Glass talks to the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo who, after designing this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion, has become 2018’s most acclaimed and noteworthy designer
EVERY summer, London’s Hyde Park becomes the home to a renowned temporary structure called the Serpentine Pavilion. The pavilion, which is open to the general public for three months before finding a new home elsewhere, is designed by a different architectural practice from anywhere in the world, selected by a panel of judges. Although it’s quite usual for the pavilions to be commissioned to huge names in the architecture field – Bjarke Ingels, Frank Gehry and Peter Zumthor, among some of them – there are times when the Serpentine team and judges surprise us all with a selection that truly speaks of an interest in experimentation as well as attempting to diversif the field. This year, there’s one name causing a stir. And it’s Frida Escobedo.
In the 18 years of the Serpentine Pavilion’s history, Escobedo – whose pavilion creates an intimate courtyard constructed primarily out of dark roof tiles, while playing with light and shadow, reflection and refraction, privacy and transparency – is the first solo woman to receive the commission. At 39, the Mexican architect is also the youngest architect to be selected, and one of the two firms that have hailed from Latin America. Compared to her predecessors, Escobedo’s practice appears young, with only a handful of projects completed. And that’s what makes her participation with the Serpentine Pavilion exciting to see. Escobedo confidently marches to the beat of her own drum, bringing with her a unique point of view and a refreshing architectural stance, deeply rooted in her Mexican heritage but also informed by global contemporary concerns. In our conversation about dealing with natural disasters, architectural education, the perils of designing for tourists instead of locals, indigenous Mexican ruins and doing things her way, it becomes clear that although 2018 is the Year of Frida, we’re only starting to see a hint of what’s yet to come.
The first thing I want to ask you is, how are things in Mexico City after the earthquake last September?
It was almost a year ago, yes. It’s funny, a friend of mine and I were talking about this yesterday – it seems so long ago but still it’s very present. I think there’s still many things to be done and many efforts that need to be made, and they’re not happening as fast as they should, especially because this was the election year. I think we got distracted by that, which is kind of hard to understand because these are urgent things that need to be resolved.
To me, it resonates with home, Puerto Rico, because a few days after the earthquake in Mexico, we had our biggest hurricane in history.
Oh yes, I remember.
How did the city change in the hours and days that followed the earthquake? I can’t imagine what it was like, with Mexico City always being so busy, dynamic, energetic.
After the initial shock, I remember just going out to the streets. We were trying to go back to our homes from the office. On the way back home, there was no public transportation and there was no one circulating on the streets, so we were walking through the Condesa zone, and then we just bumped into this apartment building that had collapsed. Everyone was helping. There were two lines of people just carrying rubble all the way to the park, almost two blocks away.
This was quite a shock, we didn’t know this had happened so quickly, because the earthquake had just happened. But everyone was helping. That kind of energy just remained for the following weeks – everyone was out in the streets, trying to help, trying to do anything they could, even if it was just preparing food for the rescatistas – the first responders.
There’s a very big group of architects who got together and discussed how we could help, and now we’re doing very small things, but I think they are meaningful. For instance, we’re working with families that were left without a home because it was damaged by the earthquake, and we’re working with them one-to-one to restructure the houses, to improve them, to build a new house for them. It’s the smaller efforts, rather than the grandiose things, that are more important right now.
How does living in Mexico City shape your work – particularly your work abroad? Do you feel that your creative roots are in Mexico?
Definitely. Growing up in Mexico City, I’m influenced by all the information of the city that is constantly changing but at the same time, remains the same.
For instance, you can see a kind of layering effect that we have here. We have a precolonial city; on top of that is a colonial city; and on top of that is a modern city. Everything is constantly changing, in a kind of accretion. At the same time, though, we’re grounded on our roots. I think you can see that in my work – this idea that architecture is never finished, but rather will continue to evolve.
Tell me a little bit about your design process now. I’ve heard that you start by creating a small booklet by hand?
As you may already know, we’re a very small group of people here in the office. So we basically start having conversations between ourselves, just looking at bits of the project while also asking what we can learn from this project. Then we discuss ideas and create collages with references, not just from architecture, but also art, literature and any other discipline. It’s after this initial conversation that we start sketching. It’s never the sketch first – first we start with a question, then the images, then the sketch.
I like that you sometimes talk about “experiments” and “curiosity” in your work – I personally find both words tend to liberate and open possibilities, rather than prescribe and enforce. Could you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by experiments and the role they play in your practice?
We don’t believe that architecture is about style, it’s more about questions and concerns. If you come up with an idea that is about a shape – and you’re very certain about that because that’s your style and your signature – then I think you’re missing a lot of opportunities and learning experiences. Architecture helps us understand the world, so asking questions is a way to understand it more deeply.
At times you talk about letting a building’s materials age beautifully with time, and I wonder if part of this is informed by Mexico’s legacy of ruins.
Yes, absolutely. We not only have these ruins but these live constructions that are happening over many, many centuries and years. There’s a ruination of one layer, and the accretion of another. You see a colonial building that was invaded by a modernist renovation in the inside, and when that is modified, it becomes a postmodern building. It’s just like a continuous shifting. This idea of “becoming” that is always happening in Mexico City, that really informs how we think about architecture in the office.
There’s been headlines focusing on you being the youngest architect to be commissioned to create a Serpentine Pavilion. But before you, in the 18 years of this tradition, there’s only been three females showing their work: Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima and Lucía Cano – and so you stand in a league all your own. These are big firms, and unlike yours, they’re all co-directed by men. Also, it’s a huge testament to your work that you’re one of the only two practices from Latin America. Do you think Latin American architects are under-represented?
Well it depends on where you’re looking at, no? Of course in the European or US scene, yes, I would say so. But we can’t define visibility solely in European terms.
I understand what you mean. I mean, I teach at a school of architecture in the Caribbean. But even here, the books and discourse are very much informed by North America and Europe. I think that even the big architectural milestones that ‘validate’ someone’s career, like the famous Pritzker Prize, often focus on the white, male, European or North American. Of course, the Asians, particularly the Japanese architects, do have a very strong presence. But I still feel that Latin American, African and Middle Eastern architects – which have wonderful work happening – are not as discussed. I think that permeates into architectural education and training as well.
But do you think that happens because we’re also looking at architectures that depends on having a lot of capital? Are we looking at these spectacular buildings that can only happen in certain context of worlds? Or are we looking at examples that may be more subtle – smaller architectures that are as interesting or as challenging as the others, but in a different scale?
Absolutely, and that’s something I personally keep in mind – massive projects are not necessarily “great architecture”. Even with Glass, when I interview architects for our issues, I like to talk to architects that are doing interesting things and making a real difference – particularly women. I’m trying to go somewhat against the grain, but I’m not the norm. I feel European and North American men still do dominate. Even when students, no matter where they come from, want to study architecture, they often want to study at the Bartlett, the AA, Harvard, Yale, Cooper Union – these are all European and North American institutions.
You know, you’re right. But I think it also has to do with this idea of what are we teaching our students architecture is? Who is it for? Are we working for institutions and enterprises that are able to produce this kind of monumental architecture? That’s what we’re often teaching, but how do you build these big things that require so much capital? I think that’s one of the biggest problems of academia – we’re focusing on giving students the responsibility to design huge buildings and huge compounds, driven by this idea of monumentality rather than focusing on the strategies behind it. And if we start thinking about that, then we’ll find amazing examples in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East.
So let’s talk about strategy. Your Serpentine Pavilion is quite sober in that it’s not making a statement with colour – the stereotype of Mexican architecture. It feels somehow like a subtle blend of two different cultures. Through your use of the grey roof tiles, it’s austere but also rich in craft, appealing to both England and Mexico. How did the idea for the tiles come about?
When we first got the commission, we understood that this was not just about designing a pavilion. It was a way of explaining to a large audience how we do things in our “hometown”. In our office, we know how to work with simple materials and generate complex forms or complex ideas. Tiles are local and industrially produced, they’re not precious, but they can be interesting in the way you weave with them. That’s why we chose roof tiles – they’re very typical, they’re very easy to find and then we’re just playing with them to create a pattern that allows you to come into the pavilion.
You say that you see beauty in very simple materials. And I find this really interesting in the context of other interviews you’ve given where you’ve said, regarding Mexico, “We’ve learnt to do more with less, and we’ve learnt to bend the rules instead of adapting to them, probably because the rules haven’t worked so well in the past.” I wonder, if there’s a bit of “necessity is the mother of invention” here?
Yes, absolutely. It might have to do with the way that I built my practice. Everything has been very spontaneous and sometimes playful, but sometimes just naïve. When I started, I didn’t know how to deal with larger strategies, I didn’t have a financial structure, I didn’t have a plan. In that process, you learn how to do big things with little resources, because you’re starting alone, you’re young, you don’t have any financial support to back up your ideas. This is the way that I’m used to working – creating things with very, very little. And it also comes from an understanding how we do things here in Mexico. It’s more about the idea than the material. Of course the material is important, but it doesn’t need to be precious.
What simple material or object are you curious to play with but haven’t done so yet?
Well, I’ve been playing with this idea of transparency for quite a few years now. And I haven’t finished playing with that yet. Now I’m working with glass and how it actually reflects layers of history also. It started as a thesis project and we continue to play with it still.
Do you ever look back on your childhood in Mexico and see what parts of it have crept into your design decisions or outlook?
I’m sure there must be. As you were asking the questions, I had flashbacks of my childhood. My dad’s a doctor so I often went with him to the hospital. One time, I was in the waiting room, and the only thing I could do there was look out of the window. I remember this apartment building in the front of the window, and I was just looking out at the neighbours. I thought it was fascinating. And this is something that I’ve realised many years later, I was just very entertained by the idea that everyone had a different house, each matching their personality.
You could almost guess who was living there just by looking at the interiors, how they were decorated and adapted. But the exterior façade was really different. This idea of interiority and exteriority – of how we present ourselves to the public and how we have an intimate self – stuck with me. And as I’m speaking to you in my apartment building, I’m having the same experience. I’m looking out at the neighbours now. Trying to understand this kind of adaptation of the interior and the aesthetic choices that people make to fit their personalities and their needs, is a kind of voyeurism.
Several of your public projects sit somewhere between installation and performance, inviting citizens to interact with the pieces creating movements or sounds. Such is the case with Civic Stage in Portugal, the wall at Stanford, and Eco Pavilion. Is a healthy public life one where citizens become participants?
I think they’re always participants – you’re always participating, but you may feel like you’re participating backstage, not on the front stage. This is where a project becomes either civic or public. It’s about who the main actor is. And we should all be main actors.
You’ve previously talked about the growth of cities through the eye of the architect versus developers, saying this generates waste and lack of quality. Could you talk to me about how Mexico City’s growth relates to this?
Yes, I think there’s a real problem, especially in the central part of Mexico City, and maybe towards the west also. You see apartment buildings just growing and growing, but it’s not really a market that is solving the issue of lack of housing. It’s simply about creating more capital. And I’m worried about that, because then you see a lot of the clients that come to the office, saying, “I want you to build an apartment building, but I want it to be for Airbnb.” This is something that I’ve heard not only in my office, but many of my colleagues have the same concern.
People who want to invest money in housing are thinking about temporary housing. This creates a lot of empty space. Airbnb apartments are not occupied for most of the year, and we’re spending a lot of money on that. Right now it’s very profitable. But it creates shifts in real estate, in what we’re investing on, and in rent affordability. If you have a neighbourhood composed of, let’s say, 30 per cent Airbnb apartments, then the rent really goes up in the whole area, so the people who are actual residents of this neighbourhood are forced to move away. It’s not happening just in Mexico, but everywhere. So what’s happening to our cities? Are we finding solutions for tourists at the expense of actually displacing our locals?
This brings me to my next question. Space is created not just through the process of building and constructing, but also by legislation. Should architects also be activists?
Yes, totally. And I think it starts by asking these questions that we were just talking about and reacting. If you have new schemes for receiving people in cities, like Airbnb, you displace the locals. That means the responsibility of taking care of that place – the cleaning, the cooking, the housekeeping – is being entrusted onto someone who doesn’t have the same opportunities. These people wouldn’t have a fixed salary, they don’t have social security, they don’t have their taxes paid on a regular basis. It’s all very informal.
Your mentor was architect Mauricio Rocha, and you’ve previously mentioned that one of the things he taught you was to stay true to your values, to be patient and to remain resilient. In your career, what’s been your most trying time?
I think that happened right after I moved to Mexico, after doing my masters at Harvard. It was difficult to come back. I had just finished what was my first public commission, though it wasn’t as visible yet, and it was hard to find a new commission. It was hard to say no to all these offers for designing new apartment buildings, or stores, or things like that, which I really didn’t believe in.
I chose just to do small things, and at one point, I had to close my office and let everyone go. There were three people, including myself. I ended up alone in my kitchen, it was tough. But I learnt that you have to lose the fear of just being you. What matters is not having a big office with commissions that keep you afloat, because there comes a point where you don’t get to choose your projects any more. Understanding that became a liberating moment for me. Okay, maybe I don’t have a big office, maybe I don’t have 40 employees, but I’m doing exactly what I want to do.
by Regner Ramos
From Glass Magazine – Issue 35 – Autumn 2018
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