Frida Escobedo and Pedro Reyes look to the future to save Mexico’s lost past

The architect and artist discuss the decolonization of culture and honoring tradition through innovation in Document's Fall/Winter 2019 issue.

This conversation appears in Document’s Fall/Winter 2019 issue, available for pre-order now.

Frida Escobedo represents the future of Mexican architecture. With a focus on challenging design and building a canon, in 2018 she became the youngest architect and first Mexican woman to design London’s Serpentine Pavilion. Her approach to the pavilion’s design is emblematic of her architectural ethos: inspired by the celosia, a common building element in Mexico, she used industrial concrete tiles to create latticed modular walls. Her work combines the functionality of simple materials, the wisdom of Mexico’s layered architectural tradition, and a contemporary, culturally-minded aesthetic that resists trends, resulting in practical, lasting spaces, flexible in their utility and sophisticated in form. For Escobedo, small gestures lead to larger consequences in a system where all architecture—like everything else these days—is informed by politics. Each project is an opportunity to examine and question the historical, economic forces governing the usage and access to space.

The architect-as-activist locus is shared by Escobedo’s colleague and compatriot Pedro Reyes, an internationally-acclaimed artist whose projects and performances take a whimsical approach to confronting serious social and political issues. His work is often immersive, encouraging viewers to occupy a role beyond that of passive art consumer and empowering them to engage intellectually and physically with his subject matter. Whether transforming firearms seized by the Mexican government from Juarez drug cartels into playable musical instruments (Disarm, 2013) to staging an interactive, apocalyptic house of horrors inspired by the 2016 American presidential election (Doomocracy, 2016), Reyes’s work inspires dialogue and ignites resistance.

We meet at Reyes’s studio in Coyoacan, Mexico City—a Brutalist-inspired living space ruled by plants, concrete, and an overwhelming library. The house for the “caveman of the future,” as Reyes calls it, is an ideal setting to discuss the preservation of heritage, the responsibilities of the artist and architect toward their communities, and the next evolution of a national Mexican cultural identity at a time of political and social change.

“It is only through innovation that you save tradition. Innovation allows tradition to persist.”—Pedro Reyes

Alberto Ríos de la Rosa: What makes Mexican art and architecture unique, and what role should the government play in its creation?

Pedro Reyes: Artists and architects in Mexico have the opportunity to work with manual processes that have disappeared elsewhere, either because they have been mechanized or because they are highly expensive. It is very important that we take advantage of craftsmanship skills. Mexico has an incredible heritage of popular, pre-Hispanic, and colonial art that has provided us with a unique artistic language related to avant-garde and 20th-century art. It is the combination of all those factors that makes us interesting. The decolonization of culture gives rise to new products. It is only through innovation that you save tradition. Innovation allows tradition to persist. We will continue to have a past if we nurture a future that is open and supports new work.

Frida Escobedo: The government must assume an important role. Mexican modernism reinterpreted everything that meant ‘learning.’ It was not something that we simply imported; we made it ours and adopted it on a political, social, and aesthetic level. It is a mistake to think that the aesthetic dimension is not political, or that the political does not have an aesthetic aspect.

Pedro: Here in Mexico there has always been a battle between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. It seems that we are entering that controversy again today. Nationalism had a bad reputation after World War II since it led to fascism in Europe. Nationalism was seen as dangerous. However, if it had not been for the Mexican School and nationalism, Mexico wouldn’t have an identity today. The artists of the nationalist period began to associate pre-Hispanic culture, the Mexican landscape, and popular arts with our national image. The sculptors of the Mexican School began to see that the people had a distinct complexion and bone structure which is reflected in their work. There was a period of important decolonization when we generated a style that contrasted with the European avant-garde. Nationalism is dangerous when it comes from an imperialist country, but when it originates in a country that has been colonized, it becomes necessary.

Frida: When we say, ‘This is very Mexican architecture,’ we don’t realize that the construction methods are influenced by many traditions. It is important to understand how we have adapted and adopted various techniques throughout our history—the layers of our cultural identity. Ninety percent of Mexico City was built without educated designers which made for a completely local and authentic construction. It is important to recognize what we define as Mexican and how that definition is diluted, because there is more migration, more cultural exchange, and it generates new layers of history. It becomes more complex. This is part of the fascinating process that happens now in Mexican culture. It is no longer a single voice and it doesn’t come from one region only, but from several regions that communicate with others. It is about how that knowledge is translated and transferred.

Alberto: What do you mean when you talk about Mexican architecture as a ‘spirit’ and not as a style?

Frida: The spirit comes from past baggage and a vision for the future. It is something that leads you onward but only because of what already existed in the past. Styles can be transient and momentary. The spirit is what remains.

Pedro: What I see in your practice is a sensitivity towards materials and a study of the contemporary vernacular; something that we do not associate directly with the ‘Mexican’ postcard image. There is a moment of maturity in architecture in which you can make a contemporary proposal that does not rely on clichés. Your work has internalized the history of architecture, and has produced a vocabulary in which tradition and modernity coexist.

Frida: We Mexicans are very nostalgic. We are always searching for a past we lost. There is a definition of nostalgia that I really like from Svetlana Boym, which says that ‘nostalgia is not looking for a lost time but a lost place, and that place may not exist.’ I think we have built our identity from layers of moments that we found interesting, that worked well politically for the aspirations of the group in power at the time, and for society in general. Today, nostalgia has to do with an aspiration to be wealthier and to have a better life. There are also aesthetic aspirations. The spirit comes from that yearning. It looks back to move forward.

Alberto: How do you approach social issues through your work? Do you think that architects should base their work on social theories such as ‘broken windows’ which argues that visible signs of crime generate urban environments that produce more crime?

Frida: Architects have a very narrow vision of how cities are built outside the centers. Cities are built by people without architects. Infrastructure problems are not solved by architects, or urban planners either. Real estate developers led by groups of investors are the ones who really define, through economic and political pressure, the public policies that determine how the city is being built and how the value of territory is changing. We don’t have the opportunities to design cities based on studies of how territories are defined, land uses, and planning. This is a much more important design decision than just choosing materials that seem contemporary or reflect our personal aesthetics. Obviously, this is less profitable for real estate developers, but it would generate longterm value and stability. If the real estate market bubble did not exist, gentrification, the poor planning of public transport, and the fluctuating land value would not happen. There would be more stability and more possibilities for different groups to be integrated in the same territories.

Pedro: Italian artist Michelanglo Pistoletto said, ‘The artist is a sponsor of ideas.’ The artists’ contribution, somehow selflessly, is to propose ideas that have the potential to make a social impact. The artist produces prototypes of relationships that could be taken on a larger scale; in my case, turning weapons into musical instruments or planting trees in Palas por Pistolas. Now I am developing a digital platform to have a universal library subscription. They are projects that are designed with the potential to become public policy. The intellectual’s position in Mexico has been to distance themselves from power. I believe that criticism is not constructive. There is a fantasy that criticism produces something, and in reality it produces nothing. The institutions we have inherited are the result of artists who put themselves at the service of the public apparatus. Now that we have a leftist administration, artists have not offered their views because the opportunities to help are still not very clear, but I feel that we should give this administration a chance. This would be a gesture of great maturity on behalf of the artists; the most serious risk we run into is to be stagnant. I feel that my vision of utopia would be that intellectuals, artists, and cultural producers look for opportunities to work in whatever way they can contribute.

“We Mexicans are very nostalgic. We are always searching for a past we lost.”—Frida Escobedo

Alberto: Public commissions have declined because the public believes that they no longer have the impact they had in the past. It has created a vicious cycle in which the existing, low-quality public sculpture generates a negative reaction that further reduces the opportunity for other commissions.

Pedro: Public sculpture originates from commissions. Unfortunately, the worst artists are the ones that have lobbied for that kind of work. The artists and curators of my generation have failed to conquer public space because we are sufficiently entertained with institutions, galleries, fairs, etc. Carrying out a public commission involves a lot of management work. Additionally, our understanding of sculpture has been radically transformed in the last fifty years. It was dematerialized, and public art went more towards actions and performance which has created a vacuum that has been filled by mediocre art from the lobbyist artists.

Frida: I feel it has to do with city branding and not with cultural identity. Before, all the cities wanted to have a Sebastian door because that meant having the ‘development’ stamp. Now it’s all about the branding of cities, like the giant colored logos they put on public squares. Public space has a branding stamp based on clichés of aesthetic identity. Speaking of cultural identity, Mexican pink is now the color used to identify Mexico City. We have assimilated this in such a natural way that we didn’t realize it was completely planned. This phenomenon will inform design unconsciously.

Alberto: How can we generate new public commissions and spaces that benefit society?

Pedro: It depends on the tenacity of the artist. If you think of a sculpture like the Torres de Satélite, it was not a state commission. Luis Barragán had that freedom because he was a developer. He dedicated himself to building a luxurious housing development and the Torres were a great spectacular announcement to publicize his real estate development. It is very curious that he has gone down in history as a poet when he was a businessman. In 1958 we were still in a nationalist period when the state had no intention of producing these abstract figures. It was a gesture of independence. In the case of Espacio Escultórico, it was the artists who made the effort to persuade the dean of the university for something like this to happen. What I find interesting is that almost all artists in Mexico have some kind of independent initiative that is done in a selfless way. Either through an exhibition space, or an editorial or musical project. Mexican artists and architects do public work, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a monument. We feel emptiness because art has been dematerialized in another series of activities. Casa Wabi, for example, is an initiative promoted by an artist that has an educational character and architectural element. There are many other examples.

Frida: We should define ‘public’ first. There is this misunderstanding of public spaces that are essentially private—places that are neutral or give the idea that everybody can use them simply because they are open, but they are controlled, they are guarded, they are programmed—that is not a public space. It is important to review how civic spaces can be generated where conflict, manifestation, or friction can take place in everyday life. These spaces are increasingly limited. We see many more branded initiatives in public spaces, forums for political self-promotion that must be inaugurated on a certain date to have greater visibility; and private spaces that appear to be public but are sponsored or maintained by private initiatives with new dynamics of exclusion.

“There is this misunderstanding of public spaces that are essentially private…they are controlled, they are guarded, they are programmed.”—Frida Escobedo

Alberto: How do these initiatives relate to the preservation of historical heritage in Mexico?

Frida: It is important to define heritage from the scope of public space. Thinking specifically in the case of Chapultepec, where is the heritage? What are the layers that need to be transformed? What needs to be protected? And what needs to disappear so that other things can bloom?

Pedro: I am astonished at the amount of sculptural heritage on which we stand. Mexico has 5,000 years of sculpture. More sculpture exists here than maybe anywhere else on the planet. Sculpture is always a collective work. Sculpture is a very jealous goddess who demands that you dedicate hundreds of hours to solve a piece. Sculpture is not the illustration of an idea; it is an entity that must be able to exist and persuade without any context or explanation. It must have an ineffable mystery. Speaking of Svetlana Boym, and her concept of off modern, which refers to that mystery or voice that exists independently of the evolution of art. I suddenly feel that it is calling me.

Alberto: The key to your most recent work is perhaps the modernization of pre-Hispanic forms, which is based on rigorous intellectual research. That investigation of materials, forms, and techniques also becomes a preservation strategy.

Pedro: There is a philosophical aspect that leads you to formal decisions, but the synthesis is important. For example, on a trip to Germany I saw that ‘pop art’ was called ‘capitalist realism’ in relation to ‘socialist realism.’ There was no pop in Mexico, because pop in Latin America implied a kind of submission to commercial imperialism. We don’t have to be painting cans or bottles: They are the objects that Americans pay attention to because they never had a project to recover their pre-Columbian heritage. They are blinded to the remembrance of the massacre of their native peoples. We have had a negotiation in which we celebrate our original cultures from the official discourse with their institutions. Americans are very proud of other things. That’s why we don’t have pop, because our pop is a kind of folk pop. In this context, the most interesting thing that has been done in Latin America is a kind of anti-pop; a kind of sabotage of the brand. I think that our pop—that is skulls, Fridas, and molcajetes—reflect a level of stylization where these issues continue to be treated. It is a matter of style and synthesis. Even the gringos did not understand that it was pop. They did not know that at a time when everyone was fighting imperialism with guerrillas, that these were the cheerleaders of imperialism. However, it will always be seductive because it has been synthesized. Pop cleanses the language of advertising and presents it simplified, without prices or slogan, and adopts a form of seduction that replaces sacred art a bit. It becomes a reflection of our obsessions and gives our lives a feeling of weightlessness.

Frida: Now the total representation of post-capitalism is a logo and is worth millions. It horrifies me, but I find it fascinating that we have reached that degree, we celebrate it, and we continue to replicate it, adding value. Your work Pedro is like a reaction; it takes one to have the other. Because in your case, there is the value of creation, and the incorporation of techniques that are not only national with the references of pre-Hispanic sculpture, but we also see English Brutalism, Japanese Metabolists, or Russian avant-garde—movements that occurred outside of Mexico but still generated important influences here without being so obvious.

Pedro: Mexico has a great connection with Japanese Metabolism, which has not been analyzed yet. The Olympic Games prior to Mexico 1968 were Tokyo 1964. Many architects who were working on the project went to Tokyo, and at the same time many Japanese artists had been here. For example, Taro Okamoto, who made the great figure [Tower of the Sun] for Osaka’s ’Expo 70, was Siqueiros’s student here in the ’50s. The relationship of late Mexican modernism by architects such as Agustín Hernández or Pedro Ramírez Vasquez and the Japanese architecture of Kenzo Tange is very interesting. For example, you can see that the roof of a Mayan house is similar [to a roof] in rural Japanese vernacular architecture. In Japan there was an awareness of architecture as regionalism, not the subject of materials such as O’Gorman’s regionalism, but in morphology. In Mexico there is a second modernism, after functionalism, in which there is a brutalism that uses the slope inspired by pre-Hispanic architecture with influences from other countries such as Japan.

Frida: But don’t you think that it aligns with the political aspirations of the time? The slope seems fascinating to me because it has to do with a hierarchical patriarchal power that needed to be reestablished in a stable way. We have inscribed a figure of stability in the brain that is effective and powerful.

Pedro: Stalinism suddenly turned to a very reactionary architecture, but it was massive. I believe that Diego Rivera, with the Anahuacalli [Museum] and other works of architecture, made a representation of state value that was sought in the indigenous. It represented the great de facto power at the time—Pedro Ramírez Vazquez—who was considered the architect of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party]. Now we understand that having these massive buildings and weighty speeches were necessary. I love Brutalism.

Frida: Because they generated continuity. That political continuity had to be well-established, well-grounded. You are sure that everything will remain there. However, the buildings of the institutions today are made of plywood and concrete board. The continuity is broken.

Pedro: The spirit a building transmits is related to the choice of materials. In the 1990s, for example, two species of architectural paradigms arise. First, [Ricardo] Legorreta became the Mexican paradigm. NAFTA had just been signed and there was a lot of fear that we would stop being Mexican, and that is why Legorreta was so favored during President Salinas’s administration because these buildings were made with colors to prove that we were still Mexican. Second, the [Enrique] Norten group that aged poorly due to Mexico City’s climate and atmosphere. Materials such as aluminum and glass that you can use in London or Paris, are garbage here in ten years’ time. Materials such as concrete or stone can age better. You have to resist trends in architecture. The conclusion is that somehow only if you leave Mexico can you return to see those things that were not evident but that were in front of you all the time. That is why innovation can save tradition. You can’t close your mind and say, There is no other route than ours. In order to find your route, you must first welcome others. If you do not leave, and do not stop being you, you do not know who you are.

“What I find interesting is that almost all artists in Mexico have some kind of independent initiative that is done in a selfless way.”—Pedro Reyes

Frida: Don’t you feel that trends are increasingly accelerating? They are so short that, in terms of sculpture and architecture, they become irrelevant. We are at that critical point where you have time to complete them, but just when that happens, [other] trends come. We no longer have long periods where styles are settled, when we understood what worked, what did not, and what we could adopt.

Pedro: We are not talking only about context but about the ability to read context. Thinking about the pavilion that you made at the Serpentine, it was not something that you identify as Mexican, but there was a sensitivity towards the materials and a simplicity of the design that enhanced the materiality of the space itself. So, it did not have a geographical specificity, but it was obvious that the material was understood, and that is a sensitivity associated with the Mexican.

Frida: I am surprised at how quickly color was adopted as part of an identity. If we observe it throughout history, it was a very short period in which the Mexican pink defined us. It evolved from architecture, to the formation of a city, already a part of our identity. It has to do with another type of memory that is neither numerical nor linguistic, but that is transmitted from generation to generation. The assumption that a color can still be used to form something goes faster than our understanding.

Alberto: How can we to break that chain of events?

Frida: Avoiding the hyper-simplification of things, and at least in my case, preventing yourself from being pigeonholed in a style. Once you enter comfort, you get stuck and stop questioning your context. The moment you continue to question it, you will find more expressions and more materiality. It will always become more complex and richer. The individual key is not to fall into comfort.

Pedro: I see the need to go deeper. There are many things that we only see on the surface and discard because they seem clichés, but all clichés are the disguise of something that deserves study. So, I think you don’t have to fear stereotypes because if you scratch them, there are tools to solve them, and they can become part of your creative arsenal.