Last month I went on an enlightening trip to Mexico City, during which I had a chance to meet with half a dozen leading Mexican architects and critics. Those meetings included insightful conversations with Miquel Adrià, Tatiana Bilbao, Victor Legorreta, Mauricio Rocha, and Michel Rojkind among others (many of which will also feature in future installments of City of Ideas). I asked them many different questions, but two were consistent: “who would you name as Mexico’s best architect at this moment?” and “what one building built in the capital over the last decade is your favorite?” All of my interviewees pointed to Alberto Kalach (born 1960) and his Vasconcelos Library (2007). My Conversation with Kalach took place the next day after visiting the library on the rooftop of another one of his iconic buildings, Tower 41 overlooking Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s Central Park. We spoke about books, libraries, and his idea of buildings as inventions.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You once said that “verbal constructions about architecture are boring” and that “architecture should be read in the drawings.” You don’t think architecture should be talked about or explained, if not to others, at least to yourself?
Alberto Kalach: Did I really say that? Of course, I like talking about architecture. I love how Victor Hugo talks about Gothic architecture in his Notre-Dame de Paris or the wonderful stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. But I don’t like how architects talk about architecture. I don’t find it very exciting. Yet I love architecture in the literature of Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, and so many others.
VB: This building here, Tower 41, where your studio is located, is very unusual, as it is the tallest in the neighborhood. But once you get in, you don’t feel like you’re inside of a building at all; it is a garden on the ground floor, another one on the roof, and there are seven spacious double-height open-plan floors in between, each facing the city and park. I understand that you own this land and proposed to a developer to build a commercial tower here.
AK: Yes. We occupy one floor and several other companies such as an architect, editor, and insurance company have one floor each. The footprint of the building is very small. It made total sense to have a garden in place of a usual enclosed lobby because by the time the space was allocated to the elevator, stairs, circulation, and underground garage entrance there was not much left for rent. It would be very greedy to try to find a few square meters to rent. So on the bottom we only have a garden and a small reception area. The roof garden is open for everyone to use as an amenity. Imagine if all rooftops in our city were green!
VB: Your Vasconcelos Library is a fantastic microcosm. The building, which is hardly a decade old, has this power of obscuring time; it sends you into both past and future – only in the future can spaces be so generous and full of light – and the past because the building’s structural elements are reminiscent of such venerable engineering marvels as Brooklyn Bridge and the Eiffel Tower.
AK: You could say that. You are referring to the tensile structures of the building’s roof.
VB: This building is a result of a competition and you said that as a contestant you have to make a statement to grab the jury’s attention. You mentioned that the idea was to make a gallery space where one could see all the books, all the knowledge at once. Could you talk about the main concept? What models did you have in mind?
AK: Architecture is made up of different building types such as towers, museums, or houses. A library is a type. There have been many iconic library buildings built throughout history. Ever since I was a student, a library was a dream project to me, and if you analyze libraries built or imagined in the past, you will see the two basic types. One type is a labyrinth such as the very complex labyrinth of hexagonal rooms described in Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel. It is a library in which you get completely lost. And the second type is the 18th-century Enlightenment model proposed by Boullée as a single vast space with endless stacks of books that would contain all the knowledge. To be honest, the Borges type of library is more attractive to me but we wanted to win the competition, and for that reason, a public building has to be transparent and full of light.
VB: In other words, you wanted to use both models.
AK: Of course. Therefore, the building we proposed was to have a single space. We used the image of Boullée’s vaulted nave space to create a single space in the building and we used the bookshelves themselves to create various atmospheres along the visitors’ paths in that single vast space.
VB: Let’s talk about your inspirations and where they come from – art, architecture; where else?
AK: Well, in the beginning there are no inspirations. Initially, there is a response to a specific problem. How do you put together a particular program with the required amount of spaces? How do you marry the spaces and program with the site? How do you fit into the given budget?
VB: And you expect me to believe all that? What about an idea coming from an architect before any of those pragmatics come into play? Let’s go back to this building here. It didn’t start with the program or the budget, or any of that. It came from you – you had a vision of a tower and only after that, you started searching for a potential client or developer.
AK: But this building started with a program as well.
VB: You just said the program could be anything. Every floor is an open space.
AK: You know, architecture is related to the pragmatic world.
VB: But it is not the pragmatics that lead to architecture and you are the best architect in the country! Everyone told me that. You know, I’ve been interviewing architects for the last 15 years and we never used to talk about pragmatics. Since the 2008 economic crisis and critics’ newly assumed agenda of criticizing anything that may be remotely interpreted as individualistic and artistic, I need to spend one hour talking about pragmatics before you tell me how you really think.
AK: But it is true, architecture always came out of particular human necessities... Well, if you conceive a column simulating a palm tree, that’s a different story. Sure, architecture can be inspired by a painting, a story, a film, and so on.
VB: So what were the inspirations behind this building here, the Tower 41?
AK: Out of real necessities! I used to have my old studio here on this land, which I own and I had no work at the time. I thought – if I rent this space out, all I could get would be $2,000 USD per month. That’s not enough for me to live. So I researched what would be the maximum height that I could build here, which is eight stories, and I decided to propose a project that could attract other businesses. Obviously, I wanted a good project to work on, but at that point, there were no inspirations other than introducing the gardens on the top and bottom, opening views on the park in front of us, which is directly to the north, and opening to the south – to have sun in winters. Closing the east and west walls to make them part of the structure, using diagonals for seismic requirements, and here you have a tower, which is the expression of its place and structure.
VB: You said that there is not a single way of doing architecture; there are many. Which way is yours? What is the intention of your work?
AK: Well, I don’t like to work much, so I try to solve a problem in a very direct and easy way. [Laughs.]
VB: Let’s rewind a bit. Do you honestly think that your library is a direct way of addressing a problem? To me, your space is incredibly complex.
AK: As a result, yes. But conceptually and structurally it is not complex at all. If you take a section through the building practically at any point, they are almost identical. There is a lot of repetition there with certain elements being added or subtracted. It is an apparent complexity. But it is not nearly as complex as works by Carlo Scarpa or Frank Gehry. Anyway, I am fond of different approaches in architecture. There should be as many different architectures as architects, I suppose. Just as every person has a different face, every architect should have a different way of doing architecture. That’s very enjoyable to have many different expressions.
VB: I think that’s the intention of every architect – to find his or her own expression or voice. So what is your intention?
AK: Distinction is not my intention at all. I don’t think architects should be concerned about having different styles, as people are not concerned about having different faces. You have the face you have and you do things the way you do. Architecture should be about expressing structure. When you visit ruins, it is the structure that’s left; the rest is gone. I find that very appealing about architecture. And thanks to our climate we don’t have to worry about insulation, and I don’t worry about decoration either. I like to leave buildings undecorated. I always like to show how my buildings are built. Nothing is hidden. You can learn a lot about buildings that way.
VB: Are there any particular concerns that you would like to share?
AK: I am concerned about housing projects. Carlos Zedillo (Head of the Research Center for Sustainable Development of the Mexican National Workers' Housing Fund Institute—INFONAVIT) said something quite fantastic. He said that 80 percent of construction is housing; if we address the look of just this one type of buildings, we will change the look of our cities. The question is – how do we make social housing attractive?
VB: Luis Barragán said, “You should design houses as gardens and gardens as houses.” And I read that after you built your own house you realized that you wanted to be a gardener. Could you talk about that?
AK: It was an exaggeration... I remember spending months building a house and then once the plants came everything changed. It was extraordinary. Architects should give the same importance to buildings and what’s around them. A garden should be thought of as an extension of a house. Gardens enhance architecture; they keep growing and extend the life of buildings. I like that.
VB: I heard you visit Barragán’s last house, Casa Gilardi, often. How important is that house to you?
AK: It is true. That house is important and Barragán is very important to me. He was very conscious about things that were forgotten in architecture. And it was understandable that they were forgotten because the mainstream of architectural thinking in Europe was about how to rebuild Europe after World War Two. The concerns were about building social housing. Le Corbusier said, “A house is a machine for living in.” And here there was this guy, a provincial aristocrat from Guadalajara, who was interested in the work of garden designer Ferdinand Bac. He was writing beautiful stories; he was friends with artists. He was in another world. But he reminded us about the mysterious qualities of architecture and that architecture can be about such feelings as silence, serenity, intimacy.
VB: Do you remember how you discovered his work?
AK: I first saw his work published in the catalog of his show at MoMA curated by Emilio Ambasz in the mid-1970s. I have bought that thin book at least ten times; every time someone “borrows” it from me, I have to get a new one. [Laughs.]
VB: MoMA staged The Architecture of Luis Barragan in 1976. When I asked Ambasz how he discovered Barragan, since his catalog was the very first book on Barragan’s work, he said that there were publications on his work in local magazines. So it is curious that you discovered his work through a book published on the occasion of his exhibition in New York. Was he really unknown here before then?
AK: He was not that unknown, but he was not taken seriously. The mainstream architects here in Mexico used to say that he was into scenography, not architecture. The show made him known. Ambasz discovered him. The opinion of his work changed immediately.
VB: In one of your interviews you said something very interesting: “I believe that once buildings pass a certain volume and scale, they tend to be more autonomous, less integrated with their landscape. The building lifts off the ground and becomes an absolute invention. The greatest ideas in architecture are the ones that break from their context.” Could you talk about this idea of architecture as an invention?
AK: I did say that. I suppose an invention is a state of mind. There are just buildings and there are inventions. Falling Water is an invention. The Guggenheim is an invention. Ronchamp is an invention. Crown Hall by Mies is an invention.
VB: Your library is an invention.
AK: My library is an invention. Yes, sometimes you can invent things. [Laughs.]
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.