Reform, one Building at a Time: on the Work of S-AR
Across the American continent, that stretches from Patagonia to the Aleutian Islands and which includes the United States of Mexico as well as the United States of America, at least three large urbanization strategies can be observed: the indigenous process of settling (from ancient times to the contemporary so-called informal process), the Spanish imposition of the Latin cardo/decumanus and the Anglo-Saxon picturesque suburban garden city. All three strategies are clearly recognizable from South to North of the double continent.
While the first settlement strategy is scaled to pedestrian/equestrian mobility, the second strategy is relatively independent from forms of mobility, the last can only exist on motorized, individualized forms of transport. Despite widespread preconceptions and prejudices, the character of settlements across the Americas varies only in small degrees from one another. To be sure, if the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles with its false promise of freedom in suburbia and its concomitantly, constantly blocked urban highways is the paradigm case for an inefficient transport system, then neither Lima nor Buenos Aires fare significantly better in terms of efficacy and smooth connectivity. Privileged bus routes as those adopted in cities like Curitiba have tilted the scales somewhat in favor of the common person; but a city like São Paulo in the same Brazil luxuriates in private helicopter flights.
These larger contexts of the constructed settlement types with their aortas of transport systems are the background to the understanding of the significance of the work of the small Monterrey practice with the name S-AR (César Guerrero, Ana Cecilia Garza, Carlos Raúl Flores and María Sevilla). It is a common background shared with the neighboring regions and states, whether they be in Mexico or the USA. Monterrey is located in the Mexican state of Nueva León, a few hours’ car journey to the Gulf of Mexico and to the Mexican-USA border. And because of their commonality, the attitude expressed in S-AR’s work is so much more revealing when it is compared with contemporary production, for example, across the northern border. Given the prevalence of the two-dimensional media (including popular professional journals, exhibition and web site formats), and combined with the long wake of the reinvigorated importance of the motif and the gesture ever since postmodernism as well as the excess of cheap money, the architectural discourse in the USA has been dominated by an overproduction of autonomous shapes, devoid of social, cultural or constructional meaning. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of The Vanities is the socio-cultural mirror to the architectural production of the last three decades in the USA.
Having provided this large backdrop, the work of S-AR can and must be realistically seen as a built criticism of the excesses emerging from north of the border. It is as if the rational construction, the palpable physicality of the materials and their tectonic directness, the contextual reticence, and their minimal poetry are altogether a stoic accusation against the vanities from the rest of the northern hemisphere and a constructed statement of an almost Jesuit/Franciscan alternative. The architects’ education at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, their Hispanic-Catholic culture, and their awareness of the socio-political vicissitudes of Mexico have informed S-AR’s attitude. Conciseness, matter-of-factness, directness, real minimal details (not the northern hemispherical minimalist details that only look simple, but which are only realized at great effort and expense given the onerous insulation and fire protection building codes), yes, and indeed orthogonal geometry, all these facets of an architecture, that long seem to have been left behind by the self-perceived US-American and European avant-garde, can be seen in the work of S-AR to lead a convincing answer to the wide range of tasks that require architecture in Monterrey.
To be sure, free-standing private houses, not an ideal typology for the provision of accommodation in the context of the much needed sustainable policies, are amongst S-AR’s range of work, but so are a children’s daycare as well as model social houses. It is a debatable point whether one should reject commissions for free-standing single family houses just because they are not in the long term sustainable. Clearly, a larger body of research is urgently needed to document the need for alternative settlement typologies. However, while the world awaits a more decisive and collective attitude towards sustainability and the profession at large in turn adopts radical best-practice guidelines resulting from these sustainability policies, individual architectural practices need to survive. From their own statements and writings S-AR have shown that they are aware of these broader issues, and thus they are laying the course for their future work. It will be revealing to see how these standards will indeed be embodied in their forthcoming projects.