by Keziah VikranthNov 28, 2023
How often do we look at buildings, admiring their refined parts and the way they are assembled? Surely, those who visit 30 Projects/30 Years/30 Stories, a large exhibition on forward-looking projects by Mexican-American architect, Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, will learn how to be more appreciative of the complex engineering that goes into creating our built environment. In a way, the show that opened on June 18 and will remain on view until September 21 at the Museo Metropolitano in Monterrey, Mexico, presents not merely one architect’s oeuvre but 30 of his visions for our future, predominantly urban and earnestly technologically advanced. In fact, most projects featured here are not buildings but rather propositions, not definitive answers, but exploratory questions and contemplations about what’s possible. Taking over the museum’s entire exhibition capacity, the show gathers eight realisations and 22 projects, only two of which are now under construction. Apart from completed projects – a single family house, a greenhouse pavilion, a university library addition, a baseball stadium, a mosque, office and residential buildings, and an airport built throughout Asia and North America – there are competition entries, self-initiated research projects, feasibility studies, visionary speculations, and direct commissions sited in just about every part of the world.
“Architecture is too rigid, too formal. It is time to break free…I want to build lighter. I want to build smarter,” Gonzalez-Pulido told me in our 2018 interview at his Chicago office. Building lighter and using less is an overarching theme that runs as a common thread through all his projects. The show traces the architect’s career from 1991, the year he graduated from Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of the most prestigious universities in Latin America. It is this local connection that sparked interest in Gonzalez-Pulido’s work here at this second most populous city in Mexico. The Museo Metropolitano, housed in the 17th century colonial building in the heart of Monterrey and originally built as a Municipal Palace, typically hosts temporary art shows and popular concerts at its central semi-covered square patio. The current show is the first in the history of the Museum devoted to architecture. Yet, judging from the full house attendance and plenty of local mainstream media that I encountered on the opening day at the museum, it was the right choice to focus on the subject that in recent years has been attracting a growing public interest.
The architect’s 30-year post-graduation career and the decision to select 30 projects, each with its distinctive story, explains the show’s title. During this period Gonzalez-Pulido was running his own firm for six years in Mexico, immediately after Monterrey Tec; earned his master’s degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design in Cambridge; and worked for 18 years with Helmut Jahn, where he served as the company’s Partner and President for 10 years before establishing his current practice, FGP Atelier in 2017 in Chicago. Each of the featured projects is represented by a painstakingly built wood or plastic model, drawings, photos, renderings, diagrams, as well as additional films, slide shows, and video interviews with the architect.
What immediately engages the visitors with the show’s content is the organisational decision to plug all the projects on view into a single model, Autarquía or Autarky, a system of economic self-sufficiency, a utopian city that uses the least amount of resources. All the featured projects here are positioned around the 1000K Tower and are conveniently depicted at the same scale. Effectively, moving from one project to the next it seems apt to imagine every one of them being an integral part of the self-contained city of Autarquía. And, in fact, each project’s original geographic location, even for those that are built, is obscured, and becomes somewhat secondary. The focus here is on how these projects relate to one another. That’s what defines their range of scales, building typologies, and functions. The exercise makes us think about some of the following questions. How big a good city should be? What should be the ideal distance from the city center to the periphery? What functions should be represented and how they should be integrated?
Right next to Autarquía is a tall model of the 1000K Tower. The speculative one-kilometer-tall structure, which was designed especially for the show, is a way for the architect to pose questions that are much bigger than the project itself. How high can we build today? Why should we build as high as we can? Is breaking new height records a technical question or is it about ethical and social issues? Even though the project is a self-initiated study, its design is quite grounded and specific. After all, the architect has designed a number of very tall buildings – from the unbuilt 560-meter-tall tower in Doha to the Guangzhou International Cultural Center (GICC), the 320-meter skyscraper that was completed this year and is a part of the show. The 1000K Tower’s cantilevered volumes are clad in ETFE mesh and panels. From lower to upper sections they house – corporate offices and shopping, offices and executive functions, residential units, sky deck and hotel and finally, are topped by amenities and attractions. Surely, the project is a fascinating piece of architecture and engineering. Still, given the inquisitive nature of the show it is valid to ask – what was the architect’s conclusion?
During the pre-opening tour the architect told me quite bluntly that such optimistic towers may no longer be relevant. He said, “I realised that at least for now such projects are entirely unnecessary, which is an important lesson. In fact, anything above 200 meters tall is economically unsustainable. Anything that’s taller is mainly about making a statement and they are like Formula One level machines.” Of course, there are cities around the world where there are reasons for building tall. And in any case, the architect’s findings such as the use of composite materials (particularly resins in fabricating building elements), utilising fabrics for curtain wall instead of relying on very heavy and expensive glass, and exploring possibilities for how to improve ways for illuminating buildings can be applied in his other current and future projects. What’s important is to continue experimenting by bringing the latest digital technologies into the building industry to achieve greater versatility, economy, and performance to cut waste and pollution. That’s what technology-driven architecture is ultimately about, not achieving merely its futuristic look, although such qualities as openness, lightness, transparency, sophistication, and overall machine aesthetics are meant to celebrate the very spirit of modernity.
Of course, examining Gonzalez-Pulido’s projects and buildings it is impossible not to mention the influence of high-tech architecture on his thinking, particularly exemplified in the work of such pioneering architects as London-based Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, Italian master Renzo Piano, French architect Jean Nouvel, and the architect’s mentor and long-time partner, Chicago-based Helmut Jahn. All are noted for their technologically advanced, modular, and environmentally sensitive approaches to design. But it was Jahn, who passed away earlier this year whose influence was much more fundamental and direct. Jahn’s work first distinguished itself for being overly expressive, even flamboyantly jazzy. Bringing colour, curvilinear geometry, and theatricality to his work, the German-American architect voiced his protest against somber, one-size-fits-all boxes of Mies van der Rohe, particularly dominant in Chicago at the time when he just started his career. Over the years, however, he transitioned to designing highly abstracted and finely chiseled structures. Having spent close to two decades at Jahn’s office and leading design and construction of some of the key projects that were developed by the office after the year 2000, Gonzalez-Pulido is keen on continuing this direction, while enriching his projects by paying acute attention to their efficiency and performance, and developing his own distinctive aesthetics, not quite matched by other architects currently practicing in the United States or Mexico, where he is increasingly becoming more and more active.
Among the exhibited projects in Monterrey, my favourite is the Diablos baseball stadium in Mexico City, completed in 2019. Its heroic roof structure is composed of lightweight steel framing wrapped in PTFE textile. The roof, that was installed with the help of the biggest crane in the world, contrasts greatly with the expected look of traditional baseball stadiums. The project’s design is geometric, translucent, luminous, and dynamic. The visual lightness of the roof is contrasted to the building’s base, built of the indigenous volcanic rock from the Valley of Mexico and its character is inspired by the Pre-Columbian era Mesoamerican ballgame parks. The project’s duality became the stadium’s main attraction, while the use of technology made it unique in Mexico by demonstrating that the most complex technological breakthroughs can be done here.
Other important projects in the show include Santa Lucia, the new international airport in Mexico City, now under construction. This fast-track project was conceived as a perfect machine, not as a monument. When completed, it will have a capacity of 84 million passengers per year. Then there is Guangzhou International Cultural Center, GICC, which was finished this year. It was a competition project that Gonzalez-Pulido won almost immediately after starting his FGP Atelier. The invitation came from a developer who he worked with, while still being Jahn’s partner. He competed against Steven Holl and SOM and won. One final project not to be missed here is the Knowledge Training Center (KTC) that was designed for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial. It relies on a modular unit system to address the demand for education cluster. The project consists of 234 modular cells of prefabricated lightweight classrooms that can be stacked and reconfigured to fit specific needs.
Those who will visit the show in person will learn about all these and other unmentioned projects. They will undoubtedly pay more attention to local projects – both existing and upcoming, both that stand out and blend in. As people are becoming more informed, they will be more engaged. The more architecture is discussed the better our building environment can align with our desires. “I want people to think of the role of technology in our society, as our environment is becoming more seamlessly integrated with it on all levels. I want people to question how structures, materials, and lighting could be used more economically and more imaginatively,” said the architect.