The hardest working woman in Architecture explains contextual design and the death of the starchitect.

Tatiana Bilbao might be the hardest working woman in Architecture. As we arranged to make our call for this interview I realized it’d be close to midnight in Paris where she currently resides, and she was going to continue working after we finished. Ensuing emails would be time-stamped as early as 5am, and yet she will tell you that work is just a “way of life,” that you can’t overwork if it’s just life. She also answers every email herself. You’ll understand my surprise in this bit of self-reliance; I see her in the boutique design magazines all the time. I could only assume she was a rock-star. The internationally renowned mother-designer-director-architect, currently working on three buildings in Lyon, teaching in Dusseldorf and managing many more projects out of Mexico City, talked to me about shifting toward contextualized architecture, and the death of the starchitect.

PH: This is a lot of work, isn’t it?
(Laughs) Yeah.

PH: Is that a typical workload for your office? It sounds like an absurd amount of projects (for an office of 28).

It’s typical, but I’ve always been this busy. For me, more work just means more staff. It doesn’t take work away from you, and you can’t put in more time because it's impossible (laughter).

PH: You've mentioned in several different places that you like to use local labor and local materials, and in Azure magazine you mentioned the process was inspired by the Orozco House project. Could you tell me about that process of reckoning?

The process was really completely crazy… and great! (laughter) I think the most important thing that we realized was that before the Orozco House, I was trying to do “global architecture.” With Gabriel, I realized the context that I was in full contact with, for the first time. Then I realized it is stupid not to understand the local conditions. That's also why I'm in France for two months. Of course sometimes you cannot do it. It's a luxury that I've been able to be here for two months. But I think it's very important to give an intelligent response to a project. In a way, I was reacting to global architecture. People think about architecture that can be anywhere, not specifically in a place. Many people say, “yeah, let's talk about context,” but you look at what they actually design and it could really be a building anywhere in the world.

PH: I can understand how it would be frustrating to work with labor that you can't guarantee have skill sets you need, or materials that you can't predict, but…

Actually I think it's the contrary. I think it's much simpler to understand and design knowing what you are facing, rather than trying to think you can avoid things. THAT is frustrating. For example in the funeral house that we did (Funeraria Tangassi), we knew from the beginning that the client wasn’t going to hire a formal construction company. This, we knew, would translate to very unskilled manual labor. So we also knew they would be very flexible. I asked the client to start working with the people even as we started the design process. We designed the building with them, and instead of doing a building with very perfect or sophisticated detail, we decided to do a building that could be built by these people. Then we were not frustrated at all! We would've been very frustrated if we arrived with our beautiful project, full of details only to discover none of it could be done. You know? It's much more easier to work like this. More fluid, more honest. Everybody understands better. Everybody does their job better. Of course there are problems, and I don't want to generalize too much but I think that this is much less frustrating than what we were trying to do before, which was to do an architecture that is not normally done in that country or locality.

Funeraria Tangassi. Photo by Iwan Baan.

(Funeraria Tangassi. Photo: Iwan Baan)

PH: In another interview you mentioned that “social housing is not in the discussion of enough architects.” (designboom) Could you tell me what you meant by that?

I believe it was a very difficult period for architecture in Mexico during the 1970s and '80s. Architects couldn't get into the discussion, and (social housing) just wasn't on the agenda for them. Now it's starting to be on the agenda for many more architects but for a long time, a serious good group of designers were not thinking about it.

PH: Do you think because the corporations to some extent abandoned architects for so long, architects in turn weren't thinking about social housing until recently?

Yeah, and I think there are two sides of the story. On the one hand the architecture field was very difficult and very few architects were able to work. I think also what was truly happening in the ‘90s and 2000s is that every architect wanted to design the Guggenheim. (laughter)

PH: So how do you think that idea of designing to a context translates to something like Paperhouses, where the designs are supposed to be universally accessible?

Well it translates to the thinking of the user. It translates to how someone that can value this project on the internet can translate it into their own conditions, and build this house. And this is why we were thinking of a house with many options; options for many different materials, giving exactly the same result; to adapt it to their local conditions. I think this is a way of understanding that idea because we really don't know where it's going to be built. The way we approached this, we wanted to do a design that could be really flexible in terms of size and materials. Depending on the conditions of where they live and what they have. What can they build with; where they are in the world, in terms of insulation etc.

PH: I think that's great. Some of the architects we've spoken with have been scared of how the user will interpret their designs, and it requires a shift in thinking. You obviously embrace it.


PH: Can you tell me about that kind of collaborating with different people, in La Ruta de Pelegrino?

Yeah, I totally believe that architecture is a collaborative job. I think that this idea of the architect being a genius and solving the world's problems is dead. We need many more people around us to understand the places where we're going to intervene, to really understand and give a group response that elevates the people; elevate their quality of life. Because in the end that's what architecture is all about. For me it was very important to realize that it was a profound topic, and it is going to work as part of a ritual. It's important in the lives of many people so it was important to work with different people around me, and it's not just architects. They’re the only ones that are listed, but it was actually a group consisting of designers, sociologists, philosophers, artists, landscape ecologists… we felt it was really important, although the final interventions are really discreet and small.

Open Chapel, Ruta del Pelegrino. Photo by Iwan Baan

(Open Chapel, Ruta del Pelegrino. Photo: Iwan Baan)

PH: You say you enjoyed the project, but was it at all difficult managing such a large group of people with such a different approaches from so many different disciplines? Or is it actually easier that way?

Well, no. Because when we collaborate you must have a lot of respect  for what each has to say and do. Otherwise why would you collaborate. I have collaborated in the past with people where it was a disaster. Last year they had us work together in a competition. We didn't know these people, and they didn't know how to collaborate. We sent our project and every time they sent us back something they sent it with drawings and suggestions. It was like, ugh. Yes, you could probably understand the context better if you tell us what we should respond to. But drawings…? “We don't like this, can you change it?” PFFT! (Laughter) I think when you have a collaboration you really try to understand and give a response to a very specific thing, or you respect the totality.

PH: The approach you have toward architecture is so different from the stereotype of Architect as God who wants to design museums, as you mentioned earlier, but do you think there's a perceptive shift in the architecture industry today? Are people being more benevolent and socially aware?

Definitely! For sure. I think that this is part of the new generation coming. Architects all over, even the ones who only want to build big museums, are seeing that's not possible because of the economy. You can see their reactions now. (laughter)

House in Ajijic, Jalisco. Photo by Iwan Baan

(House in Ajijic, Chapala Lake Jalisco. Photo: Iwan Baan)

PH: Are you inspired by anything outside of architecture? Media, music, themes?

I like traveling a lot. It’s an incredible way to understand yourself.

PH: What's the last memorable place you travelled to then? 

Woof. That's hard. Costa Rica? I was there in January. No, but then I was also in Toscana in march. Every trip is memorable. This has been memorable. With my baby, walking in Paris is memorable. Traveling with a baby, and I'm pregnant… working full-time mom, full-time architect, full-time everything, it's a lot. (Laughter)

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Previously: Architecturespossibles – Interview with Christian Pottgiesser