Profile: Frida Escobedo, an architect for our times


Whether designing social housing in Mexico, elegant summer pavilions in Hyde Park or handcrafted stone vessels for drinking tequila, Frida Escobedo is very much an architect for our times


Words by Veronica Simpson

Frida Escobedo is a young architect of whom much is expected. Only the second solo female architect (after Zaha Hadid) to be selected for the enviable Serpentine Pavilion commission – the annual commission that gives architects who have not yet built in the UK a chance to create something memorable and semi-inhabitable in the centre of London’s Hyde Park – she responded in 2018 with an elegant work of simple materials: a gentle sequence of courtyards delineated by screens of stacked, dark grey, concrete roof tiles. It provided much-needed shade through that year’s heat wave, as well as perforations through which summer breezes could flow.

Escobedo with the obsidian volcanic rock from which her limited edition vessels for Maestro Dobel tequila are made. Image credit: DORIAN ULISES LÓPEZ MACÍAS.Escobedo with the obsidian volcanic rock from which her limited edition vessels for Maestro Dobel tequila are made. Image credit: Dorian Ulises López Macías.

 

Escobedo set up her first practice in 2003 at the age of 24, when she had only just completed her degree in Architecture and Urbanism from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Co-founded with Alejandro Alarcón, her studio, Perro Rojo, completed many interesting commissions over the following seven years, including Casa Negra, a house on stilts in the Mexican landscape for a photographer and inspired by a camera obscura. But she put that practice to one side and went to pursue an MA in Art, Design and Public Domain – in the course’s inaugural year – at Harvard. Returning to her native Mexico City to set up on her own, she soon attracted attention for her work at two Venice Architecture Biennales (2012 and 2014), as well as pavilions constructed in Lisbon (Architecture Triennale, 2013), Chicago and Stanford. Prior to the Serpentine commission her most high-profile project was the conversion of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’ workshop into a museum, El Taller Siqueiros, in Cuernavaca (2012). But it’s her ability to do a great deal with not very much that marks her out as a talent for our times. In her work, it has been said, she is ‘trying to transcend the limits of architecture’. Which is certainly true of her previous visit to London: commissioned to construct a temporary work in the V&A for the London Design Festival in 2015, she rejected the idea of a dwelling, and instead transformed the shallow pool in the centre of the V&A’s John Madjeski Garden into a sequence of mirrored platforms that resembled the ancient street plan of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, over which Mexico City was laid. Its aim was to spark discussions about identity and cultural exchange.

Escobedo with the obsidian volcanic rock from which her limited edition vessels for Maestro Dobel tequila are made. Image credit: DORIAN ULISES LÓPEZ MACÍAS.Escobedo with the obsidian volcanic rock from which her limited edition vessels for Maestro Dobel tequila are made. Image credit: Dorian Ulises López Macías.

Spring 2019 saw her return to London, both to be honoured by the RIBA, which gave her a lifetime International Fellowship, and launch a project that demonstrates the rigorous intellectual and aesthetic approach she brings to all she does: a limited edition range of vessels that celebrate her country’s national drink, tequila, its geology, as well as important social traditions, for premium brand Maestro Dobel.

The vessels were made by stonemason Juan Fraga at his workshop in Mexico CityThe vessels were made by stonemason Juan Fraga at his workshop in Mexico City

Apparently, the invitation to work with Maestro Dobel came as a direct result of the Serpentine Pavilion. The brand was looking to celebrate contemporary Mexico and, at the same time, express its heritage and values. In response, Escobedo looked at the simplest of vessels, fashioned out of gourds, from which tequila has traditionally been drunk, and meditated on the how, what and why we drink. She says: ‘In Mexico everyone drinks tequila. But it’s a very different way of drinking tequila to elsewhere. People think tequila is just for shots or for cocktails. But that’s not how we drink it. In Mexico, tequila is enjoyed very slowly. It becomes a way of engaging with other people, building community, like being social. That’s one of the reasons why one of the vessels is such a small scale. Instead of a shot glass, what you have is this tiny vessel, which you have to cup with your hands. It’s for sipping. So it’s really to appreciate the tequila.

Casa Negra was inspired by a camera obscura. Image credit: JOSÉ FERNANDO SÁNCHEZ.Casa Negra was inspired by a camera obscura. Image credit: José Fernando Sánchez

‘(The shape is) really open so you perceive the smell. You have all the notes. It creates a very different relationship with the drink. If you want to have a tasting you would probably have this one. If you want to have a little more you can have this one [she shows me the medium one]. And if you want to mix it with something you have this (the larger one, for cocktails), and there’s still something a bit ceremonial about the way you handle the pieces.’

There are three vessels in the set, all fashioned from obsidian – the semi-precious stone mined from the same region that the country’s best agave (the plant from which Tequila is derived) comes from. The set she had when we met was of a dense and beautiful stone: black, shot through with shades of terracotta and gold. Only 30 sets will be made, and every set will be different. Some will be sold via the Harvey Nichols department store, with the others gifted to top bars in London.

The Serpentine Pavilion commission in Hyde Park. Image credit: RAFAEL GAMO.The Serpentine Pavilion commission in Hyde Park. Image credit: Rafael Gamo.

‘We had been doing furniture for a while, but we had never worked on this scale,’ says Escobedo. ‘We really enjoyed the process. It was a very profound narrative, talking about the landscape and talking about the process also – it’s like tequila going back to the earth, to the soil itself; it is going back into these vessels. To me, it was a beautiful story.’

The way she hopes the vessels will influence the tequila ritual is by ‘involving more of your senses’. She continues: ‘To me that’s luxury. It’s not something shiny about particular materials we associate with luxury.’ Luxury is about taking time, about savouring the things that matter. And it is also about craftsmanship.

That grounded, multi-sensory approach is something Escobedo’s practice applies to all its eclectic projects, she says: ‘We do research, teach, housing, retail, hospitality. I like to build relationships between the projects. This (Maestro Dobel commission) is a way of experimenting with materials. We are working with the same artisan for this as for a larger project – he is building a giant staircase for us in stone. So it’s just like shifting scales. And it also becomes something very tactile. To me it’s like a different layer of what we do but still the same work.’

If the Serpentine Pavilion is to thank for this tableware commission, I suggest it must have also got her name onto the invitation lists for larger projects. Escobedo says: ‘It got a lot of media attention, and that was a completely new experience for me. It’s been exciting and challenging at the same time. And I think the projects are changing slowly. I think we’re getting more projects outside Mexico, for sure.’ But she nearly missed out on this opportunity altogether. When the email arrived from the Serpentine, she didn’t even read it: ‘It just said “Invitation Serpentine Galleries”. I thought it was an invitation to join the newsletter. I never imagined I was going to be invited to design a pavilion! So I just ignored it. Then I got a second email, asking “did you receive our last email?”’ She read that one. And then the team had no time to lose. ‘We (initially) had to design a proposal in four weeks. I lost one week. So I had three left. My team was killing me: “How can you overlook this!”’

The Serpentine Pavilion commission in Hyde Park. Image credit: RAFAEL GAMO.The Serpentine Pavilion commission in Hyde Park. Image credit: Rafael Gamo.

Either way, she won the project and a lot of favourable attention, plus the London architecture fraternity appears to have made her very welcome. ‘There are wonderful architects here,’ she says. ‘Richard Rogers was really amazing. He hosted a dinner party, with Ruthie Rogers. They were very generous. They made me feel at home. I later met John Pawson. We were doing a workshop together. It was really nice just to get to know him as I have always admired his work.’

One of the less welcome aspect of the experience was complaints from the public that there wasn’t an obvious angle from which to photograph the pavilion. Garnering coverage in international consumer design magazines wasn’t the point of the pavilion, Escobedo says: ‘It was a screen, a courtyard, an exterior space. It created this Russian doll effect in the park – a dialogue between what’s interior and what’s exterior.’ She is dismissive of the idea that architects should pander to their clients’ desire to become an Instagram sensation.

‘How do you make a special moment? By ensuring that the person has to be present. We have to become less visual. We have become so visual. In design and art we need to think about how to convey more than just the visual,’ she says.

Escobedo has said before that practicing architecture in Mexico helped to forge her experiential, ‘do more with less’ approach. But the educational system there is also more conducive to experimentation. ‘The way we study is just five years and you don’t have to have spent time in an architecture practice to open your own,’ she says. ‘Basically, you can set up from the very beginning of your career, you can be on your own, which can be a good thing and a bad thing because then you learn the hard way. But also it becomes more flexible. You have more creative freedom at the start of your career. I am not saying here it’s less flexible – it just evolves more slowly because you have to go through all these steps. And that’s just a different path.’

However, even with a sense of greater flexibility Escobedo stepped away from it all to take up the Harvard course. She explains: ‘I had been practicing for seven years before I did my master’s degree. I was feeling a little bit trapped in the architecture thing, because … either it was like being this creator that makes a sketch and a magical, giant sculpture appears and you become the artist that no one understands – for that you would need to have either very large resources or very good connections or just wait for a very long time; the other way was to be a very practical architect and then you have to deal with clients and budgets and it becomes a little bit cold because then you have to become part of the business of someone else. And I didn’t want to do business with architecture. I wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to do developing, I didn’t want to go into real estate, or to speculate with properties. So when this programme opened (at Harvard), it opened the possibilities of thinking about space in so many different ways. Because space is built by relationships, by collaboration, by thinking about policy-making but also doing research and also designing objects because this creates communion.

Hotel Bocachica – hotels are among the wide varity of projects taken on by Escobedo. Image credit: UNDINE PRÖHL.Hotel Bocachica – hotels are among the wide varity of projects taken on by Escobedo. Image credit: Undine Pröhl

‘There are so many ways that we can think about space that I hadn’t thought of. It was a completely new thing and a wonderful thing. It informed my practice. I didn’t want to move away from traditional architecture. We still do residential, we still do retail, we still do all these things. But I think it added a critical layer to (my practice). Now when we do these things, we’re really questioning, we go deeper: how do we want to deal with a little object like this, how are we telling a story with it.’

With a studio that now numbers 10 staff, Escobedo has a varied selection of projects on the drawing board. ‘We’ve just finished a residential building – 10 apartments in Mexico City,’ she says. ‘We are working on two private houses, [and] two hotels – one in Puebla and one in Bacalar, in the Yucatan Peninsula.’ She completed the retail design for the Aesop Park Slope store in Brooklyn, New York, and an installation for Festival Architektur Radikal 2019 at Bauhaus Dessau, Germany. She has two exhibition designs on the cards: on Ettore Sottsass at the ICA in Miami, and ‘Lina Bo Bardi, but we cannot say more yet’. But she won’t accept offers for glass towers with luxury apartments in financial hotspots. ‘Architecture has to do more of what people really want,’ she says.





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