Placemaking, performativity and community-led change in Tlatelolco, Mexico, through the eyes of designer Mariana Martinez Balvanera
7 minute read / Tracey Taylor
While she might be trained as an interior architect, Mariana’s work has been distinctly more of the exterior kind. She’s worked all over the world in public spaces, urban districts and housing estates, collaborating with communities and collectives to develop her own experimental, performative and characteristically exuberant approach to placemaking. From her roots in Mexico City, she’s studied in London, developed spatial stories in Shanghai and worked with a placemaking collective in Amsterdam, before heading back to Mexico for her latest project.
Mariana talked to us on a sunny Mexican morning from a room overlooking the astonishing Tlatelolco: a district of Mexico City where an ancient Aztec archaeological site abuts a 17th century Spanish church, the former offices of the Ministry of Foreign Relations and a colossal modernist social housing complex that’s home to 55,000 people. Could this place be a crucible for a new kind of grassroots Latin American placemaking?
Mariana, you’ve traveled and worked and studied in so many different places. What do you see as the differences between placemaking in Latin America, Amsterdam and London?
In Europe there's a formality. Public space is controlled by certain institutions, or it's private. There's always a high level of control and restriction: how you can use a public space, who can use it, and until what time. If you're working in public space, it takes paperwork and permission. Although in Amsterdam there is an ideology right now that’s more about bottom-up placemaking initiatives – the city is open towards self-organised collectives for artists, designers or builders to create spaces.
Latin America is a very different thing, because institutions are not that involved. The systems are also nonfunctional. But that allows for more informal happenings.
How old is Latin American placemaking? Does it have any kind of tradition?
I wouldn’t say it’s something that’s on paper! There's a conscious feeling towards public space in Northern Europe to keep it clean and safe. It's like a jewel.
In Latin America, people claim it. Suddenly someone wants to sell orange juice, and they come and put a stall there. There is no procedure for doing that, none at all. It means that, for example, there are more homeless people sleeping in the parks, but there is also – I guess, ‘unthought harmony’ between all the parts. Without that informal commerce, or those moments, there wouldn't be this culture.
The way I like to look at placemaking is experimental, trying things out. I guess also because I'm Mexican and this is how I roll.
That must really stress people out in Northern Europe!?
Sometimes. But the company I was working with in Amsterdam did things like that a lot. It surprised me. I was like, "Are you really Dutch? In Mexico, it takes time to figure out what works and what doesn't, but people are very engaged in their space, and what they can do there.
Let’s talk about about your creative process.
It’s important for me to spend a long time in a place – observing what happens on a daily basis, talking to people, getting to know people who live there and figuring out if there are specific locals who are community leaders. But also: what are the concerns in terms of safety, or unemployment, or bad communication, whatever?
When I was working on a project at Bemerton Council Estate in London, at the beginning I was observing, talking to people and doing consultation. Yet I couldn't visualise what was going to work and what wasn't. I decided that I was going to do a series of performative interventions to imagine different scenarios of what people wanted in the estate. It was useful to see how people reacted. And while you're doing things, more people come and are curious and express their thoughts.
In Amsterdam, the neighbourhood I worked in is called the Kolenkitbuurt. It used to be the worst neighbourhood in Amsterdam. The collective I worked with made a lot of small interventions. For example, we had a performance about home violence, where the police wanted to find out how many people were being abused. We made four houses with actors in them, and invited people in to drink tea. And then people – out of nowhere – just sat there with the actors and told the most personal stories. These kinds of things were never reported to the police. By creating performative acts, you can activate people's behaviour and how they communicate with you.
Do you think coming from an interior design background helps that?
Definitely. All the technical and aesthetic tools that I've acquired are always in my work – translated into mobile objects, or even just if there needs to be a costume or something.
This is maybe a provocative question but are architects the right people to be doing this? Who should be doing this kind of placemaking work?
Architects are the ones thinking about the relationship between space and people who are going to live there, so it is important. But more groups of people should be doing this. It's a collaboration between architects and artists and sociologists and other types of storytellers. If you're talking about placemaking, there's much more sociology.
A lot of your projects have been collaborative, especially with the community you're working for. But what about your experience collaborating with other placemakers - professionals from other disciplines? Can it work well?
For it to work, there needs to be a lot of time invested in the collaboration, time to reflect, and a willingness to open up to different kinds of practices.
Do you feel the importance of those relationships - and investing time in them - is often underestimated?
I would say so. We are used to working in a very professional setting that seems very serious. But if you’re talking about placemaking, you are talking about human spirit as well. So why not treat placemaking practice as that?
What do you think is the limit of placemaking? What can’t it do?
It's already limited. I work with public space and social housing, and in communities. As a placemaker, you can always invent a story, but the story continues to evolve with people who are there. I think our limit is when we leave the project and then see what happens.
Are there any good strategies for 'sending it off' in the right direction?
I would say that it works when the story is always connected with something that is already there. You are adding up to a reality instead of bringing something in completely out of the blue. I think that’s my way to go.
Coming back to what we were talking about earlier, perhaps there are two levels that work in placemaking. One is a systemic level – things that are beyond individuals’ control, like geology, like governments. And then another level that's about individuals and their activities and choices.
Of course, there are drivers that you can't control. For example, in the case of Tlatelolco here in Mexico City, it's been hit with ‘hurricanes’ of change, one after the other. First, there were Aztecs and a spiritual centre here. And then the Spanish invaded, and made a church on top of the Aztec pyramid. Then it became like a big favela. There was also the student massacre here – a very powerful event, and people that live here still have that memory of this place. Everybody in Mexico knows that La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, which is the Square of the Three Cultures, is a symbol of how violent our governments can be.
But I think that history, and those drivers that are uncontrollable, have also given people a very big sense of place here. They want to go forward and make themselves independent from the systems that were not working for them.
Where do you see Mexican placemaking going? What's the future?
We’ve reached a peak of insecurity, and you can feel people being really, really tired of the situation.
I think our call to action right now is violent crisis.
Placemaking can have an important role in how people relate to their environment, in making cities safer and people trust each other more. And in terms of employment as well – how can you utilise public space to have better micro-economies?
In Tlatelolco, there was a lot of crime. Around the end of the 80s and 90s, there was a movement to make an administration for the complex. So each of the buildings had a leader who was the voice of each building, and a newspaper that told residents what was going on. What is interesting is that groups of people living here have made their own small projects to make life less unsafe or more connected. Groups of artists have started theatres, cultural spaces, outdoor cinema events; there's community guidance as well; and these have all been neighbourhood initiatives. People saw that the government was not going solve their problems. In the end what makes change is that the people who are living here can be part of it.
Drawing on Mariana's approach...
EXPERIMENT AND INTERVENE
There’s no substitute for experiment: trying things out on the ground as a way of researching a place and its concerns, and testing new possibilities before committing significant time and money.
Creating performative interventions in places that invite locals to respond or become protagonists such as Mariana's work with the Cascoland collective in Amsterdam.
Breaking the rules through actions that rethink and test how we use places, as in Adelaide, Australia, where the city has given its public spaces and reputation a boost through temporary interventions and pop ups.
Want more? Mariana recommends...
Actors, Agents and Attendants, Art Property and Spatial Justice
Take a walk with Mariana around Tlatelolco