Thomas Roueché talks to Tatiana Bilbao

Portrait by Adam Wiseman

Tatiana Bilbao is one of Mexico’s most innovative architects. She first attracted attention in 2006 with a beach house for Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco and has since worked on the rehabilitation of the botanical gardens in Culiacán and a spiritual retreat in the Jalisco Mountains. Most recently she has begun working on social housing. Tank sat down with her in her office on Paseo de la Reforma.

Thomas Roueché Do you see yourself working within a specifically Mexican idiom, or a regional or global context?

Tatiana BilbaoI see myself as both. A Mexican practising architecture in Mexico, but as part of a global society. But I see myself as a local.

TR Mexico City has an astonishing architectural heritage. Are you influenced by the great iconic architects of, particularly, Mexican modernism, like Luis Barragán or Mario Pani?

TBPani is very important for my work and me. I live in a Pani building, and my mother lives in a Pani. So, Pani rules! I think Pani was a Mexican dealing with the local, but acting globally. And sometimes I think, how can we do the opposite? How can we understand our society in order to translate its needs? A very important project we’ve done is the Botanical Gardens in Culiacán, a city in the north of Mexico. The idea was to introduce contemporary art to the botanical garden. It’s a city that has a lot of industry and big business going on, so it is a very rich place, in financial terms. But its culture is very much imported from the US in a shallow way. So there’s zero sport, zero arts, zero culture. Just fashion and consumption. Art is not part of this culture. Culture is not part of the culture. Theatre, opera, music – there’s nothing. But the president of the board of patrons of the botanical garden, Agustín Coppel, has an important contemporary-art collection – it’s the second largest after Jumex – and the director of Jumex, Patrick Charpenel, is the curator of the garden. Agustín wanted Patrick to put pieces of his collection in the botanical garden and Patrick convinced him instead to commission artists from his collection to do site-specific works in the garden. This meant that we brought in all these big artists, like Gabriel Orozco, Teresa Margolles, Dan Graham, Francis Alÿs, James Turrell, Simon Starling; it’s a big list, kind of eclectic, but very nice. They all went to the garden and did a site-specific work. The way that the works are placed and how they’re introduced have done an incredible job, because now society in Culiacán is becoming interested in contemporary art. If we had done the same thing but put those pieces in a museum, it would have cost the same; we could have made a perfect white box, but people would never have gone there. People who are not in contact with art are often afraid of going into a museum. A museum imposes a lot. It makes you feel ignorant. But when you’re in a garden, running, and you come across an art piece, you get interested. I think that’s an important lesson. That instead of importing the museum, we imported the idea of introducing art to the general public. How can we do it locally? How can we do it in our own society? Instead of just copying the models of all other places in the world. This is a really interesting way of introducing art to a society that’s really had no contact with it at all. For me, Pani decided to do the contrary. I think he decided to import, literally, the ideas of the CIAM [Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne] or Le Corbusier, and brought it here into a society that is totally different, which doesn’t have these ideas. Ideas come from a society, from a group of people born in that culture. So you cannot just import them. You can, however, think about what’s behind the idea, what’s the purpose of the idea, and then you can use it here.

TR I feel like many new museums in the city, like the Soumaya and the Jumex, have a tendency to feel like spaceships. Pani was undertaking projects on a similar scale but they were social housing projects, not private museums. I was wondering, is there a danger in these endless museums?

TBIn Mexico, museums tend to be in Mexico City. We call that part of the city Slimland [after Carlos Slim, who funded the neighbourhood’s construction]. For me the strangest thing is that although the Soumaya and the Jumex seem like spaceships, one was built by an architect who has probably never been here before, and one was built by a Mexican. One of them is built with local materials and hand labour and takes a comprehensive approach to the context, and the other one was built of imported materials, design and building techniques. So the local one was built by a foreigner and the not-so-local one was built by a Mexican. I think it’s surreal. In terms of the social housing that you were talking about, I think that Mario Pani did amazing things in terms of space. He’s been heavily criticised, but I truly believe that the spaces are amazing, despite the dispositions of the buildings and the critiques. He is an extremely refined architect in that the spaces are very human and the interior spaces are real places where people live. The composition of spaces and the understanding of light are amazing. And this quality is lost in social housing.

TR How do your projects relate to the social?

TBWe’re doing a lot of social housing in the office which I’m really, really, really glad about. Because one of the most important needs that’s not fulfilled in our country, unfortunately for the majority of the society, which is scandalous, is housing. Plus, working in social housing is not only what we’re doing. We’re working in the lower part of the pyramid because there’s a big part of the pyramid that cannot even get to social housing. Social housing is when you have a formal job. When you don’t have a formal job, which is 40-50 percent of the society, then you’re not eligible for social housing. So we’re working on a house that costs about €6,000, and it’s subsidised. Because the government has a lot of subsidies for these things and we were hired by a finance institution that is going to give credits to the people taking the money from the government. The government gives €2-3,000, depending on the social status of the person, and then the rest, the €3-4,000, is paid by the person. But there’s an institution that gives them this money, because they don’t even have it. And we’re designing the house. And we already did two prototypes and this is going to be multiplied as the demand takes off. It’s our most important project by far.

TRWhat is the house like?

TBIt’s a very rural or suburban house. And each one is built on its own plot. Because normally these people have their own plots. It’s two floors, more or less, so they can have more space on the inside. We don’t give them the two floors in the beginning, but the building can be expanded. We did research, interviews with these people, and found that they didn’t want a flat-roofed house. In Mexican culture, people used to build houses with flat roofs and leave the steel bars out, in order to put a second floor up at a later date. This means you’re ambitious and you’re going to be wealthy at some point. But these houses stay like this, because they can never build the second floor. It’s become a sign of failure. So they really wanted a house with a sloped roof. To us as architects it sounded attractive to be able to expand the house, but when we spoke to people they said they didn’t want to see it as expandable, they wanted to see it as a finished house. 

  • Tatiana Bilbao