How a Celebrated Architect Travels the World Through Buildings

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Frida Escobedo believes there’s more to architecture than utility and esthetics. The celebrated Mexican architect says on her website that “architecture and design represent, above all, a crucial means to interrogate and comment on social, economic and political phenomena.” Her work, which includes buildings and temporary exhibitions, is inspired by everything from fine art to history to the philosophy of Henri Bergson. In 2018, Escobedo became the youngest architect ever invited to design the annual temporary summer pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery. We sat down with her when she was visiting Toronto in January as a keynote speaker at the Interior Design Show to talk about how an architect travels and what the design of buildings can tell us about society.

October 23, 2020
Three women gathered in front of an experimental housing project in Apan, Mexico
“From territory to inhabitant,” an experimental housing project in Apan, Mexico.   Photo: Rafael Gamo
Aerial view of the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion at the Serpentine Galleries in London
The 2018 Serpentine Pavilion at the Serpentine Galleries, London, U.K.   Photo: Iwan Baan

enRoute How has travel influenced your approach to design and architecture?

Frida Escobedo When you’re travelling you become more aware of your surroundings and it creates a different awareness. You don’t know the place, so you need to pay special attention.

Everything is new and you’re trying to remember every corner because you need to find your way back. When I come back to Mexico I try to remind myself of that. We lose so much when we switch into automatic mode and we’re not aware. That’s one of the things I like most about travelling. And of course meeting people. And food!

A person walking across La Tallera in Mexico
Exterior view of La Tallera at night
La Tallera, Cuernavaca, Mexico, 2012.   Photo: Rafael Gamo
The exterior of La Tallera.    Photo: Rafael Gamo

ER Do you have tips for someone on how to see a city through its architecture?

FE Forget about using Google Maps and try to navigate the city in a different way. We’re so focused on arriving at a specific point that we forget the journey and that’s where the most interesting things happen, where we might find something that’s not on the map.

ER Do you have any favourite places where you love to travel?

FE So many. But if someone asked me where do you want to go right now, I’d say Japan.

Brazil is also fascinating. I would love to know more about South America. I’ve only been to Argentina. I would also love to visit more of my own continent – this is my first time in Canada – and my own country. There’s so much to see. Oaxaca, for example, is amazing. It’s so rich and diverse in terms of landscape and food, and you go from the desert to the rain forest to the mountain to the beach. You have everything there.

An outdoor archway in Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca, Mexico.   Photo: Fernando Gomez
A cluster of cacti in Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca, Mexico.   Photo: Fernando Gomez
Plant life in Oaxaca.    Photo: Kat Stokes
Intricate detailing on the walls and ceiling of the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba in Spain
The Mosque–Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain.   Photo: Girl with red hat (Unsplash)

ER As an architect, are there particular buildings you’ve seen on your travels that have affected you?

FE The Mosque of Cordoba is something special. It’s a mosque that was later transformed into a Catholic church. You enter into a courtyard that feels very private. But then you walk inside and there’s a grid of orange trees that creates a sense of rhythm, and a smell, and there are fountains – it’s a little oasis away from the Cordoba heat.

ER You are known for revitalizing neglected buildings and places. How do you approach bringing something back to life?

FE It’s not about just doing something new and forgetting what the intention of the building was – it’s important to keep its past alive.

How do you preserve the spirit of the building while understanding that it isn’t static, that it needs to adapt and change and house other things?

A man standing in an outdoor narrow pathway of the Mar Tirreno 86 in Mexico City
Shelves of bottles on the textured interior walls at the Aesop Park Slope
Mar Tirreno 86, Mexico City, 2016-2019.   Photo: Rafael Gamo
Aesop Park Slope, a retail environment in Brooklyn.    Photo: courtesy of Aesop
Aerial view of a Victoria & Albert Museum pavilion in London
A pavilion installed in 2012 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, U.K.   Photo: Rafael Gamo

ER What can architecture tell us about how we live?

FE It’s almost like a portrait of what we consider important. Buildings are a manifestation of a specific time and place. There are the technical aspects of a specific material, like concrete or precasts or panels. Technologies evolve and it creates a kind of material portrait of human advancement.

But also social advancement: what are our priorities? Why do we prefer pink or blue in a specific era? How would we communicate that? And what is the reason for us preferring a specific texture or colour over the other? Why do we feel like something is old or cheesy and then we go back to that very thing? That’s always fascinating to me, that idea of “good taste.”

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