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New Panopticons – by Roberto Pasini

1 - Sprawl in Tijuana 2010 - author DPR Barcelona - La Ciudad Viva

In the frame of the annual event of the CRGS center for art, architecture and design of the University of Monterrey, Mexico City based architect Carlos Garciavelez was invited to present his Casa-Flex, a recently optimized prefabricated housing system stackable in vertical aggregations.

In his almost forty-year-long career, Garciavelez has a record of 650,000 residential units and an overall volume of 42,000,000 m3 of public works implemented in Mexico, Chile, El Salvador and United States. Vice-president in-charge for Planning and Design of GEO, a development company quickly grown to corporate size before running into severe financial troubles, from 1975 to 2006 Garciavelez has certainly taken part in the controversial expansion of the metropolitan areas of the country.

Extensive patterns have been adopted in Mexico’s large conurbations to address the enormous demand of housing for diverse social strata in the post-II-world-war development of the Republic. The favor for those extensive patterns depended on several factors among which the conservative mindset prevailing in both the consumers and operators, identifying the dwelling unit with the ownership of a no matter how small parcel of land. The same logic applies to the lower-middle and middle class developments organized as basic-to-comfortable gated communities of row-houses, as well as for the ocean of social housings for the vast underprivileged masses.

2 Casa-Flex Vivienda Vertical -  Aggregation schemes

Middle class’ automobiles congest today the often unprepared road networks while commuting from and to residential interiors disarticulated from urban exteriors in an independent variation of the well-known North-American suburbs. The most urgent condition, though, affects the bottom of the social pyramid. Complicit politics made it possible for developers to deviate the universal dream of a house for every family towards large compounds available at extremely cheap costs far off the outskirts of the existing cities.

The massive relocation from the villages channeled towards uninterrupted rows of sunburned tiny 20 m2 cubicules, unequipped with utilities and sewers, disconnected from public transportation hours away from any truly urban environment, has oftentimes been followed by a quick exodus. The aspiration of many to an urban life has been shattered along with the well-planned infrastructural networks supporting the scenarios of metropolitan expansion proposed by architects such as Mario Pani. We face now wastelands of ghost developments where only meager groups of underdogs survive and few outlaws nestle.

3 Casa-Flex Vivienda Vertical - Residential unit sections

In the given scheme of things, Garciavelez’ implementations in the past years have largely been based on prefabricated systems devised to allow for a certain degree of flexibility in order to both produce variations in the architectural pieces and form up a rather articulated urban structure within the boundaries of the master-plan. The economies deriving from the use of prefabrication allowed for the qualification of the complex. Replicating a traditional urban structure, in forms which recall the New Urbanism, was intended to avoid the alienating condition of dormitory-developments, supplying the residents with an immediate context of visible spatial hierarchy.

4 - Site view of CEFERESO panopticon complex, Tepic, Nayarit 2013

The new Vivienda Vertical version of the Casa-Flex system foresees a discontinuity in the traditional mentality, a change in the strategy employed to address the recurring problem of affordable housing. The basic prefabricated modules can be organized around the void of an interior squared patio, piling up like Lego bricks of about 6.5 x 3.5 x 3 m in rather free vertical configurations as high as 45 m. Three bricks add up vertically to form a multilevel residential unit with deckable double height living-rooms, which renders the common distribution through balconies running around the interior patio compatible with simple privacy standards. This elemental combinatory system is informed by a pristine character, which recalls ancient archetypes of pyramids and ziggurats, even drawing from the mythical spiral construction of Babel.

5 - CEFERESO panopticon plan

Quite soon we will tell if the re-densification policies announced by federal and local authorities to requalify the urban context of existing conurbations in Mexico will be implemented deploying Casa-Flex Vivienda Vertical or similar systems. In the wait, Garciavelez has grasped a rather unconventional opportunity to set up a production line for the prefabricated units which transforms his project into a tangible industrial site: by accepting a challenge that seemed to poise on the brink of grotesque, he took up a public contract for the construction of a series of detention panopticons in the State of Nayarit. It is not necessary to point out how the mere concept of panopticon stirs up not only controversies on the necessity of functionalism in design, but more disquietingly inextinguishable disputes on the legitimacy of the exertion of power and social control passing from Jeremy Bentham to Michel Foucault.

6 - CEFERESO panopticon - section

Well, a controversial contract has ignited the implementation of an efficient industrial plant for the prefabrication of Casa-Flex modules now ready to start producing. According to Foucault, modernity has developed more subtle and pervasive, tangible and not, forms of ‘panopticon’, rather than the quasi irrelevant detention type. The marginalization of large portions of society, composed of guiltless individuals, in doomed peripheries off the centers of urban life (that is, in Arendtian terms, off the ‘public space’ or off the platform of freedom) can probably be regarded as one of those alienating forms. On the contrary, as far as the real panopticons of Nayarit stay empty, they will look like beautiful toys for giants of superb detailing where the control tower and detention cells are designed as spaceship pods would be. In other words, in the real panopticons still unfolds the mirror of ‘heterotopia’, while the suppression of personal freedom converts the ‘off-periphery residents’ into real prisoners. Shall we manage to supply the vast masses of the invisible peripheries with a platform of public space that makes them free?

7 - CEFERESO panopticon interior - control tower

8 - CEFERESO panopticon interior - cells

9 - CEFERESO panopticon - solar tower

10 - Casa-Flex prefabrication plant, Distrito Federal

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