As part of a generation of designers that have, in recent years, put Mexico on the map, Tatiana Bilbao is an architect that is increasingly part of the profession’s global consciousness. But, while some Mexican architects have made their mark with spectacular architecture following the international trend of “iconic” architecture, Bilbao opted instead for a more people-focused approach. In this interview, the latest in Vladimir Belogolovsky’s “City of Ideas” series, Bilbao explains how she got into this type of community-building architecture, her thoughts on architectural form, and her ambitions for the future.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: The more I talk to architects of your generation or my generation, the more it becomes apparent that architecture has absolutely no boundaries. In other words, architecture is not just about buildings. More and more, architecture is about building communities.
Tatiana Bilbao: Absolutely. For me, that is the most important part of architecture. Architecture is not about building a building; architecture is about building a community.
VB: Was architecture something you were attracted to from childhood?
TB: Yes, since I was born, I think. [Laughs.] My father says I have it in my blood and I think it is true. My whole family are architects. My grandfather was an architect. Jose Luis Benlliure was my uncle. I think all of my cousins are architects. And my office, literally is my family business—my sister Catia Bilbao and my cousin Juan Pablo Benlliure are my office managers.
VB: So you really had no choice but to become an architect, right?
TB: Well, I resisted for a very short period of time. I was trying to be a rebel. So when I was 18 I entertained the idea of becoming a biologist. Then I went to Italy to study industrial design for a year. My roommate there studied architecture, so I ended up helping her with all of her projects. When I came back to Mexico I knew what I wanted to study.
VB: You started your firm with other partners, including Fernando Romero. Could you talk about those early days?
TB: We started our firm in 1998, right after my graduation. It was an interesting and important moment here in Mexico. It was the time when the economy suddenly took off. Before that, there was one financial crisis after another, several devaluations... In the 80s and 90s, it was impossible for architecture to emerge. In fact, it was hard to survive as an architect back then. This was the generation of Alberto Kalach and Enrique Norten. But by the time our generation was out of school the economy stabilized and Mexico emerged as a global player. It was the time when architecture became a trend globally (Guggenheim Bilbao was built). My generation capitalized on these changes. We were active and wanted to be independent. We didn’t know how we were going to do our architecture but the important part was to be a part of the global scene and to be open to all kinds of happenings in architecture, art, and culture in general. We organized exhibitions, invited important curators and architects to give talks and bring their exhibitions; we designed utopian houses for artists. We explored so many possibilities on so many fronts. That experience allowed me to understand what I really wanted to do in architecture.
Then I realized that I wanted to do something completely different from my partners. That was 2004; I started my independent practice with one fundamental idea: architecture should benefit every single human being on this planet. The benefit can’t be abstract; it has to be about the individual. I believe that architecture has to have an impact on a broad level and that’s why it needs to be thought of and conceived by many different people, not just the architects. Everyone should be involved—sociologists, philosophers, politicians, economists, designers, architects...
VB: Your office is located in the heart of Mexico City, a bustling metropolis but most of your work is elsewhere. Why is that?
TB: I love this question and I get asked this a lot. I was born in Mexico City. I love the city. I think it is one of the best cities in the whole world. You are right, we are a bustling metropolis and our office is right in the middle of it all on Paseo de la Reforma. I grew up very close from here. I wanted to be right here and that is the reason why we have a lot of glass here in the office. I want people who work here to be aware of the city and the reality that takes place around us every day. There are all kinds of celebrations, demonstrations, and cultural exchanges that take place right in front of our office. We need to be a part of the street. We need to be in this belly button.
Half of the people here are foreigners; that’s important to me. You asked me why we don’t have work in Mexico City. I don’t know and it is not because we are avoiding local projects. Currently we are working on about 20 projects, about half are in Mexico but not a single one is in Mexico City. But I always look forward to working on projects right here!
VB: You built projects outside Mexico, including in China and you travel and lecture internationally all the time. Where do you think you felt most energy and drive for innovation?
TB: Maybe it is a contradiction but I feel like the most innovative projects are done in Mexico, all over the country. What I like most is the innovation in thinking about how architecture is done. Perhaps the innovation is not in forms and materials; for those aspects, you may need to go to other places. But in general, Mexico is incredibly innovative. There are forward-looking projects that are being done in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tijuana, and other places. There is a lot of interest in innovation, particularly on the part of my generation and younger architects who are addressing issues of architecture that are sensitive to people. We are witnessing an interesting intersection of different interests in architecture—people I went to school with, we were on the tail of the generation that was fascinated by spectacle, whereas now the shift is towards social aspects; this mix is generating very interesting results.
VB: You just mentioned the spectacle. Are you still interested in that kind of architecture?
TB: Not really. [Laughs.] I was trained at a time when Mexico was on the verge of becoming global. We did what everyone was doing—the blobs. We were all preoccupied by the forms we could do and how we could amaze the world by building them. That’s how I can describe that moment. But little by little, I understood what architecture was really about, which was—people. Then everything flipped. No doubt, architecture’s aesthetics is very important. Beauty is important because it elevates our spirit. When your spirit is high, you strive to become a better person, of course. But to be spectacular and to be beautiful are not the same things. To me, there is a difference.
VB: You rarely build in Mexico City. Do you teach here?
TB: No, I teach at Yale. My students are in the US. I used to teach here in the beginning but later I was invited to teach abroad. Well, I think it is very important for me to teach abroad as a Mexican. There is very little knowledge about Mexico in the world and even in the US. We know so much more about America than Americans know about us. Mexican architecture has a very important legacy. It is important for me to make a statement about that and teach others about who we are.
VB: What is your particular way of teaching?
TB: I like to provoke, I like to extract ideas out of students. I like to explore many possibilities. I don’t direct students, I push them. It is often apparent that students like to do what they are told. But it should be the other way around. People should think and propose new ideas that would make our lives better. There are so many concrete ways to go about that. Utopia has died.
VB: Utopia is not relevant.
TB: Of course, not! We should not project the future, we should imagine the future. Otherwise, we are not going to get to where we want. Every semester is different. But I always provoke my students. For example, last semester I selected a site for them right here in Mexico City and I challenged them to design the place the way they see it in 2050. I asked them to think about the look of the place and architecture then, the role of public space, how community spaces can be reinterpreted, how social housing can be not just designed but reimagined, what will happen to parking garages, and so on. I like these provocations. We, architects, have to act with reality and with what we have today; but in the school, we don’t. That’s why I push them.
VB: What is your main concern in architecture?
TB: The first most important thing for a human being is to be healthy. The second—is to have a shelter. My concern is that architecture needs to be relevant. What can architects do? I think we need to understand that we cannot create the world. The world needs to be created by individuals themselves. How can we suit those individuals? My answer is that architects need to build a kind of architecture that would become a platform for people to create their own spaces and lives.
VB: This is a very admirable and ambitious goal.
TB: I know!
VB: If you were to describe your work in single words, what would they be?
TB: I can tell you the words that I wish others would use to describe my architecture; I don’t know if they do. But I wish my architecture to be human, social, individual, communal, and beautiful.
VB: You said, “Architecture should be amazing and surprising, but it does not have to be geometrically challenging.” Could you elaborate on this point?
TB: It all depends on the context. In my context here in Mexico, it is very difficult to challenge architecture geometrically and formally.
VB: But you are building your architecture all over the world, including China. They can do anything!
TB: [Laughs.] Anything! But I realized that it is not necessary. I come from Mexico and I know that you can do really beautiful, stunning architecture without challenging gravity, without reinventing the geometry of basic forms. I believe in doing architecture in a very direct and pure way; it is much easier to communicate my message that way. When architecture is direct, it is easy for everyone to understand it. Architecture needs to include other people; we, architects cannot do architecture by just thinking about ourselves.
VB: You said, “I believe that architecture is not a profession. I am an architect. It’s like being an artist. You don’t work as an artist, you are an artist.” Would you say that you are not just an architect? There are other ambitions, right?
TB: No. I don’t think so. I am an architect because I need to redefine what architecture is. As an architect, I need to work with many other professionals to develop and build architecture. Sure, I am against the idea that architects would just spend all their time at their desks. So I am doing many different things but I am still an architect.
VB: If you could meet any one architect from any period in history for a conversation, who would that be?
TB: There are so many! You mentioned earlier Piranesi; of course, I would love to talk to him. I would love to talk to Mexican architect and urbanist Mario Pani who built the apartment building where I live with my family. But if I had to pick just one architect that would be Lina Bo Bardi.
VB: What question would you ask her?
TB: I would ask her about her biggest motivation for becoming an architect and what was the driving force behind her work. There was such depth in her work and thoughts. I read a lot about her and experienced many of her major works before she was rediscovered around the time of her centennial a few years ago. What is particularly important is that she was a woman and foreigner in such a male-dominated society and profession, especially back then.
VB: What is your motto?
TB: People first.
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.