Tatiana Bilbao’s architecture doesn’t wear its eco-consciousness on its sleeve: no obvious solar panels, no living walls or LEED certification plaques. On closer inspection, the 40-year-old prefers her ecological sensitivity to be revealed through a deep connection to Mexico’s arid landscape and its particular cultural conditions, whether she is building in her native country or in locations as far flung as an architectural park in Jinhua, China. With numerous projects now realized, including park environments, pavilions and a funeral home, her work shows an affinity for simple, rigorous forms that respond to their organic surroundings.
She and her team occupy an office on Mexico City’s iconic Paseo de la Reforma, and they are currently working on a dozen projects. While it might be difficult to describe a staff of 26 as small, the firm has preserved its intimate, collaborative approach to building and design. “If architecture needs to be understood and used by many,” she says, “it’s also important that the dialogue be set up by many people.”
Prior to forming her current practice, she was one of three partners (along with architect Fernando Romero) who in 1999 launched Laboratorio de la Ciudad de Mexico, an exceptionally creative studio and one of the country’s first contemporary architecture firms. It dreamt up such fantastical notions as a house that could be built on the moon, meanwhile nurturing a more realistic client base, including contemporary artist Gabriel Orozco. At one point, LCM proposed building a house for him, but the idea remained rooted in hypotheticals until he returned a few years later with his own design, inspired by an 18th‑century observatory he had visited in Delhi, India. He and Bilbao developed a cruciform dwelling, completed in 2007, with a deep bowl for a swimming pool suspended between four square volumes that contain the living quarters.
She is quick to point out that she was not calling the shots on the project, named Universe House. The architectural inspiration was Orozco’s, as was another fundamental characteristic, one that had a profound impact on her. Orozco had insisted on only working with local contractors. So she reverted to basic materials – just wood, brick, and concrete – and two shapes: a circle surrounded by squares.
The house marked a significant shift in her thinking, and a move away from finishing details and toward a more rigorous consideration of simple materials. “In Mexico, many labourers are untrained, which makes for a very flexible, creative way of working,” she notes. “It’s important to realize that as part of the design process.”
The house garnered international attention, which attracted new clients that helped Bilbao grow her firm to include co-principals Catia Bilbao and David Vaner, who moved from Switzerland to join the team.
With additional resources, the firm has continued to experiment with such vernacular
construction methods as rammed earth. Casa Ajijic, for instance, is a summerhouse in Chapala, Mexico, was built using 60-centimetre-thick reddish ombré walls made from a mixture of cement and compacted earth taken directly from the site. While the construction is labour intensive, the dense walls act as natural sound absorbers, and they save on energy by providing natural insulation from temperature extremes.
She points to a handful of projects defined by more intricate geometries – including a luxury house in Monterrey, Mexico, and an ongoing project at the Culiacán Botanical Gardens – but her most iconic work reveals a preference for deceptively unfussy shapes. For the recently completed Biotechnological Park, a university facility in Culiacán, Mexico, she composed the five-storey structure of rectangles stacked irregularly, one on top of the other, with their off-kilter positioning designed to maximize solar and shading strategies.
Even more stripped down is Gratitude, a monolithic open chapel made up of four slim
off-white pillars that rise out of a hillside along Mexico’s Ruta del Peregrino (“pilgrim’s route”), a 117-kilometre devotional trail through the mountains that is traversed by two million Mexicans each year. Bilbao contributed the chapel to the project, which she developed with fellow local architects Derek Dellekamp and Rozana Montiel, and which has brought works by other lauded local and international architects to the historic route.
On the books
“For the past two years, there has been a lot of construction, so I’m looking for a bit more balance,” says Bilbao, though the list of projects currently under way is impressive, including a music hall and sports arena in Irapuato that takes its inspiration from a nearby site of pre-Hispanic round stepped pyramids. The spiral building pulls four circles apart from one another, creating a dynamic non-concentric rings with an arena at its core, and restaurants and terraces in the pillows between. With a series of towers in Veracruz also in the works, she is hardly slowing down.
2012 Berlin Art Prize
2010 Work of the Year, Premio Cemex for Pilgrim’s Route
2010 Emerging Voices, Architectural League of New York
2009 Best of the Best, Red Dot Award, for Casa A, Ordos, Mongolia
2007 Design Vanguard, Architectural Record
Current Irapuato Spectacle Center, Guanajuato, Mexico
Current Culiacán Botanical Garden, Sinaloa, Mexico
2013 Parque Biotecnológico, Sinaloa, Mexico
2012 Tangassi Funeral Home, San Luis Potosí, Mexico
2011 Casa Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
2007 Universe House, Oaxaca, Mexico