When Gabriela Carrillo became the first architect in her family, she didn’t feel that anyone had guided or influenced her professionally. But over the years, she realized the important role both of her parents played in her calling. Her mother worked as a flight attendant for Aeromexico, traveling all over the world and accumulating books, images, clothes, all kinds of objects, and, most importantly, retelling stories about the distant cultures she had encountered. And Carrillo’s father, a geologist, spoke endlessly and in detail about the characteristics of rare stones and always liked to point out the particularities of the topography and vegetation of a place when the family went on vacation. The architect still collects unusual stones wherever she goes. To this day, every time she starts a project, she recalls her parents’ enthusiasm for exploration and experiences.
All these memories became quite vivid when Carrillo worked on her father’s house in Acapulco, Casa Piedra, which was finished in 2020. The site was special; he had chosen it for its unusual accumulation of large rocks, which he wanted to preserve. When the territory was cleared, they discovered a grouping of stones gathered around two massive boulders positioned in a beautiful tension to each other. The main common space of the new house was placed directly over the larger of the two rocks to capture the most intense winds on the site. The house was designed as a precise response to the site’s rocks, winds, trees, and ocean views. Many of those decisions were preconditioned by what the architect had learned from her father since she was a child.
Gabriela Carrillo was born in 1978 in Mexico City. She started working with one of the country’s top architects, Mauricio Rocha in 2001, two years before graduating from UNAM (The National Autonomous University of Mexico). They formed a partnership, Taller Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo, in 2011. In 2017, she decided to restart her career as an independent practitioner by founding her own studio, Taller Gabriela Carrillo. Two years later she also co-founded a design collective, Colectivo C733, with a focus on fast-track public projects in the most vulnerable areas across Mexico. The architect has been teaching at her alma mater and lecturing frequently around the world. Architectural Review named her the 2017 Woman Architect of the Year and in 2020 Architectural Digest Mexico honoured her with the Architect of the Year award.
In the following interview, Mexican architect Gabriela Carrillo talks about learning from her parents, her new sensibilities as a young mother, working on public projects, being attentive to people’s concerns, the need to keep rediscovering what architecture is, and discovering her own voice when designing the Casa Piedra for her father.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You once said, “I want to do the kind of work that puts questions on the table.” What kind of questions do you try to address in your work?
- Gabriela Carrillo
Throughout our careers we’ve been taught to produce good answers. But ever since I became a mother, now raising my seven-year-old son, as well as going through all kinds of crises, such as the 2017 Puebla earthquake in Mexico, I realized that it is by far more important to raise relevant questions than to come up with good answers.
I’ve been working on public projects since my student days. That work allows me to see how our society has constructed all kinds of segregation and discrimination. Our diversity, which I find beautiful, is not recognized; there are so many boundaries. Our cities are built as patriarchal constructs following a specific point of view and with various privileges reserved for those who can afford them. So, in many of our projects, we question their accessibility to the public and why everything needs to be sold only to those who can pay, for example, for baseball game tickets. I want to be sensitive to communities, places, and climates to put all kinds of questions on the table; they should be a part of our architecture.
How was your experience at UNAM?
It was the best time of my life – from 1996 to 2003, and I started teaching there the same year I graduated. So, I never left UNAM. [Laughs.] Prior to that, I studied at private schools only. But when it was time to apply to a university I wanted to go into a public school, especially since I believe it is the best university in the country. It is a truly democratic institution. It was also important for me to better understand my own country and our diversity because architecture should be about creating a dialogue with the community, as well as with a specific site and culture. And UNAM gave me that. Anyone in Mexico can study at UNAM virtually for free. Students come from very different backgrounds there. This is where the son of the president and a worker’s son may sit next to each other and they are treated equally, which is beautiful.
UNAM gave me my first working opportunity; I worked for Alberto Kalach for one year. I did an internship in Puerto Rico. And I started working with Mauricio Rocha during my final year. Many of the projects I worked on there were real projects. It also opened the door to becoming an academic. I’ve been teaching there for 15 years, which enabled me to maintain a continuous dialogue with students and professors. It is a great learning platform that provides opportunities to collaborate with other institutions and academics. Then in 2019, the university invited me to develop a selection process for public urban environment projects in vulnerable towns all over the country for the federal administration, The Mexican Secretariat for Agrarian, Land and Urban Development, referred to as SEDATU.
After working with Mauricio Rocha since your student years and forming a partnership with him in 2011, you founded your own practice in 2017. What was this transition like?
It was a privilege to work with Mauricio for so long and we are still working on some projects that continue to be built. Over the years we developed very similar views and a very close friendship, which is, of course, ongoing. But I grew up – I think [laughs] – and I became a mother, which changed so many things for me. The 2017 earthquake changed my priorities as well. I discovered many more opportunities for doing architecture more collaboratively and primarily based on research. I don’t want to only talk about what I know. I want to learn from the design process itself. I used to teach what I knew and have done in my practice, but since 2017, I am much more focused on accumulating new knowledge. I don’t want to only talk about what I know, I want to grow, and that’s the main reason for starting my own firm.
You also co-founded Colectivo C733 with several other partners. How do these practices coexist?
I prefer a hybrid scenario of working collaboratively. Colectivo C733 is a team of 20 architects and designers headed by four firms: my own practice, Taller Gabriela Carrillo; LABG, headed by Eric Valdez, a structural engineer; the office of Israel Espín; and TO, a duo-practice run by Jose Amozurrutia and Carlos Facio, my husband. We all work in our own spaces and at our preferred pace. There are projects we do collaboratively and there are projects that we do separately. And we discuss all our projects. We have very fluid borders. We didn’t imagine it was going to last but we work well together. We do fast-track projects all over Mexico. In the last three years, C733 completed 35 small projects – sports and education facilities, markets, community centres, and cultural buildings. My own firm now numbers 10 people. We work on designing houses, boutique hotels, and commercial projects, and we do independent research.
Where does the name, Colectivo C733 come from?
From our first collective competition submission. The participants were asked to submit entries anonymously under the code title made up of one letter and three numbers. “C” stands for Colectivo, “7” for logic, the first “3” for efficiency, and the last “3” for the economy.
Is there one particular building which you designed that led you to discover your own voice in architecture?
That would be Casa Piedra, which, for the first time in many years, was not developed in dialogue with Mauricio. Of course, the project was influenced strongly by my father and my younger brother, who acted as the developer for the property. I would also include Matamoros Market, wherein I felt full liberty to explore new ideas. It was the first project by Collectivo and it was a fresh beginning. We tried to express our own voice right from the start to find a new way of doing things – differently and in our own way. It was a point of assertion for us.
When last we spoke five years ago at your studio in Mexico City, you mentioned that your students did not pay enough attention to ideas – that they were influenced almost entirely by images. What is it that drives and inspires you?
At this point in my life, I have to say it is my son, Paulo. I follow his interests and curiosity all the time. Then it is all about investing time in discussions and creating dialogues. Before it was a lot more about producing work and projects. Now it is about the process itself – sharing thoughts, spending time hearing other people, and serving them, and not acting; I am being more mature. I sit back and let other voices be heard.
When you talk about your architecture, you use such words as provocation, emotion, passion, sensitivity, deep silence, balance, dignity, connection, voidness, informalities, randomness, geology, freedom, light, gravity, melancholy, reflection, movement, architecture as articulation, and a garden instead of a building. What is architecture for you?
I am not sure anymore! [Laughs.] I think I have the answer but every time I think I know it, I discover something new. I like all the words you selected. I would put all of them together without hierarchy and say – that is architecture, at least for now. Additionally, it is important to question the way we live, question our confidence, and our attitudes toward our planet. I am concerned about what kind of planet we are going to leave to our kids. I always ask how my buildings, however provocative and beautiful, are going to be built. What is going to be their impact on the environment? My working tools were always sun, shadow, wind, and echo. Now I am more focused on how buildings impact the climate and place. And why not ask this question – Is building a building the right answer? Or should a garden be created instead? That’s also architecture to me. Or promoting the public transportation system instead of building something. It is all about proposing how to inhabit a space in a different way. All of that is a part of what architecture should be about.
Speaking of your work, you have said, “There is so much noise around us. I think what is important for us is to create a sense of abstraction. The provocation is to search for a meaningful silence. And in addition to space, light, and materiality, we also work with such elements as shadows and wind.” How do you typically start the design process?
Of course, I am interested in discovering new possibilities in relationships between the body, the eyes, the mass, and the void. But there is so much more.
First, you must understand your territory. And I love the idea of understanding the site from a distance – in the future, in the past, far away, up close, not just placing my eyes on the site by undertaking various analyses. I want to engage with the community. The idea is not to invade but to accompany a process and be a part of the process. Find ideas that are not obvious and propose provocations. Research can lead to the realization that your site may be underwater in 30 years and you must respond not to what is there now but to what will be there in the future. The process is all about gathering information, materials, etc. Only then do I start drawing by focusing on what’s important. Then it is about selecting, editing, and refining. I can draw endlessly.
Then there is a construction site, which is a great inspiration for my thinking process. In so many places once the construction starts you can’t make any changes, but in Mexico, you can. It is a great opportunity to see and adjust the lighting conditions. Once a week I am at one of my construction sites. These visits make my projects better. I learn from my mistakes all the time.
You have said, “I want to make strong buildings.”
Of course. To me, strong means a building that has an impact, that makes an impression. I want my buildings to be like works of art. I want them to be silent, abstract, removed, timeless, and, of course, strong. For sure, I pursue that. And again, that could also be achieved with a garden. A garden can be a building. What matters most is that any building should be pursued with a strong will and great care. Buildings should not be timid. I believe in the power of space.
At the same time, you love doing ephemeral architecture. Doesn’t ephemeral mean the opposite of strong?
No! Not from my point of view. [Laughs.] Because something ephemeral can be strong as well. What I meant is that there is a place for materials that are intelligent and delicate at the same time. We don’t need to use concrete all the time. Why not incorporate a thatched roof made of dried palm leaves if it makes sense? It is ephemeral, it lasts only seven years and then you need to redo it. But it is a mistake to use only materials that are “permanent.” Such materials talk about the place, culture, climate, and memory. And we have seen all those failed modernist buildings with flat roofs that hold rainwater for years and windows that face south and don’t open. Alternatively, we need to learn from intelligent vernacular architecture. We should be smart, not strong in an institutional sense.
You’ve expressed a desire to make gravity feel light. What does that mean for you?
I am in love with that. This is where we can place our talent and use geometry to our advantage. There is beauty in that – structural intelligence, proportions, use of scale, weight, and the appearance of lightness. I believe in architecture that can be magical. My favorite places in the world are the Zen gardens in Kyoto. There you observe these stunning compositions of stones and sand and you ask – Why is this so powerful and emotional?
Another thing I believe is that tension and void are as important for us as any material. Tension is the most important tool for any composition whether locating a project on a site or placing elements in relation to each other. And everything needs to be tested. Tension, scale, and relevance are very important. I learn from some of the most amazing artworks. James Turrell’s spaces are very inspiring.
You have also expressed the idea that you are “fighting.” Is architecture a fight for you?
I think it is. It is also a playground, for sure. And it is very personal. I am very critical of myself. I am always questioning. And I am always fighting for the things I believe in. I am a fighter but in a productive way. And I fight with myself because I question whether I am right or not. And you can never be sure. Architecture is so complex, not because you need to solve problems but because so many issues must be addressed and gathered into a single work, a provocation, and an expression of many ideas. But you must take a position.
Mexican architect Gabriela Carrillo is engaged in projects of all kinds – from the institutional to the ephemeral.