After graduating from Tecnológico de Monterrey, a leading technical school in Mexico, Francisco Gonzalez Pulido worked on design-build projects for six years before leaving for the US where he earned his Master’s degree from Harvard’s GSD in 1999. The same year the architect started working with Helmut Jahn in Chicago where he stayed for 18 years – from intern to becoming the president of the company in 2012, at which point he renamed the firm into Jahn. By then he developed his own body of work there. Last year Gonzalez Pulido started FGP Atelier in his adopted home city.
Today the studio, counts a dozen of architects and is overseeing the design of a couple of high-rises in China, a baseball stadium in Mexico City, and university buildings in Monterrey, among other projects. The following interview was conducted at FGP Atelier in Chicago, during which the architect was explicit about transmitting his view: “Architecture is too rigid, too formal. It is time to break free…I want to build lighter. I want to build smarter.”
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Why did you choose to work for Helmut Jahn to begin with?
Francisco Gonzalez Pulido: I was particularly interested in working for someone in America with European background; it was the idea of combining American Pragmatism with European idealism and sensitivities. The fact that he was in Chicago was secondary. What was particularly important to me was Jahn’s symbiotic collaboration between architecture and building technology. His collaborations with leading German engineers Werner Sobek and Matthias Schuler was how every major project would start; they both would come to the office to discuss all issues at hand from the very beginning. We would all be sitting at one table, ripping apart all ideas and working on developing a project in the most symbiotic way. That became my school.
VB: What was it that you learned most from Jahn over the years?
FGP: He has a tremendous work ethic. He is relentless in search of the “perfect” solution and has a tenacity for solving problems. He would sit for hours and draw endlessly, from the biggest building to the smallest detail, although our processes are different. He would sketch dozens of variations and ask to build dozens of models. And the whole office would be spinning. I am the opposite. I would be incubating the idea and only when it is complete in my head would I sit and draw that one version. That’s it. I don’t need many options. Listening to one’s instinct and the clients’ voice is critical in this process. Like Helmut, I also sketch a lot but only once I know the direction I want to take. In architecture, formulas require iterations, while concepts require maturity.
VB: What was the main reason for starting your own firm?
FGP: Well, I believe that the way we build buildings and think about them is archaic. I just came back from Venice Biennale and it occurred to me that all the work that I saw there by our most established architects is the least interesting part of the show. And the work of the emerging architects is no less than remarkable – the way they are building and thinking. The current theme Freespace is perfect because I think that’s what we, young architects want – we want to be free. I think the building industry and our current methods of construction are very limiting, and so many architects are only using what the industry wants us to use. We only design buildings the way we know. I think there is technology out there that we haven’t explored yet. I want to build lighter; there is a lot of sustainability in lightness, which is about less of everything – to minimize, to simplify, to refine.
There is no limit in searching for technological improvements and push the boundaries of systems and materials. I believe in ephemeral space and how magically buildings could transmit daylight. I want to build smarter. We should bring more intelligence into our work. Imagine starting inserting chips into various construction parts! I like this idea when we could start building out of such parts that we could easily take buildings apart like a kit of parts and build them somewhere else.
I believe in flexibility and adaptability. I am interested in the idea of using a single material to build systems that become buildings. In that sense the manufacturing industry is by far more advanced and interesting than the construction industry, but all that is about to change.
VB: You seem to embrace this idea that buildings are no longer built to last for a long time.
FGP: I think it is a wonderful concept. I think there is a lot of ego in our profession. But why be so concerned with building monuments? The world is moving so fast and architecture does not keep up. I like the idea of elastic space. There is so much wasted space in our buildings and apartments. I always get irritated about how much space a bed takes. Imagine how our spaces could be transformed! Or, how walls and furniture could be moving, folding, disappearing…I don’t like the idea of permanence and these ideas that a wall is just a wall, or a window is just a window. In the future building elements will become more hybrid. Why can’t glass be structural?
In our newly founded atelier we constantly discuss possibilities with our engineers. Over the years, I realized that the architecture we have been doing is too rigid, too formal. It is time to break free, not in a formalistic way but in the essence of things.
VB: If we look at the projects that you did already since becoming independent, is there one particular building where you succeeded at expressing these ideas?
FGP: That would have to be the Diablos baseball stadium that I designed in Mexico City in collaboration with local architect Alonso de Garay and that is now almost complete. It is everything we wanted it to be – porous, transparent, light. It is a kind of building that dissolves into its environment and it is the environment that becomes more important than the building. The idea was to display all the vivid materiality of Mexico, particularly its colors and materials. But I also wanted to take technology and precision to a new level with the stadium’s daring and innovative roof structure.
Another building would be Tecnano, a Nanotechnology lab at the campus of my Alma Mater, Tecnológico de Monterrey. The building represents the future of progressive Mexico, so I wanted to design and engineer its structure and skin in the most advanced way possible. I also wanted to do a vertical LAB that would be distinguished for its interconnectivity, simplicity, and project a sense of community. As a result of this project, I was commissioned to do two more buildings on campus.
VB: Could you elaborate one of your statements: “In the mind of the architect the work never ends. It is a kind of responsibility without limits – doing the right thing by breaking all the rules. There are no preconceptions, there are no predeterminations. Each project is gestated and destroyed in itself through self-determination.”
FGP: What I fight for in every project is the building type. I don’t like thinking about my projects as an office tower or an apartment building. I like to break expectations and stereotypes. The idea of becoming an expert in producing a particular type is unsettling to me. I want to understand the relationship between function and architecture. I don’t want to adapt a nine-meter structural grid for an office building just because it has proven logical for projects in the past. Instead, I want to relate to local context, culture, history, climate, and so on. I don’t want to start with a module or a grid. I want to get rid of the grid. What I look for is freedom to respond in relation to specifics of each project. I don’t like when things are predetermined. I like architecture to be open. This is what I mean when I talk about self-destruction.
I love to learn from projects that opened up possibilities and destroyed all preconceptions, especially such buildings, in which people appropriated spaces in ways that architects themselves never even thought about. Think how Pompidou Centre in Paris by Piano and Rogers or HSBC Headquarters in Hong Kong by Foster transformed urban space around them. Or Foster’s recent Apple Store here in Chicago with the use of structural and virtually seamless glass where inside and outside have become almost imperceptible. Freedom that architecture can bring to our cities is what I am after, not a banal image in the sky. We need to go beyond what we know and imagine new ways that space can provoke.
VB: You said, “The places we travel to and the places we come from are becoming more and more alike.” As an architect what can you do about that?
FGP: It is true; when I travel I no longer see the difference between so many buildings whether I am in Shanghai, Dubai, or New York. They have the same attitude. They look and feel the same. My solution? I am against exporting architecture. But most importantly, we need to pay attention to the ground floor. This is how our buildings can have a true urban impact. Forget about the skyline, the real experience is on the ground. If we focus on that, every city will have a different experience and, as a consequence, a terrific skyline. We have put up too many walls and barriers! Imagine if our cities were less of a fortress!
It is not about putting buildings next to each other like trophies in Dubai or Las Vegas, but about creating urban spaces that could be so engaging and even entertaining to navigate. Think of Hong Kong; what a pleasure it is to get lost in that city’s network of streets and alleys, stairs and escalators. What a great place to explore by foot!
VB: In one of your interviews you said, “When I came to Chicago, it was the boldness of its past that attracted me. And with few exceptions; it troubles me to see what is getting built these days and how little it contributes to enrich not only the image, but most importantly, the life and experience of the city.” Could you talk about this idea of building meaningful architecture?
FGP: Yes, Chicago has a number of very bold buildings. We know them – buildings by Mies or John Hancock Center by SOM and structural engineer Fazlur Khan. The city was one of the leading centers of steel production in the world and these buildings represented this reality. That linkage of the place and architecture is very powerful. But how do you continue to find true identity of a place? So many of our new buildings could be built anywhere. We put too much attention to the façade. Buildings should tell the story of how they are put together. Orientation is important. Buildings must be meaningful, not willful. They should push innovation, explore ideas for how they can be accommodated or even repurposed in the future.
VB: Among your projects many are towers. Do you have a particular vision for the future of a skyscraper?
FGP: I did many towers in the last 18 years and now I am designing two – one in Shenzhen of 200 meters and the other one in Guangzhou – 320 meters. I think developers must push further when it comes to promoting the idea of a vertical city. Right now, so many buildings go for pure extrusion. And let’s be honest, we haven’t really created a true vertical city yet, despite the fact that cities like Hong Kong, New York, or Tokyo have real opportunities for that. Towers with more than two functions are considered to be inefficient.
But cities have a responsibility to push developers to layer complex programs and bring public spaces up into towers. Imagine if cities allowed developers to build higher in exchange for opening up and democratizing these towers.
VB: In conclusion, if you were to use single-terms to describe the kind of architecture that aspires you, what words would you choose?
FGP: Ephemeral, open, democratic, anti-political, honest, scientific, precise.
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 originally 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.