IN CONVERSATION: SULEMAN ANAYA, AN ARCHITECTURAL EYE ON CDMX
Photographed by Vincent Long, Suleman Anaya wears ML05 from MYKITA | LEICA.
Suleman Anaya is a culture, architecture and design writer and researcher based in New York, Paris, and CDMX. With an M.A. in Theory and History from Architectural Association in London, Anaya has collaborated with MYKITA on many projects throughout the years. He has also worked with M/M Paris, Business of Fashion, the New York Times, Loewe, and more.
Raised in Germany by Mexican and Pakistani parents, Anaya’s childhood experience is marked by travels to Mexico City where his godfather would drive him around the metropolis. In our conversation, Anaya distinctly recalls the urban juxtaposition between Germany and Mexico and the ways in which architecture plays an important, emotional role in his life, leading to co-designing his own home in Coyoacán in Mexico City with his brother.
MYKITA: You grew up in Frankfurt and are now living between New York and CDMX. Could you tell us a little about your connection to Mexico City?
SULEMAN ANAYA: I was born in Mexico City and have been going there all my life. My experience of Mexico City has always been anchored in and associated with my maternal grandparents’ house there. Since their passing, my mom, my brother and I inherited the house and decided to renovate it — I spend a lot of time there for work (writing about and researching Mexican architecture, among other things) and always stay at this house….
The value we saw was that it’s an actual house, it’s nice to have a front garden and more space than one would have in an apartment in more central, trendier neighborhoods like Roma or Condesa. There’s something I like about being in an area that’s kind of sleepy. It’s in the south of Mexico City, technically it’s part of Coyoacan. We’re a 10-minute drive from the borough’s charming colonial center, where you have Frida Kahlo’s famous blue house and a wonderful old church my godparents got married in in the 1960s. But my area is just a middle-class residential neighborhood that was developed mostly around the 1950s. The neighborhood was designed for people in teaching professions, and you have architecture there starting from the forties I think, all the way into the seventies, which is when our house was built according to the original floor plans. It’s a house from 1973. We also realized that as unassuming as it is stylistically, what you could call basic late Mexican modernism, architecturally it had what is often referred to as good bones. It just had started looking a little bit dated and needed a refresh.
A must-keep – the original wall of small, round rocks near the entrance that brings back childhood memories for the brothers.
MYKITA: As someone who writes and interviews a lot of architects and designers, what was it like renovating a place of your own?
SA: We found that as current users, we had different forms and ideas of how to occupy the space than what the house was originally designed for, and how my mother’s family had used it in the 80s and 90s, which was with traditional divisions between spaces dedicated to specific fixed purposes – a room for eating, rooms for sleeping, a spacious but closed and separate kitchen, etc. We wanted more openness, more flexibility, and for it to look brighter overall. Luckily, every architect I interviewed was interested in taking on the challenge to renovate it, confirming it was a house with potential.
The ones we ended up selecting and working with were Luis Beltran Del Río and Andrew Sosa from VRTICAL. They had an ambitious vision for the project that was also respectful of what it meant to us, and of our needs - we wanted to preserve the essence of the house, which is sentimentally associated with our family history, and at the same time make it look more up-to-date and be usable in a more contemporary fashion. They understood how to make the house appear more spacious and modern with very simple means which had to do with a lot of small, careful choices —where to have a certain kind of material, where to have a skylight, where to make a new bold statement or, instead, restore an original element, and so on. The way natural light floods in now and the variety of textures gives the house a tactile richness and luminosity it didn’t have before.
MYKITA: Having grown up in Germany, where there’s a very specific approach to design that places emphasis on “perfection” and “precision”, did you approach the renovation with the same kind of attitude?
SA: My friend Max von Werz — an architect with German roots who has lived in Mexico for years– says that you wouldn’t want perfection in Mexico even if you could achieve it because of the wealth of textural, handmade things that exists here. Whether it's in stone or another material, the imperfect variations you get from manual production are much more interesting and make much more sense in the Mexican context than a perfect surface. Another talented German architect who loved Mexico and was named Max, the great Max Cetto, was also a big proponent of what Mexicans call “la Mano”, the ‘hand,’ which refers to the tactile quality of something, how touch experiences it. That, for me, is one of the biggest assets of the house, where you have metal, pigmented cement tiles, old salvaged and new custom-made terrazzo… all these different surfaces and materials. None of them I can say is perfect, totally even or flawlessly smooth. The result, for instance, is a floor where no two tiles are identical, which in my opinion makes it more unique and special. It was also wonderful to see different artisans and workers come in and contribute their respective, finely honed expertise. It’s this incredibly skilled labor abundant in Mexico that we take for granted sometimes. I think it should be celebrated. Take for instance the amazing metalsmith Pablo Reyes. He made things for various parts of our house, and it’s a privilege to see him execute something as simple as a banister for the main staircase. Maybe it’s weird to mention a handrail, but to see different people come in with precise skill sets and perform on such a high level (which is how things have always been done here) was impressive and very rewarding.
The much-loved back patio with a poinsettia tree planted several decades ago.
MYKITA: Now that the house is finished, can you describe your favorite rooms and features?
SA: I love the back patio, which feels vaguely Japanese to me. It has this poinsettia tree that my grandfather planted decades ago and amazingly survived the renovation. Then there’s a small front garden I planted. I wanted a little dense forest and went to Xochimilco, which is not far from the house. It’s a famous area with canals –a vestige from what the city was like in pre-Spanish days– and a huge thriving plant market.
The architects we worked with are very fond of skylights, so we have skylights everywhere now. They create a magical play of lights at different times of the day. Some windows have this textured glass that makes for a very evocative effect. Again, it’s never the same on any given day, and depends on whether it is sunny outside, where the clouds are if it's overcast, what time it is, etc. It’s the simplicity and constant surprises of how the house is transformed, and the way acupuncture-like details can have such an impact… like how changing the proportions of a window suddenly makes a bedroom feel so much more generous.
Because for me and my brother the house is tied to childhood memories of summers in Mexico, we wanted to keep this original wall made of small round rocks near the entrance of the house. The architects fought hard to get rid of it because they thought it was kitschy. It’s very seventies… what you could call a middle-brow detail. But we didn’t care if it was good taste or modern enough because to us that wall is reminiscent of yearly visits to our grandparents growing up. In the end it stayed, and visitors love it.
The bathrooms are also important. For one of them we salvaged the pink wall tiles which are also kind of kitschy but impossible to find now. The floor is also laid with original tiles that are black, small, and irregularly shaped… it looks a bit like lizard skin. And we were like, you are not touching that.
The new bathroom with concrete tub versus the original pink bathroom with period tile-work.
MYKITA: What other parts of the renovated house are special?
SA: There’s a new spiral staircase cast in concrete going up to the roof that is amazing. Originally the stairway to the roof was in a different area but during the renovation we decided to move it. I’ve been privileged to see a lot of great art, design, and architecture, so I have a lot of influences floating around in my head, consciously or subconsciously. I thought, what if the new secondary staircase could be designed in a way where it does not just work as access to the roof, but also as a sculptural element and major visual accent in the back of the living room? So now we have this incredible concrete spiral staircase that is not just a functional non-descript element but plays an integral role in creating a strong sensual spatial impression.
Upward view of the specially cast spiral staircase.
MYKITA: You write and research about architecture and design, and specifically Mexican architecture. Was anyone in your family an architect or designer?
SA: No, but I’ve been interested in architecture since I was very young. It was one of my first loves, and interestingly awakened by those trips to Mexico when I was a child. That’s why beyond the house, the city is so important to me. On those yearly trips to the megalopolis when I was growing up, I was stunned by its richness, the infinite variety of things and people it contained, and sheer size of it. My godfather, who was like a father to me, would take me on these long car rides in his Volkswagen Beetle. He was in the insurance business and his job required him to drive all around town. I was just this precocious boy from dull, gray, small Frankfurt…sitting in the backseat, looking through the window with my eyes and mouth wide open in wonder, thinking, Oh my God! and feeling like the proverbial kid in a candy store. The endless avenues and lights and buildings, everything from Baroque churches to tall buildings, glass buildings, postmodern buildings, just urbanism on a level and profusion that I didn't know from where I lived.
MYKITA: How did you start as a writer?
SA: I didn’t plan on or ever aspire to be a writer. As a teenager, I was more interested in architecture and thought I wanted to be an architect. Fast forward a few years, and I studied economics at Stanford because I didn't know myself well enough or didn't know how to be true to myself and felt some parental expectation. Then I moved to New York for no other reason than a desire to live there in my twenties. At the time, I wanted to be part of the city's glamor, its exciting nightlife and vibrant, diverse culture. I loved going out and spent a huge chunk of my early years in New York in the East Village. At the same time, Fashion was going through an interesting moment, and I wanted to be involved in that world, even if it was tangentially. I wanted access to these amazing-sounding very exclusive parties that fashion brands would throw, say a Dior Homme opening in an hangar-like art gallery featuring a Sonic Youth performance, so I started working at a magazine. I knew HTML so I was supposed to do website-related, coding stuff. But one day the editor asked me if I wanted to write. I started writing some things here and there. The next thing I knew my writing must have been good enough for me to keep getting more assignments, also at other magazines. Over time, I noticed that I enjoyed writing and finding the right sentence to express an idea or feeling. Which is interesting because English is not my native language.
MYKITA: How did that experience lead you to become a writer and researcher in Architecture?
SA: Eventually, I studied history and theory of architecture at the Architectural Association in London. I did a master’s program there in 2012 to formalize what had always been a personal interest, I think I wanted an academic foundation to be able to turn it into a more professional vocation. I thought I was going to teach, but that hasn’t ended up happening. But as a result of taking that step, I now mostly write about architecture, including oftentimes Mexican architecture and get to meet and interview renowned figures like Frank Gehry as well as talented rising firms like Productora. Still, to me it was humbling to be involved in an architectural project from a client’s perspective, because it's one thing to know something and love it, study it and even write about it, but a whole other thing to find myself working with architects and seeing what their job actually entails in very practical day-to-day terms.
MYKITA: Some time ago you wrote a piece about why architecture makes you happy which was done in a way, especially in PIN-UP at that time, that wasn’t about flexing in an academic way at all but felt very personal.
SA: Yeah, I don’t know if I want us to refer to that piece, looking back it feels very young, naive and a little indulgent to me, but I think it did encapsulate my relationship to architecture well. In the end, my reaction to and my understanding of architecture — and I say this with no disrespect to myself — has been quite intuitive, and to a certain degree emotional, I own that. I can't design a building, I don't know how to draw, and I only know so much about the structural and technical considerations that go into it. I’m also not that interested in theory, which made studying at the AA interesting. But I have a very strong immediate ‘gut’ response to my built environment. For as long as I can remember, I must have been five or seven years old when I first noticed that about myself, my reaction to a building can be quite visceral. A great building makes me happy, it's still true, as corny as it sounds. Similarly, bad architecture or poorly conceived space can have the opposite effect on me. As I wrote in that essay, I believe architecture has the power to elevate or depress the human spirit.
All this ties back to Mexico City, where I was awed by the many fascinating buildings I saw as a very young person (of course, the city also has a ton of not-so-great buildings). I remember seeing the Palacio de Bellas Artes for the first time as a child and thought it was the greatest building in the world. And it actually looks like a giant wedding cake because it's made out of white Carrara marble and has a very ornate, art nouveau exterior. Now I guess being maybe more educated, more of a snob, I would say, it's not a great building. But actually I take it back, I still think it’s a great building if only because it was commenced before the revolution, but completed 30 years later, under a new, much more nationalist government, which means you have this very European fantasy on the outside, in that imported white stone, and then you go inside and it's the most amazing art deco space, clad entirely in super-rich black and deep red Mexican marble, and the art deco is inflected with stylized Mesoamerican motifs. It's like Rockefeller Center by way of Uxmal. So, the building, which houses an opera house and a museum, encompasses in its architecture a shift in ideology from, “oh, everything good has to come from Europe'' — the dominant thinking, especially among the elite when the building was started— through a long hiatus, to when it was completed in 1934, a much stronger interest in local antecedents and materials. Stylistically, and in every other way, everything had changed. This new way of thinking and pride in using homegrown materials and iconography is really interesting.
MYKITA: Were there any environmental factors that affected the design and renovation? What are some things that you wanted to do and couldn’t or you never thought you could do?
SA: The house is very open now. The ground floor can actually open up almost completely thanks to these big custom-made doors that pivot and slide, all made in a style of mid-century ironwork that's very characteristic of the city. And there’s the mentioned skylights. All this is great aesthetically but it’s also a direct function of the particular type of light and temperatures you have in the valley Mexico City sits in. The fact is that because of the capital’s climate, you can have a degree of openness and lack of insulation that would be impossible in a different zone of the world. It allows for a beautiful, near-seamless and very local integration of inside and outside spaces, while the combination of all those openings and the amount of sunshine the house gets at any given time creates very poetic, constantly changing reflections on the walls.
The living area with a custom-made bookcase next to the spiral staircase leading to the roof. Photography by Alejandro Ramirez Orozc.
MYKITA: Luis Barragan was famous for his use of light in his work.
SA: Yes, he really knew how to capitalize on the use of light and shadows and in his hands it became sublime. But that’s not something he invented…it’s just Mexican. Speaking of environmental factors, you’re also over 2000 meters above sea level. I mean, back in the day, before pollution put an end to it, Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s great novelists, called Mexico City “the most transparent region,” because of its altitude and crystalline air. And, to bring up yet another German in Mexico, I think Alexander from Humboldt, the polymath explorer who like myself greatly admired the Mexican capital and its architecture —he was a special fan of the Palacio de Mineria — was amazed by the city’s radiant blue skies. So I think a lot of what is considered Barragan-esque is just happenstance and has to do with the fortuitous situation of the city, geographically and topographically. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also a situation that creates a lot of problems…
MYKITA: What is one of the biggest environmental problems?
SA: The biggest one is the water shortage that Mexico City already faces and will only get worse, and of course there's the air pollution, which is also a byproduct of being surrounded by mountains…. The contaminated air that's created in the city kind of gets stuck and hovers above it because of this ring of mountains. It's really not ideal to build a city of this size on a dried up lake bed at such height…
MYKITA: When you speak about your natural interests from writing to renovating the house, it’s clear that there’s a value system that you work with and there are certain things that you are protective about.
SA: Sure… and maybe I wasn’t easy to work with during the renovation. There were certainly moments of tension with the architects, who, just to be clear, did a phenomenal job. It’s just that when I know something can be a certain way, meaning better, more thought-out, or ‘right’, whether it’s my own work or someone else’s, I can be adamant about it. So, you can call that protective. I mean…I’m also a New Yorker!
I was talking about this with a friend who also used to live in New York and therefore, like myself, considers herself a New Yorker for life. We both realize that something that maybe comes with that is being somewhat more demanding, in a way others don't necessarily relate to. It’s like, ‘why can’t you just accept the table you were given by the host?’ Well, sometimes I simply can’t or shouldn’t have to, haha!
MYKITA: What do you love about Mexico?
SA: I really appreciate the pace of life in Mexico…it can be hectic, for sure, but overall it’s slower than in other places like New York. For instance, a meal with friends or family on a Sunday in Mexico City won’t start before 3PM. It will very likely be delicious and go on for hours. There’s a sense of un-hurriedness here that is wonderful.
On Wednesdays, I stroll through the neighborhood to the Tianguis, like a farmer’s market, and buy bananas and vegetables or whatever else I need for the week. It’s incredibly low-key and chill considering I’m still very much within one of the world’s biggest cities, which also happens to be booming and thriving while simultaneously remaining as congested and overrun with problems –from traffic to gentrification– as ever. You can be very productive in Mexico City and also have a rich social life. There is an incredible quality of life when it comes to taking the time to see friends and enjoy sensory pleasures. But there’s another thing, which is actually the main trait I wanted to say in response to this question: the Mexican concept of courtesy.
To give an example, during the renovation I quickly noticed I could not start the first conversation of the day with my architects or the contractor saying simply “hey, was the terrazzo delivered” or “how are we doing on this or that pending item”? Invariably, you first have to say, ‘buenas tardes’ or ‘buenos dias’, followed by “I hope you’re well” or “how are you”? No matter if young or old, poor or rich, professional or chummy, it’s just something you do. It’s very old-world and also, very Mexican. I’ve come to appreciate it immensely.
MYKITA: What are your top five architecture sights in Mexico City?
SA: I mentioned earlier Palacio de Mineria by Manuel Tolsá. Completed in 1813, it’s one of the finest examples of Neoclassical architecture in the world. It's a matter of the perfect proportions and soothingly harmonious articulation Tolsá was able to achieve in the building's stately facade. Originally conceived as a school of engineering and for the study of mining precious metals, the Palacio's majestic stairwell is masterfully resolved.
Torres de Satelite by Mathias Goeritz and Luis Barragan in 1958. The concrete torres --slender building-sculpture hybrids of different heights-- are iconic landmarks of the 20th century. Designed to have a strong visual impact from a speeding car, the strikingly simple towers stand on triangular footprints and are painted in elementary shades of red, blue, yellow, and white. Over time, the Torres have become potent urban symbols, at once playfully dynamic and static.
La Merced market (1957) by Enrique del Moral. It’s a neglected masterpiece of Latin American modernism (it graced the cover of the catalogue of a 2015 MoMA exhibit on the subject). Located in a part of the historic center that remains a hive of traditional commerce, del Moral's design features multiple naves and a graceful waved roof. Its ventilation systems and ancillary facilities were ahead of its time, representing a period of Mexican architecture in which social progress went hand-in-hand with vanguard aesthetics.
Basurto building (1940-1945) by Francisco Serrano. An art deco gem in Condesa, reminiscent of Parisian architecture but firmly anchored in one of Mexico City's most beautiful neighborhoods. The 14-story apartment building has an ingenious cross-based design that maximizes natural light and views, while the stairwell is a symphony of sensuous curved lines. Sadly, the Basurto suffered significant (since-repaired) damage in the 2017 earthquake.
Catedral Metropolitana was built over 250 years starting 1571 by various architects. Quite simply the most important building in Mexico City. No other structure on the American continent can compete with the Catedral in terms of show-stopping performance, size, history, and significance. Built on razed Aztec temples, the building also encapsulates the tradition of monumentality, dramatic form, and rich materiality that characterizes Mexican architecture to this date.