In the decade since the start of the financial crisis, there has been an explosion in the number of architectural practices that have pursued unusual and ingenious business models—among the most popular of which is the concept of the developer-architect, who serves as their own client. With his architecture firm and development company JSa, Javier Sanchez has been proving this concept since long before the financial crisis hit. In the latest interview of his City of Ideas series—and the third of his interviews with Mexican architects after Enrique Norten, Alberto Kalach and Mauricio Rocha and Gabriela Carrillo—Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks to Sanchez about the benefits of working as one’s own client and how JSa leverages its business model to improve the city.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You are often described as a developer first and an architect second. Is that accurate? How do you see yourself?
Javier Sanchez: Well, I started as a developer and I became an architect as a consequence. In fact, in the beginning, I only worked as a developer. Now about three-quarters of our projects are for other clients and only a quarter we develop ourselves. I think of development as a tool that enables me to do my architecture. This is what I learned directly from my father’s partner who, apart from heading their architecture studio, worked on small-scale development projects on his own, in partnership with investors. He was both an architect and client, which was intriguing to me. In a way, it was almost like being an artist, since artists don’t usually have clients. I like the idea that an architect can face himself and the project directly without having a client.
Of course, there is a challenge in producing a project that would be satisfactory to a potential buyer. Therefore, instead of relying on a client or design competition as a source for commissions I must keep an eye on the city, to look for opportunities in which architecture could happen. It is the joint effort of investor, builder, and architect that defines my work within the city. This way I can choose the kind of work I want to do and it is up to me to decide how many projects I want to work on at any given time. My architecture depends on my capacity to understand the dynamics of the city. In a way, I can influence the way my city develops. Still, our own development company is small and I don’t want to make it any bigger because I don’t want to lose control. I want to know my stakeholders and I don’t want them to take over my projects.
VB: Do you think, working both as a developer and architect, you enjoy more freedom than other architects?
JS: I’ve been working both as a developer and architect on some projects, and only as an architect on others, so I know the difference. Sure, being both developer and architect allows you to have total liberty, but at the same time, there are many restrictions. Still, as a developer I can choose to prioritize some of those restrictions and focus on particular objectives that I have as an architect. On the other hand, when I work as an architect only, I am able to discuss issues with my developers from the position of someone who understands development first-hand. Therefore, those collaborations are typically very effective.
It is an entirely different situation when you work as an architect for a museum board or hotel owner. It is always a challenge in those cases to maintain the project’s integrity. Of course, we would all like to do our projects in our own way, but at the same time it is this struggle and tension between the architect and client that often leads to a very creative solution. There are different relationships and opportunities. That’s why I like playing different roles.
VB: In a way, it is participating in design competitions that lets you be absolutely free. And occasionally, architects enter competitions not to win but to be able to do a project without compromise. Such projects may lead to new discoveries and they even may bring potential fame and clients precisely because of those new ideas that are expressed in them.
JS: Everything depends on the reality of each project. If your desires as an architect and the competition’s objectives are aligned, you obviously want to win. But you are right, there are situations when we enter competitions not because we want to win but because we believe in the idea itself and we want to include it in our portfolio. We have done it and every time we believed that we could win, even though we obviously disregarded certain required conditions. A project is always a provocation but at the same time, it is beautiful when it touches reality. I believe in building; I believe in architecture as a built form.
VB: I like how your work is described in your recent book. It says that “you have a striking concern for building a city.” And that “you have a determination for building a city beyond the confines of the project.” Could you elaborate?
JS: We are trying to create new readings of the city. We know that cities are mainly made up of housing. It is the main ingredient. Yet, housing is private and you can’t really open it to the city. So within the boundaries of our own l projects I have been trying to create small urban systems that are more open than typical projects. I like those opportunities in which different properties share each others’ spaces or when you can go through the middle of the block – to enter one project and come out of the other. Today this is possible only if I initiate these ideas as a private developer. I like that and for that reason I often pick projects not just in the same neighborhood, but that are right next to each other. That way we had many opportunities for those urban experiments in which we were able to open up neighborhoods.
The city is not just about walking along pretty facades; we want people to go in and through, and explore the city from within to make it a more open, porous, shared, and ultimately safe experience. So much of Mexico City is about exclusion, fear, and barriers; those who have money are afraid and live behind very tall, secure fences. That is not the city I like. And I think that kind of city is unsafe. I think people need to understand that the more we open the ground floor to diverse functions to complement housing, the more interesting and safe it will become both for pedestrians and residents. The most democratic space we have is the sidewalk; we need to free up the ground floor and ultimately the city.
VB: Your father is an architect and your grandfather was an architect; was it inevitable that you would become an architect as well?
JS: I struggled with it. I wanted to do something that would be good for society. Early on, I wanted to work on inequality and hunger issues. At the same time, I had been working on architectural projects with my father for as long as I could remember and I really liked that. Still, there was a heavy legacy... I didn’t just want to be another architect in the family. [Laughs.] So right after school I decided to go abroad for a couple of years – to the US for one year and to Europe for the second year – to explore different ideas. I took all kinds of jobs just to survive. It was during those years of travels that I realized that what I really wanted to do was architecture.
My father has a traditional architectural practice. For a number of years he worked mainly for the government. That doesn’t really exist now. Today Mexican architects are mainly working for private clients. And because I didn’t want to go through the kind of suffering that he went through when he was looking for clients, I decided that I would be both architect and developer.
VB: But how did you come to the realization that it was architecture that you wanted to do? What did you discover in your travels that you did not see here in Mexico City?
JS: I liked order, safety...
VB: You wanted to turn Mexico City into the kind of city that you encountered in your travels.
JS: Exactly. And we already have an amazing city here. Look at our historic center and all the cultural sites! But most people no longer live in the city’s core. Still, in the last generation there is an interest in coming back to the city, so we are, in a way, rebuilding what we once had – the kind of city where you work, live, play, walk, shop, and so on. Mexico City is again becoming the kind of city that I saw in Europe. But I remember the time when most of my friends lived outside of the city in gated communities. I wanted to turn that situation around.
VB: Would you say that being both developer and architect is now typical for your generation of architects?
JS: It has become so in recent years, for sure. But even going back to Luis Barragán – as you know, he did some of his projects as a developer. So there was already this model in place that was abandoned and now it is a lot more common. Sure, architects don’t tend to be comfortable with being developers and in the beginning, I was a bit embarrassed, until I realized that it was my strength. Now I think the thought that architects can’t be developers is no longer valid because we proved that this model works.
VB: In one of your interviews, you said that architecture is a service. Do you really think so?
JS: Yes, I do think so. I don’t think architects should strive to be artists. We have to create spaces that work. We are like doctors; we need to be responsible and address people’s needs. We are ethically responsible. I am against the idea of building a building for the sake of its beauty or ideas only. Architecture must be necessary. Architecture that is not primarily a service is just a dream.
VB: You don’t think that architecture should at least strive to be art?
JS: I think it should strive to be art. And that is what makes architecture different from just another building. But I think that the focus should be on addressing real needs first. If the needs are satisfied and a building provides something extra, then it becomes more than just a building. Then it may be called architecture. Perhaps it should take time before a building can be recognized as architecture.
VB: What single words would you choose to describe the kind of architecture that you want to realize?
VB: Emotional... But before you talked about architecture being a service...
JS: Well, if an architect provides the client with beautiful sunlight in their house, then sure, that kind of architecture can be very emotional.
VB: Wouldn’t you say that beautiful sunlight is beyond just service?
JS: I don’t think so. Providing beautiful sunlight is part of the service. And to me, architecture is something that goes beyond a particular building. In my Soriano Museum in Cuernavaca, there is as much focus on the garden as on the building. Because the building is my job and the garden is that extra that makes the total project special. I am always interested in that extra that makes a building architecture.
VB: You teach here and in the US. Do you have a particular way of teaching architecture?
JS: I teach based on real-life experience and I use many of my own projects as examples. I also take my students to urban spaces and I tell them – let’s change the space, what should we do? Where are the projects? Let’s find them! We typically discuss Mexico City as the main case study.
VB: Why do you teach? What do you gain from that? I can only imagine how much valuable time you lose as a developer.
JS: Teaching for me is an investigation. Projects and ideas that I would like to do in real life I often first test with my students. I also share my experience with the students, which is important to me. And some of my students now work here with me.
VB: Is it important to you to align yourself with other architects? Do you want to fit in or would you rather stand out?
JS: It doesn’t really worry me. I like anonymity.
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.