Newcity gets to know the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial contributors. This segment highlights Departamento del Distrito, a Mexico City-based design practice working at the intersection of politics, identity, and the built environment. Architects and co-founders, Francisco Quiñones and Nathan Friedman, who, in addition to architecture, engage in archival research, writing and speculative work, discuss their cross-cultural collaboration, share their insights and explain why the upcoming CAB provides a unique opportunity to interact with the Mexican and Latinx communities in Chicago.
In what ways has your background prepared you and how will it inform your role at the upcoming Chicago Architecture Biennial?
Francisco Quiñones: The nature of our collaboration—the fact that Nathan is from the U.S., while I was born and raised in Mexico—means that we are constantly engaging with acts of translation. This includes the translation of language, and we have made a conscious effort to produce all office material in both Spanish and English, but also the translation of culture, history and symbolism. Our contribution for CAB is in line with this. We will bring a project based in the history and politics of Mexico City to present in Chicago, and we see a unique opportunity to interact with the Mexican and Latinx communities there.
Nathan Friedman: The urban focus of The Available City is particularly exciting for us. We see potential in a curatorial approach that is more dispersed spatially and engages a different timeframe than past biennials—not only in terms of how one might experience the exhibition circuit, but also the life of each project. We plan to take advantage of this through several site-specific events in Mexico City that occur in tandem with the Chicago installation. This links to other projects we’ve worked on that embrace process, systems thinking and change while questioning traditional design tropes like purity or fixed, final-state conditions.
Can you talk about the importance of a festival like CAB amid a pandemic and a time of social and political unrest?
NF: For our generation, who graduated during the 2008 financial crisis, it’s clear that we cannot operate based on the dominant architectural trends of the early aughts—breakneck speed development, unchecked formalism, a disregard for anything regional. We also must come to terms with the role that architects, and the discipline in general, have played in the ongoing global crises of climate, labor rights and structural inequality. The pandemic has only exacerbated these tensions, and the social and political unrest that has swept the United States and more recently Latin America is one result.
FQ: There is no time for passivity or ambivalence. In this context, everyone shares the responsibility to enact change and even more so those who have a public platform. CAB provides an immediate opportunity to respond to the present moment—to communicate alternatives, test new forms of collectivity, and argue for changes in public policy. We also see it as a means to generate conversations with government officials and engage a broader audience than what is targeted by the traditional biennial model.
What are you hoping the viewers will take away from this exhibition?
NF: One take-away is simply that our cities are embedded with and structured by value systems—many of which are invisible, concealed or even at odds with one another. We’re interested in exposing and challenging what these values are, and generating a substantial and sustained public discussion around them.
What are you most excited about moving forward?
FQ: We’ve come to embrace research projects in our office that have long and multifaceted trajectories. Our CAB proposal, for example, has been informed by a rich history of urban and ideological development in Mexico City; we are in conversation with many players from the past and present, and also hope that the project will be picked up, transformed, and stretched by others in the future. Authorship in the field of architecture is something we’re interested in complicating—and that idea is reflected in the name of our office.
NF: When you put something out into the public realm you never know what might result from it—how it will come back to you, from who, or when. We’re most excited by the prospect of the project evolving in new and unexpected ways that are still to be seen.
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