As the son of famed Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, and now the leader of the firm which he joined under his father in 1989, Victor Legorreta is one of Mexico’s most visible architects. In this interview, the latest in Vladimir Belogolovsky’s “City of Ideas” series, Legorreta discusses the complexities of following in the footsteps of his father and how, in his view, good architecture is made.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: What kind of projects are you working on at this moment?
Victor Legorreta: We work on a variety of projects—about 60 percent are in Mexico and the rest are abroad. Mexico City is increasingly becoming a vertical city in its attempt to reverse its tendency of growing into an endless and dysfunctional sprawl. We are working on several mixed-use towers with retail, entertainment, restaurants, offices, and residential uses in a single building to enable people to find everything they need within easy reach, to lessen the pressure on traffic, which in the city is now among the worst in the world. We are also working with The Aga Khan Foundation on two projects—a university in Tanzania and a hospital and university in Uganda.
VB: Could you talk about growing up as the son of Ricardo Legorreta? Do you think you had no choice but becoming an architect?
VL: I am the youngest of six kids—three boys and three girls. I am the only architect. One of my sisters studied architecture but became a photographer. We lived in a house right next to the office here, so I was in the thick of architecture, and books on architecture, and design my entire childhood. Still, my father never tried to push me into architecture, and I was hesitating as well because I knew that people would always compare us. They could say—look, you are not as good as your father or something like that. [Laughs.] Then, I started liking it a lot, and when I decided that architecture was what I wanted to do, he supported me, of course.
In the beginning, I was a rebel. When I was at school, I resisted showing him my work. When I graduated he said “why don’t you start working with some of my friends?”
VB: Before you came to work for your father, you worked in other places internationally. I read that you apprenticed with Oriol Bohigas in Barcelona, Fumihiko Maki in Tokyo, and you also worked with Aldo Rossi. Is that right? How conscious were these choices?
VL: Well, I wanted to experience different cultures and because my father met so many architects around the world, I could choose places where I wanted to work. First, I went to Los Angeles to work for Leason Pomeroy Associates, then to Barcelona, and finally, to Japan. Unfortunately, I never worked for Rossi. I went to see him in New York where he had his office in the 90s, but at that time, my father received an invitation to take part in a competition for a Children’s Museum here in Mexico City, so he asked me to come back to work on that project together. He said that he didn’t have a team for that project, so he asked me to come and bring some of my friends to put together a team. I brought my friends and we won the competition. [Laughs.] The museum, Papalote Children’s Museum and Planetarium was built in 1993, and we were hired for its remodeling, in 2016.
VB: So it was a project that ultimately made you come back to work for your father. Was there a fear of being too much in his shadow? Because there was a resistance initially, as you mentioned.
VL: Yes. Well, my father was still quite young and he was open to new ideas. On the other hand, he had a very strong personality. He was dominating and he had his own ways of doing things. I was just 24 when I started working here. I was very excited and, sometimes, I would even do my own sketches on top of his, just to do some things differently. [Laughs.] Overall, we had a very good relationship. We worked together for about 24 years. Of course, in the beginning, he was making all major decisions because I was just a kid, but soon I began to be completely involved and became a full partner. At the end, our roles flipped. He became my mentor and advisor, while I started running the office. He worked here until the very end. I miss him being around and being able to discuss work and ask for his advice.
VB: How would you summarize his influence on your architecture and how did it affect your work?
VL: Of course, although it is not very popular to admit it now, he had a very strong and recognizable style of architecture. That, surely, influenced me, but what affected me a lot more is the passion he put into his work. Architecture was constantly on his mind, and he often worked on weekends. He devoted all his efforts and passion to work. He always tried to improve his work and he was open to new possibilities.
VB: Have you ever tried to invent your own distinctive style in opposition to your father’s?
VL: I never thought of inventing my own style, but I always tried to challenge what I thought of as my father’s architecture. I tried to use forms and materials that he typically avoided, such as curved walls, domes, or brick. He was receptive to my ideas. But I didn’t really want to do something completely different or my own signature style architecture; the idea was to open up possibilities.
VB: Your father was a disciple of Barragan but he never worked for him. What was the relationship like?
VL: They were very good friends. While my father was on the advisory board at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he suggested doing an exhibition on Barragan’s work. At the time, it was very unusual to focus on non-European or American masters. That was the show that was curated by Emilio Ambasz, after which Barragan became famous. But my father was more a disciple of José Villagrán García, a pioneer of the modern movement in Mexico who designed the Architecture School Building for the Autonomous National University of Mexico or UNAM. My father worked for him for ten years before starting his own practice in 1963. He met Barragan then.
Barragan was completely different. He didn’t study architecture; he studied engineering and he practiced architecture as an artist. He had great sensibilities and was a complete opposite from Villagrán who was very efficient and was advocating for rational architecture. Barragan was a true poet and romantic who would break at five o’clock every afternoon to drink tea and watch birds gathering at his garden fountain. And I think my father was really clever by taking something from both. He took discipline and organizational skills from Villagrán and great sensibilities from Barragan. And of course, he was also influenced by Mexican roots.
VB: Did your father and Barragan ever collaborate on projects?
VL: Yes, but nothing was ever realized. They once collaborated on a small fountain for a client who gave them carte blanche. It took many months for Barragan to come up with the design because he was constantly changing something. Finally, they went to see the client and during the presentation Barragan said that he was still not quite sure if he liked the result, so the client said—well, take your time and come back when you are ready. They never finished that project. [Laughs.]
VB: He was such a perfectionist.
VL: His intention was to create spaces to be absolutely perfect. He did mainly small projects but he succeeded in leaving the biggest legacy of any Mexican architect.
VB: In one of your interviews you said, “The most important thing for us is to create spaces that are able to trigger an emotion.” Could you talk about the intentions behind your work?
VL: Well, of course, architecture has a function. It needs to shelter us and protect us from the rain and wind. That is important, but what is even more important for architecture is to move you emotionally. Good architecture can be felt when you are inside the space—it makes you feel at home. Architecture is only good when it is able to transmit such feelings as comfort, serenity, calm. That comes with great effort. Architecture should evoke feelings and emotions. There are many architects who can do good efficient buildings, but that is not enough.
VB: You once remarked that “educating a client is nonsense.” Why is that? Wouldn’t you agree that an architect should always try to do more than what a client may ask for?
VL: [Laughs.] Well, you are right; it was not the right way to say it. What I meant is that educating a client is nonsense because it sounds very arrogant. It sounds like the architect knows more than the client does.
VB: About how to design a building—for sure. The issue here is that the architect may not know but by asking the right questions he will initiate the research, and the knowledge acquired in that process would be shared with the client.
VL: Sure, I agree with that approach. But to me, it’s important for every client to have a good relationship with an architect and even friendship. In my office, we learn from our clients. We want to know everything about our clients because that informs our projects. What I intended to say was that we, architects, need to design buildings that clients ask us to do and not tell them what we think they really want. There are architects who take advantage of their clients. For example, you may want to design a cylinder not because it would benefit the project but because you never used it before. Then the client would end up with that cylinder for the rest of his life. Architects need to understand that they design buildings for their clients, not to win a prize. The important thing is to make the client happy. Of course, any design process is mutually educating, and it should be mutually satisfying.
VB: It is also true that clients come and go but great architecture remains. If you had to pick one-word terms to describe your work what would they be?
VL: Emotional, happy, timeless, rooted in culture, site-specific.
VB: Do you have a secret about making architecture that would bring joy and happiness?
VL: [Laughs.] Well, what I would argue is that architects often try to over-intellectualize their theories about making architecture. I often wonder whether these theories come before or after the design is done. So I think, sometimes, architects take themselves too seriously. But at the end, buildings are for people. Buildings have to have solid thinking behind them and they have to age well. Having said that, I am also convinced that buildings have to have an element of surprise. They need to provide an emotional experience. Again, we should try not to be too serious about theory behind buildings.
VB: Wouldn’t you also agree that for people to be happy within buildings architecture needs to, well, step back, disappear. Is making people happy the right goal for architects?
VL: Well, what I know is that good architecture should not be imposing; it should not make people uncomfortable or restricted. Architecture should make us happy, comfortable, safe.
VB: I think architects and clients do have different goals and it is that tension and the architects’ determination to challenge their clients and conventions that lead to the kind of architecture that is both intellectually and emotionally adventurous. Happiness is a relative term. Does the fact that someone is happy inside a building make it good architecture? Do you equate comfort with good architecture?
VL: Yes, comfort is an important quality of good architecture. But for sure good architecture goes beyond comfort. Good architecture is about enjoyment. Good architecture is a kind of place where you want to keep coming back.
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.