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Readings of the Cartesian labyrinth

LIGA’s exhibition space in Mexico City occupies 16 m2 in a building designed by Augusto Álvarez and Juan Sordo Madaleno, two of the most emblematic architects of Mexico’s modern movement. According to their professional offspring, neither Álvarez nor Sordo cared about theory. Their work consisted on sketching precise drawings –always based on a modular grid– that could be easily translated from paper into steel and concrete. In expressions common among Mexican architects, their buildings “lack nothing and have no superfluous elements.” They are composed of “honest” shapes that “are what they seem”: they express nothing beyond their condition as structural assemblages and containers of program.

As part of their project for the Lisbon Trienniale, LIGA invited the architectural firm MMX to do an installation in a 561m² gallery at MUDE (the Museum of Design and Fashion of Lisbon). The members of MMX were educated in institutions and by architects that keep the modern movement alive. When explaining their work they use similar words to those of their teachers and they share with them certain design strategies. In large measure (the apostolic succession would be easy to establish) MMX is part of a tradition that holds Álvarez and Sordo as prophets.

 Hence, the work of MMX follows a process that begins with exercises and conversations among its four members that lead to a concept and ideally end with its construction. The concept is frequently based on a module that, multiplied, integrates spatial and structural systems. In the case of the Lisbon installation, the module is the perimeter of LIGA’s floor plan, which is repeated thirty times and arranged like a pattern of floor tiles. The pieces, with five edges each, fit together perfectly; the proposal calls attention to the geometrical rigor of Álvarez and Sordo’s work.

 Nevertheless, the three dimensional arrangement of the work complicates the association of MMX with the modern movement. Seen in elevation, the module is a felt band that changes in thickness and position; it contains spaces, traces paths, and frames or obstructs views. From each point in the room, the installation offers a different spatial experience. Hereby, the gallery is transformed into a labyrinth with multiple trails and destinies. The work –without a program– expresses more than its structure and construction process. Those who course the voids between the red tapes can establish, project, behold and sketch –in the words of Michel de Certeau– poetic geographies “on top of the geography of the literal”.1 Through MMX’s installation, MUDE and LIGA are connected to each other and they open up to other spaces.

 One might read the work of MMX as part of a new and more reflexive stage of the modern movement. The members of the studio recognize –and exploit– the metaphorical properties of built space. They also realize that the users of a building redesign it by inscribing new meanings on its shapes. From this perspective, there is no place for “honesty”: every construction is ambiguous, multiple and is in constant transformation. The role of the architects is not limited to drawing for construction any more; it also implies suggesting symbolic relations and establishing contrasts that make room for memories, apprehensions and desires.

 Describing the proposal of MMX as more–than-modernist, however, proposes a lineal –and modern– vision of the history of architecture, in which its different stages follow each other like dominos. A more suggestive interpretation of MMX’s installation is as an invitation to reread the architecture of the past. In 20th century works, even the most dogmatic, one finds crossroad histories that unfold behind masks of rationality. Maybe modern shapes “are what they seem” but they are never only that.

 LIGA’s space in Mexico is a gallery (which used to be a commerce and also functions as a lobby to the building) as well as the module for an installation in Lisbon. It can be many more things: visitors discover and underline other associations. Perhaps the “puritanically moral language of orthodox modern architecture”2 denounced by Robert Venturi was, from its very start, complex and contradictory. By transforming the space of LIGA into the starting point for new inventions, MMX reminds us that Cartesian plans can also be labyrinths.

1The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 105

2Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Nueva York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977, p. 16.