Something Peculiar: Ana Paula Ruiz Galindo on Fabrication and Craft, and the Invisible Parts of Architecture
By Julia Gamolina
Ana Paula Ruiz is the co-founder of Pedro y Juana, a studio based in Mexico-City which explores the capacity of objects to change their environment through typological transgressions and the indiscriminate use of material, texture, color, placement and form. Their projects assemble new and unexpected relationships with those that encounter them, including From The Tropics With Love, a hanging garden for the MCA in Chicago, and Hórama Rama, a cyclorama for Queens on top of the courtyard of the MoMA PS1.
In her interview, Ana Paula talks about starting and building her experimental practice and all the negotiation, relationship building, and communication that goes into it, advising young architects to ensure that no matter where they work, they are learning about people, about life, and about architecture.
JG: What was the first seed of your interest in architecture?
APRG: I never had that moment where I officially decided to go into architecture. When I was eighteen I wanted to be an artist, so when I finished high school, I went to France to do an atelier to prepare my portfolio for art school. It was rough - I didn’t speak French, amongst other things.
I thought I should look at something with more structure. It’s known that architecture has both sides of reason and art, so I came back to Mexico and applied to architecture school and got in. I still wanted to go back to art school but then I didn't manage to get my papers in on time [laughs], so I started architecture school and then loved it and stayed.
What did you learn about yourself in school?
That I could pull all-nighters [laughs].You find how much stress you can handle, and I learned that I could pull through very stressful moments and come out OK.
Also, in Mexico City, my school was very old-fashioned. We never presented our work, so I didn’t know how to put my work into words until I got to SciArc for my masters. There I learned how you can take information and transform it into design.
What did you do after SciArc?
I moved to LA and there I met Mecky, who is now my partner - business and in life [laughs]. He was doing an exchange from Germany. While I was doing my thesis, he started working for Jorge Pardo, an artist in LA. I thought the work was very exciting, and I couldn’t wait to start working, so I worked there part-time while I finished my thesis. I needed something else to do and think about besides thesis. Then when I graduated, I worked for Jorge full time, for a period of five years. That was quite a ride.
What did you learn there?
I learned everything I know there.
Jorge has, and still has, a completely different approach to space and design - ways to use color and ways to think about different activities. He’s an artist and didn’t have the same interest or restraints that most architects do. A lot of what I learned with him isn’t taught in architecture school - they don't teach you how to use color to get depth. Color can have three dimensional consequences.
He was also working on this major project in the outskirts of Merida, in the Yucatan - a hacienda that Mecky and I worked on for five years. We designed and built in the same place. Jorge had a CNC machine, a laser cutter, and a full wood shop - he really did teach me that process of designing and then making right away. Eventually, we moved to Merida to finish this project.
How and when did you start Pedro y Juana?
After we moved to Merida, we realized we had been working for Jorge for five years and that maybe it was time to move on to start our own thing.
I don’t think that we could see everything then. It was a rough year. Mecky and I were in Merida, which is kind of provincial. We were working very hard and only had each other. It was kind of a test for our relationship. [laughs] We just thought that we couldn’t go back to LA and do the same thing as we were doing before. We decided to go back to Mexico City in 2012 - my hometown - and figure it out from there.
What was the first project?
While still in Merida, one of Jorge’s friends asked us to do a little intervention on a house that he bought there. We were doing this house kind of independently, but also kind of with Jorge. Finally, we had the conversation with Jorge - that we wanted to move on to start our own firm. It was hard but at the end Jorge gave us his blessing.
Since starting Pedro y Juana, what have been the significant milestones for you?
Highlight one was going to Mexico City. I lived in LA for 7 years and it took us a while to go back home. We were very interested in getting in touch with production in Mexico, both in handcraft and industrial. At that time in Mexico City, there was a lot of energy around design. A museum, the Archive of Design and Architecture, started and they opened up the first ever competition for a pavilion in Mexico City. The competition was international and they had a big budget, so we got very excited about it. We made our proposal and we won!
That was really our springboard. I love that project - the space was a garden for which we essentially made an amphitheater out of pots and plants. Then we got to meet Jose Esparza, the director of Storefront, and from there we got invited to the architecture Biennale in Chicago, the first one ever. We participated in a lot of “firsts” in the industry [laughs].
Where did participating in the Chicago Biennale take you?
We got a lot of work from that, actually. We got invited to do the gala at the Hammer Museum at UCLA because Anne Philbin, the museum director, went to Chicago and saw our project and thought it was fantastic. She wrote us directly, which was surprising - an informal and super laid-back email [laughs]. The Hammer had the nicest team!
Then after that we did the MCA, which was great as well. That was also something that came out of the Chicago Biennale. The education director, Heidi Reitmaier invited us to make a proposal for a new space called The Commons. She got to know about our work because her daughter took ballet classes next to the Chicago Cultural Center, and she waited for her inside our installation that’s in Randolph Square. Finally, obviously the Young Architects Program at MoMA PS1 has been huge. I don’t know where that’s going to go but I think that’s a pretty big moment.
Yes, MoMA PS1! What does this moment mean to you?
It’s an exciting and also a very introspective moment. I was exhausted after we finished building [laughs]. When we were done, right before it opened, we realized how much energy it took. Even my body feels it.
Horama Rama took us to New York in terms of design, but we were already teaching here, at the Cooper Union. Getting that appointment was a big milestone for me as well. I have always been interested in academia - I think it helps a lot to be more reflective of what you do in practice. Now we are teaching at GSAPP as well.
Where are you in your career today?
I’d like to go back home to Mexico City, but I also don’t know how I’m going to continue this relationship with the US. Being away is hard on the office - all the leaving and coming back.
How big are you guys?
Four total. We want to grow a little bit but we have to think about that and how the financial part comes into play. I don’t have a clear idea of where the future is going to lead.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Finding the right people to work with is definitely a super big challenge - the team in the office, the engineers, the fabricators. Communication with fabricators has also been really hard. Finding one that allows you to experiment enough and that can also deliver is very difficult. There is a very thin line. For us, we work with completely different materials in very different scales. We actually found a pretty good fabricator in Mexico City that did metal work for us, but they just got a bigger project - fabricating all the interior for the C&A stores. We were out, pushed out of the way. How do you maintain a proper relationship with someone that is just about producing quantity?
When you hire or when you’re looking for consultants to work with, how can you tell when someone is the right fit?
God [laughs]. We rely a lot on first encounters. We also check that they have the proper skillset. Mecky and I are very agile in computer programs, but as we grow, it’s also more and more important for us to delegate that work. It has been hard to find that skill set in Mexico City, so we teach it to our staff at the office. Digital skills, that’s something anyone can learn [laughs].
What are you working on these days?
We have been pretty active in developing our own projects. We are starting a building right now in Mexico City, a small four story building of apartments. We are very interested in the different parts that are hidden behind architecture, the invisible things that architecture represents. For example, the economics and politics of a project.
This project has a lot more consequences than is expressed physically. You need to get to know the neighbors if you are in an actively political neighborhood like ours. When you are proposing a new project in a neighborhood that has been there for many, many years, what role do you play as an architect? Our neighborhood has a very active community that is anti-gentrification. That made us “evil” – we now were on the other side of the coin. We were those developers and we had to find a way to get through to the community and talk to them. It was genuinely honest conversation with the community, that led us to a pro-bono proposal of a public park. It was a very interesting process that made us acquainted with all levels of power, from the city to the neighbor.
What would you say your mission is? What’s the impact you’d like to have?
I was in a talk yesterday with Kelly Easterling and she was saying that she understood design as a manipulator - that as a designer, you are a manipulator of the world. I don’t know if the manipulator is the right word - it has a bit of a negative connotation - but architecture does have the potential to move things around. I don't want to understand it as something that is top down.
My mission is to create a bit of a nudge in spatiality and to make things that make other people question something, whatever it is.
Who are you admiring right now?
The more that I know about our profession, I admire everyone that is an architect. Especially women who do this because those conversations with fabricators can be rough. In Mexico, it’s even rougher.
I also admire everyone who has won the PS1 YAP program and was able to build the installation and finish. It’s a tough project in terms of time and energy.
If I had to name one person though, I’d say Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I admire people who are not afraid of being loud, pushing their agenda, and changing things.
What do you wish you knew when you started that you know now?
I just had a training yesterday about legal language, and interviewed land use attorney Melanie Meyers recently as well. The precision that’s needed in language is astounding. The people that write contracts are incredibly skilled.
In the US, liability is a huge issue. In Mexico, you are liable as well, and architects are becoming more and more responsible for their design, even in an earthquake.
It’s also about being able to negotiate. Everything is a negotiation in architecture - with your client, with the fabricator, with the employee. You need to learn to be clear on what you want to achieve with design and not be shy about it.
What advice do you have for young architects who are just starting their careers?
Do what you like. I always tried to work in offices where I felt like the projects that they do are so interesting to me and that I feel a lot of excitement. For me, something also has to be peculiar - that’s what I look for in our work. Something strange or unique or new that can teach you something you don’t know or you haven’t learned already.
When you work for an office, you don’t want to spend time proving that you have certain skills - you want to be learning and learning from where you work. Skills you can always gain, but what are you learning about people, about life, about architecture? That’s important.
Anything else before I stop recording?
I think this is a great platform. I really like the fact that you are giving voices to women, but also about how you are digging into this almost therapeutic part of architecture [laughs]. I feel like almost like I’m in therapy. Not in a bad way. It’s introspection and it’s very necessary sometimes to question yourself.