Today, La Colonia Roma is one of Mexico City’s most vibrant neighborhoods. It is host to some of the capitol’s best bars, restaurants, and galleries, and it is the epicenter of the city’s trendy subculture. But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1920s, when the district was first developed, Monterrey Avenue was a stately, tree-lined boulevard where the city’s intellectual elite lived. In the 1970s and ’80s the neighborhood fell on hard times due to the period’s urbanization practices and the 1985 earthquake.
When Pablo Pérez Palacios’ Mexico City–based architecture firm PPAA was tasked with building an apartment tower to meet the neighborhood’s need for additional housing, he faced a problem familiar to developers in historic neighborhoods everywhere. The site was occupied by a dilapidated home that dates to 1925, and local laws required that the facade and part of the structure be maintained.
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Beneath flaking paint, rotting millwork, and the damage caused by an ad hoc conversion into office space, Palacios could tell that the house had good bones. "In the last few years La Colonia Roma has seen lots of development, typically where you tear down the old thing and then you build a new apartment," says Palacios. "That’s fine, but it’s not exactly what my approach was. There is a lot of potential in these old buildings and even in terms of investment it is sometimes more efficient."
PPAA’s innovative approach was to cut the original three-story home in half, preserving enough of the building to front the street and hold two apartments replete with classic Victorian details like high ceilings and restored millwork. In the back of the lot, they designed a sleek eight-story apartment tower that would hold an additional nine apartments, for a total of 11 units. Not bad for a site that was previously an uninhabited single-family house.
Palacios says, "We wanted to restore the old building and build a new one that is kind of talking in the same language, but in a contemporary way." That meant restoring the 1925 house’s best feature—a stately interior staircase that twists around a central skylight—and using it as an entryway for all 11 apartments, creating a unique connection to the neighborhood’s architectural history.
In the tower, the dimensions of window and door openings echo those in the original house, and a contemporary white color scheme brings the whole complex together. To further link the two structures, Palacios constructed a terrace on the roof of the original house, accessible from two apartments in the tower. The unique setback also creates a buffer from the road that insulates residents of the tower from street noise and prevents the tower from appearing to loom over the neighborhood, which is largely comprised of low-rise dwellings.
Add creditThe project combines the original building’s classic beauty with the kinds of livable spaces that are attractive to the young professionals and families who today call La Colonia Roma home. Building high rises is necessary to keep up with the demand for apartments in trendy neighborhoods in Mexico City, Palacios tells Dwell. "We are saving our patrimony and at the same time we are doing what we are supposed to do, building a high-rise, but without losing these historic three-story buildings that are a holdover from the past."
A project this ambitious was not without its technical complications. To build the tower in the back of the lot, which is not accessible from the street, a crane had to be lifted over the 1925 house with another crane. Because of the Mexico City’s high water table and frequent seismic activity, pylons needed to be sunk nearly 90 feet into the ground, and PPAA had to design the tower to be flexible enough to withstand earthquakes.
Despite complications (the 2017 earthquake briefly interrupted construction), the architect suggests that this approach to preservation— where the original structure becomes an integral part of a larger project—might be a way forward for neighborhoods where older, low-rise dwellings are common but higher-density housing is needed. "In La Colonia Roma there are a lot of old buildings, and this approach would be one way to understand the neighborhood, perhaps not in the whole city, but at least in approaching this neighborhood."