The founders of Escobedo Soliz discuss the role of collaboration in their practice, and in Mexican architecture more broadly.
Since starting their Mexico City-based firm four years ago, Andrés Soliz Paz and Lazbent Pavel Escobedo Amaral have won international acclaim for their work. The League’s Sarah Wesseler spoke with them about the role of collaboration in their design process.
Sarah Wesseler: You’ve partnered with other architects for a number of your projects, which seems to be relatively common for young Mexican firms—more common than it might be for similar firms in the States, at least. Can you speak about this aspect of your practice?
Andrés Soliz Paz: Collaborations are important for young firms like ours. There are a lot of different kinds of design that we don’t have experience with, so it’s more practical to join forces with other people who specialize in those areas.
For example, we’re working on a plaza in Culiacán, which is the capital of a state in northwestern Mexico. It’s a really important project, but we’ve never worked with public space. So we decided to join up with two practices specializing in public space, Víctor Rico and Agora.
We’ve also collaborated with architects of different generations, and that’s interesting, because it creates a kind of overlap of different visions and values around architecture.
Lazbent Pavel Escobedo Amaral: Yeah, collaborations are interesting, particularly when you work with people who think differently than you do. When you’re working with someone from a different generation, you can end up with surprising results, because you’re outside your comfort zone. People from other generations have different ways of working, different ways of understanding the times, the client. I think this aspect of collaboration is an important part of contemporary practice not only for young architects, but for every generation.
Wesseler: Speaking of different generations, judging by previous Emerging Voices winners, it seems like it’s relatively common for Mexican architects to have a significant body of built work by the time they turn 30—much more common than it is in the US. Do you think that’s a fair statement? Is it relatively easy for young Mexican architects to start their own firms, and to actually build things?
Soliz: Actually, it’s not that common to graduate from college and then suddenly open your own practice and start building. Especially in our university, UNAM, which is a public school, this doesn’t happen often. At private schools it’s more common, maybe. There’s a very strong contrast between people who attend public universities and private schools …
Escobedo: In terms of social class.
Soliz: Because the school we attended is completely free, and private universities have extremely high tuition fees. It’s another world.
There are people in our school who started to build, or who started a practice, when they were very young, but normally people wait longer before they open an office. They usually work in big offices and learn a lot there. That’s more common.
In our case, the only reason we were able to have our own firm so early in our careers is that we won the PS1 competition. If we hadn’t won that—and also the Holcim award—it wouldn’t have been easy.
But if you’re talking just about building buildings early in your career—some of this goes back to differences in our educational system. Architects are taught differently in the US and Mexico, and not only in those countries; it’s a difference between more developed countries and developing countries. In less-developed regions there tends to be more of a focus on construction. For example, in Bolivia, where my parents are originally from, architecture schools focus much more on construction than on design or theory or history. Compared to Bolivia, Mexico has a much healthier balance in terms of theoretical and historical education …
Escobedo: Technical also.
Soliz: But there’s still more of a focus on building than there is in American architecture schools.
This difference tends to carry through to regional norms for construction as well. In Latin America, the laws allow architects to construct the buildings that they design, except when it’s a government building. In Europe or the US, there are more legal constraints around what architects can and can’t do. In terms of both ethics and competencies, designers and builders are considered to be two separate groups. In Mexico, and in Latin America in general, that’s not the case.
Escobedo: Also, in Mexico the economic conditions, or the rules of the game of architectural practice, make it possible to start getting really substantive experience even when you’re 22. In Mexico City it’s very easy to start working at an architecture firm. PS1 was our first project as an independent firm, but before that both of us had a lot of experience in different jobs—in construction, in construction management, in design.
Wesseler: I’m particularly interested in your rural schools project. Could you speak about the role of collaboration in that effort?
Soliz: This project consisted of two schools that replaced others that were destroyed in the 2017 earthquake. We did this project with Martín Gutiérrez, who’s an architect of the same generation as Alberto Kalach—he started his practice in the ’90s.
Escobedo: We’re around 30, and he’s probably about 60.
Soliz: He invited us to do the project with him. He got an invitation from a foundation called IEnova, which is an energy company that donates projects to the communities where it works. When these schools collapsed, they offered to rebuild them, along with a large construction company called G.D.I.
One of the main issues in this project was that both schools had to be designed and built within nine months; they also needed to be built according to the design and construction standards of Mexico’s public education system. These constraints led us, as a team, to think about creating a system of construction that would be the same for both schools, that would be very quick to build and very durable—something modular that could be repeated very easily. Like what Louis Kahn did with the Kimbell, where in resolving a section of the vault, he solves the whole building—he repeats and adapts those sections to different programs, but in the end it’s the same detail.
Also, because G.D.I., which was going to build the schools, typically builds infrastructure—power plants, gas pipes—we thought a prefabricated industrial system would be best.
Escobedo: The collaboration with Martín was very enriching, since he has experience working with this kind of client. We had very productive conversations about whether to use one material or another, and we also taught each other about different materials. He really likes to get involved and have a discussion about architecture.
Wesseler: Have you worked on other projects where collaboration has played a particularly important role?
Soliz: Yeah, one we’re working on now—a funeral complex in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Here our collaboration isn’t with another architect, but with the client, and with the people who understand the technical aspects and protocols of funerals. Because at the end of the day, what you’re making is a kind of stage for this ceremony. You need to understand how visitors move through the building from the moment they get out of the car or come in from the street; how they go through the different spaces until they reach the chapel where their loved one is. It’s like telling a story.
So all the discussions we’ve had with the client have been really fruitful in terms of advancing the project. And we’re very happy to have a client who’s really sensitive to architecture, and who trusts us.
The strength of this relationship was most evident when we were discussing what material to use. In Bolivia, as in many other countries—in some parts of Mexico, too—there’s a tendency to think that progress means imitating what’s happening in Europe and the United States. So when we proposed making the project entirely out of a structural brick that’s made in Bolivia, the client was kind of alarmed, because he thought we should use a prefabricated system that would be more modern, faster to build. But we were able to explain the acoustical benefits of brick, the thermal properties, the material properties.
This experience helped us understand that architects need to know how to explain their projects to other architects, yes, but also to people who aren’t architects. Figuring out how to explain things in a simpler way also forces you to think, to question your own design, and sometimes to change it.
Escobedo: You need to be able to listen to your clients and have a discussion with them, and not just from the point of view of, “I’m the architect, I’m going to give you the solution.”
Soliz: In this case, we found a middle ground between the client and the knowledge he brought to the table, and ourselves, who have different kinds of knowledge. We also tried to put ourselves in his place, seeing things from his perspective.
Escobedo: And he’s sensitive to architecture, but also to space, to materials. So it was easy to involve him in the process of deciding what material to use, what material not to use—figuring out which is going to cost more, which is going to provide more benefits for his business.
Soliz: It took some work to convince him to use brick. So why did we want to use brick and not a prefabricated system like we used for the schools in Mexico? Well, in Bolivia, prefabricated construction does exist, but it’s still very limited. There’s not a lot of variety. And it becomes much more expensive if your building is smaller than 3,000 square meters, which is the case for our project.
On the other hand, in Bolivia it’s easy to find expert craftsmen, particularly for brick, which is a material they understand and that they’ve built with for years.
The client spends part of his time in Miami; he knows the United States well. So one of the things that convinced him was that we said, “In the United States it would be a luxury to build this building from brick; it would cost a lot of money. But you can do it in Bolivia.”
Escobedo: Another thing that helped convince him was teaching him about the tradition of brick architecture in Latin America. In Colombia, Rogelio Salmona built with brick; later, in Paraguay, Solano Benítez, or in Uruguay, Eladio Dieste. If nearby countries can produce high-quality architecture with this material, Bolivia can too. I think that argument was very, very meaningful for him.
Wesseler: In the US, architects also work with clients to understand what’s possible on specific sites, of course. But I assume this is even more critical in Latin America, simply because construction techniques and materials seem to vary so much more from place to place. So as a result, it’s even more important for architects to have strong relationships with clients—good communication and mutual trust. Is that fair?
Soliz: Well, it’s important to understand that in a country like Mexico, there’s a very strong regional tradition of vernacular architecture, and these traditions still play a very important role in the way people build, in the way people design. Different vernacular styles have been shaped over time by the unique conditions in the local area—the territory, landscape, weather patterns. For example, the Mayan house in Yucatán is a typology that’s always subconsciously present in some parts of Mexico. When people there think of a house, they think of a Mayan house. So when architects come into these areas from other places, it’s important for them to talk with clients, to talk with builders, to understand how things work there.
Escobedo: You also have to take the economic conditions of different regions into account when you talk about issues like this. For example, Louis Kahn built in the United States, but that was 40 or 50 years ago. This body of work that we admire so much might not get built today, because clients are more interested in other options, other speeds for delivering buildings.
I feel like in Mexico we’re living in similar conditions to those that produced, for example, European modern architecture. Whereas in Europe, that moment has passed. For example, the work of Carlo Scarpa wouldn’t get built today in Europe.
Soliz: Because it’s extremely expensive.
Escobedo: It’s extremely expensive, and it was always extremely expensive. But at that point in history clients in Italy didn’t say, “I won’t pay for that,” whereas they do now, both because of the current economic situation and because globalization has made clients want things to happen more quickly.
I think Mexico is in a unique situation today, because the construction techniques used in many parts of the country are the same ones that produced modern architecture. In addition to what Andrés says about vernacular architecture putting ideas in people’s heads, the conditions in which architecture is produced—how it’s paid for, how it’s managed—allow us to make a brick house, or a cast concrete house, in Mexico today. And this wouldn’t happen so easily in the US.
Interview edited and condensed.