To drive north into the suburbs of Mexico City, which merge into and blur with the surrounding state of Mexico without clear demarcation, means joining an endless line of cars, very old and brand new, 1980s’-era buses packed with people commuting at any time of the day and a skyline cluttered with billboards advertising Mexican soap operas, tortilla brands, fast food chains and, above all else, political campaigns. The highway north is clearly aesthetically challenged, despite the notable presence of Mathias Goeritz’ Torres de Satélite (Satellite Towers): five triangular concrete prisms painted red, yellow, blue and white, built in 1957 in collaboration with the architect Luis Barragán and the painter Jesús Reyes Ferreira.
Architecture, or rather the absence of the coherence the term implies, was the most distinctive characteristic of a recent drive to visit Antonio O’Connell’s latest installation in one of Mexico’s most important private universities, the Tecnológico de Monterrey. Thousands of precariously built houses and structures, mostly raw concrete and steel rebar rods, sprawl chaotically over the surrounding hills. A wall of advertisements clearly separates the university, with its notions of progress and the promise of higher education, from the rest of this ragged and unresolved landscape.
Born in Mexico in 1974, O’Connell is both architect and artist. Virus (2007) the site-specific work he built for the Tecnológico, was assembled at surprising speed with nails, metal cables, wooden debris and freshly hewn and painted lumber put together as structural units that result in organic sculptural forms infiltrating and growing on the university buildings. O’Connell has articulated and manipulated these simple variables in order to produce installations that comment on the chaotic headlong growth and Modernist architecture of a megalopolis such as Mexico City. Drawing attention to the space that surrounds them, his sculptures function as environments. He expands our traditional notion of what constitutes the centre of an architectural form by constructing various vanishing-points, diagonal lines that interrupt the stability of verticals and horizontals. While less obvious in this installation, O’Connell is generally preoccupied with how ideas of transit and habitat are modified, pushing classical architectural elements such as symmetry, rhythm, economic simplicity and order to their limits without denying them. In conversation the artist has said: ‘I don’t really believe in plans or blueprints – architecture is about space, and they don’t provide spatial qualities. The way I work is by envisioning space and what I want to put in it. Sometimes I draw, but mostly I build scale models based on the image inside my head.’ Most importantly, his work is ephemeral and impermanent, each work built to be ultimately disassembled in an absurdist negation of the architectural notion of eternal forms.
O’Connell views the growth of cities in terms of the way viruses behave: they can reproduce only by living inside another system and using its cells and raw materials. A virus exists on the frontier between life and death, and in order to activate its functions it needs a ‘house’. The disorderly way a mega-city grows goes against the balance nature is trying to achieve, but this chaos reorders systems by creating new levels of interaction.
With Virus O’Connell experimented further with his interest in colour. The predominant yellows of the wooden boards were offset by various shades of orange, blue, green and red that contrast vibrantly with the white concrete walls and the bright grass below. These are also the colours breaking up the otherwise stark grey monotony of the mass of structures sprawling on the other side of the wall, recalling Barragán’s use of earthy colour in his own ‘formal’ architecture, a recognition of the aesthetic value of the vernacular found in Mexico’s small towns and pueblos. The rhythmic patterns of smaller wooden shards and planks, and almost musical interplay of form and colour' accentuate the work’s tactile appeal, again drawing attention to the space surrounding us and how it is occupied.
Surveying the confused topography around Mexico City, the term ‘ruin’ frequently suggests itself. Yet ruins are linked to memory, history, defunct beliefs or ideologies. The ruins of this city and its suburbs do not belong to the dead. People continue to activate these ruins with their own living ideas about the world, with their everyday hopes and disappointments and their relationships to the spaces they share. O’Connell’s architectural interventions are his own personal obsessions, a network of aesthetic mutations (to borrow a term used by Michel Houellebecq in his novel The Possibility of an Island, 2005). But with increasing frequency they appear to express something fundamental embedded within the greater fabric of the city.