Rojkind Arquitectos is Transforming Mexico City, One Whimsical Building at a Time
In Mexico City’s increasingly crowded and vibrant design scene, Michel Rojkind and Gerardo Salinas stand apart.
For starters, Rojkind is a rock star in the most literal sense of the term, having traded a gig drumming for one of Mexico’s most popular bands of the 1990s for an uncertain future as an architect. And then there is the extent to which Rojkind Arquitectos—the firm he founded in 2002 and has run since 2010 alongside Salinas—has managed to impose a sense of order in pockets of the famously crowded and cacophonous Mexican capital.
It’s this element that has distinguished Rojkind and Salinas from their peers and positioned them in the vanguard of a new generation of Mexican architects. Stepping in where haphazard urban planning efforts have fallen short, they nudge their private and municipal clients beyond the project brief, convincing them of the value of contributing something extra to the community. Many of the whimsical, boldly colorful structures that have become the firm’s stock-in-trade include touches—a park, for instance, or an interactive facade—intended to make up for a lack of public space or to promote street life.
"For us, chaos comes with opportunities," says Rojkind, whose pierced right eyebrow and wardrobe of skinny jeans testify to his rock ‘n’ roll past. "You’re always challenged on the things you can solve, even from walking down the street and seeing that maybe infrastructure can change, or walking in the park and seeing that the park can also be improved. All these little things become important to how cities are built up."
This philosophy has its roots in a commission that the firm took on in 2007 for Nestlé. The Swiss company had asked for a tunnel to carry visiting schoolchildren inside its chocolate factory near Toluca, about 39 miles southwest of Mexico City, to give them a view of its production process. Rojkind was surprised to find that there was no museum dedicated to chocolate in Mexico—an almost absurd oversight given that the Aztecs once used cacao beans as a form of currency. He sold Nestlé on the idea of a gallery space, and the resulting red-and-white building—its angular form inspired by Japanese origami and the colorful Mexican wood carvings known as alebrijes—is now a popular destination for school groups and families.
"When we did it, I wasn’t even conscious of what we were doing," Rojkind says. "I knew we were pushing something, but then it just kicked in some years later when we said, ‘We should be doing this with all of our projects.’"
That started happening in earnest after Rojkind coaxed Salinas back to Mexico City after 16 years in the United States to join the firm as a partner. Salinas, who studied architecture at the University of Maryland and worked at firms in Washington, D.C., and Denver, brings an American-style sense of pragmatism and discipline to the firm that counterbalances Rojkind’s frequent flights of fancy.
Together, they forged a productive partnership with Liverpool, a prominent Mexican department store chain. Rojkind and Salinas worked with Zahner, an engineering and fabrication company in Kansas City, Missouri, to design a curvilinear stainless-steel exterior for a new Liverpool store in the Mexico City suburb of Interlomas that glows at night as shifting hues of light shine from narrow gaps in the facade. The architects also responded to Liverpool’s request for a "green area" by encouraging the company to think more broadly about the space. The store, located amid a congested tangle of highways and high-rises, now has a landscaped rooftop esplanade that essentially functions as one of the area’s few public parks.
For an addition to another Liverpool store, on Mexico City’s bustling Avenida de los Insurgentes, Rojkind and Salinas convinced the client to perforate the exterior and open the store to the street. A honeycomb facade composed of overlapping layers of fiberglass, aluminum, and stainless-steel houses a series of room-sized hexagonal "pods" that connect via a network of staircases. The facade takes on a multihued neon glow at sundown, offering glimpses from the sidewalk of the experiences unfolding within.
The firm’s reimagining of the Cineteca Nacional—Mexico’s national film archives—in the capital’s Xoco neighborhood was no less transformative. Hired to expand and update a dowdy complex of brown-concrete theater buildings, Rojkind and Salinas thought bigger. Surface parking was consolidated in a garage, freeing 40 percent of the site for a plaza that functions as a park during the day and an outdoor screening room on summer evenings. A steel canopy, clad in composite aluminum panels with triangular perforations, straddles the old and new buildings, knitting the campus together while making a sweepingly bold architectural statement.
In challenging their clients to think differently, Rojkind Arquitectos has presided over its share of failed noble experiments. Liverpool, for instance, has yet to figure out how to fill the interactive spaces in the facade of its store on Insurgentes, and a supermarket that the architects designed in Mexico City’s Santa Fe district did not incorporate the rooftop orchard and farmers’ market that were integral to the original design. But Salinas sees these shortcomings as incentives to push harder rather than pull back.
"I think that giving up because they’re not going to push forward is a big mistake," he says. "You need to push more and be more strategic about who you bring in early on so it doesn’t become a conversation after the project is finished."
"It’s a learning curve," Rojkind adds. "If everybody that was working on a building would include a small interaction in favor of the city, we’d have better cities. It pushes the envelope in all directions."