to reinterpret their form, function or spatial relationship, but to increase their resistance. We collaborate to keep the construction diversity alive in Mexico.

This interview was originally featured in Frame 133. Get your copy here.