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Moving beyond the present

13 of February '23

Interview from A&B issue 12|2022

Architect Tatiana Bilbao was a guest at this year's edition of the DoFA Lower Silesian Architecture Festival. In a conversation with Karolina Częczek, she touches on the themes of her architectural practice, the most important tasks facing architects today, and ways to communicate her projects.

Tatiana BilbaoTatiana BILBAO founded her studio in 2004 in Mexico. The architect strives to integrate social values, collaboration and a sensitive design approach in her architectural work. The work of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio's office intersects with research that allows her to design in different circumstances and in reconstruction or crisis scenarios. Prior to founding her firm, Bilbao was an advisor to the Ministry of Development and Housing of the Government of the Federal District of Mexico City, a member of the General Development Directorate of the Urban Development Advisory Council. She is a lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture, and has taught at Harvard University GSD, AA School of Architecture in London, Columbia University GSAPP, Rice University in Houston, Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile, and Peter Behrens School of Arts at HS Düsseldorf in Germany. Bilbao was recognized by Kunstpreis Berlin in 2012, was named an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York in 2010, the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture Prize by the LOCUS Foundation in2014, as well as the Impact Award 2017 Honorees Architizer + Awards, Marcus Prize Award 2019, Tau Sigma Delta Gold Medal 2020, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) Honorary Award 2021, Richard Neutra Award 2022 and AW Architect of the Year 2022. The Tatiana Bilbao Estudio team has designed, among other projects: The Culiacán Botanical Garden, a social housing prototype that costs less than $8,000, residential buildings in the La Confluence neighborhood of Lyon, France, the Cortéz Sea Research Center in Mazatlán, the Mexican-American Cultural Center in Austin, and a master plan for La Huasteca National Park. (Photo: Ana Hop)

Karolina Częczek
:On the Tatiana Bilbao Estudio website, projects are divided into unusual categories: "social landscape," "affordability," "homeliness" and "density." Such organization suggests a way of designing that puts the broader context of architecture in the foreground, rather than its programmatic or formal aspects. What prompted you to make such a categorization?

Tatiana Bilbao:I'm glad you pointed this out, because many people don't understand this division. First of all, I'm very keen for architects to challenge typical thinking patterns. We use them too often, very literally, and they tend to dictate how buildings are designed, used and even market value. Second, we should remember that space defines people's lives, and rigid schemes often discriminate and overlook the real needs of its users. The categories we have proposed are still not open-ended enough, but their intention is to provoke discussion and highlight the role of the broader design context. Since architectural projects are by nature complex, unambiguous terms will always remain understated. At the same time, I believe it is important to define what we mean when we describe a project as "social" or "sustainable," and whether our design proposal meets these definitions. This is especially important now, when we should start thinking about buildings beyond standard programmatic categories and in longer time frames. We often forget that architecture can and should last for many decades, if not millennia. Buildings that we currently use in a certain way may serve a different purpose in the future, and we are not always able to anticipate this change. When designing, therefore, we need to think about architecture in a broader context, in a more open way and with real problems at the center of attention. This is the starting point for creating an informed design.

Ways of Life, dom w Scheid, Hesse, Niemcy, 2017

Ways of Life, a house in Scheid, Hesse, Germany, 2017 - the project is a proposal for a house for "new ways of living," including, among other things, working and living in the same space

© Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

: You're right that a lot of architecture is still being designed shortsightedly, both in terms of programming and materials.

Tatiana: It's crazy that some material suppliers give a ten-year warranty on their building products. Ten years is tomorrow in today's world! Are we really talking about buildings that won't even last a generation? We need to expand our thinking about design beyond the present. Due to social and economic changes, some building typologies are already becoming less necessary today. Take office buildings, for example. Many cities are recalculating the need for spaces that were fully occupied just two years ago.

: Let's continue with the theme of sustainability. Many of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio's projects are deeply rooted in local communities and designed to stay with them for a long time. How do you design without an expiration date and for future generations?

Tatiana: We will never fully understand how individuals and communities organize and inhabit their space. Moreover, I believe that as architects, we have no right to decide this. It is unlikely that another person would choose the same way of life as you, and you would have to become another person to understand it. Of course, this is impossible because each of us has our own biases and filters all information through our own eyes. An outsider can only interpret the community. So we should start thinking about architecture that supports a lifestyle, but does not define it. This also means allowing a process of transformation. Since living and inhabitation are processes, and architecture is a very static and objective answer, these two aspects constantly collide. In my opinion, architecture should allow the process of inhabitation and remain flexible within its physical boundaries. These are the concepts we try to implement in our projects.

Ways of Life, dom w Scheid, Hesse, Niemcy, 2017

Ways of Life, a house in Scheid, Hesse, Germany, 2017 - the project is a proposal for a house for "new ways of living," including, among other things, working and living in the same space

© Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

: You are an architect, but you also realize yourself as a lecturer at several universities. You began your professional practice working as a consultant for the Ministry of Development and Housing of the Federal District of Mexico City, and to this day your office works with government groups in Mexico to propose new solutions for housing. Why is it important for you to be involved in architectural topics at both the academic and planning levels, and what actions do you advocate?

Tatiana: The way we create architecture is largely based on how we are educated. As a teacher, I try to open up possibilities and encourage the younger generations to think outside the box. I'm not saying that current educational models are bad, but we should challenge them as the only possible ones. I myself have not challenged them for many years. For example, I have never challenged the residential model, the model of a city serving mainly productive purposes, or how we create sustainable architecture. Since many teaching models rarely challenge their fundamental assumptions, they are often the ones that create the problems that modern cities face. Teaching is also an incredible opportunity to talk to students and learn from them. I hope that my students derive at least as much learning from this experience as I derive for myself. Spatial policy, on the other hand, is very important because it defines how development is done and has a long-term impact on architecture. If its policies are inadequate, individual projects have limited impact on change. It is crucial for architects to start challenging inadequate and outdated laws and rules, collaborate and become part of the change. At Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, we test solutions that often go beyond imposed patterns and regulations. It is neither easy nor quick, but we do it to initiate change.

Vivienda Mínima Ocoyoacac - Apan Housing, Apan, Hidalgo, Meksyk, 2017

Vivienda Mínima Ocoyoacac - Apan Housing, Apan, Hidalgo, Mexico, 2017 - a project of houses and housing developments for the Ocoyoacac community in Mexico, prepared in collaboration with the INFONAVIT Housing Department

© Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

: The language you use to describe thought and architectural concepts is often borrowed from other fields. In your projects, exhibitions and student work, you also avoid typical ways of architectural representation. You use collages, models and workshops to communicate your ideas. Why is this important to you in a culture that celebrates realistic images?

Tatiana: It's an experiment in progress, but I can tell you what I would like to achieve. I realized very early on that the tools I was using to represent projects generated monologue and prevented discussion and frank conversations with clients. Standard architectural drawings and renderings are very definitive and eliminate the possibility of interpretation in the early stages of design. There is a myth that I have banned the use of renders in my office. This is not true. They are helpful in the later stages of a project, and drawings are necessary during construction. However, I want everyone in my office to understand when and how to use them, and to be aware of what they communicate or prevent. By challenging the standard medium of representation, we create a more delinquent platform and can allow more people, not just architects, to engage in discussions about architecture and urbanism. Communicating in this way is more difficult, but I think it provokes more interesting conversations, and sometimes stirs up productive controversy. It's very difficult to stir up controversy with an architectural plan in its perfect, classic form. I want to have a real conversation in which different opinions and views are taken into account from the beginning. I want the architecture I design to evolve during the design process.

Centrum Badawcze Morza Cortéza, Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Meksyk, 2017

Sea of Cortéz Research Center, Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico, 2017 - The research center building is where marine and terrestrial flora and fauna meet architecture and the world of people

© Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

: A large part of your practice is residential architecture design - from single-family homes, to multi-family social housing projects, to entire residential communities. A house and apartment are less and less treated as a space to live in, and more and more as an investment. How should we create spaces that resist these pressures and changes?

Tatiana: This is the million dollar question! We need to understand that the model of society we live in is completely subordinated to productivity. The modern city model is also based on the assumption that we are productive individuals and minimizes living spaces. We have reached an extreme point where we must be non-stop productive in order to survive. The crunch comes when we realize that in order to produce, we must first exist. We need to be fed, rested, cared for and, above all, we need to be nurtured. If these needs are not met, we cannot be productive, and therefore cannot survive. Reproductive work, related to caring for, raising children, caring for the elderly, housework, has traditionally been, and is still today, performed mainly by women in the privacy of the home. Moreover, it tends to be ignored by the economy and politics, unnoticed by society and performed for free. Such an arrangement is the source of deep-rooted social inequality.

All these problems cannot be solved by architecture alone. However, we must understand that architecture and urban planning are also subordinate to the society of production. Too often, we approach projects by responding to the needs of the market rather than to the needs of society. We should realize that in order to function and be productive, we need to be able to do this work. We need to create habitable spaces that support and facilitate reproductive work, and public spaces that make it socially visible. Only then will things begin to change, but changing social consciousness is a long and complex process. You may think that recycling a plastic bag doesn't change anything, but when you imagine that if a few billion people do it, suddenly that small change has a lot of power. It's the same with architecture. If we think that a city is the sum of people, activities and individual projects, then its architecture has power. If we all start thinking this way, there will be the possibility of change. I think of it this way.

wystawa MECCA X NGV Women in Design Commission 2022 pod tytułem „Brudne ubrania są prane w domu”

MECCA X NGV Women in Design Commission 2022 exhibition titled "Dirty clothes are washed at home".

© Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

: It's no coincidence that you were a guest at this year's DoFA festival, whose theme is Solidarity City. What is solidarity to you and how does it translate into spatial aspects?

Tatiana: Solidarity is a very capacious word. I, above all, would like to emphasize solidarity with other people. None of us is an autonomous being and we need others in order to interact with them, to get support and care. Unfortunately, we increasingly rely more on financial capital than social capital in our daily lives. This is a huge problem, because not all of us are productive individuals and not everyone is capable of taking care of themselves. By relying excessively on economic aspects, we lose the essence of life, which is the closeness and presence of another human being. As human beings, we need space to create and enact acts of solidarity. I think we have erased from our culture many spaces and communities that served this purpose. For example, traditional agricultural production was based on a system of interdependence and balance between people, space and the environment. Today, food production is completely industrialized and optimized, and is not based on these interdependencies. I'm not proposing a return to agrarian society, of course, but this is an example of a socio-spatial system that was developed through cooperation and solidarity among people. How can we today create solidarity-based systems based on modern needs? An interesting example is public laundries, which were very common until the first half of the 20th century. In many places, these were spaces where people (usually women) did domestic work, created care and support networks, and shared other social and material resources. They were absolutely essential, especially for those who had limited access to them. Today, in the most developed parts of the world , we have stopped washing clothes in public, which can be a metaphor for a society that does not reveal its weaknesses and needs. Without this, it's very hard to build solidarity.

Karolina: Thank you for the interview.

Karolina CZÊCZEK

Illustrations provided courtesy of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio.

See and hear Tatiana Bilbao's lecture at the 10th Lower Silesian Architecture Festival:

© SARP Branch Wrocław

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