Accessible Architecture and Design

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 6.40.20 PMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Mexico City is one of the most stimulating cities in the world for exploring architecture and design — readily accessible to the visitor, in every meaning of the word. While many cities are famed for their magnificent monuments and buildings, many impose numerous hands-off limitations. Mexico City landmarks are much more likely to invite residents and visitors to use every sense, including tactile discovery, to become familiar with design and architecture. The recently renovated Museo Tamayo, in Chapultepec Park, is one sterling example.

Originally intended as the first museum of modern art in Mexico City, based primarily on acquiring the collection of the famed Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo and his wife Olga, the building’s design was commissioned in 1972 to architects Teodoro González de León y Abraham Zabludovsky. The architects took seven years to plan a building that integrated contemporary design and elements of indigenous architecture, while providing intimate spaces for curation, both inside and outside, harmonizing with Chapultepec Park. When the building opened in 1981, the museum met with international critical acclaim, and the architects won major design awards.

Over the years, the museum enlarged its permanent collection, developed an outstanding educational program, and began serving as a venue for temporary exhibits of cutting-edge art. Thirty years after it opened, a pressing need for more space was addressed. One of the original architects, de León, was asked to design an addition and renovation that would preserve the characteristics of the much loved building and provide 40% more programmatic space. An emphasis was placed on having the most unobtrusive and modern approaches to accessibility to the exhibits and educational programs. The museum was closed for two years and reopened in August 2013.

As long-time visitors to the museum, we were curious about the effect the changes might have on the experience of enjoying both the art and the building. We can tell you that our latest visit, at the end of December 2013, was even better than in the past.

Accessibility of the art was made apparent to us even as our taxi entered the small parking lot. Jan had limited post-surgical mobility and was using crutches. The parking lot attendant guided us to a spot among trees as close to the museum as possible and pointed out the shortest and most level approach to the entrance. A wide ramp of unusually helpful composition provided access to the entrance doors.   Visually-pleasing ramps had been incorporated in the interior design – if you don’t need them you won’t even notice they are there.   Much to the delight of parents with toddlers or little ones in strollers, everyone could move independently from space to space.

Some of the children never wanted to leave the first exhibit – a GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel) display of kinetic art that invites visitors to participate in changing the shapes and configurations. One of the GRAV elements is a series of horizontal square boards on springs a few feet off the floor. Children and adults vigorously bouncing up and down and laughing with joy just seemed to be an integral part of the display.

Our primary target exhibit in December was “Public Transaction” by Rita McBride, an internationally known artist whose works are greatly influenced by the architecture of Le Corbusier. Corbusier was largely responsible for initiating the “Purism” movement in the first half of the 20th century. Clean lines and poured concrete were characteristic of his buildings, and his design turned functional objects such as chairs into distinctive sculpture.

McBride essentially stands Corbusier on his head. She transforms functional design into nonutilitarian sculpture, also emphasizing clean lines. The effect is mind-boggling. Although her sculpture retains the shape of everyday objects and buildings that are immediately recognizable as representing their functional form, the viewer quite rapidly notices that the form has been retained but function is impossible. A sedan car constructed from rattan with side “mirrors” represented by rattan baskets provides an introduction to the exhibit. A “ficus tree” set in the middle of nowhere is actually green cut glass that wanders off as if growing up the wall. McBride herself, in an interview in Budapest when her work was displayed there, said she is being flippant about the profusion of potted plants in TV interview studios, product catalogues, and restaurants and bars. She is asking: you cannot have a respectable art exhibit without a ficus tree?

A number of “parking structures” of different sizes evoke peals of laughter from viewers, since the ramps go to various levels where any vehicle would simply drift off into empty space – there aren’t any workable parking spaces that would keep the cars in place. Brightly colored “air ducts” hang suspended above visitors’ heads connected to – aha – nothing.

Two of our favorites were “Servants and Slaves” and “Arena”. The former consisted of three box-like structures that had the form of ATM or vending machines but totally lacked any screens, slots, or other realistic ornamentation. You know immediately what it is, but it isn’t. The latter was a structure filling an entire room. It seemed to be stadium bleacher seats, but there was no realistic way to take a seat or watch a sports event or entertainment. The proportions were totally unrealistic…   the lowest seats were too high to climb up to them; moreover, there were no seat backs. If people sat in the row above, their feet would be in your hair or resting on your shoulders or in your lap. Since you are looking at empty rows of seats, it is at first difficult to figure out what exactly is wrong with the design. Her Hungarian interviewer summarized the experience by saying, “There is something about being disoriented that is challenging.”

The McBride exhibition presented a doorway to considering the design of objects we see and use every day. Adjacent is a “sculpture” of wood by Tatiana Bilbao that is actually as large as a building. Partly it is inside the Tamayo Museum, but the viewer is led outside the museum, still inside the wooden sculpture. The exhibit includes various completed and incomplete architectural elements that the visitor can wander through, touch, or climb on. Indeed, the promotional photographs show children in the upper reaches of the Bilbao work– how did they get there? The museum also provides the platform for a series of activities planned by the artists and curators, Julieta Gonzalez and Magnolia de la Garza. The activities are also hands-on projects that increase access to understanding architecture and design.

The current exhibition will end on April 13, 2014. You can be sure that even if you visit the Tamayo Museum after that date, you will find other opportunities for greater understanding and enjoyment of art, architecture and design.

Marcia and Jan Chaiken live 6 months a year in Bahia Chahué. In December they had a sudden personal appreciation of buildings with high-quality access for persons with disabilities.

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