From Mexico, one of the most timely contemporary voices, that of Frida Escobedo. In an exclusive interview, she talks about her architecture. A tool that serves to understand the world

Frida Escobedo has found the stability formula. A balance in which the opposites of her Mexican background are combined: to be rugged but also flexible, to have presence yet also be fluid. This is the only way to be stable, she says. Born in 1979, Escobedo is the architect of the moment. Since 2006, the year in which she opened her studio in Mexico City, she has done some important projects – the Museo La Tallera in Cuernavaca (2012), Biblioteca Octavio Paz in Mexico City (2014), many stores for the Aesop brand, and museum installations – mixing erudite references and forceful ideas transformed in architecture.

After the international visibility that led this year to her project for the summer pavilion of the Serpentine Galleries in London, the second woman chosen for that honor after the trailblazer Zaha Hadid (2000), she has raised her personal expectations even further.

Her confident air, smooth image and various contrasts, such as that of being an apparently abstract thinker who makes very concrete use of materials, set her apart as a woman and an architect. Her answers offer far from expected glimpses into her thinking. Something like the fragments seen in her projects, through the perforated walls she loves so much.

We met a few months ago in London, at the presentation of the Serpentine pavilion. How has your life changed since then?
It actually hasn’t changed that much. The level of media coverage is different, and we have gotten some interesting offers for new projects,
but nothing has been concretely settled.

Tell us about the constant themes that return in your works. Let’s start with the theme of reflection. How did you interpret that in the installation at the V&A or in the Serpentine pavilion?
It is a tool we have used to express certain ideas. Even before the examples you mention, there was the installation Split Subject (2012) in which I intervened on the facade of a modernist building in Mexico City, inserting mirrors that reflected the surroundings; at the V&A, the reflecting platforms suggested the idea of the bodies of water that surprised the conquistador Cortés (1485-1547) when he arrived in Mexico for the first time, a reproduction of the environment. In the Serpentine pavilion the water creates a positive-negative effect with the reflecting ceiling that underscored the alignment with the Prime Meridian (established in 1851 at Greenwich, the standard global marker of time and geographical distance, ed.). The reflecting ceiling augmented the sense of height, creating a space that was both intimate and open in the middle of the park.

I thought it was fascinating how the strongest concept of the pavilion, the alignment with the Prime Meridian, was actually an invisible wall, an idea…
I tried to make something visible that is not visible. A way of talking about temporality, just as the project is temporary, but also about the abstract concepts of space and time: an echo of the position of reference, a ghost of the original place. Geometry, territory, trade of goods, society, passage of time: these are the various sub-themes of the project.

Then there is the recurring theme of the perforated surface, seen in London and in the project for the museum at Cuernavaca. These grid walls, the ‘celosia’ (jalousie), seem to appeal to you, to belong to you…
(Laughter) In the case of London it was a way to create an intimate space without leaving the garden behind. The park enters the pavilion, but you feel you are in a limited, protected space. A sort of matryoshka doll: outside the city, because inside the park, though at the same time inside a pavilion, but with the perception of nature. The dark color of the material served to emphasize the context in a most surprising way.

What is your relationship with color?
I usually use rugged, unfinished materials. I love the real color of the material, I don’t think of color as a resource for special effects in architecture, though I know there are fascinating ways to do that.

An idea, a space, a material: where does the project begin?
It starts with a conversation with my team, in the office. There are 10 of us, we discuss the conditions of the project, what can be learned from it; from the big issues to how to show something that is not so immediate and obvious to the gaze. We make a collage of references, not necessarily all architectural, but also taken from art. The form comes after the research. The question comes first.

You have said that for you books are tools. Which one do you consider your ‘manual’?
I couldn’t choose just one. My favorites include The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey, The Writing of Stones by Roger Caillois. Then Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, with maps, calendars. I like it for its beauty and because it manages to represent something abstract.

Is it hard to practice architecture today?
It becomes hard if you do not seek opportunities, if you don’t look where things are not so obvious. At a certain point you have to try to create your project, to make it your own. Then it becomes easy, or at least easier.

What is architecture for you?
It is my language, the way I understand the world and express myself.

Is there something that disturbs you, that irritates you in architecture?
(Laughs) There are so many things, at the moment! When it become voracious, greedy. When people want only to build to gain money rapidly, without considering the people who live in the environment, the things that already become so dated. Disposable architecture.

What do you like in this period?
I find that at least in my generation there is a widening of understanding. It is no longer a matter of simply building skyscrapers, houses, offices, there is more debate, more regulation, teaching. Themes that are becoming part of the ‘trade,’ and I think this is very healthy.