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Heroism, Utopia, and Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA

Modern architecture doesn’t have to be the sum of these two parts

By Zach Mortice

Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA, knows that the social contract of Modernist architecture expired long ago—just don’t tell his buildings.

Gleaming white and minimalist, the buildings he designs are utopian towers surrounded by natural landscapes in the Radiant City tradition. His architecture is often a universal and rectilinear acknowledgement of globalized monoculture. They are pure, clean expressions of light and mass that might seem academically theoretical if they weren’t so simple and intuitive. His design for the Guggenheim Guadalajara in Mexico, for example, is a high-rise, vertically organized museum overlooking a lush, green valley that sheathes its interior spaces with a delicate curtain wall and balances its vertical mass with a paper-thin viewing platform cantilevering out into space. Given the primeval beauty of its site, it’s hard to look at it as anything other than an ivory observation tower for the highly evolved art lover. It doesn’t seem to be the work of a cynical man. Yet: “I don’t think the same sort of dream of utopia is valid—not for me or any of my colleagues in my generation,” he says. The specific utopia of Norten’s Guggenheim won’t be realized: The one-two punch of political indecision and a cratering economy shelved it permanently.

Norten has been intensely identified with the classic Modernist tradition since his work came to prominence in the 1990s, and architecture critic Witold Rybczynski, Hon. FAIA, once assigned him the suitably epic task of “trying to put Modernism back together again.” However, Norten and his Mexico City–based firm TEN Arquitectos have focused more on the formal and material expressions of Modernism, and less on its progressive social agenda of working-class uplift. How much can form alone accomplish? Take a look at his new monograph, The Limits of Form. “It’s more of a question than an answer,” he says—hardly a heroic proclamation, and more of an invitation to learn something new, perhaps something lost in heroic Modernism’s campaigns to teach the world a new way to live at the point of a T square.

Yet, in a brief chat at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., before his Spotlight on Design lecture in May, the word “hero”—typically the prophetic architect responsible for creating utopia—keeps coming up. Before introducing a pair of mixed-use residential buildings in the Washington, D.C., West End neighborhood, the Mexican architect lamented that, after Postmodernism began slinking onto the scene, architecture had a hard time coming up with heroes. What got him excited about architecture as a young designer? It was a “hyper-heroic moment.” Today the idea of heroic architecture works best as a straw man for skewering (or smirking). Beloved by Modernists from Corbusier to Meier, why do you use the color white so often in your buildings? “Because it represents the purity of my heart,” he deadpans. “I’m kidding.”

AIArchitect: What is the role of utopia in architecture today?

Norten: It was a great source of energy to believe in an unreachable condition. But nevertheless, there is a vocabulary that is very strong, a vocabulary that is used by all of us, regardless of our origins. Not to say that it doesn’t have different tonalities, but we’re still basing our work on the vocabulary of a century ago, which is the vocabulary that formed Modern architecture.

If Modernism is already 100 years old, how much shelf life does it have left? Could people like you and me have the same conversation 100, 200, 300 years from now?

I have no idea. How long did the Renaissance last? It didn’t last [because of] humanist and utopian ideas. [It lasted by] repeating the articulated physical ideas that evolved into Mannerism and Classicism, it was part of an evolution of [the idea] of recuperating the classics. That single articulation of buildings lasted 500 years, 600 years. There has to be [some] kind of very revolutionary condition. In [Modernism’s] case, it happened because of the new use of materials and the Industrial Revolution. It was a series of circumstances that brought us to a new way of expression. I don’t know. It’s obviously way beyond any of us.

Several years ago you said this in an interview: “We are living in a moment when practice is about form. New technology allows us to investigate new opportunities that were not there before. This is not my interest. I don’t start by trying to invent the formal condition to investigate space and time. The formal condition will come out of the guidelines and rules. They will lead to the expressive form.” Since that interview, the economy crashed, and we keep hearing about how architecture and design has been chastened away from wild, formally experimental buildings by new economic realities. Like many architects, several of your projects didn’t make it out of the recession. Do you think the experience with the poor economy has added more “guidelines and rules” that will force architects to dip deeper into the constraints of their projects and produce better architecture?

I don’t think it imposed more guidelines and rules, but I do think it imposed more reflection. We were living in a carnival, and maybe I was too. There were no limits. It was about trying to invent what your neighbor didn’t have—literally your neighbor or the next city or the next country. That was a tremendous condition of squander. Both the people that commission [architecture] and architects are being more responsible about it. If I ever sinned, it wasn’t that bad. I never bet on it, because that was never my forte. So I feel pretty good about it.

You used the word “responsible” and “sin.” What exactly is the responsibility of the architecture in this situation? Is designing more modestly just about saving the client or public money? Is it a responsibility to modest aesthetic values like balance and proportion?

Architecture is a discipline of many layers, [and] for various reasons architects have let go of certain responsibilities—social responsibilities, urban responsibilities, infrastructural responsibilities. We need to go back and reflect on all of that, to help our leaders create visions of how to occupy the environment.

So you’d suggest that these kinds of responsibilities are easy to lose track of if you’re competing to design the most formally extravagant building on the block?

Correct. People have lost focus.

You can probably wake up each morning and say with confidence that you’re Mexico’s most well-known architect. Within that idea, do you ever feel pressure to represent “Mexican Architecture” or at least “Contemporary Cosmopolitan Mexican Architecture”?

No, I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe that architecture, and especially contemporary architecture, is defined by borders. I don’t think there is a Mexican architecture, a Guatemalan architecture, a Nicaraguan architecture. We’re part of a network of cities. We’re all sort of looking at the same things. We’re all saying the same things—with different tonalities. I do think that each one of us has been [enormously influenced by] our own culture and upbringing, but that doesn’t mean that I can be a Mexican architect.

On the other side, I’m a very proud Mexican. I’m completely committed to Mexico. I do think I have a big responsibility with my country, which doesn’t mean I’m a Mexican architect. As an architect, I do hope I’ll be able to give a lot back to my country.

   
   


Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA. Photo by Kristin Zuro, Assoc. AIA.


Norten’s design for the Guggenheim Guadalajara. Image courtesy of TEN Arquitectos.


Acapulco City Hall, designed by TEN Arquitectos. Image courtesy of TEN Arquitectos.


West End Square 37 in Washington, D.C., designed by TEN Arquitectos. Image courtesy of TEN Arquitectos.


West End Square 50 in Washington D.C., designed by TEN Arquitectos. Image courtesy of TEN Arquitectos.


Chopo Museum in Mexico City, designed by TEN Arquitectos. Image courtesy of Luis Gordoa.

     

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