Time flies while having a nice chat and this is what happened during the talk between Tatiana Bilbao and Anna Puigjaner. In this enriching ArcaTalks edition we were lucky to witness the dialogue between two architects whose careers go beyond the realm of the common as they address social development, feminism, and learning topics.
Mexican architect and professor, Tatiana Bilbao is also founder of Tatiana Bilbao ESTUDIO. Her professional career is characterized by the integration of social values and a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach to architectural design. Anna Puigjaner is an architect, researcher, and editor, cofounder of MAIO studio, based in Barcelona and currently deputy professor at the University of Columbia, NY. The critical thought they share is the foundation for a friendship they have nurtured beyond their common projects. The talk they shared with Arca, as they say, is the eloquent summary of multiple chats about mutual and general interest topics.
Where does the collaboration emerge and where did your friendship begin?
Tatiana contacted Anna after learning about her Kitchnless City publication, winner of the Wheelwright Price in 2016. Anna’s critical and analytical vision on domestic work and reproductive labor topics within the housing field was the incentive that started the relationship in a social housing project in Aguascalientes.
T.B.: I have always thought about collaborating and developing projects with people who take you to analyze your work from another perspective, this is the best thing you can do.
A.P.: One of the things I admire most of your practice is precisely the will to establish a permanent dialogue and collaboration, which breaks and takes canons on how the discipline is valued and the understanding of author topics into crisis. Those which are changing today and used to deny collaboration with others who actively contribute things to projects .
On architecture, housing diversity, and social inclusion.
The housing scheme employed today categorizes users under the assumption that they are all the same, but beyond opening an equality channel, these models have created discrimination, Tatiana shares.
The housing project in Aguascalientes, previously mentioned by Anna and Tatiana, was a joint work with other six teams, this allowed for the project to go in the opposite direction from typecasting, creating a dialogue with options that offer different visions.
T.B.: To me, this opened many channels, so a diverse group could integrate into this housing set, since by having more options from different kinds of people who had never built in Mexico, it was possible to open other communication identification channels and spread these complex layers, which all people living in this planet have, and be able to offer a much diverse space.
A.P.: I find it interesting because we reconsidered the role of the architect within the social housing project. We tried not to label the operations, so each office would operate with micro strategies, trying to follow the city’s natural processes. Often when we find the need to develop great housing areas, temporary evolution is lost and this is what causes less appropriation in the future, the growth and transformations that architecture will suffer become hard.
This process of reconsidering the architect’s role and social housing in the integration of citizens, was quite interesting.
T.B.: It was hard to face the idea of common spaces, like kitchen and laundry room. I also think that is hard for me to make decisions when the community is not involved and which is intrinsic to the architectural practice.
The role of the architect, the state, and the user
The conversation between Anna and Tatiana landed on the question of how to get the user involved the social housing models and they mentioned a recent proposal made by the Mexican government. Given that the current president said that loans would be granted to people directly without developers or planners as intermediaries, there is a large area for questioning model operation.
T.B.: I believe this is an interesting proposal, which can offer people the opportunity to create their particular spaces. Although, the how and the context should be understood, as well as finding the architect’s integration in this strategy.
A.P.: I think you have mentioned a very important topic in the architect’s and the user’s role. This has been an ongoing discussion for some time and it was a huge trend during the 60’s and 70’s, and it is perhaps remerging due to some current parallelisms. It is important to understand that these gestures of offering people money and creating a link with them is very dangerous when the link is solely economical.
Some models I admired because initially they represented participation from inhabitants have been a huge failure because the resident has been given full responsibility to build, care, and maintain the house. The moment you give people the power, which might be positive to allow some appropriation and link, in order to understand the inhabitant’s needs, you are in danger of the state turning away. On the other hand, there is the discipline topic along with architecture’s own knowledge, which cannot be denied.
On the academy and feminism
One point shared by these two architects is the interest on learning and creating knowledge. They are both part of the academic staff in important universities and they talked a little about the things that attract and encourage them to get involved in this aspect. Critical thought and the habit of questioning oneself has led them to make a deep assessment on the influence of preestablished ideas, both in their architectural and theoretical practices.
T.B.: My interest in learning, getting close to the academy, opens a different vision for me and I get to question what I do. The deep interest in teaching is about learning. Each day I realize how little I know and being close to the academy opens a completely different approach for me, it questions what I do. New generations make me question the values with which I thought I operated. I have realized that I have not taken these values to practice, as I thought I did.
A.P.: One thing that has surprised me about your discipline unlearning is this feminism matter and the questioning itself. It is important to be critical with buildings that were integrated to us and that deep down are hetero-patriarchal. In Columbia we are doing a deep assessment of racial topics, for example, in pejorative terms like “minorities”. There are some terms we have employed with no critical eye and that we should question, in terms of Colonial, feminist, and hetero-patriarchal processes.
T.B.: The feminist movement in Mexico got stronger during the past year, due to the social unrest caused by femicide. The fire has started due to lack of attention to the issue on the government’s behalf. On the International Women’s Day, the creation of speeches, dialogues, marches, and a day without women were promoted. I was invited to offer a lecture along other women architects in Oaxaca, the idea was to open the way for other women who would see us onstage. But I realized that it would be hypocritical to present my work without having a previous assessment and, after a critical vision of my work I realized that, instead of doing things for women, I have done some things to continue with the hetero-patriarchal system we live in, from the domestic configuration we are used to. I started doing a deep inner reflection and we have created nice things at the studio for this reflective process on which spaces are discriminating within our own projects .
A.P.: In Mexico, it is of great importance to express the absolute need to see this kind of movements, to raise their voices and make all eyes see the problem, given that this situation has grown to the point where basic human rights are endangered. Something I have been doing for the Istanbul Biennale is a study on how geek economy, apps in Egypt allow women who cook and sell food through apps, to expand their business scope and become professional. There is a deep problem in Egypt regarding women’s work insertion, with just one fourth of the population being active and paid. The percentage of women attending college is 60%, showing a deep disproportion between cultural level and the productive reality and thus social independence.
T.B.: This has become more evident with the pandemic and they will leave a legacy that will lead to a greater lag. In Mexico we see it in terms of the system going back to reality, a “traffic light” classification has been made; activity reactivation will be gradual, starting with essential activities. The Ministry of Education decided that schools will open until the light is green, while jobs will be liberated previously (on orange and yellow). This means that women who have schools as places that take care of their children while they work, will lose their jobs. I ask myself why are we not creating a policy to solve this problem?
On diverse and diffuse spaces
A.P.: The situation we are experiencing is very difficult, it has especially created so much uncertainty, which will find its answer in adaptation. I believe that this will have deep consequences on how cities are projected and how architecture is designed. We have seen buildings change from one program to the next, hospitals appear and disappear, people can be working one day and not the following one. Cities and houses will end up reacting on how they are managed and built.
T.B.: I believe that the way in which a city is managed and built will radically change, from how it is conceived and thought of. I was for example looking at New York, most of office spaces are empty and most people holding those spaces are thinking about not going back to those working spaces. That will be an immediate and hard change, especially for a city like New York, which is the world’s headquarters and today we understand that we can exist without such spaces. Then, how will this process will regroup things? I find this interesting. I find it interesting that the change the city will go through in a forced manner perhaps was building up and now things will speed up. Diffuse is the word that will come up, more diffuse and uncertain spaces, which are built through time.
A.P.: One thing that worries me is the moment we are living, the narrative of what happened with SGM, which understood housing as a protection and self-sufficient place, and that is such a dangerous thing, since it goes against things like inclusion and social integration, which can solve people care and understand society as a network structure. Isolated housing goes against the idea of a city, we shall be critical and understand that the solution is not permanent isolation.
T.B.: We must understand that this is an extraordinary situation, which I hope allows us to find the time to reflect on where we would like to be in the future.
Listening to people like Anna and Tatiana is very illustrative, since they build both in the physical and the intellectual aspects, they question their work and express their own vision and concerns in a personal space like Arca Talks. If there is something everyone can rescue from this talk, it is the need to hold critical thought as a starting point to create knowledge and reconsider special design, or whatever discipline in a way that is a social catalyst.
Towards a diffuse house