Hunting for peculiar accidents and objects that others consider as ugly ducklings is what defines Emmanuel and Ludwig’s distinctive aesthetic.
The two business partners were born in neighboring towns in Normandy, but they actually met in Mexico City. They began working together designing clubs, such as M.N. Roy in the neighborhood of Colonia Roma where they now live, and Nüba in Paris. After these and other strong successes, they suddenly stopped accepting commercial projects and began to concentrate exclusively on residential housing.
Shortly after coming to Mexico in the late ‘90s, Emmanuel created his celebrated Chic by Accident antiquary project, which has had a profound impact on how the Mexican upper class perceives the artistic value of certain objects. Not only local Mid-Century Modern, but also far more peculiar things were included in Emmanuel’s catalogue: precious woods, furniture, neo pre-Hispanic fiberglass objects and even artifacts made of human bones receive the same status.
Ludwig’s mainstream architecture background has global influences – he worked for several studios around the world before eventually settling down in Mexico. The partnership between the two designers flirts comfortably with modernist references, vernacular attitudes, sensitive Brutalism and whimsical gestures, all tinted with their unique sense of humor.
Emmanuel & Ludwig’s Country House in Santa Catarina
Ludwig: “I think copying is an important aspect of architecture and I don’t see a problem in that, as long as you do it well. The references will be original, given that the present context is completely different.”
After a 40-minute drive, we arrived in Santa Catarina, a small village close to Tepoztlan. Surrounded by the peculiar rock formations of the Tepozteco mountain range, Tepoztlan is a well-known “magical” town where your aura can be read in the marketplace, along several other New Age amenities. We bought grilled chicken nearby and sat in the garden to chat. The house is full of all sorts of incredible objects, which were most likely part of the Chic by Accident collection but were not sold. The building has very few walls, and the effect of time and weather on the house’s contents is obvious.
Emmanuel: I found this place while walking very drunk after a party near Tepoztlan, and its view immediately attracted me. I was able to buy it shortly afterwards, and we have gradually been building it, depending on our needs and feelings.
There are several modernist references – a sort of dysfunctional modernism. To what extent is modernism important in your architectural discourse?
Ludwig: For me, modernism is essential. I would never have an architectural book in my bookshelf referred to a period after the 1980s. To a large extent, I think copying is an important aspect of architecture and I don’t see a problem in that as long as you do it well. The references will be original, given that the present context is completely different. I perpetually look at my books on Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Oscar Niemeyer; I would also include Carlo Scarpa, who is perhaps whom I most identify our work with, because of his mannerism and poetic approach.
Emmanuel: There is definitely a fundamental interest in modernism, but also in its sources. Petra, Damascus, temples in general. We also fully identify with “emotional architecture” as described by Mathias Goeritz. This house is the outcome of the combination of the site itself, the views and the mountains surrounding it, and the need to have a place to accommodate loved ones and friends outside the city.
Ludwig: The part we are sitting in now, which we call the temple, was full of debris that we didn’t want to get rid of. The first thing Emmanuel did each time we arrived was to climb this mountain of tuna fish cans and broken bricks and enjoy the full view. This made us aware of the need to build something here.
Emmanuel: I like to think of Le Corbusier and the way he relates measurements to personal needs. This “temple” reflects that idea. The swimming pool is made to my measurements, and me being the tallest of my friends, I’m the only one who can stand in it. I eventually had to put in ladders, because people couldn’t get out of the pool and I wanted them to come back. I didn’t want to be lonely in this country house. The other intentions were to avoid the look of a conventional blue swimming pool, and also to make it a huge lightbox at night.
Your work as Chic by Accident has had a deep impact on Mexican social life. You created M.N. Roy, the most fashionable club for the last several years, and I recently found out that you also made an intervention in the entrance of Parnita, one of the cheapest and coolest restaurants in Colonia Roma.
Emmanuel: Parnita has been the best value project we’ve ever done. They pay us with tacos. We love the place, and although it was a minimal intervention, it felt good to do something for one of our favorite places. The impact of M.N. Roy still astonishes us. It’s been years and we’re still being interviewed about the project.
Ludwig: When we began that project, our clients had asked for an entirely New York City-style club. The first thing we did was to dig into our Mexican references, and our ideas were a shock to the clients. We were looking for a subtle neo pre-Hispanic style, not for a Las Vegas-style Mexican club. At that time, we often had lunch nearby in Medellin Market and we were obsessed with the patterns of its patios. We eventually ended up using those models, a reinterpretation of the ruins of Uxmal, for the club.
Emmanuel: We’re very attracted to pre-Hispanic influences in 20th-century Mexico. It began shortly after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 in opposition to the French influence during Porfirio Diaz’s 30-year rule. Although they had many other pressing worries, the search for Mexican roots after the Revolution can be found in literature, painting, architecture and other aspects of Mexican life.
Ludwig: We’ve also been influenced by the Park of the Americas in Merida and by Manuel Amabilis, author of the Mexican Pavilion in Seville in 1929. We’re fascinated by his attempt to recover a Mexican identity. We’re interested in making a fresh, untainted reading of the Mexican past, as many of its elements are still novelties for us.
The process of designing Nüba in Paris was interesting. It was the exact opposite of what is usually done. We exported materials and aesthetic elements from Mexico to France. We even carried copper and leather in our suitcases and shipped five tons of stone. Our clients were impressed by the luxury of the materials and even more so that we were within budget.
Emmanuel: We’re about to finish a house in Zicatela beach in Oaxaca. It emulates a juego de pelota (pre-Hispanic ball game) court made of raw concrete.
Ludwig:We often have to go into the Mexican countryside to workshops to find sources for incredible stuff that is usually not for sale. We’re not seeking to be socially responsible, because we often find “fair-trade” a hypocritical term.
Emmanuel:We always look for peculiar accidents, the things that some people see as the ugly ducklings. We look for honest objects that we find by chance but which end up being centerpieces. It sometimes becomes an aesthetic revenge of vernacular objects against their European counterparts that you would find in a fancy catalogue.
When we ran out of champagne, beers appeared and Emmanuel began to read aloud from a book by Futurist Luigi Russolo.
Emmanuel: “Architecture is not about manners. Strong decisions have to be made.”
I see some vernacular architectural gestures also but in a more “macho” way.
Emmanuel: Architecture is not about manners. Strong decisions have to be made.
Ludwig: Although we have a great interest in it, we don’t do vernacular architecture. We want to be participants, not passive observers.
Do you picture yourselves staying a long time in this house?
Emmanuel: Once again, speaking of Le Corbusier, he found a small 35m2 cottage to end his days. I already found mine. It is on a small island facing Capri, probably much smaller than Le Corbusier’s cottage or my flat in Mexico City. Someday, I will sell my house in Normandy to buy it.
Ludwig: I want a hut, in the countryside at the top of a slope. I picture an arid place with streams and scant water forming canyons. I would put a chair in front of a stone table and drink until I’m drunk and then take siestas – a simple life.
Emmanuel’s Apartment in Colonia Roma
Emmanuel lives in the Rio de Janeiro Building, in front of the eponymous square that boasts a fake, oversized version of Michelangelo’s David. The building itself dates to the beginning of the 20th century and is referred to as “the House of the Witches,” with its low towers and dramatically gabled rooftops. All these features are enhanced by an early ‘40s Art Deco intervention that makes it truly one-of-a-kind. Ludwig lives a few blocks away with his wife, Fabiola.
Originally, the borough was very elegant, but it was deeply affected by the 1985 earthquake and was nearly abandoned. It wasn’t until the early ‘00s that an overwhelming number of organic cafes, design stores, and fashion restaurants revived the area and renewed its trendy status.
Emmanuel: It’s been a hard day, which justifies our second champagne bottle. An hour ago, the house was an utter mess.
Ludwig:We’re planning a trip to Chandigarh – Emmanuel is getting married and we’re going to see Le Corbusier’s work with a group of friends as his bachelor party, but his passport has expired and we couldn’t find his certificate.
Emmanuel: We turned the house upside down until that damned certificate finally appeared, which is why we’re celebrating. In spite of having a very small house, when you’re looking for something it becomes chaos. I like that the house is tiny – I looked for quite a long time for something like this. Before finding this place, I lived in all sorts of other places, including warehouses, which I enjoyed at the time. But as of late I’m obsessed with small spaces, ideally with a single entrance
Emmanuel: “I like to feel that nothing ties me down and that I can leave whenever I want. I like the fragility that this gives to my life.”
So you haven’t lived here long?
Emmanuel: No, I’ve always lived in Colonia Roma, but in around 20 different places since I arrived in Mexico. I’ve refused to buy property in this city. I own a house in Normandy and a country house about an hour away from here, but I like to feel that nothing ties me down and that I can leave whenever I want. I like the fragility that this gives to my life.
You have very special furniture here. Were they your favorite pieces from Chic by Accident?
Emmanuel: The most marvelous pieces from Chic by Accident are all gone, and I don’t regret it. This has never been one of my traumas.
Ludwig: What he couldn’t sell ended up here. (laughs)
Emmanuel: That’s not true, these here are pieces I feel comfortable with.
So you’re not attached sentimentally to these objects?
Emmanuel: Not at all.
Ludwig: It is tough not to feel attached to unique objects. Emmanuel finds things that are almost impossible to get, like a dildo made in a jailhouse with human tibia. But Emmanuel did sell it.
Emmanuel: Every object has found a client that cherished it, and that is what is most important to me.
I’ve seen lots of changes in this city during the last decade. It has become cosmopolitan in many cultural aspects: art, fashion, design.
Tourists once saw Mexico City only as a necessary stopover. They slept here after landing, visited the Museum of Anthropology and perhaps one or two historical sights downtown and rented a car to flee towards one of the tourist destinations. This has changed, not only because of its cultural attractions, but also because of the attractiveness of the people who live here. In spite of its wild and violent nature and other existing problems, it is deeply attractive. The surreal nature that André Breton noticed as a permanent trait is definitely true, but nowadays Mexico City has many real attractions.