Mexican architect Frida Escobedo has rejected labels, genres and stylistic rigour in favour of a casual approach that mixes modernism with ornamental and populist traditions. Now her bold, celebratory designs are gaining international recognition
The easiest way to introduce Frida Escobedo would be to describe her as a promising, young, female, Mexican architect. But throw these clichés at her and you'll get a whole-hearted chuckle. "Yeah, I guess I'm a little box of subaltern surprises," she says. When I ask her if any of these labels mean anything to her, she shrugs. "Well, maybe the 'young architect' label," she says. "There's this ambiguity to it: clients in Mexico usually don't trust you if you haven't built any towers or don't have 40 people working for you in your office. And yet there is a fascination and this media-fuelled hype surrounding young architects, so everyone is looking for the next 'something under something'. It's strange, considering architecture is a discipline that needs to feed itself over time. But what's great about Mexico, and Latin America in general, is that you can be 34 years old and already have a body of built work that is pretty solid."
And that she does. At the age of 24, she founded her first office, Perro Rojo ("Red Dog"), with her then-boyfriend Alejandro Alarcón, whose parents commissioned the couple's first projects: a series of extensions built on top of pre-existing houses that were themselves fragments of older, grander houses that had been subdivided. "You had these giant properties, that were being split up into several different lots. I mean, one of our first houses was actually a converted bathroom with a huge jacuzzi, like the scene from Scarface. It reflects the way the city is constantly changing, breaking up into bits and then building on top of itself. There's no such thing as a blank slate in Mexico. Everything is add-on, and all these bits and scraps of projects make for a great proving ground for novice architects." The couple's most notable work is the Casa Negra (2003), a blackened concrete bunker perched on pilotis that a friend commissioned as a weekend getaway on the outskirts of Mexico City, after tiring of living out of an RV. "He sold his car and built himself a house for almost nothing. You could still do that back then," Escobedo says.
image: Carlos Alvarez Montero
These early and slightly clunky architectonic superimpositions are oddly seductive, mixing the ruggedness of informality with stark desire: think Teddy Cruz meets Derek Jarman. If you scratch under the dominant guerrilla architectural grammar of Alarcón (who moved on to build projects such as the Reina Roja hotel in Playa del Carmen, a lurid steampunk fun palace for springbreakers), we can find hints of the tensions that mark Escobedo's own personal vision. "I was fascinated by these middle-class houses dressing up as mansions, with their limestone detailing, thatched roofs and ceramic blue-eyed swan flowerpots. The city is constantly produced and reinvented through simulacra, at the everyday level, and I've always wondered what makes certain things stick, what makes certain things significant, how we build a common language." These questions are drawn around a constant thread in her work: the acknowledgement of Mexican modernism as an architectural offshoot of middle-class aspiration.
The Eco pavilion was Escobedo's first solo work (image: Rafael Gamo)
In 2006, Escobedo founded her own practice, but kept collaborating on projects such as the remodelling of the offbeat Boca Chica hotel in Acapulco, developed with architect-turned-artist José Rojas. The Boca Chica is another clear example of Escobedo's fascination with lowbrow vernacular in the form of second-rate modernist heritage. Through subtle architectural appropriation routines – clearing out spaces, highlighting the rawness of materials, throwing in splashes of colour, twisting references – she introduced the primitive and the popular into an uncompromisingly cool revision of modernismo. "Here you have a building tradition that is aching to be modern, but can't help itself from being artisanal," she says. "So, the ironwork is made to look like it was mass-produced, but it is actually made by hand. And the edges of the stone walls are painted pink, with matching pink handrails on the terraces. It's all very festive. Adolf Loos would probably die again if he went to Acapulco."
But Escobedo enjoys the ironies, and is curious to understand the value of ornament as a popular signifier. "At Boca Chica, lots of people thought what we were doing was in poor taste. But what's wrong with painting a Prouvé chair lime green? I think we were just tired of the dry rigour of the older generation of Mexican architects and we never really got the tepid global-architect ambitions of our generation, when everyone wanted to be Dutch. Now everyone in architecture is into this reappreciation of the marginal and local and hand-painted lettering, but back then it was pretty rare."
Pabellón El Eco, Museo Experimental El Eco, 2010 (image: Tobias Ostrander)
The same reassuringly casual attitude towards pre-existence won her the first Pabellón El Eco in 2010, a pavilion competition for up-and-coming architects that would occupy the patio of the Museo Experimental El Eco, a 1950s experimental exhibition and performance space designed by Mathias Goeritz. Escobedo's proposal – her first solo project – comprised layers of concrete blocks that could be rearranged to create different types of scenarios for gatherings, talks and performances. The bare gesture holds no grudges against modernism's unkept promise of a bright new tomorrow, but instead celebrates the humble, dirty, democratic mess it left us in. "In the 1980s and 90s, there was a huge disillusion with modernisation and modernism in Mexico, but I think slowly we're turning our shortfalls and dramas into a certain pride, into a different version of what a better future can be."
By the time the Eco pavilion was inaugurated, Escobedo had already begun piling up recognition for her work: Herzog & de Meuron invited her to design a house for Ordos 100 in 2008; she was part of the Architectural League of New York's Young Architects Forum in 2009; and, in 2010, she won the prestigious Arquitecto Marcelo Zambrano scholarship awarded by the Mexican concrete emporium, CEMEX, to attend Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, and landed her first major public commission in Mexico: the restoration of La Tallera de Siqueiros.
The La Tallera restoration was completed in 2012 (image: Rafael Gamo)
"It was kind of overwhelming, because both experiences – enrolling in a programme abroad that dealt with a completely different set of methods and assumptions than what I was used to working with, and then having to build a public project of this scale and significance – were completely new to me. I had to fly back and forth, and I was scared of not being able to focus properly on either my academic work or the project. But in the end it was a tremendous learning period."
The La Tallera project involved the reworking of a historically significant building. In 1965, fresh out of prison after serving a four-year term under charges of "social dissolution", famed muralist and activist David Alfaro Siqueiros had moved to the placid town of Cuernavaca and built a house and studio, where he lived until his death in 1974. The original La Tallera was an unremarkable space, a small house, a patio and a big industrial workshop. So although there was a strong need to open it up to visitors, there were few arguments for strict conservation.
David Alfaro Siqueiros's murals at La Tallera in Cuernavaca, Mexico (image: Rafael Gamo)
Escobedo deftly mediated between preservation and use. The old workshop was kept and doused in pure white to be turned into an exhibition space, new extensions were built in exposed concrete, and both were enveloped by a stunning, triangular patterned, concrete lattice screen. But the boldest and most assertive design decision was to rotate the two huge murals originally located in the courtyard of the house to face a new open square created after tearing down the old patio wall. "It was the one thing I was clear on from the moment we first set foot on the site. The murals had to move, even if we got disqualified from the competition. That was the real game-changer." In a single swerve, La Tallera turned public.
More recently, Escobedo has extended her forays into public architecture with the creation of the Civic Stage for this year's Lisbon Architecture Triennale: a pivoted circular stage placed in the Praça da Figueira that tilts according to the number of people standing on it, to a maximum of 1.5m above the ground. The entire project, including the metal structure and wooden surface for the stage, was built in Mexico and shipped to Portugal in crates. (Yes, it was the cheaper and more efficient alternative.) The stage was the centrepiece for the Triennale's New Publics programme, curated by another young Mexican architect, José Esparza Chong Cuy.
Civic Stage, Praça da Figueira, Lisbon, 2013 (image: Frida Escobedo)
I was curious to know what Escobedo thought of the premise of the Triennale and the condition of architecture in crisis-stricken Europe, compared with the permanent crisis designers are used to dealing with in the tropics. "It's a different attitude. In Mexico, it's a constant struggle and, if you have a smaller independent practice, you really have little certainty or stability. But because we're always in crisis, we've developed a different set of support networks: family, friends, odd-jobs. But over there, with the loss of state support systems, people are really having to face these huge difficulties on their own. No one is taking care of you any more.
But she believes that people are fed up of this situation. "I think that particularly the Triennale's public programme tapped into these more positive, rolled-up sleeves, do-something attitude that is the only way to get out of the muck. I really found this attitude relatable, and very close to my own experience. It was great because the 'young female Mexican architect' sort of dissolved into the bigger picture: practically everyone in Lisbon was younger than me, there was definitely no shortage of women involved, and where you came from was less important than why you were there and what you had to give. It sort of reaffirmed my sense that the world can be divided into two types of people: those that are driven by self-interest, and those of us who are driven by concerns and curiosity."