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THE STEP PYRAMID OF XINATLI

Studio Viktor Sørless has been commissioned to design the main building for a research museum next to the Mexican jungle together with Mexican Estudio Juiñi. The design involves a modified step pyramid structure and ecological
construction methods using earth and timber.

Together with her non-profit organisation Fundación Raíz, the Mexican art
collector Fernanda Raíz is planning to construct a research museum on the edge
of the tropical rainforest in southern Mexico. With its focus on people, art and
science, the museum’s aim is to explore how these can coexist in harmony in the
21st century.

The name of the research museum, Xinatli, builds on the word Xinachtli from the
Nahua language and describes the moment when a seed germinates and opens
out into life-giving form. The word symbolises the idea of creation and pays
tribute to the potential for metamorphosis.

A 90-hectare area of cleared forest was chosen as the location for the research
museum. The land has previously been impacted by illegal logging activity and
the plan is to reforest it over the coming years. Provisions have been made to
bequeath the land back to nature, as represented by environmentalists and local
communities. They will assume sole guardianship and use of the land after one
generation.

Point of departure and brief
The site includes a main building covering several floors. These feature exhibition
and art spaces as well as a scientist-led terrestrial institute. All the facilities in this structure aim to investigate the area’s vital diversity and local community knowledge, and to advance these through art and research.

 

According to the founder Fernanda Raíz, Xinatli rests on a conscious objective: “It now appears more urgent than ever to help create a climate change in people’s minds. Art, and with it a different kind of perception, an ecological way of building, a cultural engagement with ‘the between’, can help sustain continuity of life on our planet.”

 

The Mexican art collector Fernanda Raíz encapsulates this undertaking: “Until
now, museums have usually been a space where power is put on display. A 21st
century museum should not be a showcase for power but instead a place that
advocates for greater equity: in ecology, in art and in society.”

The purpose of the museum is shaped by a tripartite approach of research,
learning and communication. In addition to supporting artistic processes, other
key focus points for the museum will include a circular mentality, philosophical
consideration of plants and fungi as well as a global engagement with nature as
a legal entity, as stipulated in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador. A
decolonised way of thinking will also help change how we relate to the world,
which means breaking both with anthropocentric perspectives and a separation
of nature and culture.

Approach and method
The pyramid is an archetypal component of the majority of cultures in Asia,
Africa, Europe and Latin America. The step pyramid variation stems from
Mesoamerican culture, through the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs.
The path to a new society leads through a critique of the pyramid and the
pyramid society – so wrote Mexican author Octavio Paz in “The Labyrinth of
Solitude”. “It was important to us to reference the step pyramid, to reconfigure
and reinterpret it”, explains Studio Viktor Sørless. “The step pyramid is a symbol of a class society, the split between the rich at the top and the poor at the bottom.
Our design deconstructs this hierarchy.”

In their concept for Xinatli, Estudio Juiñi and Studio Viktor Sørless lift the lowest
and widest plinth into the centre. This also brings it up to the height of the tallest
trees, symbolically placing it eye-to-eye with nature. The resulting platform
provides uninterrupted views over the green surroundings. The concept of the
building sees it as an organism intertwined with the jungle around it.

It also incorporates the skills of local craftspeople and knowledge. In
the “xa’anil naj” construction method of the Yucatec Maya, trees used in the
supporting framework are not uprooted and put in position but are often planted.
An inspection of the location allowed both studios to identify trees that could
later be used as “living supports” in the construction.

The building also uses twisted sisal ropes as stabilisers, together with a stone
stack that is visible from every floor inside the building. It starts high up in the
building and reaches deep down into the ground where it opens out into a pool.
Rainwater falls into the stack, and crags in the rock create little waterfalls. In the
project these were named “weeping rocks”. On the ground floor, letters are
formed in earth across the last levels of the pool. Letters like the ones that were
once burned as stigmata into the foreheads of people by the
conquistadors. A “G”, for example, stands for guerra – war. The earth symbolises
the wounds of the past and will, over time, be washed away by the water until
each initial letter is at some point no longer recognisable.

The side wings of the building house exhibition and research spaces. An upper
level is wrapped in reflective glass. Depending on the perspective, it presents
itself in ever-changing guises to the visitors as they walk around. From the
inside, visitors look out over green wilderness, while from the outside the glass
reflects only the jungle around it. This creates an optical illusion, with the
pyramid seeming from afar as though it is broken through, as if the upper section
of the building were floating.

Building with natural raw materials
Studio Viktor Sørless has spent many years exploring the use of earth in
construction and sees it as the building material of the future. “I see earth as
offering unbeatable benefits”, explains Viktor Sørless. “We have been using this
building material ever since humans starting settling; it’s there at our feet, in the
ground, as humus, in essence as a kind of cement for a more humane way of
building. Earth can be reintroduced into the cycles of nature and makes
ecological sense.”

Given the weather conditions in a tropical rainforest, it is necessary to enhance
the strength and water resistance of the earth used in this construction. The
result, a new earth mixture using sisal fibres and chukum resin, was developed
with the help of local expertise. The building will be built using the rammed earth
method. A so-called “organic gridwork”, made with sisal fibres and with a mesh
size of one centimetre, is used to prevent any potential cracking. This kind of
strengthening is similar to that used in reinforced concrete structures to allow
walls to be subjected to heavier loads. Wood is used to construct the supporting
framework.

The building is a fusion of old knowledge and new engineering practices. Yet the plan is not to create a building that will last forever. It needs to be looked after, otherwise it will degrade. This element of transience acknowledges that life is a process of growing, perishing and becoming – and that we humans can make a conscious decision about how we treat our environment.

 

Client: Fundación Raíz
Architecture: Studio Viktor Sørless, Estudio Juiñi
Status: Planned for construction
Year: 2021 – ongoing
Renderings: bloomimages, bloomrealities
Location: Mexico, reforested area next to a tropical rainforest

Xinatli Section
Xinatli
Xinatli terrace