Representing Mexican Mysticism: Serpentine Gallery 2018
Rubén Octavio Sepúlveda Chapa / Dear Architects

In most occasions, when the opportunity of representing Mexico is available through architecture in pavilions of international exhibitions- exempting perhaps those realized in World Fairs by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez (New York, 1965; Sevilla, 1992) and that developed by the Architects García y Favela in Montreal (1967) - these allude to an evident Mexicanism.

Quite often these are filled with clichés that fall into a mexican curious and evidence a desperate quest for national identity, acceptance, recognition and sympathy by other countries. The influence and thrust can be seen in the Mexican pavilion by Antonio Peñafiel, at the Parisian exhibition of 1889; a pavilion presented under the codes of Neoclassical architecture, but likewise exotic through an homage to Aztec culture. 

Parting from that famous exhibition, where France developed the Eiffel tower, Mexico showcased a mystic Mexicanism that has been a common factor in our representation, and that is accepted and expected from the international community. From that beginning, and with those expectations, the Mexican allusion has been an element open to interpretation when presented to the exterior. In seldom occasions, set allusion has been treated discretely or reinterpreted; like in the case of the pavilion designed by Agustin Hernandez in Osaka (1970) or, arguably, that of Ricardo Legorreta in Hanover in the year 2000.

Unlike international exhibitions, the annual pavilions of the Serpentine Gallery of Kensington Gardens in London are not representations of countries, but in the case of the 2018 pavilion realized by the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo and her team, it appears that they drifted towards a safe bet and politically correct interpretation of Mexican mysticism that would be accepted. It wasn´t an easy task, the annual edification of the pavilions of the Serpentine gallery has had, since its start in the year 2000 (which started with one of recently deceased Zaha Hadid) big names of global architecture who, generally, allude to designs related to the conceptualization of their discourses and /or spectacular representation.

These pavilions, which mark the inauguration of cultural summer activities, are used by people as an encounter place (principally by people related to design) to have a cup of coffee, admire, analyze and, of course, take dozens of photographs. It is of great pride that curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist has had within his agenda the consideration of architectural and artistical contemporary Mexican talent, represented on this occasion by Frida Escobedo´s Taller de Arquitectura.

A lot has been written about the pavilion and its clear references to its Mexicaness. At first glance, surprises a dark and porous container that, due to its tonality, its regarded as minor and discrete; this allows the green hues of the park to be perceived more intensely, and gives the opportunity for people to be distinguished and stand out. The mystery begins from a distance, with the filter that the walls create and its indirect accesses. The walls, which take their form from stacked traditional English roof tiles, create a screen in an attempt to bind the materiality of the place. The latticework walls form a central patio that embraces and encloses visitors; a very introverted space, the difference between being inside or outside is evident.

While being inside, other obligated elements of Mexican mysticism are discovered, achieved in a very subtle way, without pretention, but quite stiff due to an attempt of infusing them with meaning. The interior is atmospheric and with a phenomenological character, hence the constant comparative with the introverted pavilion conceived in the same site by Peter Zumthor in 2011; the light filtered through the latticework, adjacent to the characteristic light mist of London´s summer mornings, create that magic and meditative space. A play of angles exists in the interior between the screen walls, parallel to the Serpentine gallery and Greenwich´s meridian, the small body of water and the curved ceiling covered with stainless iron. The two interior elements create a reflection between both that blurs the light, broadens the space and reflects the users above and below, making them feel part of the scenery. The space is perceived as delicate, sensitive, but simultaneously protective. Unfortunately, most of the times this sacredness is offended by the turmoil, noise, and people under the mission of capturing photos with their cell phones without contemplating or appreciating the site; which makes one wonder if such a poetic, mystic and introverted concept was the right choice for the program and the amount of people that dwell within it.

It was a safe and well executed bet. Given the enormous names behind previous proposals, it would have been quite risky to impose a more ambitious discourse. Despite utilizing mysticism and actual cliché elements from Mexicanity in the architecture, the outcome is subtle, yet overloaded with content as a means to justify its adequacy to the site. In this case, unlike other projects from Escobedo´s office, where the constant motif is to impulse a potent idea, this is not developed to its potential. It was overcharged with forced elements due to pressure, program and expectations. Still, how they dealt with the image of the pavilion and the creating persona were kept impeccably sober, elegant, and, especially, with mystical character.

The interpretation she realized of Mexicanity in a discrete manner and low profile, without attempting to compete, was well developed. It was the strategy to follow. The reduced elements that were employed perform the adequate labor and intention, making the strategy of how to address the commission admirable.

It appears as if in Mexico the means for facing the labor of designing a pavilion is the result of the inheritance and conditions that we have encountered in Mexican architecture and its influences. Mexico identifies and represents itself in mystery, magic and the metaphysical. But precisely these notions convert into a cliché that imposes. We continue to be pigeon-holed, or we do it ourselves, in an indigenous design to be accepted, in a third-world categorization, simplistic and exotic.

Mexico must provide more content but, what is it actually? How can an accepted architectural representation be conceived without falling into clichés? Is the glorified and limiting Mexican mysticism a notion that represents and distinguishes us on an international scope? Are we condemned to accept that the judgement, criticism and value of Mexican contemporary architecture reside on the means by which we interpret this mysticism? So far it appears that set discipline is justified and ruled parting from these principles, principally in terms of spatiality and materiality.