arquitecturas911sc interview

Architects Jose Castillo and Saidee Springall of arquitectura911sc discuss the intersection of the physical and the social in architecture.

An interview with arquitecturas911sc, a 2012 Emerging Voice.

Confronted with the complexity and political uncertainty of Mexico City, Jose Castillo and Saidee Springall of arquitectura911sc strive for a “dual commitment to an architecture that connects the physical with the social, and architecture that is grounded and informed by the city.” Their Performing Arts Center in Guadalajara is under construction. Recently completed projects include a low-income housing development, bookstores, offices, and commercial spaces in Mexico City, as well as urban planning and infrastructure projects throughout Mexico.

Jose Castillo and Saidee Springall sat down to discuss their work and what it means to be an Emerging Voice with Anne Rieselbach, the League’s Program Director.


Anne Rieselbach, the Architectural League: This series emphasizes the voice of practitioners. How would you describe your voice?

Jose Castillo: Our voice has been shaped by the experiences we’ve had over the last fifty years. In a way, we’re late bloomers, because most Mexican architects are working in their own offices by the time they’re twenty-four. Compared to our colleagues in New York, Mexican architects have a lot of work. But by choice or by accident, we postponed the beginning of our practice until we were thirty-two years old.

Saidee Springall: That was almost six years after we were done with school.

Castillo: I would say that our voice has been shaped by that sense of waiting and longing; and at the same time, paradoxically, by a state of emergency, which our name alludes to. The idea is that in a place like Mexico we’re always dealing with the issue of time. Either things are too slow or too quick—but never just right. The voice has to do with adapting our work and our methods of working to those constantly changing variables of the city.

Springall: Also the range in the types of projects we work on—the scales—from very small projects to urban projects, that contributes to our voice. We always try to bring social and political issues to the project. So, as Jose said, we’re much more worried about the process itself than how the building looks.

arquitectura911sc | Ciudad Juárez Northwest Sector Master Plan, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 2010. Image courtesy arquitectura911sc

Rieselbach: As an emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climate?

Castillo: I would say the last three or four years have been quite different from the previous six or seven, which is basically the ten-year range we’ve been working. In spite of the crisis of the last few years, we haven’t had to lay any people off, though we have fluctuated in size from twelve to twenty people. We have understood the way of adapting to the times, hedging our bets, maybe 40% of it is public, the other 60% is private. We have some small commercial work, but also big urban infrastructure projects. Maybe this lack of focus, which in a different environment would have been problematic for us, has become an advantage. This diversification has allowed us to create many allegiances with ideas and people and clusters of offices to which we feel close. Firm-wise, spreading out has been an advantage, and ideology-wise, we’re happy to be a part of many families, not just formally-oriented, not just digitally obsessed, not just socially activist…

Springall: Also, moving back and forth between architectural design and curatorial or academic projects, like the biennales, that helps keep the office running.

Rieselbach: Teaching, research and curatorial projects play a large role in your practice, including spotlighting the role of your contemporaries, which is really generous. How does this inform the architectural discourse in Mexico, and does it have any reciprocal relationship to your own work?

Castillo: Just this Saturday, we had a big barbeque at our home, with maybe twenty of the most relevant young architects in town—it was a very open and communal environment. For many years, in Mexico, it was very competitive, you know, that kind of single-author driven work. I’m talking about fantastic architects—Alberto Kalach, Enrique Norten, Isaac Broid—but in spite of their friendship, there was not so much collaboration, it was very much about competition. Whereas we have worked with people as diverse as Productora, Fernanda Canales, Alejandro Hernandez, and AT103—we like this sense of bringing our colleagues together to have interesting conversations. I think architecture is all about the conversations.

Rieselbach: That cammraderie and inclusiveness has brought an international spotlight, for all of you. Can you tell us about the exhibition you curated here, Mexico City Dialogues? It had how many different firms in it?

Castillo: It was twleve firms. At this Saturday’s barbeque we had eight of them! Some of them who were not necessarily friends to begin with, we have sort of produced a friendship through that experience. As Saidee has said, the biennales, the exhibitions, they foster relationships and conversations that may later turn into something else: projects, or books, or other forms of research. We thrive on that work. It is not ancillary to the practice; we embrace it as really the whole idea of being an architect.

Rieselbach: Could you talk about the limitations and possibilities for the practice of architecture and urbanism in Mexico City for your work, which you’ve described as a response to different forms of emergency? And how do you define “emergency”?

Castillo: When we were trying to imagine what the Mexico City Dialogues show would be about, we found that there were these four constituent factors that created both conflict and possibilities: changing demographics, legal ambiguities, economic inconsistencies, and ineffective planning. And these constituencies were made even more relevant for young practices, struggling to find work and clients. When these practices were coming of age, turning eighteen, twenty years of age, it was a time where Mexico was still going through boom and bust cycles.  Every six years there was a kind of economic catastrophe, where even the more established offices were doing paper architecture in the galleries.

So I think practicing architecture in Mexico has to be understood in terms of what emerges both because of and in spite of constraints of time. How that has been engaged, embraced, and resisted at the same time.

Rieselbach: Your firm has landed some really major commissions in the last few years and many of them through competitions. What do you think has set your design methodology apart? Why are you winning? And I guess part of that question is, what are design strategies inherent in what you call “dirty realism”?

Castillo: I can start with an easy answer to the dirty realism question. Realism means understanding the many forces at play in a project. One of those forces is the idea of the client. Preexistence of a client assumes a major role for architecture as communication. Looking back at some of the major competitions we’ve won—the Spanish Cultural Center, the Performing Arts in Guadalajara, the CEDIM design school—I would say that what we did differently from our colleagues is to assume that we can communicate both in panels and verbally something deeper than what the project looks like.

Springall: More than the aesthetics. The finalists in all these competitions, they had flashier buildings that were more modern and more unique, but I think we can say that we really understood the program. For example, with the theaters, we called the consultant, tried really hard to understand how things move around in a theater, and then tried to put that in a way that people on that jury could grasp it.

Castillo: In a recent review of George Steiner’s new book, there’s a quote by Marx, something like: “Ideas can only be linked to the words in which they exist.” He doesn’t necessarily mean verbally. I mean, for ideas in art and architecture, the “language” is the way you present in panels, the way you convey in presentation, the way you do a Powerpoint even. The ideas are only as strong as those other things are.

Rieselbach: So they have to have coherence as a narrative of some sort.

Castillo: Exactly. Our office might be eclectic in terms of aesthetics, but we’re coherent in terms of our idea and how we communicate.

Rieselbach: Could you talk a little bit more about your urban design projects, such as the transportation study in Ciudad Juárez? How do you approach that work and the idea of urban planning as a force for change or development?

Castillo: We’re very much “accidental urbanists.” We became urbanists not by formal training, but by asking questions like: what is relevant about the city, in this case Mexico City, that can inform the way we practice architecture in general? And it seems that the recent projects that we’ve done at a very large scale—the Neza-Chimalhuacán Bus Rapid Transit Corridor, the Ciudad Juárez Project—these started as challenges, which then became commissions. Let me explain: for example, my doctoral dissertation was about this place called Ciudad Neza, which was an informal settlement on the peripheries of Mexico City. Then for the Rotterdam Biennale in 2005, we did a speculative project on Ciudad Neza, and then two years later, a real client calls us and understands that we know a thing or two about Neza.

Springall: The commissions came by really knowing something about the city—how it moves, what’s underneath it.

Castillo: We were city nerds! Many, many years ago, on Saturdays and Sundays, we used to do these dérives in the city, taking the car and driving for sixty kilometers to the edge, just to see it. When I say we don’t come from the planning side, I mean, we’ve become, let’s say, professional planners, but we were not planners by profession.

Ciudad Juárez is a good example and an interesting story. We were asked to be the curators of the Venice Biennale in 2010, and we decided to do a project about Juárez, but then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico decided it was too risky to talk about Juárez. They told us in mid-April, right around the corner from the Biennale. They said, “We don’t want you to talk about Juárez, but you can do anything else and there will be money for that.” And we said, “We think it’s relevant to talk about Juárez; it’s either Juárez or it’s nothing.” And it was nothing! The Mexican pavilion at the biennale stood empty. But then, the great irony was that four months later they call us from the Ministry of Social Affairs, saying, “We want you to do a real project in Juárez.” This can only happen in Mexico!

In the office we like the expression: “With a rock, you can break a window or build a wall.” There are moments to break windows and moments to build walls. The 2010 Biennale was a broken window. Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story for Juárez.