MEXICO CITY — The opening of a design school campus is hardly news in the US — nor is their mass closing, for that matter — but in Mexico, where institutions devoted to training students for careers in media and the arts are few and far between, it’s a big deal. On September 29, CENTRO, a university devoted to design and media founded in 2004 by Gina Diez Barroso and her husband Abraham Franklin, formally inaugurated its new campus, with Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera assisting in the ribbon-cutting. Designed by the Mexican architect Enrique Norten and built to the tune of more than $50 million, it consists of three interconnected buildings that form a U-shape around a central green space and grand staircase. The complex — all glass, concrete, and steel in white, black, and shades of gray — reflects the school’s ideals of cross-disciplinary exchange and transparency. It also marks the first in a string of large-scale projects set to transform the scrappy area around the Observatorio metro station and the city’s western bus depot.
Sited on a hill directly across Avenida Constituyentes from the Panteón de Dolores, Mexico’s largest and most illustrious cemetery, CENTRO cuts a conspicuous silhouette. Its white, rectangular volumes, two of which rise to eight stories, contrast sharply with the area’s mostly low, shabby, colorful, brick-and-cinderblock buildings. From the outside, the campus sometimes resembles a floating fortress, with much of its exterior — including one curving section wrapped around an outdoor staircase — clad in a white metal scrim like chainmail, but its interior feels like a town commons with a central square and park.
“You can be in every classroom, on any of the stairs, the walkways, and you have a great view of the [cemetery],” Norten told Hyperallergic. “We knew that we needed another part to reinforce the street, and then we needed to bring them together, and this is the bridge where most of the public space is; we wanted to make all of this very transparent, very permeable, and very open.”
A grand staircase faces the campus’s main entrance and features a large site-specific artwork by Jan Hendrix, serving a double function as the campus’s go-to outdoor seating and social space.
“Every school has a staircase — if a school has no staircase, it’s not a school — and on the staircase people sit and they read a book, or nowadays they’re all looking down at their smartphones and their laptops,” Hendrix told Hyperallergic. Seen from different vantage points around campus, the staircase’s white onyx-on-black marble pattern can resemble typography, appear entirely abstract, or occasionally coalesce into an array of plants and flowers. “This is taken from a French encyclopedia from the 1770s — the first French botanical encyclopedia, by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who accepts the plant naming system of Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist who made the plant system that we still use today. And Lamarck was also a pre-Darwinian; way before Darwin he was already thinking about the theory of evolution. But this is something very personal. Nobody will know about it.”
Concealed beneath the staircase is a 400-seat auditorium, and overhead hovers one of CENTRO’s three buildings, linking the administrative spaces and library on the campus’s north side with the building containing most of the classrooms and studios on the south side. This configuration, with the two long, parallel buildings and a third resting atop them perpendicular, allows for a variety of views and ways of moving around the campus. On-site facilities include ceramics, wood, and 3D-printing workshops, a photo lab, printmaking facilities, and a gallery for temporary exhibitions.
The three buildings amount to 280,000 square feet altogether, quite a jump from the 38,000-square-foot converted office building the university occupied for its first 10 years. With their green roofs and plentiful solar panels — to name only the most conspicuous environmental features — all three buildings have received LEED platinum certification. The complex more than easily accommodates CENTRO’s current student body of about 2,500 and was designed to handle between 6,000 and 7,000 students as the school continues to grow — just over the summer break, six new post-graduate programs were launched.
The neighborhood is also about to experience a growth spurt, with a major train station, a museum, more education facilities (including student housing and a business incubator for CENTRO), and other large-scale projects in the works. Several of them will also be designed by Norten and his firm TEN Arquitectos.
“One of our big public projects right now is that we’re working on a very important national museum here in Mexico City that is breaking ground in November a couple of blocks down from the cemetery — you can see the site from here,” Enrique Norten told Hyperallergic. “And we’re working on another project, a very large project, which is also a few blocks back here, which is the new central train station for the city. We’re in charge of that too, and those are two very large projects right nearby …. We were always working with this building and trying to look into the future of the area, because the area will change.”
CENTRO is located at Avenida Constituyentes 455, América, Mexico City.
Note: The writer’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by CENTRO.