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Frida Escobedo

Photograph of Frida Escobar outside the Serpentine with the park behind her

Although she is still in her thirties, Frida Escobedo has already become an indispensable voice in architecture. Her practice, in her native Mexico as well as internationally, has ranged from conceptual installation projects to retail stores to home design, with commissions for such organizations as the V&A Museum and MoMA PS1 and a spate of prizes along the way. Her eclectic oeuvre includes such structures as the Casa Negra, co-designed with Alejandro Alarcón: a low-cost home studio—simultaneously stout and elegant, built of cinderblock and sitting atop stilts—that faces inward from the periphery of Mexico City like a large-format view camera. More recently, she adapted the workshop and house of the artist and activist David Alfaro Siqueiros for use as a gallery, connecting and recontextualizing existing buildings with an openwork lattice wall of concrete. This same overlayering of public and private was visible, most recently, in her design of the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion, a project for which she again incorporated an element integral to Mexican home design—the secluded courtyard, and the celosia (perforated breezewall)—to a specifically British context. The result is an interior space for contemplation and seclusion, a chamber interpenetrated by sunlight and air, in the midst of Kensington Gardens. Like the rest of Escobedo’s work, it resolves innate tensions quietly, without puns or showmanship, and with a tender attention to the context of the people who will experience it.

Alejandro Zambra

Were you in Mexico City during the earthquake of 1985?

Frida Escobedo

I was. My parents had separated a few weeks before the earthquake and my mother stayed in the apartment where we’d been living, in La Condesa. I was very little: five years old. I remember that it was very early in the morning. Toys began to fall over; I was putting on my sports uniform; my mother, with a towel on her head, tells me, “Run!” We lived in the ground-floor apartment, and my bedroom looked out onto the street. There was this space between the building and the gate that led to the street. We ran out so fast that my mother forgot the keys to the outside door, so we stayed in that space between the house and the building. It was frightening but my mother handled it well.

Does that building still exist? Have you gone?

I could draw you a floor plan of the apartment, I could draw the pattern of the walls—my spatial memory of that space is very fresh. But I have not been. I would like to go, it’s one of the things I’d like to do, but then I say no, because my memory is so vivid that I don’t want to taint it. Maybe I could draw it first and then go to compare it with my recollection. We lived there for a few months and then we left.

Do you remember walking through the city after that earthquake, seeing the rubble?

Yes. On the corner near the apartment where my father moved, on Valladolid Street, a building collapsed. For the four or five years that my father lived there, that building on the corner was in ruins. Someone lived in those ruins there, an alcoholic named Ángel. My father became his friend, would say hello to him and treat him like just another neighbor. I was aware that Ángel lived in the wreckage, and this was very disturbing; the idea terrorized me. Then my father moved, and not long ago they put an apartment building on that corner. In this city, you live with ruins. The debris is just there, it continues to be there and we forget.

Do you remember the moment that you became aware of architecture as a profession?

Not really, no. I’m always asked when it was that I decided to become an architect.

I can also ask you that.

No, it’s a good question. When did it register, when did it enter my consciousness that it was a possibility, that it was possible to pursue this? I don’t know. I have an uncle who is an architect: I would always see his drawing table and his sketches. I liked to draw, but I also liked to go to a painter’s or watercolorist’s studio.

Your work is closely and naturally connected to art.

My father is a doctor, my mother is a demographer, but both had artistic leanings. On weekends we would go to museums: We would have breakfast, then head to the museum, to the park, and back home. That’s how I became interested in the visual arts, the aesthetic, the conceptual.

And when did you have the idea of becoming an architect? What did you like about this idea?

I think I’ve always been fascinated with the relationship between interior and exterior. I grew up in an apartment that looked out onto other apartments. I was an only child for a long time, so my entertainment was to look out the window. At the hospital, for instance, while I waited for my father to finish work, I would look out the window—I had nothing else to do. At home it was the same thing. The apartments had the same structure on the outside but inside they were all completely different. I remember that on the first floor there was a neighbor who had mirrors on the walls and gazelles made of some sort of brass, and a very exotic blue fur chair. Just from looking at that apartment you could guess how this person lived and what her mind was like.

Were you not afraid of being caught looking?

That’s the magic of being a child: no one pays attention to you. So I could be there and no one would say anything to me. That curiosity was celebrated, in fact. Look how great it is—instead of jumping on the sofa she’s entertaining herself by looking out the window all the time.

Have you been in the situation of explaining your work to a child?

Yes, it’s very difficult. The easy answer is to say that you design houses and buildings, but that’s not what I do. And if you explain the profession to a child in this way, she would understand that everything around her is designed by someone like me, which isn’t the case either. Cities aren’t made that way; cities are, for better or worse, designed for other reasons and with other interests in mind. So to try to explain to anyone—a child or an adult—what we do here at the studio is a bit complicated. If we say we’re working on a publication and on a sculpture and on a store and on a hotel, we’ll be asked, “But don’t you specialize in houses?” And the answer is no, but that we do make houses. If you don’t hyper-specialize they think you’re still experimenting. I don’t see it that way. I think you have to be moving in different circles for everything to keep working; otherwise you get stuck, paralyzed.

In your work you seem to be trying to transcend the limits of architecture. There’s something of you in everything you do and nonetheless it can seem impersonal, or, perhaps, secretly personal.

Yes, I do believe it works a bit like that. Because architecture has such a utilitarian character, it neutralizes the personal. Whoever is designing exerts a strong presence, but at the same time that starts to get diluted, as if covered by different layers, because you’re collaborating with more people, different voices, and in the end you feel less exposed.

It’s personal and collaborative at the same time.

It’s very different than writing, I suppose. You can erase and correct, but at the same time what you write is, in a way, the final product. In architecture the final product—or what is assumed to be the final product—is the building, and the building isn’t what was written on paper. The architect’s process is to think a lot while doing: to think while making the blueprints, to think while making the cross-sections, to think while making the maquette. But you also think while you’re making the building, because it would be impossible, and I think also very arrogant, to say that it’s totally clear to you what the entire building will be like, centimeter by centimeter.

What do you do with designs that are never built?

I don’t see it as a matter of “Since we didn’t build it, let’s throw it out, this was of no use.” There are ideas, experiments, questions that were posed within the early stages of a design that will work for other things and that clarified things for me in the moment. That’s why we try to take on projects that make us ask interesting questions from the beginning, rather than to develop questions and then take on a project in order to resolve them. I don’t want to design the perfect house—I’m more interested in getting to know the family who commissioned the house, because I’m curious about how they live, what they do, why they are interested in this or that. There is no preconceived ideal.

When you work for others, I imagine part of the methodology is to get to know those people, to intuit them, to perceive things that they don’t even know about themselves. What happens when you have to design a space for yourself?

I just moved to this apartment and I have the shell. The building is by an incredible architect, Mario Pani. It’s marvelous, I love it, but I have to make some adjustments inside. I have to make some simple decisions, like what wood to use for the closet door. It becomes a whole conundrum. Deciding for oneself is so complicated. It’s a good problem to have to solve: the small exercise of just furnishing an interior also means to think of how you want to live.

Of course some things are very clear. For example, I want my kitchen to be a social space, because I think it’s the most important space in the house. I like the idea of cooking something with another person. The kitchen should be a place for conversation. I also know I like to have plants. Now, in this new house, I’ve realized that I like to be able to move things around all the time. So the space needs to serve as a canvas that still works when things get moved around. I couldn’t live in a space with many rooms full of stuff because it would limit this possibility.

There’s also the natural temptation to design your own house as a sort of final statement.

Yes, totally. But the dream of one’s own house is not a dream of a static place, it’s not a place that you design and that once it’s done will be perfect and that’s where you’ll live for the rest of your life because it will be perfect. For me it’s perfect because it’s where you can experiment with many things. What happens now if we enlarge the window? What happens if we knock down this wall? It becomes a sort of laboratory; it changes because we ourselves are changing. At that point you can’t think of obeying social conventions such as using the living room only as a living room and the dining room only for when you have visitors, and that you go into the kitchen only to cook. You want spaces that can be expanded or contracted depending on your mood or the period of life you’re in. I mean, now you may want to share more, or you want it to feel more introverted, you want it to be darker, now you need more light. All these things should be able to happen.

For the recent earthquake, in September, where were you?

I was here, with the guys at the office. We were all working. I had just separated, just like my parents before the ’85 earthquake. Ixchel and I were on the first floor, so we were the first to walk outside and those three seconds where you don’t see everyone exiting the building are very anguishing. I had just signed the contract for the apartment where I live now, so I was turning around and saying, “No, this can’t be, I can’t end up without a house.” I was supposed to go on a trip that afternoon; I had my suitcase here at the office.

For several hours, there were gas leaks so we couldn’t go into the office. Then finally we were able to go in, we got some things out. The city was paralyzed; there were no cars, no taxis in the street. So we decided to walk towards Insurgentes, and I took my suitcase with me. It was like a strange exodus. We saw a building that had collapsed and a row of people with pieces of rubble that they were passing down. Everyone was trying to do something, move tree trunks, move furniture, move everything. We all tried to help; we were all there moving rubble.

How do you deal with the idea of destruction?

I think one needs to plan for change. Make everything more flexible in every way, so that the building becomes more like a palm tree and less like a completely rigid structure, because that’s the one that will fall down. Rigid things collapse. The rest can move, yes, it transforms, it may lose sections, but its spirit will remain.

How would you describe Mexico City to someone who doesn’t know it at all?

I would try to speak about intensity. It is an intensity connected to brutal contrasts. Mexico City is like fire, everything has to be that way—intense. It’s filled with all these incredibly strong smells that stay in your nose. Sometimes being in the city just gives you vertigo. Please stop, you say. We need a break.

What do you think of what’s being built in the city these days?

People say, “Look how many new apartments there are in Mexico City.” They say there is a lot of work for architects, but those apartments aren’t made by architects, they’re made by developers. And the people who buy those apartments buy an illusion. They’re buying drywall and finishes that will last three years because it’s disposable. What they want is for people to tire of the space and move to a new apartment, and then to another new one, then to another one, to go on degrading other areas of the city. It’s this idea of moving but not as part of a personal search for change but for the disposable—it’s alarming. People go for the building that has the amenities—a pool, valet parking—and you say, “They’re not seeing the value of the building,” and I understand that it doesn’t need to be permanent architecture but what is it they are buying? To drive to your office, to go lock yourself up in your building, to pay for amenities that you probably won’t use. Because everyone I know who lives in those types of buildings—they don’t use the pool or the gym, they just use the party room once a year and it’s because the living room in their house is of such poor quality that they need that common space to have a vaguely familiar get-together. That’s not a way to give value to a city. That’s just a way to reproduce an idea of what the middle class is supposed to be and how it is supposed to live and what is expected of it and of the idea of success.

It's overwhelming.

It’s overwhelming, and I don’t think there’s anyone who could say, “Mexico City, how beautiful it is.” It’s like an infatuation. It’s like being with someone whom you’re not even that attracted to but that at the same time you can’t stop being all over that person—you know it will consume you, but you cannot stop.

Alejandro Zambra (Santiago de Chile, 1975) is the author of Not to Read, Multiple Choice, My Documents, Ways of Going Home, The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsai among other books. He was a 2015–2016 fellow at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. He lives in Mexico City.

Translated from the Spanish by Paula Kupfer

Frida Escobedo, London, April 2018
Portrait by Sabine Mirlesse