Portrait by Kimberley Rabbitt
Agustín Hernández was born in 1924 in Mexico City. His father was a politician, his sister a famed ballet choreographer, and he became one of Mexico’s most dramatic and unique architects. His best-known buildings – the Ballet Folklórico, the Heroic Military College – are astonishing examples of what he has called “emotional” architecture. Tank spent time with him in his studio, Praxis, high in the sky above the Las Lomas neighbourhood.
Thomas Roueché Tell me about your background.
Agustín Hernández One time, the University of Texas asked me where I was born, and so I said, “On an island.” “On an island?” they said. “Yes, in Tenochtitlán.” Because I was born very near to the temples of El Zócalo, right at the heart of the ancient city. Since I was a little boy I wanted to make houses with boxes and I used to break them and make little cities. I loved architecture. And my mother wanted me to be an architect, so I started to study at the National University of Mexico and I won a prize with my professional thesis. I started to make very Mexican architecture; I rescued our pre-Hispanic culture, a lot of the ancient forms. When I designed the military school, the master plan was modelled on Monte Albán and the pyramids of Teotihuacán. With empty space, it’s a breadth of blocks and empty spaces; it’s like a symphony in stone or concrete.
TR So what was your thesis about?
AH I did my thesis on the topic of a cultural centre. And I won a first prize, with an honorary mention. And it was a satisfaction for me to have that prize because it’s very difficult to win it at university. And I started to work making a kind of pyramid with furniture, as I did when I built the school of the Ballet Folklórico. But I don’t have a style. I don’t like to have a style because it’s very boring. I want to be different. I always have to change because there are different materials, different systems of construction. And that’s my way of working.
TR You talk a lot about “emotional” architecture. I wondered if you could explain that idea a little?
AH When I build I only work with the emotion of the building, not with models. I imagine the space. I want to change interior spaces, because people always look at the outside of a building, but I love interior spaces. To understand how I feel with walls this way or a roof that way. And my emotion is that everything needs to be all right. I’m very much a perfectionist. There’s a saying that we architects use, “God is in the details.” And I’ve built a lot of hospitals, universities, churches and every kind of architecture. As well as cemeteries.
TR So the whole thing, from birth to death?
AH I’m working now on a big sculpture. A metallic sculpture that is 25 metres high, in metal, with stainless steel in textures and lines. It’s going to be on Reforma Avenue at the Campo Marte. I used to play polo in that field and now I’m building a sculpture there. Can you imagine?
TR You must have seen Mexico City change enormously
AH Yes, the traffic is terrible. They’ve made avenues, changed everything. In each neighbourhood there was always a local store, everything was close; you could buy candies and everything was on one block. And now you need to cruise avenues. You need to go in a car! It’s changed a lot.
TR Do you miss the old city? The city of your childhood?
AH I have memories of that time. But I’m used to going to my office and I don’t like to go downtown. I like to stay around here…
TR What has influenced your architectural style?
AH I hate reading books about architecture. I have my own ideas. I want to be original. I take nothing from any other architect in Europe or any place, even Japan. I make my own architecture.
TR Would you say that your architecture is Mexican architecture? Or is architecture a universal language?
AH I think when you make a creative work, it’s universal. I think architecture is an art, so it’s universal.
TR But it’s interesting for me that Mexico does have a very rich, specifically architectural history. Is context important?
AH I don’t care about the context; I make my own context. My neighbour makes shapes like me – he’s copied my style in his own house. The context is actually, when I have an idea, I build a scheme or draw something first. Then I try to build the idea. It could be a really impractical idea like a tree, like this office, but then I start to turn it into something practical.
TR Would you say that your style has changed over your working life? Or is it still coming from the same place?
AH It all changed with computers. This was something radical. I used to have like 20 architects working around me, and now I have 10 or fewer because the computer is such an amazing instrument. I love to make a sketch first and then transform it with the discipline of architecture.
TR I’ve seen many of your buildings in photographs of the exteriors, but it’s interesting to be inside. Do those two things evolve together?
AH The idea starts, and then you build the blueprints and the scale models and then finally, when you have the building, you can change things to make the space practical. And then you can imagine how the spatial distribution will be inside. And it’s actually a very quick distribution because you can move things freely, you have the lights well detailed and it’s all very easily done on the computer.
TR Would you say that the computer has given you more freedom as an architect?
AH Well, I always make models, because models are the examples that are more similar to reality. For example, I have 50 models over there.
TR So is the first step the model or the sketch?
AH The sketch.
TR And do you make it on the computer?
AH I make the sketch of the facade and then I draw by myself, in perspective. I have men who work here with the models. The Pompidou Centre has three models of mine; MoMA in New York also has three models, of this office, the Ballet Folklórico, the House in the Air, as well as others in the permanent collection.
TR Which other architects do you find exciting?
AH For me, [Santiago] Calatrava is the best. I was working on a project in Toluca, an airport, and I went to see airports in England, to look at Norman Foster’s projects. He makes beautiful airports; he has all the technology.
TR You lived through such an amazing time. Who are the Mexican architects and artists that you admire?
AH [Abraham] Zabludovsky, [Teodoro] González de León, [Francisco] Serrano. There are only around five of them. But they always make the same thing, the same kinds of structure. Like this building has a foundation that’s like a tree, like the roots of a tree.
TR Do you live here?
AH I work here, and then on weekends I go home to Pedregal, far from here, to another house which I built 60 years ago.
TR Do you see projects differently depending on whether you’re designing a house or a studio?
AH I think, I feel, I want always – with anything that I make – for it to have character. I have used all the different construction systems. I have used mud. I made a house in a little place in Morelos and I used bricks, concrete, steel, post-tensioned.
TR What don’t you like about other Mexican architects?
AH They only copy international architects. I find it boring. If they have a style, it becomes boring. I like change, surprise. I have a law in architecture, it’s a trinity: structure, form and functionality. If these things come together harmoniously then that’s what makes a good architect. It’s the same in nature, in trees, in animals; they’re so different because they have structure, bones, form. A horse is different to a lion. But they have the three things. Everything works because those three things are there.