Patience and Drive: Frida Escobedo on Expanding Boundaries and Taking on as Much as Possible
By Julia Gamolina, cover portrait by Carlos Torres
Frida Escobedo is principal and founder of an architecture and design studio based in Mexico City. The projects produced at the studio operate within a theoretical framework that addresses time not as a historical calibration, but rather a social operation. The work developed at the studio ranges from art installation and furniture design to residential and public buildings. Notable architectural projects include La Tallera, the rehabilitation of the home and studio of the seminal Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (Cuernavaca, 2012); Librería Octavio Paz (Mexico City, 2013); and the renovation of the iconic 1950s Hotel Boca Chica (Acapulco, 2010). In 2018, she became the youngest architect to date to receive the commission for the Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, London.
Frida is the recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s Young Architects Forum award (2009), the 2014 BIAU Prize, the 2016 Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Award, and the 2017 Architectural League Emerging Voices Award. She has also been a visiting professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (2015), Harvard Graduate School of Design (2016) and the Architectural Association of London (2016). In Fall 2017 she was the Howard A. Friedman Visiting Professor of Practice at UC Berkeley. As of Spring 2019, she is a visiting professor at Rice University in Houston. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Frida talks about building her practice by expanding the boundaries in which she works, advising young architects to never stay comfortable.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
FE: I had no background in the arts - my dad is a doctor and my mom is a demographer - but I was always attracted to the arts. I was a little too scared to do fine arts because I was under the impression that it would involve a lot of external expression and putting your emotions out there, and I was too shy for that. So, I chose architecture thinking that it could provide a basis for either design or art in case I changed my mind and loved it my first week of school.
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school in Mexico?
I got very lucky in loving architecture so quickly and I made wonderful friends in school that I always worked with. Studying architecture is really hard - a lot of long nights - so having that group was very valuable.
I also learned that architecture school gives you a very good foundation, but architecture is a craft and you really learn it once you are out in the world. Once you go out into the world, architecture opens your eyes to what’s happening outside in the world - clients and budgets and money, but also social dynamics and politics.
How did you get your start in the field?
After I left school, I started working on my own right away - I never worked for an architecture office, and I worked on my own for seven years before I went to grad school. When you are young and very driven, you try to take on and do more and more and more. My first project was small - my partner at the time was my boyfriend, and his mother was doing a renovation. We convinced her to do a whole new apartment [laughs]. After we did it, his grandmother wanted to do something too. Then a friend of ours had a small plot of land that his father had given him, and we did a small house for him for a little less than $20,000.
We were trying to do something with anything - it was a struggle at the time because we had no money and did everything; we got the materials, we overlooked the construction, we did the administration, we did everything. This was the only way we could do what we wanted. Then we started applying to grants, and eventually, after these three projects, we split up. Around that time José Rojas invited me to do Hotel Bocachica with it, and after that I did a few competitions including El Eco Pavilion and La Tallera Siqueiros I started teaching around this time as well, always just trying to do as much as I could.
When did you get to Harvard?
By the time seven years had passed, I asked myself what I really wanted, because it really is a tough profession, especially for someone who is very young. There is a lot of competition. I thought that I should take a break, so I started looking at Masters degrees. I was flirting with the idea for a long time. I found a program at Harvard that was new - Art, Design, and the Public Domain - and I thought, “This is the thing that I’ve always wanted.” The topic of study is architecture, but it’s also talking about so many other things that we can expand on, the boundary between a spatial practices, art, and design.
Tell me about this experience.
I was thrilled! My class was the first generation to do the program, and Sanford Kwinter was there at the time. I met a lot of interesting people that really marked me. The experience was an opening to a completely different world - we had industrial designers, visual artists, film producers - there was only one other architect, and also a marine biologist. We were all trying to see how our expertise all fit into a spatial practice.
What did you do after?
I moved back to Mexico in 2012, right after Harvard, and got going with my own projects again. This was a big change - coming back, to architecture and to Mexico. My approach was completely different - I knew that I still wanted to practice, because if I was invited to design a private house, I still loved that - but we started to do more research, more public projects, experiments. There was a change of vision for what the work could be in the office.
How has the practice evolved since 2012?
Slowly - in 2012, it was just me, and then we got a commission for a book shop so it was me and two collaborators, Fernando Cabrera and Alessandro Arienzo. Then back to just me, and then Natalia Gálvez joined the studio. Then slowly the office grew to ten people. That’s just the way small offices start, step by step.
What’s going on now?
Half of the work is in Mexico, and half is outside. In Mexico, we do mostly hospitality and housing - we have two hotels, one in the Yucatan peninsula, in Bacalar, a beautiful lagoon. We also have a project in Puebla, a small historical house, and we are doing that for Grupo Habita, who we worked with for Hotel Bocachica, so it’s super nice to go back to working with them. We’re starting a few larger projects - one is a cultural center.
In the US, we’re working on a couple of public projects, in San Francisco and in Miami. Finally, we’re participating in several other smaller things that have to do with research; two years ago we were invited to go to the Orleans Biennial as participants, but now we are invited to go as associate curators, which is new for me. We are curating the Mexico section, and that has been amazing and has allowed me to work with other people and other artists. We are also publishing a book about rethinking the ruin in a contemporary way. Finally, I’m also teaching at Rice University with that theme in mind, so there’s a lot going on.
The Serpentine Pavilion project was an incredibly significant milestone for you and for your practice. What was this moment like?
I never expected to get so much attention - that’s the first thing. I was nervous and a little bit self-conscious, which is natural when you are invited to this - it’s a big thing and big names have been associated with the pavilion. At the beginning I was a bit nervous about the perception, but then it was very well-received and actually the most visited pavilion! It’s quite a surprise, and I was very happy.
Where do you see your practice going?
It’s very hard to tell with architecture - you never know what’s going to happen in the economy. What I see now as a change is that people are more interested in understanding in what’s happening in the world, rather than just building, and the perception of architects being successful just because they were doing super big things has changed as well. I’m glad.
I’m also really grateful to be invited to teach at Rice - Sara Whiting is amazing and I’m very lucky to have her as my Dean. She was very enthusiastic about the theme of ruination and obsolescence. This is what architecture should be talking about now - it’s not just about new construction and new materials and new forms, it’s also about what happens when things age and decay, become abandoned or fail. We should be planning for that.
Looking back, what have been the biggest challenges in your career?
The first one was never having worked for someone. The logistics behind having an office are something to be learned, and I still sometimes struggle a little with that. I also don’t like talking about money, so that has always been an issue.
Other than that, I’ve been very lucky to find very supportive people. None of it is easy - being a young person in the profession, a young person owning a firm - but the work itself was always the drive. When we completed something or when a concept was really well articulated, that was always enough.
What have been the biggest highlights?
Finishing your first project is always a magical moment - seeing your first model become reality is amazing. Something in your brain changes and you begin to really understand this process. You see something done exactly as you imagined it, and everything comes full circle. You also learn that there are some things that you’ll never be able to control, but that you’re also creating something and that’s a moment of a big click.
Being in this competition for El Eco was another highlight. It was the first public project I completed, and it was really small, but I was able to, for the first time, experiment with how I perceived space and how people interacted with space on a small scale. That then gave me a lot of other opportunities. And going to the GSD at Harvard. Those two years were wonderful.
As someone who runs a firm and interfaces with clients, journalists, curators, and more, what have you learned about people?
It’s always a challenge because you have to be tough and firm to get what you want, but then again, kindness is a very surprising tool. Some people go for the tough approach, and I don’t think that’s necessary. I’m not someone who likes conflict and I avoid that as much as I can, so kindness has always been in my mindset.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I don’t know how to even begin to answer that [laughs] - I think when you like what you do, you don’t even question anything. You just do it. Otherwise, I trust my team a lot, and when I don’t know what to do, I tell them that I don’t know what to do! We’re a small team, so we’re able to talk about a lot together. Everyone from the senior architects to the junior designers are participating in the same conversation, and I really appreciate that. It’s one of my favorite things. We have people from all over the world - the US, Italy, Denmark, and Mexico of course.
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
Architecture is many things - we tend to focus on architectural design, but that is actually not what is producing the largest amount of architecture. We think that all of it are these creative moments where all we do is sketch and the building magically appears from the skyline of a big city, but that’s not how it works. People who are doing legislation or land use, for example, have more power in how our cities are defined than the designers.
We should think about those possibilities as well - policy, materials, so many things that help impact design. Sometimes as designers, we’re just following that and that’s why cities can become so flat and so boring. Good design should infiltrate those fields - design is not just about the final details of a space - those things are super important, but the first thing is how we’re organizing territory, and that has to do with politics and the economy and so many things that we don’t usually think about as architects.
Finally, what advice do you have for those wanting to start their own practice?
Many people have asked me that question, but it’s hard to give broad advice like that because everyone has their specific situation. I would say to me, the most valuable advice was to be patient. And then to stay slippery - not to be comfortable. When you’re comfortable, you’re stuck. I think that’s a good combination because in trying not to be comfortable there can be a lot of anxiety, but if you are patient with yourself, the anxiety goes away.
Architecture is slow and very hard - clients now want to do things very quickly, and they want results, and they want more all the time - but just remember that that’s the process, and be patient.