September 1, 2020
Recessed Apertures and Atypical Heft Distinguish a Mexico City Apartment House
Designed by Young & Ayata with Michan Architecture, the cast concrete building is the product of reduction.
DL1310, a newly completed seven-unit apartment building in Mexico City designed by the architecture office Young & Ayata with Michan Architecture, is the product of reduction. Early on in its planning, some five years ago, the decision was made to set the building back on two sides to allow more air and light into the midblock site. By shrinking the footprint, the height could be increased, a valuable maneuver given the sloped lot with views onto a ravine and the southern reaches of the city. When the first version of the design came in over budget, the architects resolved to be less expressive, settling instead on a cast-in-place concrete box with irregular window apertures. A protracted permitting process and an ill-timed zoning dispute (after a new municipal government took office) shrank the scheme’s five floors to four, upending the initial financial calculus of the development. As construction commenced, value engineering loomed over the project.
For Michael Young and Kutan Ayata, partners in the New York City–based firm, their biggest fear was that the defining feature of the design—windows tipped at skewed angles within deep concrete recesses—would be made flush with the facade to cut costs. What would be left then? Cast concrete, a fetish of designers the world over, is not a rarity in Mexico City, even in mid-market housing. And flushmounted irregular-shaped windows would amount to a decorative gimmick. But it’s the rotation of the glazing into the facade—and the curved concrete surfaces at the head and sill of the windows that reconcile the geometries—that profoundly alters the experience of the building, both inside and out. “The ambiguity between a punched fenestration and a window-wall glazing defamiliarizes the scale of the entire building,” explains Young.
Now that the building is finished and Young and Ayata’s fear did not come to pass, it’s clear how these indentations disrupt the otherwise standardized one- and two-bedroom layouts. Depending on the size and type of space they penetrate, the indentations can be jarring or awkward or delightful or almost commonplace. Or all of those at once. The oblique perspectives they allow—of the street, in both directions; along the side of the building; out toward the mountains—explode the building’s compact interiors even as the insets eat up square footage, which makes their survival all the more remarkable.
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Certainly it helped that Isaac Michan Daniel, the local collaborating architect, is related to the real estate developer. It also helped that Michan Daniel, a former student of Ayata’s at Pratt, understood the significance of such details to the larger architectural concept. That commitment seems to have paid off—if not in ample returns on investment, then at least in professional accolades. Last year, DL1310 was honored with a Progressive Architecture P/A Award. The jury, citing the trend toward translucence and lightness, acknowledged that the building “provides a sense of thickness and depth that is very skillful and super effective.”
Depth manifests in two extremes in the project. First, there are the deep recesses in the rectangular mass: 22 window apertures in total, in five different sizes. These were formed with reusable fiberglass molds that were in turn produced from negative timber molds. The second, and far more subtle, source of depth is the surface of the concrete walls. Originally, the form boards—two-inchwide strips of wood—were set to run horizontally. But at the last minute, while Ayata was visiting the site, the architects decided to rotate them vertically in order to contrast the walls with the floor slab. Additionally, the workers were instructed to apply, every so often, shims to the ends of the wood forms. The effect is a slight vertical undulation within the imprint of the formwork, which catches light and shadow. This modification, never drawn or submitted as a change order, was possible thanks to direct communication between architects, client, and contractors.
Young and Ayata seem to marvel at the achievement. As prolific teachers—Young at Cooper Union and Ayata at UCLA—with an itch to build (DL1310 is their first ground-up project), they have found reassurance in the process that ideas can survive even the fickleness of real estate development. The humility such a project requires has further clarified their interest in the everyday and familiar over the strange and exciting. What they’ve achieved with DL1310, however, is all four.
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