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Social change through architecture?

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Architect Frida Escobedo weighs in on the debate and talks self-fulfilment, idle colleagues and her social responsibility as a boss.

From Corbusier’s lofty plans to Walter Gropius’ communal projects, many architects have focused on improving human living conditions. But what does it mean to accept social responsibility in today’s world? And to what extent can a metropolis like Mexico City affect its own fate and perspective? Topics that move our interview partner Frida Escobedo, one of the up-and-coming stars of the international architecture scene.

She Mercedes-Benz: Frida-Escobedo, social change
Mercedes-AMG C 63: Fuel consumption combined: 8,9-8,6 l/100 km; CO₂ emission combined: 209-200 g/km*
Calle Venus 52, Jardines de Cuernavaca, 62360 Cuernavaca, Mor., Mexiko

Over the past few years, Escobedo has been working on some very different projects: from a pop-up store for hip Australian cosmetics brand Aesop all the way down to conceptual designs for New York City’s MoMa PS1. Together with Design Milk, we stopped by her home in the Mexican capital, explored her working environment in a shared-use gallery space and took her on a day trip to Cuernavaca in a Mercedes-AMG C63 to find out more about her (to date) most ambitious endeavour: the remodelling of the La Tallera museum.

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    The 'La Tallera' museum outside of Mexico City was designed by Frida Escobedo.

You grew up in Mexico City. How did this environment shape you?

Growing up here, you see a lot of contrasts. The city develops very spontaneously, without a lot of regulation. I think that freedom encourages a lot of personal expression. You can almost “read” the interests of homeowners by just looking at their facades. It always fascinated me: How people can really express themselves through architecture without having to be an architect.

Tell me about the La Tallera project.

This one was very important to me since it was my first public commission and one I won in a competition against other architects I really admire. We transformed the former home and studio of painter and activist David Alfaro Siqueiros into a public gallery. The most striking elements are the two large murals painted by Siqueiros that we moved from their original positions around a private courtyard to frame a new entryway – this was key to opening the complex up to the public. It was a tough time because I was still enrolled at Graduate School in Harvard and flying back and forth. It was very intense, but I learned a lot.

Architects take themselves too seriously. How we behave on a day-to-day basis is way more important than wanting to solve larger-than-life problems. Frida Escobedo

Big windows, lush greenery and a colourful blend of design classics: Frida Escobedo’s home in Mexico City.

After successfully working as an architect for seven years, you decided to go back to school and study “Art, Design and the Public Domain“ at Harvard. Why?

After working for years, I had a good feel for the industry and was getting a bit tired of it all. Being forced to cater to real estate investors and therefore being part of a gentrification process still bothers me. I was looking at other disciplines like fine art and admired their freedom. Architecture is always a team effort that involves a lot of resources until a project gets realised. “Art, Design and the Public Domain“ at the Harvard Graduate School was perfect for broadening my horizon while staying true to my own field.

What was your biggest takeaway from that?

I learned how to ask the right questions. It's not how to design for a client, but how to develop your own interests; what are you trying to say? That was a huge change for me. On a different note: While I’m rather introverted, I also learned to embrace the power of collaboration. Ideas get better when you share them!

Were there ever difficult phases that made you want to quit?

To be honest, that happens with every project. “How am I going to keep my business running?“, “Is this good enough?“ or, if you fail at a competition, “Is my work no longer any good?“ But then you just grow a thicker skin and start worrying less.

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    For the Australian cosmetics brand Aesop, Escobedo designed their Wynwood retail space merging the brand’s industrial aesthetics with Miami’s tropical colour palette using panes of dichroic glass that refracts light from the windows. © Aesop
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    Playful materials and strong concepts: Frida Escobedo shows us around her office.
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    A sketch of one of Frida's favourite projects: her proposal for an installation at the MoMa PS1 courtyard where she took a radical approach to sustainability by using only materials found on site.
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    Frida welcomes us to her home.

How do you see your role as an architect in terms of a positive impact on society?

Architects take themselves too seriously. I believe that how we behave on a day-to-day basis is way more important than wanting to solve these larger-than-life problems. That’s where real change is happening! How do I choose collaborative partners and suppliers, do I incorporate traditional techniques that might otherwise disappear, what can I do to keep my staff happy? How can we structure our office in a way that allows women to have babies and still contribute to our projects? That’s where I can make the biggest difference.

Do you feel there is a special role for women in architecture?

Definitely! If you go back through the history of Latin American architecture, there are almost no female architects beyond Lina Bo Bardi. I was very lucky since I got to build a lot of projects at a very young age. So, that helped me to develop a strong portfolio and gain trust and respect in the field. But sometimes, I still I get mistaken for a male colleague’s assistant. You have to learn to navigate these clichés and hopefully set an example, so in future female architects are no longer something unusual.

To learn more about Frida’s work, head over to our friends at Design Milk here where the architect opens up her studio and talks about work routines, collaboration and why her favourite project is one that never actually got realised.

*All images of 'La Tallera' authorized by the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature. Thank you!

** The figures are provided in accordance with the German regulation 'PKW-EnVKV' and apply to the German market only. Further information on official fuel consumption figures and the official specific CO₂ emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the EU guide 'Information on the fuel consumption, CO₂ emissions and energy consumption of new cars', which is available free of charge at all sales dealerships, from DAT Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH here.