INTERVIEW TATIANA BILBAO
Louis I. Kahn Visiting Assistant Professor interviewed by JULCSI FUTO (March II ‘15)
Julcsi Futo: In your lecture at MoMA on Learning from/in Latin America, you talked about your heritage in Mexican modernism, and your way finding as you felt forced into the “digital and parametric” era of architecture. Was your interest in raw geometric and pure forms a way to distance yourself from the smooth surfaces of digital design? How did this journey help you find your own voice? Did it help you to react against what was around you, as opposed going with the flow?
Tatiana Bilbao: Definitely, it helped me become more me, what I am, more truthful to where I belong I forced myself to do something new, something I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand the purpose of designing a space through parametric definition. I admire a number of buildings and projects that were designed parametrically, but I don’t understand them. I don’t understand how a parameter can define a space.
When I was a student there was a strong emphasis on the digital, and history, especially modernism was erased from the curriculum. I grew up with and in these buildings. I lived near Paseo Reforma, and all the [Mario] Pani buildings were the places to go. My parents’ office, the doctors’ office, everything was in these modernist buildings and that’s where I grew up. Modernism was part of my unconscious, but I rebelled against it, and only later did I consciously engage with it.
When I graduated, I tried to follow the lineage of not necessarily parametric architecture, but architecture that came from a different understanding of geometry. I believed that architecture could be defined through uncharted geometries. I would describe it as a rudimentary way of parametric architecture.
When I collaborated with Gabriel Orozco for his house, I realized that this type of architecture was not compatible with the hand labor of Mexico, with economy, with technology, and with me. Gabriel’s idea was to transform an observatory into a house, and I assisted him working it out. We did many, many drawings over a year, and hired construction workers from the nearby fishing village. The project was very simple, a semi sphere with four rooms that were symmetrically arranged around it. It was very difficult to build, especially the semi sphere. The construction workers didn’t know how to read plans, and it was very difficult to explain to them how to build a clear, geometric form. How problematic would an uncharted geometric form be? It was very frustrating and that’s when I realized how important it is to understand the available hand labor and technology. When we started doing simpler forms, the building process became much easier, and it was all much less frustrating.
Architecture should be amazing and surprising, but it does not have to be geometrically challenging.
Architecture is a language through which we communicate, and I think it should be direct. We as architects can set up a platform, a building, for an incredible conversation to happen. The best way to start this conversation is to be direct, simple, straightforward and beautiful.
JF: Your interest in collage became obvious in your studio. Your Culiacán Botanical Garden in Sinaloa seems to be a manifestation of it. You provide paths through the garden and a necklace of amenities that create space for site specific installations. It simultaneously collages program (an unexpected museum in the botanical garden) and form (the meandering path, and all the different works of art that give meaning to the path) Can you talk about your interest in ‘collage’?
TB: Architecture is about collaging, inserting a structure into a built environment, or landscape, that is made up of different things. You are adding to the collage. I like to think about collage not as a basic tool of representation (although we do that sometimes too), but as a juxtaposition of different things. I’m interested in how these different layers make up reality. This is an interesting way that architecture works in the city.
JF: The scope of your work includes extremes. Low income housing with Infonavit, and high budget villas. Is there an exchange of ideas between the two extremes?
That’s a good question. It’s funny, in the beginning this contrast also worked on a programmatic level. We were simultaneously designing a botanic garden and funeral house. The juxtaposition between the $8000 house and the $3M house is a reflection of Mexican society. We encounter these two polarities every day, every minute, this is our way of living.
Instead of trying to make the low budget house simply “nicer” with a wooden floor, we are thinking about bringing a different scale to it. A beautiful, big scale we know from other, higher budget projects, but we try to make it work within the constraints.
JF: Looking at this semester’s advanced studio critics, you are the only female.
You are a role model to many of us, leading a successful an office and being mother of two.
Did you have any female mentors that were directly involved in your career?
Women, I don’t know what happened to women. There were very few in the generation ahead of me, and they were much more academic. It’s hard. At this point I don’t believe in the gender thing. But I can see how what I do is different, because there are not many women leading architecture firms. Construction is male driven, and architecture is related to construction. I’m pleased to see that there are more and more female carpenters and plumbers and that our society is increasingly egalitarian. Architecture should not be male dominant. 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.
JF: Do you have any advice for both female and male young architects, how to find their own voice, and follow their pursuits?
You have to be very stubborn. What do you want? What do you like? It’s not easy and you can’t give up. It’s something I learned through being a gymnast for 15 years. I was competing for the national team. I learned about frustration, about repetition that makes you a perfectionist. I learned that you have to repeat a 1000 times until you get it right. You have to continue even if you fail. You can’t blame it on the context, it’s on you. Follow your dreams and be stubborn!