Architecture Matters

architects Taller de Arquitectura
project School of Visual Arts, Oaxaca, Mexico
written by Carlos Jiménez

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The architecture of Mauricio Rocha is grounded in certain discipline, even as it celebrates the ephemeral. Although this observation might resemble a contradiction in terms, it suggests a complementary relationship that Rocha has maintained since he began his practice in the early 1990s. Mauricio Rocha’s buildings reveal their presence with typological rigor and tectonic clarity, with awareness that architecture is a deep wellspring of temporary experiences. His interests in typology and modularity, along with his love of art installations and informal constructions, combine to create one of the most perceptive practices to emerge in Mexico in recent times. The son of artist parents, nurtured by supportive friends and contemporaries in the art world, Rocha has honed his sensibility through observation of his country’s multifarious worlds. His formative interest in photography and cinema led him to explore a broader medium to record the life stories that architecture generates. These stories parallel architecture of quiet demeanor and majestic modesty, architecture guided by selfless imagination.


I met Mauricio Rocha at an architectural symposium in Queretaro, Mexico, where he presented his art and architecture as a continuum. I was struck by the serial rigor and telluric beauty of several of his works, in particular the School of Visual Arts of Oaxaca. I was pleased when, two years later, I found this building among the selection of works submitted by Mexico for the 7th Iberoamerican Architecture and Urbanism Biennial 2010, for which I was a jury member. Back in Queretaro we had spoken little about architecture, and more about Mexican culture, from the incomparable songs of Jose Alfredo Jimenez, to the exquisite photographs of Manuel Alvarez Bravo. This led to my discovery that Rocha is the son of Graciela Iturbide, a celebrated photographer whose mentor was Alvarez Bravo. This coincidence clarified something I had detected in Rocha’s lecture earlier that day. I understood why he explained an early accomplishment of his in such detail: an intervention in a house-turned-gallery, where he bored a hole 18 inches in diameter through all the interior, as well as the exterior walls of the gallery. Focused on trees on either side of the building, this virtual telescope revealed and suspended its targets in precise layers. A participant could measure how much time and space it would take to arrive at the sought after images. Architecture was transformed into physical and sequential motion of a photograph that could never be possessed, just as the scene it depicted could never be immobilized.


Visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory impressions construct a universe in Rocha’s works. Much like an itinerant photographer, he, too, finds images in the everyday conditions of his places of work. These images are not literally transferred from one medium to another. Instead, they are transposed into subtle and sensory phenomena that underline the raw experience of architecture. The Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (2000–2001), commissioned by Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, the charismatic former mayor of Mexico City, is a building that captures Rocha’s sensory plenitude. The excavated precinct consists of a set of buildings serving individuals who are partially, or completely blind. It is a harmonious campus constructed of local limestone, tepetate, and exposed concrete, humble materials whose textures respond to touch, just as their walls resonate with pathways of light and shadow. Choreography of sensations reverberates when light is transformed into warmth at a precise hour of the day, or when the scents of a fragrant, lush garden permeate and guide a daily stroll, or when the sound of water registers a transition between two patios. What at first appears to be a severe ensemble of roughly finished buildings, turns into a place attuned to all senses, an architecture whose tangible impressions defy the deprivation of living in partial or total darkness.


Another building that exemplifies Rocha’s unobtrusive hand is the Market at San Pablo Oztotepec in Milpa Alta (2002–2003), an area of Mexico City where Rocha also built a series of small industrial buildings to be used by the local community. The market replaced the informal constructions that occupied an undefined space framed by the perimeter of three facades that had to be retained. Rocha’s economical solution provides a simple plan within this volumetric gap, a modular system of market stalls that vary in height and use. The clarity of the layout and the organizing logic of flexible modules create a compelling infrastructure that works at both, the human and urban scales. The effect is profoundly contextual, as the market blends in with the fabric of the surrounding informal houses while asserting its singular interiority. This interiority is a marvelous continuous space suffused with natural light, and animated by the chromatic rhythms of the market displays.


The School of Visual Arts at Benito Juarez University in Oaxaca (2007–2008), an earthwork-school-installation-garden, is justly acclaimed. The renowned Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo was instrumental in promoting the work, and in urging the university to treat it as an exemplary project, in an, otherwise, undistinguished campus. Rocha proposed a discreet yet brilliant solution that reinvents this part of the campus. He encircled the school with berms shaped with soil extracted on site, as well as on other nearby sites. Conceiving the school as a landscape, rather than a building, makes for an atypical and intriguing construction that does not simply add to the campus’s stylistic collection. Visitors enter a crater-like domain where modular pavilions are interspersed with patios and gardens, the play of light and shadow takes center stage, and directed air currents strum walls of rammed earth, exposed concrete and local stone. It is a constructed environment where sensual comfort and piercing beauty surpass all moralistic categories of ecological sustainability, where the intimate and the communal need to produce art becomes a protected, yet open ritual.


In a relatively short time, Mauricio Rocha and his Taller de Arquitectura have produced an admirable body of work that highlights what a creative practice does well: making the most imaginative use of limited resources. Rocha’s practice thrives on doing more with less, as it also extends the sensory experiences architecture can yield: from evanescent notations of time to indelible traces of light. It is a salutary counterpoint to the global practices that parachute in their wares of spectacle and fanfare. Rocha demonstrates how much can be discovered and achieved even when the means at hand are restricted. Just as his work as an artist captures the everyday as an unparalleled cartography of wonder, and his installations reveal the obvious as an unexplored proximity, so the buildings of Mauricio Rocha remind us that architecture must produce works that strive to make a difference, because architecture never forgets what matters most.