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uncube magazine 14 / 2013 In the photo booth with… Tatiana Bilbao

Florian Heilmeyer

There’s a new generation of talented architects in Mexico. The likes of Derek Dellekamp, Michel Rojkind, Tatiana Bilbao and Fernando Romero are all in the early 40s, all buy with projects of all sizes and all genering international attention. So when Tatiana Bilbao came to Berlin recently to exhibit her work in Ulrich Müller’s Architekturgalerie, we jumped at the chance to arrange a meeting in our photo booth.

You studied architecture and founded your office in Mexico City in 2004, but you also seem to have a special connection to Berlin. How come?

For a long time I had very close friends living here. I was born in Mexico City, so that is the city I love, but Berlin comes very, very close. Then in 2012 I was awarded the Berlin Art Prize by the Akademie der Künste. I don’t know why they chose me, maybe Berlin has a special connection to me as well? (laughs) I was invited to give a lecture and afterwards Ulrich Müller approached me asking if I would like to exhibit my work at his gallery. So here I am again!

Your early projects are dynamic, fluid forms in fair-faced concrete and remind me a bit of Hadid, yet your more recent projects have much simpler geometries and more basic volumes made of different materials. What changed?

Back when I was studying we were taught that the world is fully globalized and that we can use every material and create any form we like, anywhere in the world, which is simply not true. The quality of architecture relies heavily on the people who build it and what techniques and materials they are used to. In Mexico, like many places around the world, people working on construction sites often have little or no training and a lot of them are illiterate. To explain what you want to do and how it could be done is a big effort. So I realized that I wanted to make the construction process the starting point for my architecture – by examining the local context very closely first. I guess that’s why you’ve noticed a change in the forms of our buildings. It is indeed the result of two different approaches.

So is this why you called the exhibition “Under Construction” and only show pictures from the construction processes of your buildings?

I’d say my design strategies are rather archaic and simple. I have always worked with my hands, building models and drawing sketches. At my office we only use computers when the design process is almost finished. On a Mexican construction site it is the same: we don’t have the latest technologies, no high-tech machines or materials – it is still a very hands-on process. It was extremely important to me to make these processes visible in an exhibition about my work. We are aiming to make good architecture that is buildable within these conditions. If you want to understand our architecture, you have to know how buildings are built in Mexico.

Does this necessarily lead to a less complex architecture?

No, but to a less complicated process because the architecture is much better connected to the local building traditions that the local workers know well. In many cases, researching the local conditions also provides us with the main materials for the building too, be that wood, brick, steel, concrete or rammed earth. Our architecture has become much more versatile.

The building process in Mexico might not be very professional and high-tech, but it is very flexible and open. Once you understand these processes, you can take advantage of them.