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Big In The Barrios

The striking pink-stone Edificio Espaa building in the center of Mexico City has been converted into Hotel Umbral by JSa architects


The striking pink-stone Edificio España building in the center of Mexico City has been converted into Hotel Umbral by JSa architects

Mexico City’s most exciting new hotel is tucked away on a little-known street running parallel to Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s grand, skyscraper-lined boulevard. Hotel Volga opened in June in Colonia Cuauhtémoc, a sophisticated neighborhood known for its good Asian restaurants and mix of apartment and office buildings. The 50-room boutique hotel was designed by Aisha Ballesteros of JSa, an architecture firm that has played a key role in turning the almost 700-year-old Mexican capital into the vibrant art and design mecca it is today.

Hotel Volga’s facade is a grid of 56 concrete squares filled out with textured glass that glows after dark. Behind this is a cassette-like block—containing a garden, a concept store, and a mezcal bar—that, when glimpsed through the grid, animates it with depth and movement. Things are no less dramatic inside. A copper-colored sculptural staircase cast in solid steel leads to the public areas, located below ground. But the real showpiece is a 10-story U-shaped well that pierces the building top to bottom. Open to the sky, the rotunda bathes the basement lobby with natural light, while affording every room a peek at its neighbors. For privacy, sliding screens create a constant play of light and shadow, which, along with the abundant translucent surfaces, give the building a sense of dynamism as users circulate through it.

The hotel—whose interiors the firm also designed—expands the aesthetic toolkit JSa has steadily assembled since its founding in 1996 by Javier Sanchez. Early on, the studio made a name for itself with subdued residential projects characterized by clear volumes, complex sections and exposed materials, such as concrete and blackened steel. The firm is closely associated with Condesa, a leafy neighborhood with lively parks and stunning art deco buildings that coexist with sleek condos by some of Mexico’s leading contemporary architects. JSa helped to convert Condesa into the sought-after enclave it is today by promoting a sensitive approach to urban regeneration that included restoring existing heritage structures. In this, Sanchez was a pioneer—25 years ago developers were more likely to demolish buildings than preserve them.

new structures coexist with mature palms and two 1930s, Spanish-style mansions in the recent Juan de la Barrera complex

New structures coexist with mature palms and two 1930s, Spanish-style mansions in the recent Juan de la Barrera complex

JSa’s housing schemes emulate the natural fabric of the city’s vibrant barrios, or quarters, where different uses and demographics collide in a variety of interwoven indoor and outdoor spaces—patios, promenades, and penthouses are all part of the mix. The recently completed Juan de la Barrera apartments comprise six tall buildings of different heights designed around a 2,000 sq m garden that retains the plot’s massive old palms. The complex incorporates two meticulously restored Spanish-style mansions from the 1930s, now converted into duplex townhouses, and abuts Conjunto Veracruz, one of JSa’s first residential buildings, begun in 1996. Here, in the heart of Condesa, JSa has come full circle. Few architecture studios get to develop an entire block—JSa has very nearly done so, with its brand of textured minimalism that enriches and reflects city life here.

Distinctive spaces for dining and drinking are another studio specialty. As Mexico City has emerged as a global foodie destination, Sanchez and Ballesteros have become the go-to architects for the scene’s biggest names. In the smart Polanco area, a recycled 1960s house is home to Pujol, Enrique Olvera’s temple of Mexican cooking. In the trendy Colonia Roma neighborhood, JSa designed a jewel-box of a bar for Salón Rosetta, the restaurant of award-winning chef Elena Reygadas. It is based around a series of wallpaper panels recovered from the home of Mario Pani, the local mid-20th-century architect and urbanist.

One of Pani’s most iconic designs is a 1962 pyramid-shaped tower in Tlatelolco, and it can be seen from the roof of La Fábrica de Hielo, JSa’s new fully sustainable premises in a converted ice factory in industrial Atlampa. The panorama is impressive, spanning the quilt of historic neighborhoods that JSa is helping remake, past the super-tall central district skyline, and across to the surrounding mountains. Just as breathtaking is the space below it, a 9m-high open-plan workshop that nods to Lina Bo Bardi, the great Italian-Brazilian artist and architect, with its tactile concrete walls tempered with wood and playful openings that flood the cavernous nave with sunlight. In this cathedral-like space, Aisha Ballesteros and Javier Sanchez talked to RESIDE about the past, present, and future of their work.

JSas newly opened premises in a former ice factory are flooded with sunlight

JSa’s newly opened premises in a former ice factory are flooded with sunlight

World-class kitchens

Aisha Ballesteros: The kitchen is the heart of a restaurant. Where it is located and how it functions is crucial. And yet, the kitchens of some of the city’s most emblematic eateries had a generic design that had little to do with the restaurant’s ethos. A few years ago, chefs started calling us to design kitchens more aligned with their auteurist cuisine and mission. The considerations for a world-class restaurant’s kitchen are different to those for a regular establishment. Inside, it is like a ballet, highly dependent on a precise division of responsibilities among more than a dozen workers and a seamless flow between these different functions. Our work is to understand the exact needs of each chef and come up with the most intelligent and efficient layout possible. These days, the experience is as important as the food, which makes design and architecture critical. What sets us apart and has positioned us to be working with the leading figures in the field is how involved we get, and how customized our work is. What we do with these restaurants exceeds questions of decor. Every detail needs to be controlled. If the result is aesthetically pleasing, which it tends to be, it comes from treating every small practical decision equally. We are like bespoke counselors to the city’s star chefs.

A wallpaper panel recovered from the home of architect Mario Pani hangs over a velvet blue booth in the Saln Rosetta restaurant bar in Mexico City

A wallpaper panel recovered from the home of architect Mario Pani hangs over a velvet blue booth in the Salón Rosetta restaurant bar in Mexico City

An elegant speakeasy

AB: Elena [Reygadas] wanted Salón Rosetta, an intimate bar above her restaurant, to feel like someone’s home. She loves antiques and is always scouring auctions and shops for special pieces. She had found tese Asian-inspied wallpaper panels that came from a house that belonged to Mario Pani. We decided to base our design around them, which was a challenge, since two of the paintings are curved and the room is rectangular. The solution was to integrate the furniture and the panels into one design built into the space. We took inspiration from Gio Ponti’s designs, with their organic, rounded forms. The result looks like it has always been there, but if you look carefully, there are contemporary elements. To unite it all, we used mint-green tones for floors, doors, windows, and the upholstered banquettes. What characterizes the space is a tension between Elena’s penchant for ornate, maximalist things, and our own language, which veers more toward restrained, muted gestures. It was a push and pull project.

The kitchen at Enrique Olveras celebrated restaurant Pujol is designed to accommodate the precise ballet taking place inside


The kitchen at Enrique Olvera’s celebrated restaurant Pujol is designed to accommodate the precise “ballet” taking place inside

Mexico’s most-famous restaurant

AB: At Pujol, there is an extraordinary level of detail, in both design and construction. We were almost neurotic in the attention given to get everything just right. An essential mole served exquisitely: that requires a space that lives up to the same value system. Enrique [Olvera] wanted everything to be made by Mexican hands from local materials. It is a showcase of excellent Mexican craft. We imposed an unreal set of expectations on ourselves, because we felt that Pujol serves an almost ambassadorial function: we thought “It is Mexico’s most famous restaurant, by its most famous chef, so it has to be our best-executed, most impeccably curated project.” Centered around a small black patio with an olive tree, JSa’s composition for Pujol articulates the luminous open space with volcanic rock floors and large glazed expanses looking out to the gardens, including a long low Japanese-inspired window. A striking granite bar that was a first in the world of fine dining is a hit with guests.

The Melchor Ocampo 38 apartments, designed in 1939 by Luis Barragn and Max Cetto


The Melchor Ocampo 38 apartments, designed in 1939 by Luis Barragán and Max Cetto, exemplify the “functionalist modernism” that inspires Javier Sanchez

The local influence

Javier Sanchez: The city is our laboratory and our greatest inspiration. The best way to know Mexico City is through its barrios, and the central neighborhoods are more walkable than people realize. Each has a different feel based on when it was built and its social dynamics, but they all have a coherence developed by design and organically over time, often around one or more parks. One of the architects that inspired me early in my career is Luis Barragán, but not so much the side of him that the world knows, the famous seven or so houses that he did later in life. I mean the work he did when he first arrived in the capital from Guadalajara and built beautiful anonymous buildings in the city’s central districts. He and his contemporaries—such as Max Cetto and Augusto Alvarez—combined a functionalist modernism with an emotional conception of space, carefully weaving together the city with creative solutions tailored to a specific site and its context. I think of it as a collage, where many things happen at the same time, and the architecture both responds to these conditions and helps to shape them, allowing life to unfold in the spaces it creates as well as possible. In aesthetic terms we always use a sober, honest vocabulary. You always see how something is constructed, and the materials; there’s never any decoration. We were never concerned with having a signature look, though we are guided by certain principles, like reduction and abstraction. We enjoy experimenting with materials and forms case-by-case.

A concrete spiral staircase in the Juan Soriano Contemporary Art Museum, an hour from Mexico City


A concrete spiral staircase in the Juan Soriano Contemporary Art Museum, an hour from Mexico City

A museum for the city

AB: When we started creating Museo Morelense de Arte Contemporáneo Juan Soriano (MMAC) in Cuernavaca, a cultural center an hour from Mexico City, it had an immense garden with ancient trees, but at street level all you could see were high walls. The moment we first visited the site, we decided this public park would be as important as its building. We cared as much about the cultural institution and the container for art as we did about its role as urban infrastructure to serve the city. We chose tinted concrete to reduce any required maintenance, and the museum is split in two—one part subterranean, one in a taller volume—which allows the garden to flow across the plot.

Mexico $12,950,000 sothebysrealty.com/id/74J5LJ Laura de la Torre de Skipsey Mexico Sothebys International Realty


Mexico | $12,950,000 | sothebysrealty.com

Laura de la Torre de Skipsey | Mexico Sotheby’s International Realty

Minimalist in Mexico

Adjoining the Polanco district, the exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec in Mexico City’s western hills is close to two city landmarks: the sprawling Bosque de Chapultepec park and Museo Jumex, which houses one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in Latin America. This Lomas de Chapultepec home was designed by the award-winning local firm Roy Azar Arquitectos in 2016 as the perfect blank canvas for art, with minimal interiors and monochrome-framed windows.

The open-plan living, dining and breakfast room features sliding doors that tuck out of sight, providing seamless access to the garden, which has a dining terrace and pool. Two of the three spacious bedrooms have full bathrooms, while an office with a terrace can also function as a bedroom. Luxury touches include a powder room clad in textured mirror, Carrera marble floors throughout and windows that reach out from the building to provide dramatic connection with the grounds.

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