Up, up and away: how the Guachimontones travelling balloon is elevating Mexico’s design scene

Up, up and away: how the Guachimontones travelling balloon is elevating Mexico’s design scene

Travelling exhibitions have existed for centuries. From the ancient mercantile barter to the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, traders and merchants have long roamed far and wide, showcasing their products and concepts in new markets. But what of items that can’t travel? Structures and land?

In Jalisco, a western state of Mexico’s Pacific Coast there is a prehispanic archaeological complex called Guachimontones. The ruins of this beautifully rounded pyramid lie forgotten despite their rich heritage and archeological significance, purely because of geographic misfortune and urbanisation. In a bid to benefit tourism, as well as education, the Minister of Culture for Jalisco did what any man in his place would do: commissioned an exhibition. The formula is simple enough, after all; a couple of screens, simple labels, nice pictures and a timeline. It is unfortunate that government policies, especially in Mexico, aren’t in the design race. They are dusty, old institutions, far from the avant-garde, conscious criticism and, more tragically, means to break the mould.

Enter Norberto Miranda Feldhahn. This young, Guadalajara-based architect from Estudio 3.14 was aware of the challenges when he took on the commission. His idea for an archeological complex was bold, but he prevailed and went on to shake the cultural bureaucratic apparatus, pushing the boundaries of the traditional archaeological exhibition, transforming it into an immersive, educational design experience instead.

Like a travelling circus, the Guachimontones balloon arrives at local schools all packed up, ready to unveil the story of a civilisation that once pioneered the worlds of agriculture and crafts. First it erects a flag, announcing the beginning of the show as excitable children gather curiously, waiting for the giant white balloon to inflate.

Similar to the pyramid it is inspired by, the Guachimontones travelling museum is spherical in shape and rich in archaeological concepts, with the added benefit of being an autonomous inflatable structure. Compact, light and naturally lit, the translucent material lights up inside, giving the feeling of being inside a fluorescent light bulb. The entrance is wide enough to fit a group of students, but narrow enough to maintain a sense of mystery for the tunnel experience that is to come. Part of its intrigue is this element of the unknown, hiding behind the curve, waiting just around the corner.

It is only once inside that the 22-metre long watercolour by artist David Saracco and Jorge Monroy comes into view. The drawing has been digitally printed and intricately hand-sewn on the interior walls, an aspect which humanises an otherwise rather animalistic structure. At the heart of the space, an open-air congregation space serves as an area of reflection.

The womb-like environment nurtures knowledge, guiding children and adults alike on a journey through the daily life that once took place around the pyramid. Through play, the design invites children to learn and interact with their historic past, looking at the way we relate to archaeological concepts. It’s huge success just goes to show the power and influence a contemporary piece of design can exert in the hands of those dare. Perhaps it is about time decision makers changed their perception and ceased to view design as a dispensable ornament.

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