Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

Tatiana Bilbao of CDMX-based Tatiana Bilbao Estudio talks with Ana Miljački about working with governmental bodies, social housing, changing office culture, and how to engage the leverage points within systems of power.

Recorded on November 12, 2021. Read a transcript of the episode below.

About Tatiana Bilbao

Tatiana Bilbao launched her eponymous studio in 2004. Based in Mexico City and operating globally, it has completed projects ranging from housing to master plans, museums to botanical gardens. The firm’s many accolades include the 2020 Tau Sigma Delta Gold Medal, a 2017 Architecture A+ Awards Impact Award, the 2012 Kunstpreis Berlin, and a 2010 Emerging Voices award from The Architectural League of New York. Several monographs have been published about its work.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljački: (0:20) Hello and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljacki, professor of architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled I Would Prefer Not To.

I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes: refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, the topic of refusal, this kind and other, stays hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails and are not easy to examine or learn from. And yet, the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission or type of commissions or commissions with certain characteristics inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.

My guest in this episode is that is Tatiana Bilbao. Thank you for joining me, Tatiana.

Tatiana Bilbao: (1:37) Thank you, Ana. It is a pleasure to be here with you.

Miljački: (1:41) Tatiana Bilbao launched her eponymous studio in 2004 in Mexico City, from which she now operates globally. Her studio has been prolific since then, with projects ranging from private houses through masterplans, market rate and social housing to museums. And the now-famous botanical garden in Culiacán.

Bilbao has taught at several architecture schools in the U.S. and has a recurring position at Yale University. Her studio has several monographic books and exhibitions to its name and many accolades, including the 2010 Emerging Voices by The Architectural League of New York, Kunstpreis Berlin in 2012, many others, and then more recently, the Impact Award in 2017, the Marcus Prize award in 2019, and Tau Sigma Delta Gold Medal of 2020. She is currently working on projects in Mexico, U.S., Spain, and Germany.

We might address today some of the recent and future work of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, but we will do that, or we will begin that, by talking about the work that is not on the boards or in studio’s portfolio. By discussing, at what point is a commission not worth it? What kind of line gets drawn with a decision to forfeit the possibility of work and how such decisions are made in the studio?

So Tatiana, let’s start with your most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission.

Bilbao: (3:13) Well, it’s actually very recent—it is almost happening as we speak. And I believe that one of the, the principles that we have said to not do is not to engage in in commissions that are really not promoting a system, a democratic system. And this is set on that basis. So this project has been controversial since day one, but it was never a competition. It was a direct commission to an artist, not to an architect or to an urbanist, which was already difficult for me to swallow. But then there have been many, many people, very respected urbanist theorists, sociologists, architects that have worked and thought in this very central location that have not been invited to the project. And especially because of that—I mean, it’s a little bit controversial when they’re large projects, public projects, even privately funded, that they’re not done by competitions. And, but for me, for sure, one that is public should absolutely come from a competition, because it’s public funds. So this one didn’t, in any kind, and it’s, like, also very obscure. And right now, they are revising the masterplan and they want to add a part of it.

Miljački: (4:41) Mm-hmm. So in this case, it’s the process of sort of thinking through and devising the mechanisms by which the project will be delivered that’s problematic, right?

Bilbao: (4:55) In this case, it is, yes, exactly. And I think it’s, as I said, I don’t think it’s a transparent project, and it’s a project that should be transparent because it’s a very large public project with a very big budget behind that it’s a public budget. So it’s obscure, how they got to the idea of starting this project, how it’s laid down, where the budget came from, how they decided the budget to be, then how they invited the people who’s working, then how much they’re paid. All these things are supposed to be public in Mexico, by the law, and they’re not. And so yes, this I for sure, am very sure that I would refuse.

Miljački: (5:44) Do they know? I wonder, do they know that . . .

Bilbao: (5:47) They will know in a few hours [laughs].

Miljački: (5:51) You also mentioned, as we were preparing, that you were remembering the first or earliest project that you refused, or commission that you refused. Do you want to tell us about it?

Bilbao: (6:05) Yes, I think that consciously the first project I refused was not being refused in the beginning, and I think this was the problem, and I learned a lot. So we had been developing this project with a very good friend, an industrial designer. It was a hotel. So obviously the interior design was very important. And this designer was fired, not paid in full. And we knew, we understood at some point that they had started working with another designer months before or weeks before. But most for me, most importantly, they were not paying for the work that was done and was asked by them. So for us, this was a line obviously that could not be crossed to our, to a colleague that was working with us. And yes, he was our friend, but we didn’t do it because of the friendship.  We did it because of the fact of what happened, no? Because of this situation.

And that, I think, made us learn, how to be more sensible to potential clients that could be doing these things, no? So because definitely there’s not like a prototype, but they, you could see signs, no? In the beginning. And we started to become a lot more careful with the contract, you know, and with the rules, to a point, on how to do a project before starting to do it. And I think that for me, also, that was a very important learning experience, because it put us into a table understanding which projects we would refuse in the future, no? And I don’t think that before that we had done anything like that consciously.

Miljački: (8:13) Would you say that you have a kind of a, a rulebook now of sorts . . .

Bilbao: Yes.

Miljački: . . . that you work with, or a framework?

Bilbao: (8:22) Yes, we do. And every meeting we add a line. It is a little bit sad [laughs]. But, or not! Maybe not. It feels better. It feels better now. It feels . . . I’m much more comfortable, because also, you get involved not only in projects with clients that would not pay others, or you because obviously it has happened to us as well. But also, you end up understanding situations of exploitation or discriminations that you end up being a tool for them, no?, to do them. And I’m sure that every project has that, and I’m sure we have been this in every project that we have done. But there’s certain things that are much more obvious and much more direct that we need to really be very aware not to become that, no? So, for example, exploitation, the direct exploitation of a territory, no? Of a territory that belongs to different people, or to a territory that is an environmental, that creates an environmental hazard, or these things that are much more clear in the beginning.

The government in Mexico has really not a structure to hire architects. It is really strange, but they don’t believe in architecture. I mean, that is how bad our profession is here. But so, they, the system is really . . . they have to go in rounds and in circles to hire an architect. And then they don’t have then the time to develop a project with an architect. So we have learned the hard way of refusing any project that comes with all these struggles, in government projects that come with all these structures.

It is still very problematic. But there are, for example, we are right now doing a cultural center in Oaxaca, where they did a competition and they found a way, legally, of having the architects hired and give them time. So we decided to go and work with it, no? But three months ago, we were asked to another project, which, it was really beautiful because it was a clinic, a health clinic in a beautiful community, the Yaqui community. And we set up our proposal, of course, a very participatory program that had to take six months. And they said, “No, we cannot give you that. We can give you one month.” And we said, “We’re not going to do anything if you don’t give us six months, because it’s a participatory project, no?” “But you don’t have to do it all the way participatory. Just show them the project.” And I said, “We will not do it.”

And this, I think, also was a very interesting process. Well, we said no. And then last week we got a hold on them and say, “Well, what if we get you six months?”

Miljački: (11:49) So maybe this is related, but maybe it’s also a bit of a step outside, or in a different direction. But I’m wondering how your, how does your ability to get to the core of lived or cultural understanding of the, of the future inhabitants of your architecture in a commission intersect with your decision to do or not do the work?

Bilbao: (12:14) This is a question that can take hours, because it’s an important deep reflection that I, probably has taken my whole career as an architect to do. And I still think that I don’t have a conclusion. I think that I had more clear ideas when I started, and that now I have to say, at the moment I started, for me, one of the most problematic things was that I was taught to think that I knew everything, that I was the person of the table who knew how anybody else could inhabit this planet. And for me, I never had thought that I know everything, and that I know anything about it. So for me, this was very uncomfortable since the beginning. So I always started to think that I needed the people who I was building to be part of it. And, and I thought that by including them in the process of design and then by several deep conversations, I could almost become them in order to, you know, do a place . . .

Miljački: (13:29) To channel them.

Bilbao: (3:30) Yeah, to do that. And, but obviously this uncomfort or impossibility was even every time, more present. And so at that point, I understood that this was really not possible, and that I was actually just, you know, tricking my mind thinking that I could become the other to design, not for them, but being them. And then I started to realize that we should maybe be thinking this up on this impossibility to understand how architecture, how the architecture that we do, that has our own precepts, our own characteristics, our own ideas behind, can become a platform for anyone else to design their own life in this planet.

And I think that in the earthquake of 2017, we immersed ourselves in the process of reconstructing a little town called San Simón El Alto, and we decided there really only to be giving technical advice on how to build these houses so they wouldn’t fall again. And this became really beautiful, because we were immersing ourselves in the, in the production of their homes without being those who knew how they could do it in the table. And this gave me a lot of input and the understanding and the curiosity of going deeper into how we could do this all the time, no?, in every project. But when you speak about doing it in a city, it becomes a little bit more difficult. Or in a context where people don’t understand how to build or how to design or how to think on a space, you know? And how to immerse in this process. But also, not only the people who want to inhabit, the people who have the money, no? And how to put all those factors together is very difficult.

Miljački: (15:37) When we spoke about some of these issues before, you described the way that you had signed up your whole office of 50 or so employees for a seminar to help shift everyone’s understanding of the way architecture embeds norms that we or you would prefer not to, and I thought maybe it would be useful to talk about how that worked for the office.

Bilbao: (16:07) It’s, I think it was a year ago and we were in the middle of the pandemic. And I think that what really made the, a year after, now I can say, that what made the people who were in that, who were, who was the majority of the office, but now we grew. It really made them aware of this understanding, of the understanding that we need to rethink how the architect needs to act in the society and how, if not, we have a huge responsibility on perpetuating a system of discrimination, no? Because just the act of thinking that you can impose how another one human being should live is an act of discrimination, no? So I don’t know yet because there’s not, it’s probably too early for the impact. But what I, what I already have heard in several meetings is like, “No, but Tatiana, I mean, this this really I mean, we cannot continue, I mean, we cannot continue like this. We will need to tell this to the client, and these things cannot.” So putting it in the people stand . . . Let’s not say standards, because this is not a correct word . . .  putting in the people those limits on where not to, and I think that this was really beautiful now. And the understanding behind of, that we know nothing about how anyone should live and should inhabit this planet, and that the forces that are outside their, I mean, it’s going to sound more metaphysical, but that are much bigger than what we can really control, think, do, or try to even think that we dominate. So I think that this really has set a precedent in the office that has put people into a place that we were never there, because we never set something like that in in the culture of the office, no? We have had it for us, I described in ourselves, and we have a list on what not to do, and every time in our planning, every year, no?, in our planning meeting, no? We add sentences and then we think of the projects which we should have, what we should have done because that’s one of the things we do in the planning meetings every year, is what you have, would, what you would have been doing differently in this project? And from there we take these lines. But this is in the management area, and this is to filter the projects that arrive, no? But this is not, this was never immersed in the culture of the office. So I think that this set really those things.

Miljački: (19:17) I would love to, at some point, look at the list of lines that you draw beyond which you don’t go together. But maybe by the end of this conversation, you can share them with us. But but maybe a question now. Did you ever regret not taking a commission or vice versa? Regret refusing a commission?

Bilbao: (19:39) I have never regretted not getting a commission, and this is something that I made conscious three weeks ago when I refused to do an interview. It was, it was a kind of video taped you know, like for three days or these things. And I told the person that is in charge of press when I decided not to do it. And this I decided not to do it also for the reason that this, they wanted to choose kind of the five Mexican creatives, no?, with voices out in the world and tape their lives and interview them and then post them in their page. They are a bank. So I decided why, even if they are, not kind of, you can invest with $5, start investing in $5 in these things. I would say why, why would I be the advertising of a bank now? So I said no, and I told the press guy, “I’m never going to know if I need to regret it, because since it’s never going to happen, I don’t know what I missed.” But I’m sure that every time that I had seen this video, I was going to regret it. So no, know, that I I have no regrets of not regretting something because I don’t know [laughs] what would have happened.

But yes, I have regrets on not refusing on some projects, for sure. But I, for example, the hotel that I describe you, that for sure, I was like, “How did we arrive to this point, no? With these guys?” And yes, I think that this is why we created the list, because to be much more aware, no?, in the beginning. And much, the first on the list is always review very carefully those projects that come from the Mexican government. And then, are they transparent? Are they coming from a competition? Are they, do they have the legal structure to hire an architect? Do they have the legal structure to give time for the project, no? And if those are not there, there’s no commission that we worked. But these things we, we did a lot of those projects, no? And we learned them because of those projects that I regret very much to do it. Or maybe, maybe right now and speaking to you and thinking that we created those lines, maybe it was worth to do it. So I don’t regret it anymore [laughs] because we now know what not to do, no?

Miljački: (22:29) Can you tell us what the lines are? So that there’s the government ones, and are there…

Bilbao: (22:34) The first one is the government, because that is really a very clear, no, to us now, because we have we have fall with the same rock several times. The second one is that we really are, we are not going to design any project that their ultimate goal is the economical retribution. Obviously, all of them have that. But a lot of them, they really have other objectives as well, no? Of supporting social development. So if the economical revenue is the first goal of the project, we will not do it. The other one, that is for sure, any project that promotes discrimination of any type. So it’s, and the third one is that the one that destroys the environment per se, no? For example, we were asked to do a project that it sounded like wonderful, and then they said it was social housing for a town in Yucatan, in Merida, and then they sent, they sent us the site and we said, “No, we’re not going to do anything here because it’s in the middle of the jungle. So we’re not going to kill the jungle to provide something really beautiful and nice for people. This needs to be a whole system.” So those really are kind of the general lines. And I would say that, I would add, very recently, anyone that really is used as a political tool. And right now, this project that they have asked us is because they want to use our name. This is a political tool, and we don’t we don’t participate, also, on those.

Miljački: (24:21) It seems important to me to talk about the way you conceptualize the line between privilege and lack of it when you take on commissions. There seems to be a kind of leveraging across that line in your work. And I can pose it as a question: What would you prefer not to do but end up doing so that you can do things you want to do?

Bilbao: (24:49) Well, one of the things is working with INFONAVIT. Because I really think that there are many things, starting with the notion that the INFONAVIT gave up the, or was created to become a bank for private developers to immerse in the social system of production of housing. For me, that already is very problematic, no?, because it really has created the problems that we have right now. But on the other hand, I believe that not immersing yourself there, you then don’t, don’t have the opportunity to work and open channels for better places. But I also understand that is not, that is not a rule, and that is not one of the lines, because, for example, we also have been asked to do a project in, in a very pristine place, no? For a hotel, a luxury resort, that they already had the permits, that already have, they had even done the first intervention in the site. And they, even the, the clients were very insisting on us becoming the architect. We were refusing since day one, but and then the last one, the, as their last resort was, “Yeah, but you know, we’re going to still do it and you’ll do it better.” And I said, “Well, yeah, there’s someone that it’s going to do it. But anyway, and if I’ll do it, I’ll still destroy the jungle and the pristine place, so I will not do it.” I mean, there was going to be someone, and someone is going to destroy the jungle. Their idea was to create a very sustainable place here, and they thought that I was the only one that could do that in Mexico. But I said, “There’s nothing sustainable about the project itself. There’s no way we can create something sustainable.”

So, for example, that line I would not cross, but on the other hand, in the INFONAVIT, I thought that that is the system in place, is really hard that I would be able to, to change that, that that will change at some point and at some point. And in this case, I do believe that by immersing ourselves in the system, there is a possibility of change, because they’re all already starting to happen, no? Since we, a lot of architects, we have immersed ourselves in that, the INFONAVIT has understood that there are a lot of roads to pave in that process, in that way, to really arrive to a production of housing that it’s enjoyable and dignified, as the Constitution says. And if we wouldn’t have immersed, probably they would just continue doing it, no? Well, not because the people already complained. But they, but it’s a path, no?, to change. So at some point, I think that I believe that you have to understand how to immerse yourself and where to immerse yourself in the system to be able to change it.

Miljački: (27:46) Mm-hmm. I mean, maybe let’s talk for a second about the efficacy of engagement versus not engagement when it comes to changing the system.

Bilbao: (27:57) Yes, that is a very important one. And that is difficult to discern. Very difficult to discern, I must say. And this is something I spoke to other colleagues, no?, to Mariana Ordonez and Jesica Amescua from Comunal, who were the ones giving us the seminar of social production of habitat. They were really, like, very harsh on a line of saying, “We will not participate,” no?, but this year I spoke to them because they are participating. So then I asked them, “Why did you decided then to move?” And they said, “Well, because we found the correct people within the system that is willing to move things.” And I said, “This is how you need to immerse yourself in the system, no?” If you really are in the system only to be a vehicle to perpetuate those practices that you don’t believe in, then you cannot do it, no? But if you immerse yourself in the system to open channels, even if you are violating some of those limits—some, I would say that I would not, there’s lines that you should not cross, even so—but, then you are able to open paths, no?, for others. And yes, we agreed on that. And finally, I was very happy to hear that, because I am on the side of understanding how to immerse myself in the system to open paths, even though in this, in some moments I have to swallow things that I would have not liked to swallow. But as I said, until a line. But, then really doing, no?, and learning. And maybe the next time, you are able also to push it forward, no?, and to understand more.

Miljački: (29:49) Maybe, I mean, that’s a great set of responses, but maybe one question that would be interesting is, to, to kind of tackle is the extent to which also your ability to say no, to not engage, the extent to which that is connected to the kind of lifetime of the practice, and sort of, when does it arrive as an option from the point of view of running a practice?

Bilbao: (30:20) That’s a, that’s something that yesterday, that, in among the, the management team where we did discussing this commission that we’re about to refuse, we’re speaking, no? That there might be people with the position not to refuse a commission like that. We are currently in a strange position because, yes, we have a very successful practice and we have a lot of people, but there are a lot of projects that are on hold and then projects that are in the verge of we don’t know what. And I said—and this is something that Catia, my sister, arose like, “Oh yeah, but we’re not questioning our position in this case, but saying, yeah, there might be some people that could not say this. No?” And I said, “Well, I don’t say, I don’t think of any moment in my life where I would have said yes to this commission, even if I, in the beginning where I had really no commissions, really no money, I would have said no.” And maybe I would have said no to this, for sure, I think, because already I had a lot of these things in my mind then, but maybe those with more, you know, conditions that are more underlying conditions that are maybe not so clear, and in some points. For example, I would say that the hotel, and that hotel, that since then we have not done another one, that we didn’t refuse, maybe we took that commission because in the, in the air, there were no red flags extending, and we had a small practice that could use a project like this, you know? So for sure, those projects that have really, very, conditions of those lines that I told you right now, are more clear and we identify them easier. But for sure, I think that I would have never engaged in those projects before, even when the practice was too small. But right now, yes, of course, it’s easier to refuse. We are in a much more privileged condition with much different notions, but, but I think that this is something we, as societies, should promote because I think that all of us in this society, we have, we are engaged in a system that allows a lot of things to happen that we know are very wrong. I think that there is a line that we should all respect much more than is right now not at all respected, and I think we all would live much better in this planet.

Miljački: (33:31) I mean, that’s great. Maybe we could end here, but maybe if you have anything else to add just let me know, now is a good moment.

Bilbao: (33:44) Well, no! That was a good end, no? Thank you.

Miljački: (33:50) And that was a good, like, let’s all hold the line.

Bilbao: (33:53) Let’s all hold the line. Let’s all hold the line for everybody else because if we don’t hold it—that’s what Mariana and Jesica were complaining, no? Like, yeah, if we all go to SEDATU, the Minister of Social Development, and we say, “No, we need six weeks, six months for our participatory project,” then they would give us six months for a participatory project, right? But I think that it’s very difficult because there, as I was saying, yes, it is one hundred and twenty million people in Mexico, and someone is going to do it. So we should, all our society, hold the line.

Miljački: (34:32] OK. That’s a great place to end, and thank you, Tatiana, and thank you listeners for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.

Bilbao: (34:43) Thank you very much, Ana.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.