Frida Escobedo Serpentine Pavillion

Interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obris: To begin at the beginning, I want to ask you how it all started: how did you come to architecture, or architecture come to you?

Frida Escobedo: Well, I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to study architecture. I decided to go to architecture school just a week before the applications closed. My first sense of what architecture was about was very early on, when I was a kid. My dad’s a doctor, so he’d sometimes take me to the hospital in the afternoon, and I had to wait for a few minutes for him, or hours sometimes, and I’d look out of the window. One of my favourite things to do was to look at this apartment building that was right next to the hospital. I was looking at the people moving around the space and seeing how each one of the apartments was very different, even if it was in the same building. So it was this idea of how private space expressed something quite different to the façade that just stuck in my mind, and many years later, it was one of the things that I continue to be fascinated by in architecture.

HUO: Once you started to study architecture, were there architects who influenced you? Panofsky said, ‘We invent the future with fragments from the past.’

FE: Well, very early on I remember this exhibition that Emilio Ambasz had in Mexico. I was probably about ten, and that was something that really caught my attention. That was probably the first architectural reference that I had.

HUO: He was very into ecology.

FE: Yes, he was, but also this monumental architecture – these huge walls in the middle of the landscape. So it was very dramatic, but also very subtle.

HUO: Any other influences?

FE: Yes. When I first came into architecture school, Lebbeus Woods. He was a huge revelation, radically different from what I’d seen in architecture. The third reference would be Lina Bo Bardi. If you think about these three characters, they have nothing to do with each other. Or do you see a relationship between them?

HUO: Utopia, maybe? Lebbeus Woods, was doing utopic drawings of unbuildable structures. Emilio Ambasz was always interested in eco-topias and Lina Bo Bardi was involved in a concrete utopia. It’s interesting: your practice is driven by an underlying framework that’s post-architectural, social and theoretical. How did that evolve?

FE: I think it comes from living in Mexico City, where this is everywhere. Every day you see how family organisation, economy, the way we relate to each other creates the architecture. It’s not necessarily designed by an architect. It’s architecture without architects. Cinderblock defines the module, but then the expression is infinite. I think this is one of the most visible things about Mexico City.

HUO: There’s a kind of expression of time in your architecture, through material and form. You reference Henri Bergson quite a lot – you refer to his social time and duration. What is it about Bergson that inspires you?

FE: I would say it’s my curiosity about how we define time and how architecture reflects it. This architecture without architects is more about what happens as an experience – this process of creation and accumulation that happens slowly but steadily, so it becomes a continuous flow of happenings, one after the other. I’m also thinking about this beautiful book by Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones (1985). It has these photographs of various stones where you can almost see how the compression and expansion and geological fractures start to happen, but it’s frozen in one specific snapshot, and I think architecture does exactly the same work. It’s a flow, it’s part of a continuous process, but then it’s also like a very precise cut into time. It’s like a cross section.

HUO: Bergson gives a fascinating description of how we can understand reality. It’s, as you say, a perpetual becoming – it makes or remakes itself. And we can also picture built environments in this state of becoming, and each building as the subject of time passing. Do you think of a building as a perpetual becoming– a building that will never finish?

FE: I don’t believe in finished buildings. I think it’s always an open work of art. This is especially visible in public buildings, which you don’t design for one specific desire. It’s more like finding how to resonate with a specific atmosphere or collective memory. So it’s almost like playing music. You don’t know if people are going to be singing the same tune, but you know that they’ll remember it. I think that’s quite magical, because the space becomes complete – not finished, but complete – when it’s occupied by people, but then it totally changes, so it’s almost like this exercise of trying to guess or wonder what the spec will be like. But then, by the time you’ve finished the construction, it’s a ruin of whatever you were projecting. So it’s always in this process of ruination.

HUO: What would you say is number one in your catalogue raisonne – your first accomplished structure or installation, which you feel is where your language began?

FE: I think it was probably my second project, a very small house in Mexico City [Casa Negra, 2003]. It’s only fifty-two square metres, and that was the first exercise in what a space should be, how it could be articulated and turned into something else through very simple means. I did it with Alejandro Alarcón, when we had our studio, Perro Rojo (Red Dog) together.

I would say it’s my curiosity about how we define time and how architecture reflects it

HUO: And 2006 was when you worked on a hotel. Can you tell me about the design for the hotel?

FE: That was the restoration of the Hotel Boca Chica in Acapulco. I designed it in collaboration with José Rojas. It was an interesting project, because it was about understanding what modernity had become in the coast of Mexico – instead of systematised, industrial processes it was about craft, manufacturing and quirky solutions to problems. It reflects a kind of aesthetic of clashes – very vibrant colours with rigid shapes and different combinations of materials. It’s a mix of languages. It becomes, really, a translation, which is very interesting to me.

HUO: And then there was a pavilion project for a museum?

FE: The Pavilion at the Museum Experimental el Eco in 2010. It’s a simple installation: just layers of bricks. And that was a kind of revelation to me. The request was for a pavilion, and these temporary projects, like pavilion installations, really push the boundaries of architecture. It was a request for a summer pavilion with different programmes, and the response was very simple. We just laid out a group of bricks across a courtyard in a very specific pattern that you could read, but also deconstruct to accommodate your specific needs. So, as you can see in this photograph [pointing to catalogue], you can see children playing and moving bricks around, alongside this forum that was designed for leisure. So in that space you can see these two times – social time and programmed time – coexisting. It’s a blank page that you can activate.

HUO: Did it change over time?

FE: Yes, it changed over time, and people were encouraged to move the bricks around and even to take them home. You could take five bricks to make a bookshelf, or a hundred if you wanted to make a room, so by the end of the summer, the pavilion would disappear and would become part of the city again.

HUO: And then in 2012, there was La Tallera in Cuernavaca, which is an art space in the former workshop of David Alfaro Siqueiros. Can you tell us about that?

FE: La Tallera was an invited competition, the first public building that I was commissioned to do. To me, it was about having this opportunity to open the courtyard into the plaza. So instead of losing one space, you would actually gain the neighbouring public space. It was also about returning the murals of Siqueiros – one of Mexico’s most prominent muralists – to the regional spirit – the spirit of public art.

HUO: Is this space part of the Siqueiros Museum?

FE: Yes. It’s the sister institution to the Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros (SAPS) in Mexico City and it used to be his workshop and weekend house in Cuernavaca. When he died he decided to give it to the public, and it was pretty run down by the time they did the competition. They wanted to expand it with a bookshop, an archive, a cafeteria and residence, etc. I wanted to highlight the relationship between the past and the new spaces and it to have these programmes housed and nested into these smaller courtyards that could combine with the plaza, so that the murals really became the basis of the building.

HUO: You kind of re-fixed the murals?

FE: Exactly. They had to be restructured. And since we needed a new structure for the murals—which are quite massive. So, we used the new structures not just to support the murals, but also to house the public programmes, such as a library and a cafeteria, the archives. So it was building a strategy to create more with fewer resources, which were very, very limited. As you can see, they were very humble materials – just cinderblock, and the new metallic structure.

HUO: Are those bricks?

FE: Yes, and intentionally, we didn’t have any finishes or any paint or any superfluous material. Everything is very raw, so you could do more with less. It’s a way to guarantee that the building will age well, since it doesn’t depend on layers and coatings of any sort.

HUO: How would you compare this project to Casa Negra?

FE: I think you can see similarities in the spirit behind Casa Negra and La Tallera: the roughness of the material, trying to do with more with less. Casa Negra was just about a single box. It’s just a single room basically.

HUO: And then there are two more pavilion-like structures. One is the Plaza Civica in Lisbon of 2013, and the other one is your 2015 installation outside the V&A in London. They both caught my attention, because they’re participatory structures. Let’s talk about Lisbon first. I discovered it late at night, when it was just an empty disc, and there was a full moon – so it was like a magical experience of light. The moon was somehow mirroring it like an optical trick. But then, during the day, it suddenly became a platform that was being used. So it was both abstract and very real. You called it the ‘Civic Stage’.

FE: I was commissioned by José Esparza. It was the name he proposed. He was putting together the New Publics programme at the time, and he asked me to reconsider what the podium was – the relationship between the speaker and the audience. I found it really hard to challenge that notion of the speaker and the audience, and my first gesture was just to create this circular platform. It’s like a round table, where there’s no head, there’s no tail. And then I had this idea of how you can really make the voice of the speaker visible: this faceted surface underneath makes the disc go up and down like a seesaw.

HUO: Yes, like a balance.

FE: Exactly. So the more audience you have, the higher the speaker becomes and the louder his voice. That was the basic idea behind it, and it also allowed for different programmes to happen. We also did a different iteration of the project where we installed a curtain and we also inverted the audience and the play: the play was happening in the city and people were sitting in the middle of the platform. Something really interesting began to happen when people were looking at the play from their balconies around the square as well – so we had this double layer of spectators. And then the city was reframed. You could see how people, just walking through the streets, were mingling with the actors in the play, and all this layering became really interesting to me.

So the first gesture was to create a very simple shape, which is something that I like to depart from. And then the second gesture was to rotate that rectangle and to align it to the Greenwich meridian, which is just a few miles away from the gallery.

HUO: The V&A was a stage for the viewer.

FE: Yes, and it was also like a mask, I think.

HUO: Why was it like a mask?

FE: It was for the London Design Festival. It was to celebrate The Dual Year between Mexico and the UK, so it had to show some Mexican-ness. And to me, that was really strange, because now that we have access, on our phones etc. to other countries, a pavilion no longer has that function. So I approached it more like overlapping landscapes, and seeing what that relationship could do. For me, the closest experience that I have of how open space can offer interaction is the internal courtyard, which is a common feature of Mexican domestic architecture. This is where life happens in Mexico. Everything happens within it, but it can also become a very intimate space. So this is where you’re your most intimate self, but then there’s this façade, your public persona, so it almost becomes a process of existing inside a mask. It’s very theatrical, because it’s like a mask in a play: you put on the mask and you become a character, but you don’t stop being yourself.

HUO: This idea of the courtyard leads us to the Serpentine Pavilion, which takes the form of an enclosed courtyard comprised of two rectangular volumes positioned at an angle. To go back to Bergson, we could speak about how some of his ideas are embedded within the design, particularly the becoming of time, the sense of duration within the context of a social space. It’s something, of course, that we’ve played with a lot in this commission: thinking about the Park Nights and the Marathons that take place inside it. So, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your ideas and reflections, and what went through your head when you got our invitation.

FE: Well, designing a pavilion like this is quite a challenge, because on the one hand it has a very strong relationship to the gallery itself, which is a definite space, but on the other hand you’re designing within the park, which has a very porous condition. So the first gesture was to create a very simple shape, which is something that I like to depart from. And then the second gesture was to rotate that rectangle and to align it to the Greenwich meridian, which is just a few miles away from the gallery. That’s a very subtle thing in the Pavilion.

HUO: Almost invisible.

FE: Almost invisible, but it really relates and speaks to how we deal with time. It’s something that’s present in our lives, but we don’t notice it anymore.

HUO: So the outer walls are aligned in parallel with the Serpentine Gallery’s eastern façade, while the axis of the internal courtyard aligns directly to the north.

FE: That’s correct. So you’re really locating time and space, and that was important to me. These days, there’s this very powerful notion of time: something that’s so abstract but which defines the way we interact with each other, the way our economy works, and so on. Everything is determined by this very thin line drawn on the map, which is very abstract, and which isn’t a very old notion: the Greenwich meridian was only established in 1851. So, in terms of how we actually relate to each other, it’s something that’s quite new, and we forget how fast that has changed.

HUO: The Pavilion’s pivot of access refers to the prime meridian, which is the global standard marker of time and geographical distance. So it’s global, but it’s also local, as a reference to Greenwich. And you’re combining this London reference with a Mexican reference – the internal courtyard. You also have the lattice walls of the Pavilion, and that is a feature that’s inspired by the celosia, a traditional Mexican breeze wall, which is used to bring light and air into the home. But it’s composed of cement roof tiles that are commonly used in the UK, so it’s a fusion.

FE: Yes, you’re absolutely right. This lattice has to do with the process of interiority and exteriority, because it depends on the light: you could be looking outside, and if it’s brighter outside than inside, you get to see the outside, but people don’t see you. So it becomes almost like this play between how you want to be perceived, how secret you want to be. And in this case, the celosia allows the landscape to filter in, but in a very subtle way. So you have a relationship with the park, but it’s offered by this wall that allows you to have an interior space, a covered space.

HUO: And the intercepting plains produced by the simple rotation of the shape create more irregular shapes and play and circulation. Can you talk a bit about that?

FE: When you rotate these two squares, with one square inside the other, you actually have three spaces – two secondary spaces and a main space – which allows for different kinds of interaction. So, let’s say you want to use it more like a theatre, you have a back of house and then a main stage. And if you want a more personal, intimate space, you move into those tinier courtyards. You have, an open courtyard, you have a closed courtyard, and you have a collective courtyard.

HUO: You can disappear, you can hide.

FE: You can disappear. You can hear music from behind the wall and then, turning around the corner, discover that someone is playing an instrument, for example. These little moments of surprise happen just by rotating the shape. Then, of course, you have these two reflective surfaces: the triangular pool in the floor and the curved underside of the canopy, clad with mirrored panels, which allow the space to duplicate itself.

When you rotate these two squares, with one square inside the other, you actually have three spaces –two secondary spaces and a main space– which allows for different kinds of interaction.

HUO: And the movement of the sun is reflected or refracted in the pool and also the mirror of the ceiling, and that connects to your fascination with time.

FE: Yes. The Pavilion will never be the same, due to the light and how it affects it. This happens with every form of architecture, but we’re trying to make it very, very clear in this project. For example, at the summer solstice you’ll have a very specific shadow pattern on the floor. This will reflect a very precise moment that will never happen again. It’s all about how you experience that moment in the space.

HUO: You’ve said that the Pavilion is like a clock that charts the passage of the day. It’s like a sundial.

FE: In a way, yes, it is. Having this very clear rotational axis to the north, you can clearly see the sun moving through the central space, but also filtering the light through the celosia, so it becomes a project that’s permanently activated by the light or, the weather conditions, but also by the programme. You have this combination of things happening at the same time.

HUO: One of the key tenets of Bergson’s philosophy is that our individual experience of time is idiosyncratic and personal, and therefore runs counter to the linear determinism of time that’s measured by the clock, and our interior experiences of time can vary greatly. Your Pavilion functions in a similar way: it’s a place where social time is permitted to unfold at different speeds, so it’s interior time rather than exterior time.

FE: Exactly.

HUO: Could you talk a little bit about the collective and individual experiences of time that you hope the Pavilion will allow?

FE: The Pavilion allows you to reframe the space and, therefore, time. I’m thinking about the way time expands or contracts when you’re travelling, for example. When you have this new frame and you need to really be present in the moment, and when you have something that allows you to make a contrast or to mark the passage of time, that really creates a different kind of introspection. But when you do that collectively, then it’s something completely different. Even if it’s just realising that you’re sitting in the sun and five minutes ago you weren’t, that changes your perception of the space. And sometimes, when you move from the rhythm of the city into these very quiet, specific places, time seems to be a completely different experience.

HUO: Yes, so it’s still about clocks, but it’s not about the clocks you can buy, the clocks you can wear, or the clocks you can hang on the wall; it’s about the clock that ticks away in your body.

FE: Yes, totally, and I think this is also related to how you perceive time. We lose that in the modern age. We’re attached to our phones, we’re attached to screens, we’re not so aware of the subtle change of temperature, let’s say, in a park, which indicates that the sun is setting or rising, or when you’re starting to get hungry after a day of running around. So it’s about reframing that subtlety.

HUO: So, hopefully, your Pavilion will lead to a better life.

FE: Hopefully, or to a cure for jetlag!

HUO: Another important thread in your work, besides pavilions and installations, is your social-housing projects. Is your incremental housing scheme in Taxco, Guerrero, still ongoing?

FE: Yes, it is. We’ve been working with Infonavit, which is a financial institute in Mexico, for about six years, and we continually do projects to either propose new forms of social housing or to try to reactivate rundown spaces. We’ve also considered different forms of family structures – not just the mum, dad, two kids and a dog kind of structure, but forms that can accommodate an extended family, where everyone has their private quarters, but there’s only one kitchen and there’s this idea of a shared courtyard as a social space. So, how does that manifest in social housing now? That’s a question we’re trying to pursue. Also, something that’s very important to us is how to reduce debt for these people, because, in these social-housing structures, what they do is to create these programmes where people borrow money and then they end up paying it off for a long period of time, so what we’re trying to do is reduce that. But how do you create a structure that can grow over time but is relatively cheap and allows you to pay your debt off quickly, so you’re freed from this cycle of dependence?

The Pavilion allows you to reframe the space and, therefore, time

HUO: Some of these projects are in Taxco, Guerrero, and some are in Saltillo. What’s the difference between them?

FE: One of the exercises was about creating more density in the already planned structures that are geographically isolated. Right now, we have a very big problem with these communities feeling abandoned, because there’s not enough infrastructure, no transportation, they’re usually very far away from city centres. So one of the solutions is to increase density and to give services to these areas. You add schools, you add medical centres, you add transportation, so that you start creating a community life. For other examples, like the one in Taxco, what we’re trying to do is some sort of rural housing that can slowly adapt and transform into the urban environment. What we did with that project specifically was to work with the earth, making the bricks out of soil. The material was already on the site, and this was a way of reducing the debt as much as possible. You don’t have to buy any materials. You have them already. So it’s a way of transforming the territory – how do you change soil into potential real estate?

HUO: Are these buildings finished now, or are you still working on them?

FE: No, we’re working on them. This project takes time with institutions like this, but we’re continuing to work with Infonavit on the different projects.

HUO: So, they’re your main client?

FE: Yes, one of our main clients.

HUO: What are the other projects you are working on right now?

FE: We’re also working on this project that’s more like sculpture, or an interpretation of sculpture. There was this project in 1968 that was initiated alongside the Olympic Games in Mexico. It was the cultural Olympics – a series of nineteen monumental sculptures or stations commissioned by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez. He asked Matias Goeritz to coordinate the whole project, which was called Ruta de la Amistad. The project started with an invitation to participate in the Orléans Architecture Biennale. When I first visited the FRAC Center—who organised the biennial—I had a moment of revelation. We were looking at the archive and we found this tiny, tiny image on the corner of a contact sheet of one of the sculptures being constructed, and you’d think that they were gigantic concrete structures, but they’re actually very flimsy metallic structures covered by a thin veneer of concrete. To me, it revealed the politics behind the ‘68 movement in Mexico, the Olympic Games, all of that: it was just a façade. It was, again, the mask, the Mexican mask. So we started working on that project and we decided to re-interpret one of the stations, which was designed by Olivier Seguin, and we were looking for him for quite a long time, and then we found out that serendipitously he was living in Orleans. So it was a very nice coincidence. And now, for the anniversary of ‘68, we’re installing the piece in La Source, the botanical garden in Orleans, so it’s a way to return the structure to him. We also did a different iteration with artist Todd Williams, who was based in New York when he made his sculpture for Mexico, and that piece is currently showing at Arthur Ross Gallery in New York. So, we’re working on those two, and hopefully doing some more around the world.

HUO: Do you have any unrealised projects or dreams?

FE: My house.

HUO: Your own house?

FE: My own house.

HUO: Why isn’t it built?

FE: I don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet.

HUO: How do you imagine it?

FE: I’m not sure. It’s an on-going thing in my mind. It changes so much. Sometimes I imagine it as being more like an open space, and then I really want to make it super, super tiny. I’d like to get rid of most of my possessions and just move into this very condensed space.

HUO: You also teach: you’re a visiting professor at the Columbia Graduate School, you’ve been teaching at the AA. What advice would you give to an aspiring young architect?

FE: I’d give the same advice that one of my tutors, Mauricio Rocha, gave me. He said architecture is a slow craft and you need to learn and you need to open your eyes and you need to engage in conversations, so you can grow. It’s something that’s not going to happen overnight. It’s about patience and keeping your eyes open. •

All images: Serpentine Pavilion 2018, designed by Frida Escobedo, Serpentine Gallery, London  (15 June – 7 October 2018)  © Frida Escobedo, Taller de Arquitectura, Photography © 2018 Iwan Baan