LIMITED EDITION COVER: The Designer of the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion, Frida Escobedo
On the occasion of the opening of the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion this week we're publishing the full interview between Frida Escobedo and Eva Munz, with the special limited edition cover shot by Dorian Ulises López Macías. Only 200 copies exist, grab them here if you’re based in the U.S. and here, if you’re based elsewhere in the world.
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Frida Escobedo is a woman of voracious intellectual appetites. The 39-year-old architect quotes Octavio Paz, revisits Mexico’s bloody student massacre, examines domestic power struggles, and contemplates the passing of time with grains of sand. Her protean portfolio includes the renovation of a 1950s hotel in Acapulco, a temporary pavilion at London’s V&A, store designs for the cosmetic brand Aesop (including a New York pop-up that used the aforementioned sand to express its temporariness), an extension to the museum of late Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and several social-housing projects, to name but a few. Escobedo is also a sought-after fixture on the biennial circuit, having exhibited in Venice in 2012 and 2014, at the Lisbon Triennial in 2013, and in Chicago in 2017, often with large-scale installations that seek to engage the public. This summer she’s building the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion (in fact, it’s opening this week and you can read our review here): not only is she the youngest to do so but also the only woman going it alone since Zaha Hadid kicked off the annual London event in 2000. Aligned with the Greenwich Meridian, Escobedo’s proposal for the Hyde Park site is made of dark, latticed cement tiles, encloses a shallow pool, and is overhung by a curved reflective canopy. Light and shadow chart the passage of time in a structure that offers space for both privacy and projection, a recurring theme in Escobedo’s work and an aesthetic principle which, she explains, is deeply rooted in the Mexican psyche. Despite her many achievements in little more than a decade, the soft-spoken academic is a powerhouse of understatement, favoring contemplation, discretion, and patient archival research over trumpet-blowing, gigantism, and spectacle.
You’re very good at breaking glass ceilings, proverbially speaking. This year you’re the youngest architect ever to design the Serpentine Pavilion, plus you’re a woman.
It was very surprising for all of us. When we first got the invitation we were like, “Really?” This is such a young office. I do believe that I have the best team on the planet though! And I have to thank them for helping put this together. We were very aware that this is an exercise which has been attempted by some of the most famous architects in the world. We tried to free ourselves of that heritage and do something which expresses the spirit of our office and the way we deal with everyday life. We’ve done temporary structures before and it’s great to experiment — you can do things you can’t do with permanent, larger-scale architecture which requires more time, money, and people. It became a question of the meaning of temporality. We were discussing the idea of origins and the context of absorbing time. How could we make that visible in the pavilion? We always use these very simple raw materials that can be found everywhere.f
Like cement roof tiles.
Yes, very common things that we reinterpret and adapt a little. When you have these ordinary elements that create texture in the façade, you don’t really need finishes. You save money and end up with an interesting facade that moves with the sun. This is something we wanted to play with, one aspect of this duality. The other was to anchor the pavilion in its location. What does it mean on this site in the middle of London? How could this aspect of origin in the context of absorbing time be reflected? London is where the Prime Meridian is located, in Greenwich, a virtual line that defines the way we move and trade around the entire globe. In terms of economy and social time we depend on a very abstract thing.
An invisible construct.
Yes, and this invisible line dictates a lot. Our pavilion is square in plan and is offset so that it lines up parallel to the meridian. It’s very subtle and yet it recognizes the idea that this is how we live and experience time. But we also knew that once the installation in Hyde Park was over the pavilion would move to a more permanent location. Could its materialities absorb that shift from one context to another? What would it look like if it went from Hyde Park to Norway, Japan, or Mexico?
How has Mexico City informed your practice?
I think one of the things that’s most informed my work is this idea of constant change. You can see it everywhere in additions and renovations here in Mexico City. This form of overlap can’t just be put down to our being mixed as a country — it came well before that. Mexico City is built on top of a lake! We put artificiality on top of nature. It began during colonial times, then you look at the modern city, and all you see is these constant juxtapositions. I think that this is really in our heads every time we approach the design of a building: we know that it’s never going to be finished, it’s going to evolve, change, and shift. Therefore it needs to be flexible and fluid.
Things literally shifted here recently with the powerful earthquakes in September 2017. The city is still heavily marked. Do you factor that drama into your work?
As an architect, especially in Mexico, making a building solid is one of our primary preoccupations. But here’s the contradiction: it needs to be stable, but at the same time it has to be impermanent, both aesthetically and in the way it’s going to be used. It’s that Janus-faced situation, a play between something that holds, that is strong enough, but also flexible enough to accommodate new needs and adaptations. Perhaps a family that used to live in a very big house in the 1970s and 80s divides the house for the three children and so on. And then we have this idea of property, which is deeply embedded in our system. Mexicans prefer to own a house rather than an apartment. You have to own the land. They also want privacy and not to be seen from the outside. We tend to project a different personality to the outside world than to our close circle of friends. So these kinds of dualities and interactions are very interesting.
You’ve built a remarkable number of projects and won quite a few awards in very little time. I’m always interested in the unrealized projects, the “failures.” Or does that not happen to you?
Oh yes, there are quite a few! I mean that’s the way this craft works. There are these ideas that you test, and the first time around you fail, but when you revisit them, they get better. Every project informs the next.
What are the most recognizable elements of a work by Frida Escobedo?
That’s a tough question. We always try to resolve problems with very simple forms that provide room for the program to expand. For example the civic stage we made for the Lisbon Triennial was a very round platform. A simple shape that served several programs: a theater, a round table, a gathering space, a beach, a place of interaction. It needs to be simple and just one thing, one idea. I think it all starts with curiosity. Why is this specific color very present in certain areas of Mexico? Why do people do their windows in this fashion and not another? When you start asking these questions you start reading a story, and that story tells you about social dynamics, about economics, about family constellations. You start to see that the aesthetics retell a kind of story. There’s absolutely no good or bad taste. Still, I find it gets more and more difficult to find something that’s really interesting. What is really telling a story? It’s different every time and it usually starts with a conversation with my team. Let’s say we’ve been commissioned to design a house. We ask ourselves what that house means. And then we look at images. But if someone says something like “I read this book with this fantastic story about a cabin in the forest,” then the reference becomes literature. Or someone might show up with a stone they just found. These elements can really change the direction of a project. Sometimes the solution lies in other architectural references. Sometimes we turn to art, especially if we have a client who worries about style. In other cases we examine domestic arrangements, the relationship and dynamics between the particular people who will live in the house. Not just the family, but also the people who work for them. What does that mean historically? Where are they? Are they visible? What the filters are depends on the project. For some private commission we don’t know what people are going to react to — we have to play it by ear, cross our fingers.
One of your first projects was the renovation of the Hotel Boca Chica in Acapulco. How did that come about?
A friend of mine, José Rojas, was invited to renovate this hotel. He’d just completed his master’s degree and said he needed some help. I totally loved it. We would take these road trips, dive into the old Acapulco and really just absorb how Mexican Modernism has been adapted out there. Rather than the usual industrial approach to Modernism, it’s very tropical and crafty. Everything was handmade and kind of wild. Acapulco is a very intense place.
It’s also considered very dangerous.
Well it’s in the state of Guerrero, which, as the name suggests, is a warrior kind of region — a hot spot full of people with fiery tempers. That’s also very palpable in the aesthetics, which are not particularly soft and nice. Everything is very dramatic there. (Laughs.)
You’re winning a lot of competitions against male architects. Is architecture still a macho profession?
I feel the difference. People still resist commissioning a woman, especially if she’s young. That combination is particularly problematic.
Triply problematic, I imagine, when you’re also good looking.
Oh yeah, then she must’ve been doing something. (Laughs.) That can be a problem. At the same time some people say being a woman offers more opportunity these days. You’re needed to represent a minority in the field, and as a result you get invited to certain things. I feel like I’m in a moment of transition, where I’ve gotten chances because I’m a woman. But compared to those a man of my age and my education would get, they’re very few.
Are you saying women are favored for the wrong reasons?
I’ve received invitations to be part of a jury because they needed a woman in the jury. That is bias as well, but it doesn’t outweigh the rest. So there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. From my generation onwards we will see a lot more female-led offices. Before there were practically none. I’m talking about women who are leading alone. That doesn’t mean I don’t value the work women do in partnership with men, but I feel these women are always eclipsed by the men they’re working with.
Do you think a woman brings a specific sensibility or method to architecture?
I’m not sure. Not too long ago, I was having dinner with a group of friends, all architects, both women and men. The men were discussing a building, a very tall tower in the city. They were talking about how incredible it was and were really excited about the height and everything. They all agreed that the tower was a dream commission. They turned around to get my take on it, and I said, “No, for me it really isn’t a dream commission.” Because it isn’t. I found that revealed how sensibilities differ in terms of what we consider important. When I talk about a dream project, it’s not necessarily something big or spectacular.
This makes me think of Jeanne Gang’s amazing Aqua Tower in Chicago. She basically built a giant phallus right in the heart of the city. That’s not on the top of your list?No, not on my list! (Laughs.) I understand that it can be something amazing, because you're changing the face of a city, which is exciting. But to me it’s not something that I’m actively looking for. If it happens, it’s great, but small can be more powerful. Lately I’ve really been enjoying doing things for the public. I like the idea of being able to read the environment, to create something that resonates with other people without actually talking to them directly. Having a conversation without actually having it. That, to me, is magical. You do something in a public sphere and then see kids running around enjoying it. When they say it’s great, that’s when it works.
How important is scale with respect to living spaces?
We were just talking about that at lunch. All the things we accumulate! Do we really need all that? Do we have to live in a house we bought? You buy a house and in the end you spend six hours a day there. You work somewhere else, you spend time driving to and from the house, you eat out. On weekends you go to your other house. There’s this idea of what comfort is and then there’s the idea of status. Both define the final space. I think that creates a new kind of ruination in the city, a lot of voids. Spaces which aren’t lived in but which are pure speculation, showing off rather than being practical. I want to see that become more balanced.
When you were studying architecture, who inspired you?
I received a state scholarship for young creators from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, and spent twelve months being mentored by Mauricio Rocha. It was only a year, but enough time for him to become a powerful figure for me. His approach to architecture, his ideas and suggestions, had a big impact. Most of all the idea of patience, of waiting and not trying to do too much. He always talked about how it was better to leave things out than to overdo it. This game of patience really left a mark. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Slow down, slow down. Later, when I did my master’s degree at Harvard, I took a class with Erika Naginski. She completely shifted the way I think and see the world. She changed my life. Her class was called “The Ruin Aesthetic,” and it was a complete revelation. She explained how aesthetics can tell you so much more than just the physicality of the objects and their obvious history. It has to do with your own projection onto the objects and the process of that transference. How you add to it, this idea of becoming. That really opened up my world. The object is always becoming, just like you, who is also always becoming.
This is a concept that was quite prominent in the summer pavilion you created for the V&A courtyard in 2015. The structure was like a mask you superimposed on the space, and it worked both as a screen to project upon, but also a screen to hide behind. Very Lacanian.
Ha! That’s a great way of putting it. The V&A commission was to create something for the Year of Mexico in the U.K. It sounded like building a national pavilion for a world’s fair, which is not something we were very keen on doing. We wanted to show the Mexican character without doing folklore. We had to challenge ourselves, that idea of who we are — what describes us, our personality, how we behave. There’s an essay by Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), in which he explains that the Mexican identity is all about the mask and its intricate layers of simultaneous concealment and exposition. It’s almost like a game. The Spanish word is disimulo. I don’t know if there’s an exact translation — it’s not dissimulation, hiding and pretending. Disimulo is more about being discreet, being polite, kind, and warm, but at the same time it’s about creating distance to protect yourself. This produces a tension between your public and your private persona, the one you show only to your intimate circle. The mask allows you to be extroverted like the typical Mexican, super happy and festive, because you’re safe. It’s an illusion, but the illusion is just another face, a mask you produced, so it must be real, too. Is it an illusion or is it this idea of becoming?
In 2008, at the very beginning of your career, you were invited to take part in the curious Ordos 100 project in Inner Mongolia, which was curated by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei. It must’ve been some sort of architectural performance spectacle.
It was really a bizarre experience from the moment we got this email from Fake Design saying we’d been invited to design a villa in the desert. We thought it was spam. And although in a way it was a joke, the trip was very interesting for me. I was the youngest in the group. We travelled to Inner Mongolia and discussed the existential question of what a house should be. Although the conversation was very rich, we weren’t talking about something that was real. It became this simulation of an architectural discourse, a discussion about what a private house should be, how specific, how aesthetically unique. We soon realized that none of this was ever going to be built, and I was relieved, because the whole undertaking was more effective as a discursive experiment than as an actual project resulting in buildings. One of those “failures” you mentioned from which I learned a lot.
The process turned it into a success.
Totally. Getting to know 100 incredibly talented architects from around the world, hearing their ideas about what domesticity means, was worth the time and energy expended. It was the first time I questioned that idea. The villas we were asked to design were so big that we were supposed to equip them with two kitchens. Why? One kitchen was just for the domestic workers, where the actual food was going to be prepared. The second was where the food was going to be presented. So this idea of domestic theater emerged. It was my first window into this type of home. I realized that by doing these two kitchens, we as architects were promoting these types of relationships. We’re still thinking about that dilemma, it keeps us focused.
You’re also developing projects that intersect with art.
We are currently working on the public sculpture Estacióone # 16, which is not strictly architecture. It was inspired by a massive monumental sculpture by Olivier Seguin, which was among a series of 22 works by different artists commissioned for the 1968 Mexico Olympics under the title La Ruta de la Amistad. We reinterpreted it for the Biennale d’Architecture d’Orléans in France. Back in the late 1960s there was a lot of social conflict here in Mexico. The Olympic games — an expression of established power structures — collided with the student movement which culminated in the Tlatelolco massacre in October that year. We were interested in the idea of political spectacle.
What about the sculpture attracted you?
The Biennale d’Architecture d’Orléans is organized by the FRAC Centre-Val de Loire and they have an amazing archive, a vast collection of utopian and experimental post-war architectural projects. The title of the 2017/18 biennial was Walking Through Someone Else’s Dream. They wanted to build this relationship with the archive, examine how a new commission could converse with the pieces that they already had or pieces they might acquire. At some point we were pulling out these little contact sheets documenting the construction of the Ruta de la Amistad sculptures, including Estación # 16. It was just a flimsy metallic frame before they covered it in concrete. The pictures showed a very delicate setup of the wood, the metal, and the people working there. In our research we discovered that this sculpture was actually dedicated to France. And we thought, “Well, it was presented in Mexico, let’s bring it back to France.” So, based on the archival pictures, we just stripped the sculpture and presented it as an open structure, the bare bones of the original framework. It became kind of playful. Then the funniest thing happened. We were looking for the sculptor — we wanted to find his original plans and documents. Olivier Seguin was French, and it seemed like he had been working in Mexico for some time, but then he disappeared and not even the French embassy could tell us where he was. One day I got a call from the FRAC and they said, “You know, we found Olivier Seguin. Turns out he’s living in Orléans!” Unbelievable! They got in touch with him. He’s 96 years old now. He shared his archive with the FRAC and we managed to have a conversation with him. It was one of those moments where you knew this had to happen — the whole story just came full circle.
Interview by Eva Munz.
All portraits by Dorian Ulises López Macias.
Collages by Tyler Mariano and Hyosun Kim.
Taken from PIN–UP 24, Spring Summer 2018.