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Space for play in Mexico: Infonavit playgrounds

The revitalisation of play spaces in Mexico spearheaded by Infonavit provides arenas to enrapture and endure, enhancing low-cost housing

From current pictures and videos, one would never know this is a region notorious for how dangerous it is: children and adults of all ages play, gather and laugh between two inclines flanking a sunken strip of land, over half a kilometre long: the dry remains of a former sewage canal running straight through a large social housing estate. By 2018, when architect Rozana Montiel was asked to intervene in the site, in drug-crime-ridden Fresnillo, in the north-central Mexican state of Zacatecas, the disused aguas negras conduit had been paved over, becoming a desolate and inaccessible wasteland. 

Instead of covering the former waterbed, Montiel kept it, allowing it to give shape and identity to the site’s revitalised new function as a park. The architectural intervention is minimal but effective; a perforated steel bridge not only serves as a crossing point that provides shade, but locals also report it has become a popular meeting point. Meanwhile, the rebuilt sloping sides serve as steps to sit, rest or look out from (parents) or climb up and slide down (children). Lastly, endemic planting adds life and provides more shade.

Luis Barragán designed a playground at the Parque de la Revolución in Guadalajara in 1935

It’s an impressively simple and functional solution that nonetheless manages to feel evocative, more so for how much it achieves with found conditions. In an area notorious for rampant crime and physical neglect, Montiel, her collaborator Alin V Wallach and their team turned an eyesore into a lively communal patio. The bridge not only connects, facilitating mobility, but simultaneously carves out space for diverse activities – under, on and around it.

Montiel says she wasn’t specifically asked for a playground at the Fresnillo site, just to reactivate the disused area. ‘The choice was a result of observing and understanding what was already going on there’, Montiel remembers. ‘What used to be the canal had ready-made slopes perfect for play, and kids were gliding down the old rain gutters.’

A rocket rises from the 1964 Tlatelolco housing estate by Mario Pani

Credit:Carlos Villasana

More such playgrounds, created by both young and more established architecture firms including Productora, Francisco Pardo Arquitecto, Álvarez Tello, Ludens and Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, can be found throughout Mexico. They are evidence of a renewed interest by design practitioners to formulate solutions for the common good, reach an economically more diverse swathe of the population and help reshape public space. These architects’ participation was encouraged over the last decade, in part because they took note that the government was interested in their proposals and their ideas might be realised. What had been a mostly academic discourse started being put into practice and tested.

 Mexico is a vast country, and each of these projects is in a different geographic, climatic and socio-urban context, but all these playgrounds, including the Fresnillo park, were commissioned by Infonavit (Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores, or the National Workers’ Housing Fund Institute), Mexico’s federal agency for workers’ housing founded in 1972. Mexico boasts a strong tradition
of efficient centralised welfare institutions; in its early days, Infonavit was directly involved in designing and building homes, collaborating with architects in a spirited debate on how to improve the quality
of low-cost housing.

Imanol Ordorika Bengoechea designed play-sculptures to accompany the Unidad Habitacional Iztacalco, the first project built by Infonavit in the 1970s

But in recent decades, as developers began playing the dominant role in designing social housing, the quality of the spaces provided declined. By the 2000s, Infonavit had all but ceded its role as a builder to commercial construction companies, retaining merely its main function as a mortgage lender. Design and architecture took a secondary role in what became primarily a financial game. As the quality of housing – increasingly built far from urban centres and critical infrastructure – declined, so did their value. Some were abandoned, others showed increasing signs of decay. 

Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, in power between 2012 and 2018, pledged to reverse this trend by appointing a dedicated task force – the Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo Sostenible, or Research Centre for Sustainable Development (CIDS), created in 2014 and headed by Carlos Zedillo – to develop rehabilitation and valorisation strategies. CIDS aimed to recover Infonavit’s original, more socially committed vocation, generating exchanges and collaborations between architects and developers, and engaging in the kind of community-level fieldwork that had stopped being a priority years ago. Through dozens of programmes, Zedillo and his teams set out to change how Infonavit did things. 

‘Enhancing shared outdoor areas is a logical choice when considering the limited indoor space the tenants of these housing units usually call home’

One programme in particular, ‘Mejorando la Unidad’ (‘Improving the Unit’), started in 2013, was aimed at reconditioning existing public housing built between the 1970s and ’90s. Since one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve conditions at neglected housing complexes was to invest in upgrading the communal public areas, architecture firms were hired to design new green areas, community facilities and playgrounds. Enhancing shared outdoor areas is a logical choice when considering the limited indoor space the tenants of these housing units usually call home (sometimes less than 40m2 shared by a family),
not to mention Mexico’s mild climate. 

Invariably, the challenge was to use limited funds to create durable, practical and flexible solutions for the affected tenants. CIDS, with the help of student teams from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), first performed an analysis of what was lacking to better understand the needs of each community. Only after specific needs had been assessed were projects assigned to architects, often well-known Mexico City firms. ‘What was missing were thought-out public policies and implementation strategies,’ Zedillo remembers, ‘without which even the best scheme developed by ambitious architects would be worthless.’ The inexpensive interventions resulting from CIDS’ fortified focus on bettering public space prove how the precise intelligent addition and reconfiguration of minute-seeming elements can completely revamp deteriorated spaces. 

The National Child Protection Institute maze by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez and Rafael Mijares from 1971 makes the most of limited space

The results range greatly in form, engagement and degree of success, designed by different architecture firms with varying levels of sensitivity towards those needs. But this is also in fact one of the programme’s most appealing features: the variety of responses relating to the parks’ divergent locations. Architects involved describe having to make the most with the least, and the many ambitious ideas left unrealised due to stringent cost controls (and, in some cases, corruption). Such limitations could also be a boon for creativity. Productora and other firms made a deliberate effort to create what could be best described as open templates for play and exercise, with forms suggesting various possible uses – climbing, skateboarding, running – rather than over-defining ultimate functions. 

This approach is evident in the almost sculptural landscape of abstract forms – made of concrete for maintenance and durability – that populate several of the Infonavit parks. This kind of creative freedom would be impossible in the United States or Europe, where play areas are heavily regulated and have to comply with a bevy of safety and liability prevention codes. It’s just one example of how well-intended and to a degree necessary building norms have the side effect of stifling truly inventive design, making the laxer regulatory climate in Latin America a virtual playground for experimentation by architects. 

Fernando González Gortázar’s concrete forms emerge from Plaza Fuente in Guadalajara, 1973

Yet, the intellectual ambition and creative liberties adopted by some architects comes with an inherent risk: that the community will not respond to or embrace the space as their own. Both Productora and Francisco Pardo Arquitecto faced resistance from authorities and communities alike, who expressed a preference for generic plastic playground equipment to the concrete structures envisioned, concrete often being perceived as dangerous by parents. At their extreme, as can be seen in Productora’s park in Tlalnepantla, such experiments may prove too intangible to be fully appropriated by the community. 

Architect- and artist-conceived children’s play areas made out of concrete are not new in Mexico. The country has a rich tradition of artistically inventive playground elements, from Luis Barragán’s play equipment at Guadalajara’s Parque de la Revolución of 1935 and the playful Plaza Fuente designed by Fernando González Gortázar in 1973, to the animal-shaped stone wonders created by sculptor Alberto Pérez Soria in the 1970s. 

Children eagerly await their turn at the Santa Cruz Meyehualco playground, 1960

Rather than following global playground trends, the influences for some of Infonavit’s more recent playgrounds also reference rarefied non-native sources, notably Isamu Noguchi, Roberto Burle Marx and Aldo van Eyck. According to Wonne Ickx of Productora, an exhibition of Noguchi’s Playscapes at Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo in 2016 made a profound impression on many local architects and informed the firm’s designs. Francisco Pardo, who lived in Caracas as a child, cites Burle Marx’s Parque del Este in the Venezuelan capital as a strong inspiration for the two parks he designed near Toluca de Lerdo.     

Some of the parks built by Infonavit in recent years have been vandalised, plundered and abandoned; once a project is handed to its community, its maintenance and afterlife are out of the control of the architects and institutions who conceived them. Usually, caring for the delivered projects falls to the overseeing municipality, though in some cases, the upkeep of the public areas is entrusted to the local community of neighbours. Lack of shade – because authorities planted different trees to those the architects intended – may prove to be a further deterrent for heavier round-the-clock use. 

Fabián Medina Ramos’s 1967 play sculptures at the Moreles park in Guadalajara have stood the test of time

As is customary in Mexico, the incoming government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (elected in 2018) introduced its own new set of policies and agencies, signalling a clean break from the previous administration. No further playgrounds are planned by Infonavit, although similar public space improvement projects are in the works, overseen by higher level government agencies. 

The legacy of CIDS is to show that engaging with architects and thinking about how to make good public space can transform areas once full of cars and rubbish, abandoned and underused, into bright, clearly accessible spots for play, rest and exercise, unequivocally benefiting the housing units served. Even small interventions, if properly thought out, have the capacity to go a long way. ‘Architecture was considered an expense rather than a necessity’, Zedillo explains. ‘We shifted that, and proved design could be an essential mechanism to find better solutions, especially when there are more limited means.’ The programme also opened the door to the possibility of small architecture firms working together with the government on projects hyper-tailored to improve social conditions – a pioneering move that is now common practice.

Fish come into the swim in a 1962 sculpture in a public square by Teodoro González de León

Credit:Archivo Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon

‘I have always believed that play and dedicated areas for it are essential tools to heal existing physical and social scars’, Rozana Montiel argues. Infonavit’s six-year experiment could prove that large-scale, commercially produced housing can go hand-in-hand with an attentive, localised interest in real community needs. Fresnillo and the other playgrounds make one feel hopeful for what is possible. With widespread access to quality outdoor space being more important than ever in the context of an unabating global pandemic, the playgrounds built by Infonavit offer interesting lessons far beyond Mexico for how to create good open space for all ages, even in fraught situations and with modest means.

Parque Los Héroes, Toluca, State of Mexico by Francisco Pardo Arquitecto, 2018

Click to download drawings

In the vicinity of Tolucade Lerdo, the Parque Los Héroes was created in the Unidad Habitacional de Los Héroes Sección III in just six months. A careful arrangement of iron tube bars painted aqua green, concrete walls of varying heights, walkways, artificial mounds and blocks of cement activate a hexagonal base grid. Pardo describes the hexagonal cobblestone that forms the base unit of the landscape as a ‘pixel’.

The park provides a multi-use space for activities including a play area for young children, football and basketball courts, and a skating rink. Importantly, the playground was conceived in low-cost, low maintenance materials, such as concrete, steel and cement blocks. ‘Convincing people that concrete playgrounds are an asset may have been our biggest challenge’, Pardo remembers. ‘Local communities think concrete is dangerous; they forget the great concrete playgrounds of the ’50s and ’60s we have all over Mexico that still function. Meanwhile, plastic play furniture installed in recent years is already broken.’ Francisco Pardo Arquitecto completed a similar project in nearby Almoloya de Juárez – the Parque Colinas del Sol – using common elements: concrete walls, steel bars and hexagonal paving. ‘Playgrounds shouldn’t be fenced or separated from everyday city activity’, Pardo argues.

Fresnillo playground, Fresnillo, Zacatecas by Rozana Montiel Estudio de Arquitectura and Alin V Wallach, 2018

Click to download drawings

Click to download drawings

The 40-year-old blocks of the Unidad Habitacional Manuel M Ponce in the city of Fresnillo are home to 40,000 residents. The architects saw an opportunity for play in the dry canal severing the neighbourhood in two, learning from the children who already tobogganed down the slopes on dustbin lids. The slopes were repaved with a concrete lattice, leaving space for vegetation to sprout in the gaps, and different configurations of concrete blocks were constructed for creative appropriation: slides, sideways steps, stepping stones and climbing walls. Clear sightlines from the blocks mean parents can keep an eye on children playing below. The existing bridges across the dry canal were replaced by structures that themselves offer a place to play – swings hang from the soffit – and crucially shade on two levels, inviting a moment of rest or conversation, protected from the ferocious sun. Trees were planted along the canal’s banks as well, providing further respite.

‘The architects learnt from the children who already tobogganed down the slopes on dustbin lids’

The neighbourhood has also taken upon itself to arrange community activities on the site, including samba classes. Montiel and Wallach have been involved in several projects in collaboration with Infonavit, including Cancha (AR March 2017), a basketball court in Veracruz, the public space Común Unidad (or ‘common unity’) built in Azcapotzalco in 2016, and the housing prototype Un Cuarto Más (‘one more room’), planned to be rolled out in Morelos.

Tlalnepantla playground, Tlalnepantla de Baz, State of Mexico by Productora, 2019

Click to download drawings

In Unidad Habitacional El Tenayo in Tlalnepantla, on the outskirts of Mexico City, a strip between two roads has been transformed into a sequence of nine squares, each 20 by 20 metres, that together make up a sloping linear public park. Faced with the long piece of land, Productora overlaid the existing topography with a minimal scheme that kept the plot’s varying levels but divided it into small plazas. Each square is equipped with simple but striking formal gestures to vaguely define its purpose – one is an outdoor gym, another is planted with trees, and another features a pavilion for concerts. A scattered array of concrete cubes, which can be reconfigured by users and was inspired by artist Carl Andre, provides flexible seating and doubles as an obstacle course to bike through and around. The park includes planting and street lighting, stairs and ramps connect the squares, and the park is enclosed by pavements each side. The park’s abstract concrete forms are unmistakable thanks to the light pink pigmented concrete; however, a recent visit revealed that this signature feature has been lost to a darker paint-job.

Productora completed another playground for Infonavit in 2018 in nearby Tultitlán, using similar motifs, such as the triangular pavilion and sea of small cubes, also in pink concrete. ‘They offer the communities a new space that not only works as a park but also as space that articulates and connects the neighbourhood’,
the architects explain.

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