Culiacán in north-west Mexico is one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. "Crime is on top of everything," says Tatiana Bilbao a young Mexican architect working on a handful of projects in the city. "One of my staff went there for a site visit and when he came back he said, 'I don't imagine Afghanistan to be any different.'"
Invisible drug cartel networks and trade routes are so ingrained into the narco-city's infrastructure that swathes of it are rendered no-go areas and parks are abandoned and unvisited. "There is no public space that works in the city. There is not really a public life in all of Mexico," sighs Bilbao.
Bilbao is one of a clutch of high-flying young architects from Mexico City, and her ambition is to shake up troubled areas such as Culiacán. But for all her talk of communal space, Bilbao's practice has always veered between public and private. She made her name building expensive houses for wealthy clients with a studio called LCM, which she set up with former OMA protégé Fernando Romero in 1999 (other projects included libraries and museums). Previous to this she worked as a town planner for Mexico City's urban housing and development department, having graduated in architecture and urbanism. In 2004 she set up her own practice, taking many of her LCM clients with her, and founded a think-tank for urban issues in Mexico City. So far there's little physical to show for this research, though. And despite a list of clients across South America, Asia and Europe, Bilbao seems to have a way to go before she's satisfied.
We are talking in a quiet bar on London's Oxford Street after Bilbao has given a lecture at the Architectural Association. She is small and slight and races through sentences, sometimes missing words and smiling quickly. She talks about playing in the concrete streets of Mexico City as a child, her architect grandfather and her difficulty, as an urbanite, coming to terms with getting married and living in the suburbs. She is friendly, a little shy, but unquestionably steely.
Bilbao and Romero got LCM off the ground by knocking on doors. One of those doors belonged to acclaimed Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco. "We presented him with a house we had designed for him," says Bilbao. "He said, 'These young guys, what are they doing? That's crazy, that's funny.' Five years later he knocked on my door and said, 'I want you to help me with my house.'" Built in 2008 on the craggy Mexican coast overlooking the Pacific ocean, the house is crowned by what appears to be a simple circular swimming pool. Inside, this pool is revealed as a perfect hemisphere at the centre of the building, swelling and billowing out into the chalky white interior walls.
Back in Culiacán, where her projects are far from oceanside luxury, Bilbao operates with architecture rooted in strategy, aiming at unlocking public space and opening unused and unloved parts of the city. Her three projects are all in collaboration with the city's government – a multi-million dollar masterplan for a botanical garden, a permanent installation to celebrate the bicentenary of Mexico's independence, and a university building.
Design for riverside walk in Culiacán, Mexico
In the centre of the city, 35 of the biggest names in public art – among them James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Dan Graham, Tino Sehgal and Pedro Reyes – are building site-specific works as part of Bilbao's regeneration of an existing botanical garden. Her masterplan, with its network of paths, is a little tritely based on overlaying tree branches, but the most interesting part of the project is the momentum it has created to provide new infrastructure for the area – through Bilbao's insistence, the help of the ministry of social development and funding from the UN. New streetlights have been installed, trees planted, pavements and even sewage systems built. "It's as if it's radiating energy," she says. "The impact is going to be so much more than the park itself."
This desire for effect can also be seen in Bilbao's design for a symbolic arch for Culiacán. What's most impressive about that project is that she refused to go through with it. Frustrated by what she saw as generic and wasteful symbolism – there is controversy over a similar arch being built in Mexico City at great expense – Bilbao suggested a new project to the governors. Her proposal was to restructure the landscape between the city centre and the convergence of two rivers, which have been neglected by both the authorities and the public. She suggested a new path that would open up the riverside and be lined with 200 new trees, a proposal that was accepted.
Bilbao's ability to navigate this tricky political territory is indicative of her approach in general. "You don't only need to be against things, you need to propose a solution," she says. "If I didn't do this commission then they would call any other architect, and any other architect would build an arch at the entrance of the city and spend the same amount of money."
Her response to the invitation to masterplan a 117km-long rural track across a northern Mexican mountain range shows a different side to her collaborative nature. It was supposed to be a solo project, but instead La Ruta del Peregrino ("pilgrim's walk") has become a hub for some of the most interesting international architects around. Bilbao invited Ai Weiwei, HHF, Christ & Gantenbein and others to build chapels and religious monuments along the walk, which attracts up to two million visitors every Easter. "My first project as an architect on my own was to build a pavilion in China for Ai Weiwei," says Bilbao. "I wanted to pay back the favour."
Artist's studio in Lomas de Chapultepec, Mexico, 2008 (image: Iwan Baan)
This was at the Jinhua Architecture Park in 2006. Her second project for Ai Weiwei was a house for Ordos 100, the generation-defining housing project in the middle of the Mongolian desert. The latter is mature and calm, a house with a pitched roof, split in half, with something of Gordon Matta-Clark about it, and a certain degree of wisdom about the absurdity of the task at hand. Her first was more spontaneous, all angles and windows and concrete. She twitches a little when we discuss the design. "It's like a son. You would never hide a son, but it's not a project I really identify with or totally like. I don't think it's totally solved. I think it's kind of innocent."
When operating in public space, Bilbao is an architect in the best sense of the word – working with the fabric of cities, with a long-term view, rather than performing on an individual level with a narrow or short-term agenda. Seeking support and collaboration from peers, she works with curators, architects, artists, botanists and researchers to get the most out of her projects. Her agenda is clearly focused on increasing interaction and promoting the possibilities of communal space. "I think now there are many other cities that need public space much more urgently than Mexico City. My mind is more in these spaces where they have an urgency."
Despite Bilbao's research into and passion for the urban life of Mexico City, she is predominantly working in provincial cities like Culiacán and in the countryside. And despite her passion for public space, she works with private clients. "It's not a conflict," she says, musing the topic over. "It's the same relationship with the landscape as a public space in the middle of the city. You have to be respectful, you need to be aware of it, you need to respond to it. Conceptually you have to deal with it in the same way."
"It's pretty impressive that I don't have one project in Mexico City," she admits. "Of course we have a lot of problems, a lot of social issues in Mexico City, but I think we can handle them before the other places can."
House for Jinhua Architecture Park, Zhejiang, China, with Max von Werz, Enrique Salazar and Israel Alvarez, 2007 (image: Iwan Baan)