“I'm what you call a jazz freak.”

When Derek Dellekamp and I first talk, it’s over a weak VoIP connection and the echoing feedback gives him the impression of repeating himself. “I hate the way I sound so it’s actually excruciating to hear myself twice,” he says. When we finally get to a clear phone line and start talking, he continues to reveal acute self-awareness about the role of Architecture in the world. His general approach to design projects is quite jazz-like taking some cues from a penchant hobby of his. Like jazz, his architecture is defined by a performative context, and like jazz, he sees a foolhardiness in pretending anything is invented. Architecture to him is, as ever, an interpretation.

PH: Could you tell us a little bit about Tlacolula?

Sure. The Tlacolula development is a social housing project. I should explain that social housing is a major research project for our offices. The research we’ve been doing has focused on a panoramic view of social housing in mostly Mexico but also Latin America, seen from the perspective of the financial, political and social impact of it. Tlacolula is a project in Oaxaca. It’s an ongoing project, painfully slow…in bureaucratic terms.

Our focus with the project was certainly to explore a different model of social housing because most of it is done by only a few companies. The product they offer is more or less the same, ignoring any kind of local consideration, ignoring individual needs. Being critical of that model, we designed this product in a very local-based, and locally inspired way.

Tlacolula Housing Project, image courtesy of Dellekamp Architects

PH: What is an example of something overlooked by the corporate developers? What’s lacking in typical social housing?

Let me frame  it this way: major housing developers in Mexico are on the stock market. Regular developers respond to financial dynamics as well as responding directly to  government restrictions but clearly their purpose for creating social housing is profit-motivated. So they behave themselves that way. The way they balance for success, the way they look at objectives, is completely financial. They overlook everything else. They completely overlook the human side of the house.

Actually,  if I went back a couple decades, 50s 60s even 70s, social housing by my point of view was incredibly rich. Government still had the main responsibility over social housing programs. Therefore architects were involved, and certainly a major part of the decision-making process. Over time that’s no longer the case. It’s become more financially driven. The frustration is that architects are left completely out of the equation. Architecture and urbanism are the bottom of anybody’s priorities. We’re playing a really minor role in this huge industry.

PH: How much of your own identity or national identity is imbued in your design? Is it important at all?

No, I would like to think that it’s not. We look at each project as a specific problem. I’m very inclined to solving problems, so different problems deserve different solutions. That’s our philosophy. If we go outside of Mexico, we’re much more interested in what works well for that specific set of problems rather than bringing our own typology or way of approaching things. We  most certainly leave behind any formal approach that we’ve worked on other projects.

PH: That idea of problem-solving with different methodologies is interesting as you mention being a jazz fan. Specifically, you mentioned John Zorn and the idea of jump-cuts in a recent talk. What’s your take on jazz and free jazz in particular as a formal departure in media?

My relationship to jazz is first of all just a big hobby of mine. (Laughter)

PH: Do you play anything?

No I’m what you’d call melomano. I’m obsessed with music but I don’t play it. I have a jazz club here with some friends in Mexico City. That’s just something we really enjoy doing. The name of the Club is Zinco it´s in downtown Mexico City in the basement of a building that used to be the Bank of Mexico.

PH: That officially makes you the coolest architect I know, I think. When did you open it? Who plays there?

We opened the club in 2003, two friends started working on the idea and then invited me and another jazz freak to join them.
We've had figures like (John) Medeski, playing a solo concert, Matt Wilson and Mark Ribot.
Architectonically the place is really interesting, it is un the underground of the building that used to be the Bank of Mexico. It is a beautiful Deco building of the early 20th century.  Inside the club you can visit the different vaults where they kept the money. In Mexico the club is an inevitable reference when it comes to Jazz, when (Winton) Marsalis came played in the National Auditorium, he later went to jam in the club.

PH: Do you see a corollary between jazz and architecture at all?

The way we refer to jazz in the office it usually has to do with (process). We can see the context as the underlying basis and  our work like a solo. That way we can frame it very decently. For example, we might with a high degree of conscience decide the right thing to do in that context, in that so-called musical piece, is to play a very discreet solo, if say in that context there’s already something going on there that’s la protagonista. Or quite the contrary: like we say we’re jamming. Then we say this is the perfect way to have a unique or distinctive solo.

If I mentioned Zorn it was probably in the context of zapping. He’s the grandfather of that generation, at least on my radar. He’s the first one to really point out zapping as a means for creating, or something you can embrace and use as a tool.

PH: Does that inform how you approach a design project?

Years ago I felt more comfortable with the zapping approach. I don’t think I’m such a big zapper anymore.

PH: How would you describe your process now?

Today I’m much more interested in focusing in instead of focusing out.  Zapping philosophy kind of looks everywhere.

PH: That’s interesting because without giving too much away, you described your design for Paperhouses as a “sanctuary” which would speak to that inward focus. Can you tell me more about that?

That project is… it’s like an experiment. That’s why the name is “imaginary house.” It’s a very personal project. Like I said before we’re mostly interested in solving problems at our office. That project defies that description a bit. It’s a product of personal passion or obsession. In this case, for courtyards. I’m obsessed with courtyards.

It is version number whatever it is, of my obsession with that typology; about the values and spatial possibility of this otherwise timeless typology. Courtyards have been around forever but they fascinate me nonetheless because you can still continue to play around with them; continue to re-interpret them and find interesting solutions.

PH: Have you re-interpreted any of your own past work?

Re-interpretation is something I feel very comfortable with. I have no interest in re-inventing anything. There's this phrase by Jorge Luis Borges that says if someone thinks they’ve invented something he’s either being naive or they need to go back and check the history books. I feel very comfortable thinking myself as a part of the craftsmanship that is architecture, and building on previous work that’s been done before; being very analytical about it and drawing from that and growing. We’re not in the business of doing anything that’s new.

PH: How would you like your architecture to imbue an idea,  or do you want to communicate anything to the general public, for that matter?

I would certainly love to think that our work, in concrete terms, makes for a better place, or better setting for the people that live in it. Much more in those terms than merely artistic. We’re happy to look back at our work and ask ourselves “what has it done for that specific case?” We’re very interested in budget and planning. All those kinds of things that usually set back architecture? We’re happy to deal with it.

Read Derek's interviews with Julia Cooke and Plataforma Arquitectura, and more about the Tlacolula Housing Project at Architectural Record. Dellekamp Arquitectos can be found here.