WASH: We would like to begin by asking you about this notion of the “other”. Describe what the “other” means to you and when did this concept became important to you?
Tatiana Bilbao: The “other” for me is anyone besides you; it is when you place yourself in the other, which is not easy. I don’t know if this is even achievable, but I try. I think that by trying, you may discover many things. It’s different when you think of the other. As you begin to think like the other, you become partially entwined with them. It’s a concept that is not very easy to describe, as it’s an act of awareness and empathy that goes beyond just thinking of the other. For example, when working on the 8000-dollar house—an affordable housing project that became quite popular—we were thinking of the other the whole time when we were starting design. But we were never the other, so we could never arrive anywhere near the design that these people wanted. And because we understood this, we decided to go out and do interviews and engage the other as best as we could. We were probably never the other, and despite our best information gathering, we still fell short, but at least we were able to see that we were not working just for them but for us thinking of them—which is very important distinction. However, this concept has become very important to me. In Spanish we call it “alteridad”, which is very nice because it means to put yourself in the other. It’s a concept devised by Levinas, a French philosopher, who wrote at length about this otherness.
Let me give you an example of why it’s such an important concept. During the 2016 presidential election, it was very clear that in New York, nobody could imagine that Trump was going to win. It seemed completely unfathomable.
All the media kept saying that Hillary was going to win by a huge margin. I was very aware of this arrogance—the prevalent thought at the time was that these other people [Trump voters] didn’t exist. In this instance, we were not being the “other”. We were just seeing ourselves and the voices in our echo chambers. We self-assuredly joked about Trump. But guess what, there was a “who”—the “other” that we didn’t see. And so, the election made me really appreciate the importance of the other. Because in the end, fifty million believed in whatever Trump had to say. I find it quite repulsive how there are so many people who identify themselves with that type of discourse, but I think that at this moment, we have to stop and think, open our eyes and maybe see what the “other” sees, because clearly, we do not have all the answers. We do not know what the “other” likes.
Even in a personal relationship, we are constantly trying to discover what our significant other thinks, likes, or hates. We then act upon our best guesses as to what that may be, because despite our best efforts, we can never be the other. In spite of this, I still think that it is very important to make the attempt, despite it being impossible, because when we try to place ourselves in that other position, things change, our vision changes.
You talked briefly about incorporating the “other” in your design process. How and when do you begin to bring people in to help inform a project?
It’s definitely a difficult relationship to manage, but from our experience, it is best to initiate contact and a relationship early—to go first—to understand and try to become the other in the beginning. We have to be the ones directing the story, because we are the architects. That’s the possibility and responsibility that we have. So we make ourselves available to the information which has to come from the community and the people. It’s not about throwing lines. It’s about learning what they do, how they live, how they see their places, and what they believe. During this phase, you can be involved with them. Then you go back to the drawing board, with all the processes and information in mind, and you respond. If you respond to who they are and what they do, and you are really paying attention to it, then it will be easier for them to appreciate the design.
For example, when I took the time to understand why a client wanted a flat house on a hill, I gleaned that they were not thinking about the hill, but about the house they wanted, built anywhere. I took their idea of the flat house very seriously and I tried to understand the “why” behind their argument. When I understood the “why”, I was able to create an argument for a very flat house that would follow the topography of the site. Then they gave the design a go ahead with “10 points” because I had built upon their argument. I was trying to be respectful of their argument, whilst accommodating their ideas into the site because that was the condition. When I presented the argument, to them it felt like I was designing with them because I listened to their argument and incorporated it into the final design. That is when things function. They work. It’s much more difficult to involve clients when you’re drawing the actual lines.
How does this relate to your experience of designing the $8,000 house? Did you find that the people re-envisioned and reprogrammed the spaces in ways you did not expect?
Yes, they made modifications and I was very happy to see that. The house was designed to be modular. I think that the best architecture would be one that would simply be a platform that enabled people to create their own living—not to direct their living. In Urbanism we should be able to zoom in as architects and provide a platform that enables people to bring their own ideas to space. Yes, good architecture should just be a platform.
Gratitude Open Chapel Photo, Iwan Baan
That’s very interesting, so since people made these informal modifications, is there a particular one that stood out?
In one of the houses we notice a guy constructing an element that emerged out of the larger module—it was something I really liked. The extension partitioned a section of the house, and I would have thought that it would have caused some problems, as it was the most complicated portion of the house; however, the man who made the modification seemed to think that it was the cleverest part. And that’s just the thing… you never know what people need for their living.
Speaking of the $8,000 house… you designed it as a solution for formal settlements that have been built by large scale developers. How does this contrast with, or fit into, the fabric of informal settlement centers that are spreading throughout Latin America? Did you use a similar kit of parts that exist in the informal housing market?
Well in a way the 8000-dollar house does challenge the informal housing typology seen in Latin America, but it does so while also incorporating a lot of information from the end-users into its design. The program is set up to be self-built. It’s kind of a combination of something that is more directive and planned, but also open to interpretation and modification. In some cases, the government prefers this self-built type to save money. It is a house that is well planned and designed, but one that can be adapted and transformed. It has this organic quality that informal houses have, which is good, because if we were to impose something very rigid, then we’d lose our clients. It is a program that tries to tackle that.
Is your project related to Elemental housing?
Yes, the 8000$ house is based on the same principle. It’s a very logical solution to a problem we all have in Latin America. The problems in Mexico are similar to the ones that Alejandro Aravena faced in Chile. He was not the first to offer a solution, and we are sure ours is not the last one. But our collective solutions continue to build upon a body of work that is proposing a better way forward.
Speaking of problems… your first job of working for a city must have exposed you to the world of politics, institutional bureaucracy, and corruption. How did you navigate it and what role can architects play in these established power structures?
It made me see that working in the private sector was a far more effective than being involved in the government. It allowed me to understand the restrictions of working for the government. Before working there, I thought very naively (I was in my 20’s) that the government had the power and will to change things. Especially the power. Being there allowed me to understand that it doesn’t really have the power. The power is in the people. The government doesn’t have power because it is an entity that is mostly responding to events. Governmental institutions are tied to so many things; to their political parties, to the economic situation, to special interest groups and so forth.
Ultimately all these ties are the shackles that influence policy. And rarely does this policy align with what society and the voters need. So it is very difficult to align the interests of the constituents and their representatives. I think any government has this problem. It doesn’t just happen in corrupt or less developed nations but all over the world. Also, I think that globally, society is slowly forgetting that we have the power to transform our governments. Politicians are liable to us because we are paying for them and all their decisions. We could be more empowered, and I think that’s something that’s starting to happen here in the US via all these movements where people are talking to their congressmen. It’s interesting to see that a lot of people are just finding out who their representatives are for the first time. In Mexico however, this is not happening at all. I don’t know who is representing my neighborhood for example. I have no idea. When I entered the government in Mexico, I realized that we have more power when we are part of the civil society. Especially as an architect. That’s why I decided to never go back to working in the government. It’s different working for the government rather than within the government.
As designers, how should we intervene in the already built environment? Have you done any experiments within that realm?
That’s something that we’re planning on attacking now. We did a studio at Yale a few years ago that directly addressed this question. We chose three units in different parts of the country. I really pushed the students to look outside the box. I’d say that I pushed them to their limits. The key was to force them to imagine a new program; I didn’t just want to assign existing programs like a community center or a library—no. They had to come with solutions out of the box. Some of the proposals were very interesting, and they are now part of a new book. We hope our book and findings will inform future conversations. But currently, we can’t really intervene, as it’s a very complicated political situation… but someday.
(Not) Another Tower, Tatiana Bilbao et.al.
How should we be designing for the future?—we are curious about the difference in low-tech vs high-tech design philosophies in addressing design sustainability. It seems that your solutions are very much tied to timeless low-tech solutions. What do you think about using the high-tech approach?
For me understanding technology is a natural thing now, although it was not always natural because I wasn’t raised in a high-tech environment. I grew up in Mexico City and studied at a school where technology wasn’t readily available. Once I entered the profession, I found that it also wasn’t available in the construction industry because it is generally too expensive. Therefore, I developed an understanding that for me, using more readily available materials was the way to go. So I design with the materials I know.
I have also concluded that it is irresponsible to use high-technology-dependent design in Mexico for several reasons. Firstly, you can use basic geometric forms with basic materials and still generate incredible architecture. Architecture doesn’t need all this high-tech material and technology to become something interesting; doing less is a more responsible approach. We cannot keep promoting a senseless consumption society. That said, I do think that it is important to adapt to new technology. For one thing, it enables faster design and construction. So, I think that by using the simplest materials and the best technology, you can do the most with very little.
But I’m also very critical of using high-tech systems. You can see all these LEED buildings that are being built out of glass and steel. These buildings use tons of systems to ventilate them; they are super elaborate monsters. They have all these systems to become LEED certified. It’s like going around in circles. It’s ridiculous. Let me give you an example; the new Google campus was built in the middle of nowhere and it is packed with systems that use zero energy. Do these systems really make it sustainable? Google is bringing 15,000 people to a spot that was empty green land. There is no surrounding infrastructure, no houses, no schools, no nothing. Is that sustainable? No. And yet that building is heralded as a marvel of sustainability because it is net zero.
Moving on to a different topic. We’ve heard that you have a sociologist and philosopher on staff. How do these professionals help steer the design process?
The sociologists are integral to the process, as they’re the ones who point out all the details that we don’t know about our clients. They also create the methods for gathering such information. The philosopher is another story, but they too help deepen and broaden our sense of community in our office. They allow us to understand things differently, and confront us with new ideas, whilst challenging prevailing notions. I like this a lot.
Since you employ all these different processes, at what point do you step in and decide what the final product will become? How does your process effect aesthetic consistency?
I’m glad you’ve asked that. It’s true… our clients often wonder why we do all these projects so differently. Well the projects end up being quite different, because the processes we use are always different. Now there is also continuity and consistency, as I’m part of all the projects from the beginning. I’m the first to contact a client and the first one to evaluate the conditions of a site. Guiding the project from the onset is very important; it is crucial to see the site for the first time, and to assign an office manager who builds a team that is ideal for a particular set of conditions. That team conducts a tremendous amount of research, and every project requires a different approach. We dedicate a tremendous amount of time in choosing materials and designing a program that goes beyond conventional ideas. Basically, in the beginning the team and I develop a concept and then the team begins to react aesthetically to the central ideas. The teams at the office are quite independent. I only intervene in the important decision or moves once the central concept is developed. My architecture also doesn’t rely on details, and our clients know what isn’t done the office. Once construction starts, I’m very much involved. I love to be on construction sites.
How does your office balance between commissions that are politically and socially minded vs ones that are profitable. How do you continue to involve yourself in thought-provoking projects whilst keeping your firm afloat?
I don’t know, my sister is the economist. We work together and she’s my partner. She is the one that runs the office. She is good at juggling all those things. It’s not something that I chose. As you say. trying to keep a firm afloat is not easy. There are many projects that we’ve done that haven’t been profitable, especially ones in Spain. This is because we do research and we go deeper, and ultimately projects take a lot of time and money. I do think that we do take advantage of a few of those larger projects that provide a little bit more money. I’m very interested in keeping social and political at the core of many projects, but I do also enjoy projects that are just beautiful to work on. But I do find that because we do like to push the envelope of design, I’m always getting clients into trouble.
But I think your question gets at something more fundamental. A certain crisis in the profession; architects have become irrelevant. And this is because we are not involved in the real everyday issues that ordinary people face. We should be. It’s a fact that the primary human needs are health, food, and shelter. We are tasked with providing one of these three basic necessities, so why are we so irrelevant? I think that what we are doing wrong is that we are not engaging real issues, we are not seeing the “other”. Therefore, the “other” is building their homes and cities without architects. Ninety percent—or more—of today’s buildings, are not being built by architects. Why? Because we are not there, we are not relevant to people.
We start losing ourselves in creating these beautiful things rather than being involved in real topics. That is the only way we can start becoming relevant, and that is why I try to engage all projects through the lens of the other.
Tatiana Bilbao studied architecture at the Universidad Iberoamericana where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree of
Architecture and Urbanism. She worked as an advisor for Urban Projects at the Urban Housing and Development Department of Mexico City in 1998-99, and in 2004 founded Tatiana Bilbao Estudio with projects in China, Europe and Mexico.