Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

In July 2020 the Mexico City-based architect Fernanda Canales faced a difficult decision. Tapped to participate in a new federal initiative providing hundreds of civic facilities — like libraries, parks and streetscapes — to under-resourced towns across Mexico, she could either work on relatively familiar sites along her city’s periphery or take on a handful of structures 1,200 miles north in Agua Prieta and Naco, two small, poor towns with high crime rates along the U.S. border.

Agua Prieta’s ignominious claim to fame is being the site of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman’s first border tunnel for smuggling drugs and weapons into the United States. Naco has more unpaved roads than paved ones. Given their populations (about 92,000 for Agua Prieta and 6,000 for Naco), both towns have witnessed their outsized share of cartel-related violence, femicide and disillusionment.

At first Canales said “no way” to the border, opting for the safer destination, about two hours from home. But something kept gnawing at her to take on the tougher challenge. Canales, 49, had taught design solutions focusing on the border at Yale and Princeton and written on the topic extensively. “I can’t keep doing this theoretically,” she remembered thinking. She told her family she was opting for the harder choice.

Three and a half years later, her team’s buildings are complete. Many are handsome, remarkable achievements that have met local needs and strengthened fraying social ties. They are also case studies in the profound challenges and just-out-of-reach opportunities of trying to rehabilitate communities via building.

Programa de Mejoramiento Urbano, or P.M.U., the urban improvement program created in 2018 by Mexico’s powerful Secretariat of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development (SEDATU), is one of the largest public construction programs in Mexican history. While major government initiatives had in the past focused on providing housing, schools and other basic needs to marginalized towns, civic spaces accessible to everyone had long suffered from a lack of resources, said Román Meyer Falcón, the secretary of SEDATU. “These are neighborhoods that for decades have not had a field, a sports facility, a public market, a plaza, a road,” he said. (Meyer Falcón, who is just 40, studied architecture — a rarity for a cabinet member.)

Known for keeping a tireless schedule, Meyer Falcón said P.M.U. has so far completed about $2 billion worth of public buildings and community infrastructure. Towns applied for help through a rigorous process. Once their projects are completed, they are responsible for maintaining them. Selected architects and designers — many highly regarded, smaller offices — have already completed about 1,035 projects, often in remote areas, with some winning international architecture awards. They don’t just design one structure in a town but three, four, five, or six. In return for this exceptionally rare opportunity, designers have had to move absurdly fast, with relatively little control. Each works under a builder. Canales kicked off her projects with a site visit in August 2020; she and her team had to complete initial design by the end of October. The first buildings opened in fall 2022.

“It was crazy,” said Canales, who designed five projects in Naco (a pavilion for the town’s plaza, a market, a day care/cultural center, a senior center and a gymnasium) and two in Agua Prieta (a sports complex and library). Achieving this kind of outlay would have been impossible for her tiny firm, which usually hovers between two and four people. So she quickly put together a large team of fellow architects and consultants. Many had never met, let alone worked together. Alberto García, her former student and longtime collaborator, took on a supervisory role. He had never been to the state of Sonora. Now he’s been 15 or 20 times. “I’ve lost count,” he said.

“The first time I came I was very concerned,” said García, who has two young daughters and a wife, a fellow architect who helps run their Mexico City firm, Viga Arquitectos. The challenges came quickly — balancing competing local visions, managing townwide skepticism, restrictions from the U.S. Border Patrol, Covid-related delays, cost spikes and work shortages. One day, he said, a new builder started working on the project, without warning. Payments were unpredictable. But with the help of a local SEDATU manager, Alan Zamora, the team members worked tirelessly, embedding themselves into each community, getting to know its needs, players and politics.

On a recent tour, García drove me through each town like a local, whizzing past rambling neighborhoods, rickety storefronts and empty lots along uneven roads. The new buildings, which are by all accounts the largest public investments in either city’s history, don’t look like municipal buildings, with sheet rock walls, glassy facades and blasting A/C. They are timeless, tactile and elemental, dominated by red-orange brick, sandy-colored concrete and pre-rusted steel, arranged into broad arches, lacy lattices, angled roofs and snaking ramps. Some don’t have windows, lighting or air conditioning.

The robust designs, said Canales, grow out of a mountain of demands, including a desire to reflect local context and history, a need to build quickly, cheaply and sturdily with Sonoran materials and labor and to respond to limited budgets and a harsh climate, not to mention crime and vandalism.

“It’s about having things that are not easy to break or steal or be torn apart,” said Canales, who has learned the hard way in other public projects how to make each building adaptable and pivot if municipalities can’t or won’t pay for basics like water, electricity, or maintenance. “I try to think of the worse-case scenario as the real program,” she added. They’re also flexible. A basketball court can be used for volleyball, boxing or concerts. Concrete benches double as play structures. Stairs become seating.

Another key strategy: Making places that pull people in. Plazas and courtyards contain feathery mesquite and blue-green palo verde trees and employ brickwork that blends with the buildings themselves. Partial walls are inviting, and limit the need to pay for (or fix) heating and air conditioning, while keeping people inside safer from crime thanks to increased visibility. Lattices, inspired by traditional Mexican screens called celosías, provide privacy while permitting breezes and light.

Just as important as the practicalities, the buildings are designed to build social connections. They are created as places to stay, and be proud of, in locales that are often regarded as pass-throughs, overshadowed by the ever-more-tumultuous border and what’s on the other side.

“Without opportunities for social interaction, places are more insecure, divided and isolated,” said Canales. “Yes, you need many more things. Hospitals, housing, education, the list goes on and on. But if you can’t even step out of your house and feel safe, then the other things won’t work either.” She ticked off her many goals: “How can you provide value to a landscape that is neglected? How do you provide an opportunity to see your town in a new way?” Added Zamora: “No matter how small a town is, its people deserve a certain quality of space.”

Perhaps no project addresses these fundamental issues quite as dramatically as Agua Prieta’s library, a woven, bar-shaped building, its arched edges sitting parallel to the striated, mural-saturated steel border wall about 10 feet away and just west of the town’s international border crossing. (The construction team had to limit use of large ladders during construction, to prevent people from climbing over, said García.)

Its ground floor is a sunken outdoor recreation area, with rounded concrete stairs doubling as amphitheater-style seating, and a stage covered with a mural, painted by students, emblazoned with brightly colored plants and mythical creatures. This area hosts celebrations and performances while also serving as a cool, shaded place for local parents to wait for their kids, who often attend school on the other side of the border.

You reach the library’s glass-enclosed floating second floor by a winding concrete ramp that provides wheelchair access and a rare vantage point from which to take in both Agua Prieta and Douglas, Ariz. Canales said she took a risk by placing the building and an adjacent lengthy park so close to the border. But she wanted to create a dialogue with infrastructure that had for so long stood as an intimidating symbol of separation and fear.

“We can touch it,” she said of the wall. “It’s part of a place we’re going to be playing, biking and reading.”

The community is literally being pulled together here. Families gather below to chat and play. The Bachicui Festival of the Arts, with its concerts and markets, arrives every May. Residents have donated books and furniture for the space upstairs. A book club meets on the second floor every Saturday. It has separate meetings for children, teenagers and adults. The youngest readers recently put on a play downstairs inspired by characters from the book, “Un Ogro En Busca De Cuento” (“An Ogre in Search of a Tale.”) Three girls showed up as Little Red Riding Hood, a challenge that was deftly navigated.

Inès Acosta, who helped found the club with her son Gabriel, said that there had been no public library or even a bookstore in the town before. “We’ve taken over,” she joked. “They let us stay after closing.”

García, Canales’s associate, explained, “It’s helping form a sense of identity.” He added, “Usually you see the other side of the border, and they have better things — cars, schools, shopping. For people to have spaces like this keeps activities in Mexico. It makes people proud to be from here.”

Agua Prieta’s sports park, open on all sides — a contrast to most recreation facilities in town, which are enclosed by concrete or stone walls — greets locals with a plaza fronting a sunken gym. Its jagged steel roof draws glowing light and creates angled shadows. Children play basketball in the gym, which spills out to turf sports fields busy with soccer matches. Residents sit on the concrete bleachers watching teams play.

“It’s the center of our social life. A place for people and families to come and have a good time together,” said Marcia Gerardo, a teacher, who noted that while older kids play soccer their younger siblings can play at the complex’s playground and skatepark “to keep their minds busy,” she said. This is a common refrain here, a reminder that kids are regularly pulled into drug trafficking or other criminal activity.

In Naco, some projects are having a similarly beneficial impact. But Canales’s worst-case scenarios also have come true, at least for the time being.

Naco’s new gym — topped with a peaked metal mesh roof that has a monumental profile on one side and a more intimate scale on the other — is at the crossroads of three neighborhoods and a local train line. It’s a popular place after school hours, where lights allow play into the evening. But its basketball hoops have already lost their glass backboards, which were shattered by vandals. (The community replaced them with plywood, and is clearing out weeds and removing trash.)

A new marketplace, intended as a gateway to the city, combines a textured brick plaza with barrel vaulted structures rising asymmetrically to form a three story tower, meant as a viewing spot. But it has been severely vandalized, and is now surrounded by a chain-link fence.

The cultural center, a short drive away, contains an art gallery and auditorium intended for parties, performances and graduations. The gallery is displaying local photographers’ evocative images of native Sonoran people and landscapes. But right now the auditorium feels more like a quiet ruin; it is dark and imposing, and it has no electricity, except when long cables are run from the nearby school.

“These places look lonely,” said Domingo Zazueta, a Naco parent and coach. “They don’t invite activity.”

Andrea Ramos, the town’s former mayor, who worked to have the projects built, blames a lack of support from the town’s current mayor, Lorenzo Villegas. (Mayor Villegas, contacted by text, did not respond, but Roberto Villa, Naco’s minister of culture, said that electricity would be supplied to the cultural center — though he did not know when — and the day care center would soon open for use.)

“It hurts,” said Ramos. “This is the most important series of projects Naco has ever had.”

Zazueta said that community leaders aren’t spreading the word about the facilities, or showing people how to use unfamiliar structures. Denise Vásquez, principal at the adjacent school, pointed out that she and her colleagues still have to finish submitting paperwork to use these spaces. Jorge Casillas, a superintendent at the Naco senior center, said that some residents had complained that the projects were too big for a tiny town to take care of.

Some spaces here are being kept afloat by local sweat, like the gym, or by the state, which feeds 75 seniors a day at the new center. Others are not.

Canales takes such challenges in stride, playing the long game. “They will survive local circumstances — issues of budgets, politics and vandalism,” she said of the new buildings. “The long lasting possibilities remain. Over time the public starts to make decisions and inject life. Things change and adapt. Time teaches us what prevails. Often it’s what we can’t imagine now.”

While P.M.U.’s innovative designs and community impacts have been well reviewed, the program has received criticism. An investigative reporter, Alejandra Crail, writing in Mexico City-based newspaper El Universal, found that more than 50 projects in 20 municipalities across Mexico have been reported for problems that include safety issues, cracks, water leaks, low-quality materials, lack of handicap accessibility, and poor response to local climate and conditions.

Canales, whose projects have not been singled out for criticism, said that most architectural projects in Mexico, particularly in remote places, struggle “to obtain precision, quality in details, supervision and high standards,” and added that given the huge number of P.M.U. projects — and the speed with which they were undertaken — the number of problems has been quite low. She added that with Mexico’s elections approaching in June, the program has been a popular target for political opponents of the current federal government.

Meyer Falcón said that while municipalities participating in the P.M.U. program are responsible for upkeep, the ministry is working with town officials to ensure that all projects are successful. “We have to go to each place again and again until the local governments understand,” he said.

“The architectural quality of these projects is very important,” he added, “but the main object is to reinforce a sense of community and safety. People don’t need to be architects or urban planners to understand that.”

Meyer Falcón and others involved say that the program — whose future will be decided by the successor of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose term ends in September — won’t single-handedly transform these places’ futures. But they hope that its successes will lead to far more investment in these and other forgotten places.

“Maybe it’s a small, small step,” said Zomora, the SEDATU manager. “But it’s the first one here for the future.”


Here are five more projects that show the range of SEDATU’s civic building on a small scale.

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By NAIS

THE NAIS IS OFFICIAL EDITOR ON NAIS NEWS

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