Born in 1969 in Mexico City, Michel Rojkind was educated in the 1990s at the Universidad Iberoamericana, while also performing as a drummer in Aleks Syntek’s popular rock band la Gente Normal. He opened his practice Rojkind Arquitectos in 2002. Among his most representative built works are Foro Boca for the Boca del Rio Philharmonic Orchestra in Veracruz, a newly expanded film complex Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, a pair of factory additions for the Nestlé Company in Queretaro, and the Nestlé Chocolate Museum in Toluca, all in Mexico. We spoke about how his architecture engages with people, why architects should assume roles that extend beyond architecture, and the importance of generosity and not worrying about designing everything 100%.
The following excerpt from my interview with Rojkind completes a series of conversations that I conducted in Mexico City while preparing my exhibition “Something Other than a Narrative” from the Architects’ Voices and Visions series at Facultad de Arquitectura Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Could you talk about how your office operates?
Michel Rojkind: We focus on design strategies here. We don’t simply follow the clients’ briefs; we question their intentions and make many suggestions beyond architecture. Our most exciting project is Foro Boca, the new home of the Boca del Rio Philharmonic Orchestra in Veracruz. This institution was formed in 2014 and it never had its own building before. The new concert hall is situated on the coast, located right in the heart of cultural life of the city. The project is exciting because not only is there a concert hall for the orchestra, but it incorporates many different artistic programs such as a theater, rehearsal halls, cinema, and music library.
We also met with the local government and discussed rezoning of the whole immediate area, which will be influenced by the new building. So, our project grew into becoming a masterplan with a great impact on the entire city, which includes urban infrastructure improvements, coastal area refurbishments, and planning for increased density in the surrounding neighborhood. As the project is now built, we are also working on improving a much larger territory. We need to be mindful that architecture will not solve problems by itself. In other words, buildings alone will not solve anything. Architecture is just the hardware; there is still a need for software. Who is designing that?
Architecture is just the hardware; there is still a need for software. Who is designing that?
VB: You, as an architect, assume that role, right?
MR: Who else? Architecture must engage with people.
MR: Well, we make things more complicated. [Laughs.] We are not just architects here. We are bringing together such specialists as sociologists, anthropologists, financial advisers, as well as landscape, graphic, and industrial designers, and so on. Let me give you an example. When we worked on our Mercado Roma here in Mexico City, we were criticized for trying to do a contemporary version of a market, something that can be found in Barcelona or New York. We were told that here in Mexico markets already exist and they are what they are. But we started working on this project from inside out and not because the client asked me to, but because that’s how we work.
The idea is that we have to understand who the key players are or who might be missing and whom we need to go out and find. We knew we wanted to do a gastronomical market, so it was logical for us to approach chefs who would want to work there, and not just create spaces for rent. These collaborations stimulate our work. We like to be contaminated by other peoples’ ideas. The more I work with non-architects the more diverse and relevant my work becomes. I like when creative boundaries between architecture, industrial design, graphic design, and so many other disciplines dissolve. A project should be driven by the best ideas possible. Most importantly, if we share our knowledge, we will learn from each other and spark a greater growth. There is power in collaboration. Whenever I or any of the people who we collaborate with come up with a good idea, we immediately share that.
VB: Bringing these diversities you become more valuable to your clients.
MR: Precisely, because my clients can always hire another architect but if I am his advisor and thinker, and strategist, he wants me there. I am there to provoke his thinking.
VB: This is quite interesting how you flipped your role as an architect. For you designing a building is not enough. How would you then define your role as a contemporary architect?
MR: My role is to find, connect, and interconnect loose ends. If I say – I am an architect, all I want to do is to create a building. That only creates boundaries. As architects, we must blend in and dissolve; we must find ways to work with others. I call it co-responsibility. We need to find and bring together all potential stakeholders. There is a disconnect between formalities and informalities. Mexico thrives on informalities. It is beautiful – you see pop up informal markets and stores everywhere. We have this incredible vibrancy because we know that politically our system does not work so people constantly need to improvise and be very resilient to be adaptive to the circumstances and the city. So, when I have formal clients who just want to do a project I always try to provide a link to a potential informality. For example, when we were hired to redesign a local supermarket I proposed to the client to set up an informal market on weekends in place of their parking lot and see what kind of products people would sell there. Then the most popular vendors could be invited to the store and that’s how a strong link with the community can be established. Often these design strategies are more powerful than the physical appearance of a particular building. It is not that I don’t believe in the power of architecture on its own, but it could be so much more.
As architects, we must blend in and dissolve; we must find ways to work with others. I call it co-responsibility. We need to find and bring together all potential stakeholders.
VB: You feel you need to activate architecture, not just to make a building.
MR: Activate is the right word. I like that. And you know, because of our experience, sometimes we are invited to contribute as consultants by developing various design strategies. Once these strategies are defined, clients may choose to hire other architects for the project.
VB: You came into architecture from music. Do you think there is a tangible connection between music and architecture?
MR: Of course. It is true that both music and architecture have such common qualities as rhythm and repetition. But to me, the essence is somewhere else. I see all disciplines as boundless and interconnected. The point is that different arts and disciplines help your mind to expand, so you don’t see things only as an architect. You must see things as an architect, musician, citizen, father, friend, and so on. All these things will make you a better architect
VB: Why do you think this idea of being so prepared would make architecture better?
MR: Because you would be more open and not blinded by seeing things only the way architects see things. This is what happens to so many architects – they become so good at their work, they don’t see the world through other peoples’ eyes. I love discussing my work with people who are not architects. I need to hear their feedback. It will address more issues. It is important because the response of such people is not about architecture but about their experience, and isn’t it the experience that architecture is all about? The difference between music and architecture that I discovered was on the collaborative front. If a musician hears another musician playing music there is a natural draw to play music together. Architects don’t usually like to work together. Every architect is playing solo; that’s boring. It is changing, however. I try to change this around. Architecture should be an open source. I like to create environments where the voice of an architect is as important as the voice of a storeowner, chef, street vendor, or developer. That would produce more humane and robust places.
This is what happens to so many architects – they become so good at their work, they don’t see the world through other peoples’ eyes. I love discussing my work with people who are not architects. I need to hear their feedback.
VB: What would you say your work is about? What are the main intentions?
MR: Architecture is about translating certain needs of the client into a form that brings all these functions to life. But for me that’s not enough; architects are trained for that. We did that at school – we solved problems. I want more. I want to activate and interconnect spaces. For example, when we opened Cineteca National its attendance tripled and there are so many people who go there now for many more reasons than just going to the movies. People like the space and want to spend time there. Also, we, as architects, should not worry about designing everything 100%. We need to leave space for things to happen and let people take over. We can’t plan for everything. Societies change quicker than we think. What we can do is to let people use our spaces and learn from that to use that knowledge in our next project.
VB: As an architect, you always try to go beyond the scope. Doesn’t this mean that even before you know what the project will be about, you have your own agenda? What is it? What is there in you that goes beyond any given program?
MR: Generosity. Imagine if all clients were more generous to our communities by building new parks, providing wider sidewalks, and so on. We don’t have a good government, so we must find other means to improve our public spaces. Architects need to pick up where governments fail. Forget iconic architecture; I hate that. I only wish architecture would become iconic as meaningful places that make good social connections to local communities. Architecture should be about what it can do, not what it can look like.
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 nine books, including New York: Architectural Guide (DOM, 2019), 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: world tours of the work of Harry Seidler (since 2012), Emilio Ambasz (2017-18), Sergei Tchoban (since 2016), Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15), and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH. In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has lectured at universities and museums in more than 30 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest conversations with the most innovative international architects. Since 2002, he interviewed over 300 architects. These intimate conversations are featured in the curator’s ongoing site-specific installations made up of voice recordings and thought-provoking quotes.
Today, Michel Rojkind is widely known as one of Mexico's most successful, and at times flamboyant, architects of the 21st century. But in spite of his success, his path to architecture was never straightforward; before founding Rojkind Arquitectos, he spent over a decade as a drummer in pop-rock band Aleks Syntek y La Gente Normal, an experience which he actually credits with sparking his interest in architecture.