Understanding a city and its architecture(s) can be made a lot easier by looking at that city through different lenses. In his PhD thesis, ‘The Public Frame’, Fernando Donis Hernandez brings order to the chaos of Mexico City by analysing it on the basis of – among other things – books, maps and murals. 

The unbridled growth of the last century has made his hometown Mexico City and its architecture very difficult to understand, says Donis Hernandez. With over 21 million inhabitants, the clear contours of the time of conquistadores are now almost impossible to distinguish within the metropolis. ‘The transparency of the city has thus been lost. By looking at it through certain frames, the potential of the city can again be identified,’ says Donis Hernandez. He uses these frames as tools to give meaning, indicate cause and effect, and search for solutions. For the Mexico City case study, he formulated five different frames for this purpose. Together these make up a ‘public framework’ for the metropolis.

The ‘ritual frame’ dates back to the historic city of Teotihuacan. That city sprang up long before Christ and is famous for the various solar and lunar temples where people presented peace offerings to their gods. Frames in buildings were used here for placing idols of the gods and for bringing light and air into the houses.
The ‘Codex frame’ relates to the relationship between written sources and the built environment. That shows, among other things, that the discovery of perspective in the Renaissance changed perceptions of space.
Murals from later centuries provide a very different frame. The paintings show walled cities, for example, revealing something of the struggle between the colonial powers and the Mesoamerican past. The images of Diego Rivera show the various layers of the city.

The 'urban frame' focuses specifically on the squares, markets, parks and universities of the modern city. It also reveals something of the effects of unbridled urban growth on the environment and the consequences of the contrast between rich and poor.

In the ‘tectonic frame’, Donis Hernandez explores the purely physical architecture. In particular, he looks at the work of architect Luis Ramiro Barragán and how he was influenced by Mies van der Rohe.
The final result is a study that traces a line from the initial formation of Mexico through to the introduction of modernism into urban planning and architecture. What is the point of this? Donis Hernandez: ‘It helps you to understand Mexico City better, but actually you could apply this method to understand any city better. And that can help you to produce better designs.’

Published: June 2014