Q+A with CACP Assoc. Prof. Ed Burian, author of The Architecture and Cities of Northern Mexico

(February 10, 2016) -- This interview took place at the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning (CACP) in December of 2015 between Nicole Chavez, CACP Communications & Development Coordinator, and Edward R. Burian, Associate Professor. Here they discuss Burian’s recent book, The Architecture and Cities of Northern Mexico from Independence to Present, University of Texas Press, (2015).

Burian will also discuss the book as the keynote speaker of the CACP Faculty Research Symposium at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 19. His talk “Learning from the Architecture of Northern Mexico: Transforming Types, Materials, and Hybrids,” will be held in the Aula Canaria Lecture Hall (BV 1.328). A book signing and reception with food and beverages will follow the 5:30 p.m. lecture. The Architecture and Cities of Northern Mexico from Independence to the Present  will be available for purchase at a special discounted price of $32 at this event only, which is 50-percent off the regular $65 price.

Burian’s book is the first in-depth discussion of the undervalued architecture, landscapes, and urbanism of the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Baja California Norte and Sur. Covering the formative era of modern Mexico from independence from Spain in 1821 to the current contemporary pressures on local cultures by electronic information technology and the forces of globalization, the text documents, discusses and analyzes an undervalued body of work largely unknown in either English or Spanish. The volume is profusely illustrated with over 400 black-and-white and color photographs, maps, and original analytical plan drawings of urban cores of major cities.

Free parking is available for the 5:30 p.m. lecture, in UTSA parking lot D-3 under I-35, in unmarked spaces only. Pay parking is available in the Monterey lot. UTSA Downtown Campus Map found here. For more information, contact Nicole Chavez at nicole.chavez@utsa.edu or 210.458.3121.


NC: I’d like to know more about your motivation in writing this new book because your previous book on the architecture of Mexico from the end of the Mexican revolution in 1918 to the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games also examines an undervalued body of work. Why did you choose to examine undervalued or unknown works in Northern Mexico?

EB: Examining undervalued works of architecture really drives my research. We have plenty of books on well-known architects in Mexico such as Luis Barragán or Ricardo Legorreta but there are whole aspects of Mexican architectural culture that are almost totally unknown, yet that body of work is incredibly rich. Unfortunately the big narratives that are constructed about architecture are usually written in Europe, in the United States, and to a degree in Japan. Latin America in general is undervalued, as is Mexico, and Northern Mexico is particularly undervalued. Basically, the narratives on Mexican architecture (to paraphrase Reyner Banham) are written “in Mexico City about architecture in Mexico City.” Northern Mexico is always seen as less legitimate, a land of cowboys, while a fiction has developed that everybody who’s sophisticated lives in Mexico City, and all the quality architecture in the country is in central Mexico. In the introduction of my book, I explain that most of the major texts on architecture of colonial Mexico go no further north than Zacatecas, which is really central Mexico. For a variety of reasons, Northern Mexico was simply considered less culturally legitimate than central Mexico.

NC: Let’s talk about the significance of this now being the first comprehensive overview of these undervalued works in northern Mexico. What does that mean for the local, regional and global discourses on Mexican architecture?

EB: There are several layers to that question. The first objective is to document so we know what’s there. I saw the book as the first pass through that body of work and that other scholars would then hopefully write very detailed books on individual architects, works of architecture, and cities, as well as nuanced architectural ideas. I also think it’s a rich source for creating an appropriate contemporary regional architecture for our own time in the sense that there are building and organizational types that can be reinterpreted. Useful building typologies could be reinterpreted in terms of contemporary materials, programs, and spatial ideas. That was one of the subtexts for the book. There are other kinds of critical lenses that can be used for viewing this body of work that are really rich. The other thing that’s fascinating about all this is the border and the possibilities of hybrid architectural cultures, with the freedom to borrow from both sides.

NC: Can you describe the organization of the book?

EB: I tried to write the book for a broader audience, not just Mexican specialists, so it begins with a broad overview which lays out some of the bigger problems we talked about in terms why architecture in the north is so undervalued, and so on. There’s a geographical overview of the region which I think is important to understand, such as why northern Mexico developed so independently, including the scarcity of water, and the kinds of issues which are always crucial in a dry land. After that, there’s a historical overview. One of the large ideas that’s important to understand is why the north is so independent, including the tension for centuries between the central authority in Mexico City and the entrepreneurs in the north. After setting the stage, I examine the cities and significant works of each state. Starting near southern Texas in Tamaulipas, then Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, Sinaloa, then finally Baja California Norte and Sur. Basically westward from hot and humid to hot and dry. I conclude with observations of some opportunities for the region, in terms of making a contemporary regional architecture. No one had written a biographical overview of the architects who were practicing at that time in Northern Mexico, so this is one of the most important things I included at the end of the book.

NC: You’ve mentioned the book was written to be accessible to a broad audience. Why was this important to you and what strategies did you use to accomplish this?

EB: I hoped the book would have a broader appeal, as there is just such a pressing need. For example, important 19th century and early 20th century buildings, and even modernist buildings from the ’50s or ’60s are being destroyed because the owners aren’t aware that they’re architecturally significant because nobody’s really written about them. Even some buildings I documented in the book have vanished. That’s why I think it’s important for citizens in Mexico and the American Southwest and elsewhere to know about these buildings. I also envisioned the book as being used not only by academics but also by travelers and students by car or bus. That was also part of the unsaid agenda of the book.

NC: The comprehensive biographical listing of the architects practicing in the region, why was it important to include that and what additional challenges did it present?

EB: There’s almost nothing that exists, so if I didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to get done. I saw this as an opportunity to bring to light several generations of architects in Northern Mexico whose work merited greater attention. They had never been part of the larger narratives about modern architecture and so I thought it would be important to include them. If you’re a scholar, you’re typically building on the shoulders of somebody else, and then somebody else will build on the shoulders of what I’ve done. Hopefully the next person who “goes down that trail” will have an easier time than I had.

NC: The book contains over 400 black and white and color photographs, maps, and original analytical drawings. Tell me a bit about the process used to collect these.

EB: I was really pleased with this, and the University Texas Press did a really good job with the reproductions. We tried very hard to have high quality drawings and high resolution digital scans. Anything that wasn’t sufficient quality, they wouldn’t allow it to be published. They’re very adamant about that but I think it was very important. Some of the photographs are really rare, they came from archives that portray parts of cities that just don’t exist anymore. …The picture postcards are really important because lots of times that’s all there is. Parts of cities no longer exist, they’ve been remodeled or altered, destroyed or changed. These works of architecture that I’d admired for many years are finally being presented with a high quality photographs. It was quite a task to get all the permissions. Out of 420 or so photos in the book probably one-third of them are photographs that I took, one-third of them came from old picture postcards, then maybe another third I had to contact individual architects and other contacts who agreed to assist me. It was very tedious work. You learn to appreciate any photo you can find and any source. … I would say I probably started working on the book eight years ago, though I didn’t work on it continuously. I’ve worked on it in between my teaching, service and other research at UTSA and during the summer. Every summer was always filled with writing, researching, and visits to Mexico. I was very blessed though, and am very thankful to colleagues who helped me. You really count your blessings in doing a book like this.

NC: Will you talk about the way you selected individual works for inclusion in the book? And how works made the cut or not?

EB: The thing that I’m interested in as an architect, a scholar, and a professor is the issue of “place,” the “human body,” and “materials.” And so the way I selected the buildings was not on basis of style or time period, and it wasn’t so much what historically happened in the building. I made my selections based on direct experiences of the building … physical sensory experiences, of materiality, sound, smell, the rhythm of light. I didn’t care if it was a contemporary building or a 19th century building, but I was interested in those that lingered in my memory after I left. Those are the ones I wrote about. Then of course you “discover” things. “Discover” in the sense that you become aware of things as you’re walking down the street, walk into a courtyard, and find an incredible work of architecture that almost nobody knows about. … Of course, this isn’t a new idea, it’s a discourse in architecture theory called phenomenology, which comes from philosophy. Basically it looks at architecture not as storytelling, not merely as functionally driven, but looks at architecture in terms of direct sensory experience. That was one of the driving forces behind the selections.

NC: What do you think this book means for the college and some of our students in light of the fact that we’re such an important Hispanic serving institution? For seven years now, we’ve been the university that delivers the highest amount of undergraduate degrees in architecture to Hispanic students.

EB: That was even one of the reasons I came here to UTSA in the first place. I hope this book will increase awareness about the architectural culture of Northern Mexico and that it’ll inspire our students and others to carry this work forward to write histories, analytical, and critical books about individual cities, building types, architectural experiences, and undervalued architects. For example, the history of women architects in Mexico, that’s a huge subject that’s needs to be written about more. The industrialization of Mexico hasn’t been written about very much; neither has materiality in Mexico. I’ve told students, ‘If you want to make a name for yourself, you could write a great book about the history of movie theaters in Mexico or the history of art deco architecture.’ The history of 19th century architecture in Mexico always gets swept under the rug too. There’s all kinds of great work that needs to be written about. … I’m teaching a course on the architecture of Northern Mexico this semester and one of the things we’re focusing on is materiality, but also transforming types. How you can actually transform ideas about covered open air arcades, or courtyard typologies, or strategies for materials and tectonic order. … One of my professors in graduate school, Vincent Scully said, “The past is always waiting to detonate.” And I think it is, it’s all there, just waiting for someone to unearth it, bring it to the surface and look at it in a fresh way.

NC: We already talked about this, but are there any other positive outcomes you hope for in light of the book’s publication? Maybe you can discuss some of the lessons learned and future opportunities you talk about in the book’s conclusion.

EB: Again I think it’s reinterpreting building typologies with contemporary materials and contemporary programs. That, I think, is key. I think we need to understand basic building organizations that work. Courtyard types, outdoor circulation plazas, arcades in cities and the scale of them, outdoor rooms that are shaded with trees, mixed-use development. All of these things have worked for centuries, so to be able to look at those with a fresh set of eyes and reinterpret them in the contemporary urban fabric is really important. Learning from climate responsive architecture is also very important. … Hopefully this will be the first book people will look at when they’re considering either designing a building in Northern Mexico or doing an academic project there. Hopefully it will bring greater attention to a body of work that is significant for the region on both sides of the border. I hope it can be a starting point for our students doing their own research in the Master’s Thesis projects, in the M.S. Architecture program, and for our undergraduate students as well.

Browse the book online at UT Press here.

Read the press release for the 2016 CACP Faculty Research Symposium here.


VIDEO: Edward Burian: Learning from the Architecture of Northern Mexico

February 19, 2016│UTSA