Mexico is notorious for the many ways by which rules can be bent or broken, where a high tolerance for disorder and lawlessness can offer as many opportunities as it does problems. Adam Wiseman’s exploration of what he calls ‘Arquitectura Libre’ (Free Architecture) in rural areas of Mexico shows the extent to which homeowners are freed from standardized practices, uniform building codes or even any kind of academic architectural constraints.
From their foundation, these buildings are made to accommodate change. Often there are no plans for building a house; instead the owner prefers to lay a strong foundation leaving the option to add on floors, turrets, domes or any other new ideas which will surely occur during the building process. Many of the laborers are extremely skilled cement workers and have the ability to create complex and robust structures, giving the owner options for castle-like formations built upwards in Disney-esque styles where the sky literally becomes the limit. The people building the houses rarely have any kind of training or formal knowledge of architecture. Instead they opt to use sketches, or photos of other houses they may have worked on, or that they like from Google images, to create new forms of poly-architecture by mixing the chosen styles.
Wiseman saw his own artistic process reflected in this way of working; always apprehensive to fully commit to an idea, instead preferring to have the freedom for his projects to adapt, grow and change without restrictions. This open-ended approach has resulted in a personal style that constantly crosses the boundaries between art, photojournalism and documentary. The photographer had always been fascinated by these freestyle structures, but it was only in recent years, during road trips across the country, when he began to question the idea of what is considered to be aesthetically beautiful in Mexican architecture.
Wiseman says, “Growing up in Mexico in a sort of privileged household, my upbringing taught me that the right aesthetic for beautiful Mexico was a European colonial version, a very Eurocentric view represented in the Pueblos Mágicos, the magical towns.” This Eurocentric fashion with which Wiseman grew up certainly did not encompass what was now catching his eye; funky, self-built, ad-hoc constructions which are generally either ignored or considered by many to be outside of what should even be contemplated as contemporary architecture in Mexico.
Wiseman now admits that initially he came to the project from a prejudiced angle, aligned with the view of many upper or middle class Mexicans who see these constructions as sensationalistic eyesores. He too was attracted to documenting how outrageous they were and it wasn’t until his wife Annuska—who is originally from Spain—began to help him to see these sculptures through a foreigner’s eyes.
This act of seeing anew what had previously gone unnoticed allowed Wiseman to realize they are, in fact, a very unique part of contemporary architecture in Mexico. This realization was reinforced when he discovered the majority of them are funded by remittance payments—money sent back by migrant workers from the U.S. In light of this fact, peeling back the layers of symbolism in these houses became just as complex as the physical structures themselves. The artist states, “What then became important was to communicate the beauty I truly see in the houses, to convey an understanding of what goes into them and to learn from those that built them”.
Many of the houses are created with more trophy status than functional purpose in mind, because they are essentially replacing the person’s absence in the community. The houses represent stories of displacement and replacement, standing as a reminder of the triumph and success that the emigrant has obtained. In a lot of cases the family in Mexico will choose not to even live in these cement palaces because they feel so cavernous, although many will take advantage of utilizing the ground floor as a basic retail space. They choose to fill it with either a small store or a cyber café leaving the floors above to be permeated by blue reflective glass window panes curved to make large dome-like windows, castle style turreted rooftops, extravagant cement sculptures protruding from unfinished floors, or L.A. style mansions perhaps condensed in size but not sparing any of the details.
During the years Wiseman has been working on this series, some of the images have migrated online, featured in online articles, galleries and perhaps more surprisingly, in the form of memes. These memes reflected disgust from classist Mexicans towards migrant workers and their supposed lack of taste. Wiseman was initially concerned about the appropriation of his images and the fact they had been taken out of context, but his ability to adapt and build on ideas led him to actually include these items as part of the conversation around the project.
He realized that every step of this work somehow involves cultural appropriation and reappropriation, displacement and replacement, classism and egality. The memes and accompanying conversations of comments from Facebook have been incorporated into the catalogue alongside academic writings compiled by an architect, a builder, an anthropologist, and a writer.
The work is currently being presented as travelling kits, which are available either to purchase or to borrow. Each kit is built slightly differently—just like the houses—and contains a copy of the catalogue, a large format poster of the images laid out in a grid format, packaged up in a bright, quilted foil bag locally made in Wiseman’s home base of South-East London.
Arquitectura Libre presents us with complex and layered phenomena not only relative to Mexico’s history but also to many colonized societies where migration is a way of life. The images are initially engaging through their fun, colourful presence delivered in clean and structured compositions, yet invite the viewer to peel back the layers of physical construction, cultural appropriation, longing and belonging.