Tatiana Bilbao

Orozco House-Observatory (Oaxaca, Mexico, 2008) © Tatiana Bilbao S.C.

You’ve said that your work is the result of the context that surrounds you.

My work is the result of the situation that surrounds me and the project, but not specifically the urban situation, or the urban situation in Mexico City. I work with the conditions we have. What definitely is present in my work is the translation of the way our society is and how we build.

And what is really the current urban situation in Mexico City?

It’s one that I like to be immersed in. My office is at Paseo de la Reforma, overlooking the avenue. Everyday, whenever I’m creating something, I need this urban presence. I think it is important to be part of it and that we are always aware of it. Unfortunately – or fortunately, I still do not know which – we have not been able to work in Mexico City for a while. At the moment we are only working on an intervention of 1/4 of an old building in the city. A very simple task.

But sometimes simple tasks can be more complex than what we think. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

It’s a big library complex that is designed to be in an old building – 18th century. We were appointed to design the offices for the people that work for the library system nationwide – around 400 people. It was a simple task because the building already existed and it’s listed so we could not do any major interventions to it. So, we did not have that many options. But yes, maybe for us this is a simple task. Making one option a great one for us is simpler. We always have many options and for us that is more complex.

Open Chapel – Ruta del Peregrino (Ameca, Mexico, 2010) © Tatiana Bilbao S.C.

Going back to the current situation of Mexico City, I recall Alberto Kalach telling me that for him the architects in this city “maintain themselves away from the big city problems, too worried in copying the latest international trends”. Is there some truth in this?

I definitely think that “our” generation is very far and away from the real policy makers in the city and therefore it “looks” like we are not conscious of the problems we have. I think that in general this is what it is. However, I think that there are several ways of addressing the problems of the city and, I think that in several ways our work addresses a lot of them. We are trying to build new, fresh, contemporary architecture in our country. Architecture that reflects our reality and we are trying to say that the trends in the world are not valid in our context. Not if you do not translate the needs and the conditions of it. This is why we try to build with the materials and in the way that our society is able to do, read and maintain. I think this is the way our studio addresses the problems of our society. That being said, I think that the urban research that we do shows that we are more interested in understanding the city. We do not know where this will take us, but we are definitely trying to propose solutions and address some of the city’s problems.

I was reading your words on how difficult it is to do something significant in the public sector – you really have to work with privates to be able to change – and I recalled an interview with Rem Koolhaas where he says that “we don’t work for the private sector anymore (…) Our connection with goodness has been cut. Before, we were on the good side. Now we are on the side that is more ambiguous. More individualistic. (…) Much less the sense of community.” Could we be going down a road that is dangerous?

I was referring that I left the public work and that I decided to build my own private office. And I did it because I realized that in the public sector I wasn’t going to be able to do any interesting work or anything that could really benefit society. There are too many political interests and it is very, very difficult to do anything. I think that in general, we as architects – and also as citizens – can do much more to our society if we work from the private sector towards the public sector. I think that when you are working for a private entity your interests towards public projects or policies are much less interfered with different political forces – necessary to work within the government – and I think we can really work for the only and sole benefit of society.

Of course that, once you’re in the private sector – and you’re hired to do private projects –  it becomes difficult to look back at public projects. But it is not our case. For one I think I have always tried to pursue projects that have a public benefit and we have worked on those a lot, like the Botanical Garden for instance.

Botanical Garden (Culiacan, Mexico, 2011) © Tatiana Bilbao S.C.

Your latest work is much simpler geometrically-wise. Did this happen because you felt it was a “misstep” to part in “uncharted geometry”? Van Gogh – as one of the best artists in dealing with color – only started using it further on. There was a respect for the color. For many architects, dealing with form is as fearful as an impressionist painter to deal with color.

For me it was more of being part of a generation that could not work with geometry… A generation that could only think on uncharted geometry. But when I worked with Gabriel Orozco, and we built his house, I truly got in contact with one of the most extreme cases in our context of how in the construction site, materials and forms need to be very simple in order to be able to work and finish buildings with a certain quality. Hand labor in Mexico is very cheap because it is not qualified. This has definitely several advantages, but also some restrictions. It is really hard to build any uncharted geometries or use any tech material that people have not handled with before. So, by then, it was very clear for me that we didn’t need to go in that direction. With the use of geometry we would do even more beautiful architecture than with the other uncharted one.

Also, there was something about being more honest with my education and my background. I have never been good with computers. I was not educated around computers, so these “uncharted geometries” we were doing were done in a very rudimentary way… We were making them with models and strange plans, instead of digital models and algorithms as they are supposed to be done… So it was really much easier to be honest with what I am, and with what my context was and with how my country is. In this way I think we can achieve much more with architecture.

House in Ajijic (Jalisco, Mexico) © Tatiana Bilbao S.C.

It’s curious that you mentioned the need of honesty in one’s work. Do you think that a creator’s character, moral, can be reflected in her/his work just as much as any other virtuous attributes or technical skills she or he has?

I think yes. You can see it. Not always and not so clearly, but you can definitely see it. And now I think you should see it.

The other day I was talking to a former teacher of mine about the humanization (or the lack of it) of some architecture. And I took as an example the work of two very well-known Swiss architects. Both technically impeccable, but only one of them could really transmit a sense of comfort and care for its users. The other – one could say – was too aseptic, too perfect. A human mind cannot live and work in such extreme conceptual spaces.

Our architecture is very different as we cannot achieve the same “perfection”. It is impossible in poorer contexts to build like that. So, in that sense, maybe this “not-so-perfect architecture” as we do is more human… I am not sure, because it depends on the eye. I think a perfect Swiss mind could probably live very happily in these “perfect” spaces. I think that in my society this would definitely not be possible. We are much more complex and chaotic and a perfect space such as that Swiss one could really be hard on the human mind. So, I am not sure we can generalize this idea. Sometimes I wish we lived in this type of society where perfection is not only pursued but achieved. But… I really love our chaos. And I work with it. Is this more human? Well… I think it depends…

Funeral Home (San Luis Potosi, Mexico, 2012) © Tatiana Bilbao S.C.

And how important is multidisciplinary thought in the success of your work? I believe that in some cases we as architects are taught to think primarily in a visual way. Maybe we can collaborate with an artist, or maybe we can research on sociology a bit, but we rarely go into things like psychology, or how we understand physical environments. Rarely do we appreciate how much other senses (besides vision) are influential in the understanding of a space.

For my work multidisciplinarity is vital. I think that now is the end of the era of the architect as the sole master minder who has disciples that helped him/her. I think that now-a-days it is impossible for me to think about the idea of working without a significant number of people – not only from different backgrounds but also – who are from other disciplinary areas. I think it is extremely hard to translate a context, a problem, a situation, and try to solve it only from an architect’s point of view and mind. To really serve the users – or the society that will be the recipients of it – I find this necessary. I think that now-a-days architecture is not the imposition of a building which is validated by the architect herself/himself, but a constant dialog with the users and with the society that surrounds the building. The validation will be given by them. For this, it is vital to have as much tools as possible in order to create an intelligent and coherent language that communicates with the user. To dialog… Funny, in our case we collaborated with a philosopher trained later as psychologist for the funeral house we designed. We thought it was vital to understand the issue and the ritual of death and without him it would have been impossible.

Would we bring up more interesting architects if the academic curricula was wider in knowledge range, or could this be a trap?

No, I think that we, as architects, should be more keen in working with other disciplines. But I do not think we should wider the curricula. In fact, I think that we should specialize more and work with more people around us, collaborate more. The society is individualizing us more and more. Let’s not do it ourselves.

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