Until recently, Mexican architect Frida Escobedo (b. 1979, Mexico City) was known for her temporary and small-scale built projects, primarily for her much-celebrated Serpentine Pavilion — an atmospheric courtyard assembled out of seemingly floating cement roof tiles — that graced the London’s Kensington Gardens in 2018. That all changed this March when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art picked her to design its new $500-million modern and contemporary art wing, 7,435 square metres of galleries and public space. The commission has given her a chance to become the most prominent living Mexican architect. Before it is realized sometime in 2029, New York will acquire yet another one of her substantial projects — Ray Harlem, a 21-storey mixed-use development on the corner of 125th Street and Fifth Avenue comprising apartments, artist studios, and co-working spaces on top of the National Black Theatre — for Dasha Zhukova, an entrepreneur, collector, philanthropist, and a trustee at the Met. The Harlem building is expected to be completed in the spring of 2024.
The architect graduated from Universidad Iberoamericana in 2003, the year she and her classmate, Alejandro Alarcón started the design practice Perro Rojo. Their first completed project was Casa Negra, built in Mexico City in 2004. In 2006, Escobedo restarted her career by founding her own namesake architectural and design studio. She kept it running while pursuing her Master of Architecture at Harvard’s GSD from 2010 to 2012. Since her graduation, she has pursued a double career — as a practitioner and an educator, currently teaching at Yale. Her other most distinctive works include the Echo Pavilion at the Museo Experimental el Eco in Mexico City (2010); the restoration of La Tallera, a cultural centre in Cuernavaca, Mexico (2012); and the Civic Stage for the Lisbon Architecture Triennale (2013). Recently, we discussed Escobedo’s Mexican roots, her ways of working with modular materials such as a cinder block, and how she conceives architecture as a language and a sequence of moments. We also discussed how she examines hidden choreographies of domestic labour to better understand the social and economic disparities within buildings and cities.
The first architectural exhibition you ever visited featured the work of Emilio Ambasz, whose approach to architecture, you have said, was “almost surrealist.” Ambasz is also credited with discovering Luis Barragán by bringing his exhibition to MoMA where he was a young curator in the 1970s. Is Barragan’s work an influence on you?
Definitely. For most of us Mexican architects Barragan is a strong reference and inspiration. Not only because we studied his work at school but because he was able to condense many aspects of Mexican architecture. He is the architect of the spatial experience. If you look at his house and studio in Mexico City, which is open to the public, you will see how he was always engaged in adjusting spaces — trying to change the depth of a window or the height of a wall. He was preoccupied with creating very intriguing illusions to enhance certain perceptions, such as the thickness of a wall or how interior space merged with a garden. He was a master of creating theatrical spaces through a sequence of experiences. That’s very different from how many architects approach their work — as objects. In my opinion, architecture is so complex that it can only be perceived as a sequence of moments.
You started practicing architecture immediately following your graduation from the Universidad Iberoamericana in 2003. Why did you decide to go into practice right after your studies without apprenticing first and what made you go back to school — to obtain your master’s degree from Harvard — after having already built some successful projects?
In Mexico, graduates are not required to apprentice before they start practicing. I think apprenticeship is a very good and solid path to becoming an independent architect but that’s not enforced here. In my case, I was invited by Alejandro Alarcón to work on an apartment renovation in the summer of the year we both graduated. And then, before we knew it, we had another commission for a friend of ours: Casa Negra. Finished in 2004, it became what I consider my first built work. Then it was one project after another and a lot of hard work, but I was very determined to make it work. The first three to four years passed very quickly, and then I started applying for grants to sustain the firm economically.
What substituted a traditional apprenticeship for me was a mentorship program: “Jóvenes Creadores” [Young Creators], with Mauricio Rocha as my tutor. We had a series of discussions and he always told me that I had to be patient. To this day, I keep that advice in mind. Soon, I started doing competitions for public spaces here in Mexico, and I also started teaching at Universidad Iberoamericana. I had to be very flexible and creative to maintain the practice and open myself to various possibilities of what the architecture could be.
By the time I had been working for seven years, I got a bit tired of pursuing work. And that’s when I found out about the Art, Design, and the Public Domain program at Harvard. I did my master´s from 2010 to 2012, while keeping a couple of projects in Mexico, so I never really paused my practice.
Tatiana Bilbao once told me that architecture is not about making a building but about building a community.” Do you share this notion?
Of course. And I understand why Tatiana said that. She is particularly conscious of this by working a lot on housing projects both in and outside of Mexico. I think she is talking about the need for architecture to create the possibilities for establishing human relationships within buildings and with neighbourhoods.
You, yourself, have said: “Architectural design is not enough. Sometimes as designers, we are just following that and that’s why cities can become so flat and so boring. Good design is not just about the final details of a space.” Could you elaborate?
I think we architects forget that design starts way before we start designing buildings. Cities are being planned, codes are being written, politicians introduce their policies, developers make their plans and decide on where and what needs to be built, financial decisions are being made, and so on. So, we are, in a way, responding to capitalist forces; we are very dependent on capital. That’s what I mean when I say architectural design (in the stereotypical sense) is not enough. But maybe it could be the other way around: an architectural intervention could question many of these forces and unleash new alternatives to create space. What if architects could participate in policymaking and not simply follow it? Could this be considered architectural design as well?
How do you implement these ideas? Do you ever initiate projects yourself?
No, I don’t. But many Mexican architects do. I am not that financially savvy to play the role of a developer. Perhaps I could learn how to do that in the future. Being a designer, what I try to do is not simply accept a program handed to me. I question it first. I always try to rethink the objectives given by the client. I try to rethink how the square footage required by the program can be more efficiently distributed, not in financial but in social terms. For example, working on the Mar Tirreno housing complex in Mexico City we used cinder blocks. Relying on such a basic and economical material allowed us to rethink what would be a typical multi-storey housing block into a series of duplex villas with private courtyards.
You often work with cinder blocks, roof tiles and other modular materials. Where did this idea come from originally? And could you explain your design process?
Most directly it comes from an economy of resources. I think this idea originated for me in one of my earliest projects, an interactive exhibition at El Eco Museum in Mexico City with a field condition of cinder blocks, originally organized on a perfect grid with a multiplicity of expressions that the visitors could rearrange in their own ways. I saw that exercise as concrete poetry (minimum of words, maximum of expression) and it inspired me to experiment more with very simple elements.
The idea came directly from the geometry of the museum’s building, which was designed by the German-Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz. He conceived it as a poetic structure, a living sculpture. So, when I was asked to do a pavilion there, the last thing I wanted was to compete with the building. I rejected the idea of designing a pavilion as an object. To me, the space itself was already very powerful. That’s why I created something very subtle, like a field condition. I would compare my intervention to a role of an editor; the idea was to underline or punctuate certain words in a great text that was already there. In a way, his concrete poem embedded a multiplicity of meanings and my role was to highlight some of them.
I am interested in emphasizing the passage of time, I like the idea of temporality and the role of memory, and how architecture becomes a series of snapshots of very specific moments in space and time. I see architecture as a vessel for experiences and memories — a living vessel that changes and evolves continuously, and therefore, it cannot be read in a single way. Ever since the El Eco Museum project, using simple, affordable materials is a constant in many of our projects, such as the Serpentine Pavilion, La Tallera and Mar Tirreno.
You have noted that the aim of your Serpentine Pavilion was to reference the courtyards that are a common feature in Mexican residential architecture and “to frame these with a reinterpretation of the ‘celosia’ – a breeze-block wall that allows light and the breeze to filter through.” Do you actively try to reveal signs of Mexican identity in your architecture?
Yes, absolutely. Being a Mexican architect, this is entirely natural to me. Like everyone, I absorb ideas from my surroundings and Mexico City is a huge influence on me — the way we build, the kinds of materials we use, how we play with the edge condition between interior and exterior, and the way we organize our collective spaces.
You also compare your architecture to a language. What single words would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture you try to achieve?
It’s a language that can be read and interpreted in many different ways. It’s a language that brings people together, produces identities, and generates relationships. It expresses meanings, but also emotions. It has different accents and different tones and can be adapted and transformed over time.
You once said that you have to pick your clients in a way that allows you to be yourself. Does this mean you have a personal agenda in architecture? What are you after?
I am not necessarily after a personal agenda. But it is always important to remember who you are working for. I am always attracted to those projects that teach me something. I want to work on projects that have bigger goals than just achieving revenue for my clients.
You’ve described Modernism as “responsible for the act of erasure of symbolism and both a reflection of social changes and inner life… It does not absorb the passing of time… Instead, it aims toward industrial production and neutrality.” Could you elaborate?
Well, that’s what was thought of Modernism, not what I think of Modernism. But these ideas that a perfectly executed glass grid of modern curtain wall could not express any kind of symbolism or the passage of time are not quite true. I think they can also express temporality and symbolism if we pay close attention, you know?
What do you think are the most relevant questions that architects should tackle right now? What should they focus on the most?
There are so many urgent questions! [Laughs.] Let’s see. There is an urgency to seriously bring sustainability into the practice of architecture. We need to think constantly about how to optimize whatever we already have. How can we create opportunities for people who cannot afford most of what architects design? So much of our collective energy is spent on how to amass profits. We need to focus more on the use-value of architecture rather than on its exchange value.
You have described your students’ work at GSD as the “archeology of aesthetics” and “mapping traces of invisibility.” What are these traces of invisibility?
One of our research projects is about reproductive labour and how architecture conceals it. I am very much concerned with the fact that architecture often hides this aspect of life. For example, in many residential buildings, there are two realities — one is the life of the owners and their families, but there is also another type of a resident who is rarely recognized as such: the paid domestic worker. Their work includes maintenance, food preparation, childcare, elderly care, care for the sick, and so on. Oftentimes, these crucial layers of life are not represented; they are hidden entirely. We tuck them away as if they were a part of the infrastructure: hidden domestic quarters behind laundry rooms or kitchens, separate entrances, and separate circulations.
So, the task was to rethink such projects and analyze how these spaces function. This is important because it was just three years ago that domestic labour was recognized for the first time as formal work in Mexico. It was unrecognized before, and these workers were deprived of any social benefits from the state. But it is a huge part of the Mexican economy; in 2015, it was valued at 21 per cent of the GDP, higher than construction, mining or real estate.
In a way, you are saying that architecture conceals some of our societal problems. By exposing them, these realities can make us aware, understand them better, and integrate them not just visually but socially.
Sure. I like examining these hidden choreographies of domestic labour. To me, it is important because we can see a similar situation even on a city scale. There are neighbourhoods in Mexico City where public transportation is not provided because, in the eyes of some people who live there, it may negatively impact the appearance of “their” street. So, a big part of the resident population, such as paid domestic workers, are denied access to public transportation. Therefore, this attitude of hiding such auxiliary layers of life escalates to many different levels and is manifested in social and economic disparities.
The Mexican practitioner on architecture as an evolving vessel — and a way of changing lives.