Frida Escobedo, Mexico City, November 2019
Photograph by Yvonne Venegas for Aperture

In March 2022, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, announced the selection of the architect Frida Escobedo to design the museum’s new modern and contemporary art wing. Here, we revisit an interview with Escobedo in the magazine’s “House & Home” issue, originally published in spring 2020.

When she landed the commission to design London’s Serpentine Pavilion in 2018, Frida Escobedo established herself as a young architect with a compelling vision. By that time, she already had a number of accomplished projects under her belt, from the renovation of La Tallera, the former studio of the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros turned public art gallery, to Casa Negra, a house featuring wide-screen views of her native Mexico City, designed for a photographer and inspired by the concept of a camera obscura. Escobedo’s works—often made with raw materials like perforated concrete blocks—opt for flexibility and a restrained yet daring form to create simple visual gestures.

Though Escobedo says she was too intimidated to apply to art school, deciding on an architecture path instead, her creative process is close to that of a visual artist who lets her pieces speak for themselves. But she also has an eye on the cultural landscape in which her work exists—Mexico’s social divisions and class dynamics have often been a concern in her investigations of buildings and housing—as well as on the storied history of built environments in her home country. “Mexican architecture is informed by its context,” she has remarked. “I think it’s more like a spirit rather than a style.” Here, she speaks about transforming lives through design and space, and her own spirit of invention.

Frida Escobedo, Casa Negra, Mexico City, 2006
Photograph by José Fernando Sánchez. Courtesy the artist

Alejandra González Romo: One of your first projects was the Casa Negra (2006) on the outskirts of Mexico City, which resembles a dark camera. Is there any connection between the concept for that house and that of an old camera?

Frida Escobedo: The first two projects I worked on were house renovations, so this was indeed the first one I developed from scratch. I was twenty-three back then, fresh out of college, and a small, very simple house had to be built with limited resources. The idea was to build a one room studio with a mezzanine as a quick solution. The owner, who is a photographer, had inherited that plot on the outskirts of Mexico City, on the road to Cuernavaca. A small space, it had to be made permeable to light, and the solution was to build a huge window looking out onto the city, which frames the view. It is a black box standing on columns. One enters by a bridge. When entering the box, one immediately sees the landscape, a mixture of forest and city. At night, especially, the box creates a camera-obscura effect with the city lights visible in the distance.

González Romo: How would you describe the way natural light comes into the space?

Escobedo: The light comes in from the north. Therefore, the house works perfectly as a studio. The only risk was that the house turns out to be very cold. For this reason, we installed an L shaped skylight, so it has an additional light inlet from the south, thus warming it a bit. We painted it dark gray—almost black—so that it attracts more light and heat. It also has a ramp that goes from the kitchen up to a terrace. Therefore, the social space is doubled, the peripheral view from the roof offering a whole different experience. It is indeed a type of camera aiming at the city, but, at the same time, it’s spatially functional. Also, its position and angle resemble the way any photographer would choose to set a tripod.

A photograph by Frida Escobedo’s sister, Ana Gómez de León, at Escobedo’s home, Mexico City, 2019<br />Photographs by Yvonne Venegas for <em>Aperture</em>“>
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A photograph by Frida Escobedo’s sister, Ana Gómez de León, at Escobedo’s home, Mexico City, 2019
Photographs by Yvonne Venegas for Aperture

Frida Escobedo’s home, Mexico City, 2019
Frida Escobedo’s home, Mexico City, 2019

González Romo: Looking at the documentation of your projects, I can see the signature of the photographer Rafael Gamo is on practically every single piece. What is the role of photography in your creative process?

Escobedo: The process behind architecture is overflowing with images. But if we talk of photography’s recording value, my interest is in having documentation done on more than one occasion. I like working with Rafael, because he always comes back to the sites to capture the way a project evolves. Neither of us is interested in the perfect picture. All we want is a living record. Even though, in many cases, owners make it difficult to keep that record, I am interested in capturing how each construction ages.

González Romo: What other photographers have influenced your way of seeing?

Escobedo: Josef Koudelka, Sebastião Salgado, Graciela Iturbide, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and Gerhard Richter—their interventions with photographs. My sister Ana Gómez de León is also a photographer. A photograph of hers sits by the entrance of my house. I forced her to give it to me as a present. She took the photograph from a plane, where you can see a river crossing the mountains. When I saw it, I thought of Salgado and his endless journeys to shoot such images. This one was taken through a filthy window using an iPhone. I love it. It is my favorite photograph. Here, in my office, I have a postcard taken by the architect Mauricio Rocha, in 1988. It is an image of a wooden wagon with glass doors reflecting a lake. It is a photograph he took at a very young age, and I interpreted it as some sort of acknowledgment of what I was doing in my first years as an architect.

I recently saw Hans Haacke’s exhibition at the New Museum, in which he analyzes the relationships between power, real-estate value, and built space in New York. His research draws lines between the Shapolsky family and 142 buildings across the city, while keeping a record of each property’s square meters, its conditions, its owner, et cetera. It is well known that power concentrates in very few families around the world; yet, visualizing it in such a clear way takes the subject out of the abstract. A similar analysis, but one made indoors, is Daniela Rossell’s series Ricas y famosas (Rich and famous, 1994–2001), where she shows the interiors of immense mansions in Mexico, unveiling the tastes and personalities of women who may lack anything but money. It is a portrait of society through space and architecture from an intimate perspective.

Carlos Somonte, Still of Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (Alfonso Curarón, dir.), 2018
Courtesy Netflix

González Romo: Haacke’s piece sounds similar to what you achieved with your research project and book Domestic Orbits (2019), based on the fact that there are more than 2.4 million domestic workers in Mexico and that 90 percent of them are women. It is a cartographical analysis of the way the domestic sphere is configured around race, class, and gender. What triggered your interest in this subject?

Escobedo: Few people know that Luis Barragán’s domestic worker still lives in his house, more than thirty years after Barragán’s death. As part of his will, he decided she could continue living there for the rest of her life. We are talking about an iconic house built by a Pritzker Prize winner, which currently functions as a museum but has a hidden configuration: a house within a house that no one knows about and that is designed not to be discovered by visitors. Nonetheless, if you pay attention, there are hints of that invisibility everywhere. There are bells under the tables to communicate with that other zone, and there are secondary routes that allow staff to pass through the main areas without being seen.

This analysis of Casa Barragán was the first exercise. Three years later, we decided to expand our research, as these signs of invisibility can be seen in architecture on different scales. In the building where I live, there are also rooms for the service staff that are completely invisible. Walking around the city, we see massive apartment buildings with wonderful views, built by renowned architects. But what invisible architecture lies behind?

I don’t think there should only be one concept of home. I think the actual problem is the will to standardize.

We also analyzed the house where Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 movie Roma was filmed, which has a little tower where the character Cleo [the family’s domestic worker] lives. Another very interesting case is a building from 1957 in Polanco [a neighborhood in Mexico City], where the service staff rooms are in a separate building a few blocks away. These are very small dwellings built around a main courtyard, where the service staff can have a private life and bring visitors if they so wish, in addition to having a spatial separation between work and leisure. That possibility has almost completely disappeared within one generation, and current domestic workers often commute up to four hours every day from the outskirts of the city to their workplaces.

Frida Escobedo, Mar Tirreno, Mexico City, 2016–19
Photograph by Rafael Gamo. Courtesy the artist

González Romo: You live in a building designed by Mario Pani, one of the most widely renowned architects in Mexican history, and a representative of what was perhaps the golden age of architecture in the country. What reflections do you have from living in a space like that?

Escobedo: Two years ago, I went through a separation and moved into this apartment, although it was rather by chance. This is a building from 1956, a time when many buildings full of two-hundred-square-meter apartments were built. It is a space with a history, which means it has been modified before. In the past, it was divided, but now it consists of rather open spaces. I have very few pieces of furniture: one Wassily chair that my father gave me when I first went to live by myself, and another we made at the office, which is a reinterpretation of the Donald Judd chairs, but made of volcanic rock. It’s more of a joke. The table is attached to the wall, as was Barragán’s, and the bookshelves surrounding the space are very low, so they can be used as seats when throwing a party. There are very few things, but I like the space to look empty, more like a dance floor. My walls are also clear. I do not like hanging pictures on the wall, as it looks way too formal to me. I prefer to lean them against bookshelves or other objects and move them around from time to time.

Objects in Frida Escobedo’s home, including concrete panel research and design models, Mexico City, 2019<br />Photographs by Yvonne Venegas for <em>Aperture</em>“>
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Objects in Frida Escobedo’s home, including concrete panel research and design models, Mexico City, 2019
Photographs by Yvonne Venegas for Aperture

González Romo: From an architectural point of view, what is your idea of a home?

Escobedo: I don’t think there should only be one concept of home. I think the actual problem is the will to standardize. There are many configurations of housing and family that are not considered when developing real-estate projects. They insist on selling us as many labels as possible in spaces that are increasingly small: a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms … and that nonsense walk-in closet, as if that were indeed going to increase our quality of life. Why doesn’t anyone go for, say, large, flexible areas for people to transform freely?

González Romo: You built a house for the Ordos 100 project (2008), organized by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron. For this, one hundred architects from twenty-seven countries were invited to build a thousand-square-meter luxury villa in the Mongolian desert. You also designed a small house as part of a program for the Mexican government that sought low-cost housing alternatives for disadvantaged people. How did you respond to such opposite concepts?

Escobedo: For the Ordos 100 project, the challenge was to rethink housing and come up with an experimental proposal to be developed in a rather inhospitable territory. There were guidelines to be followed—some interesting, some obvious. The idea was to create weekend houses. Each one had to have a safe, a cellar, a pool, et cetera. What caught my attention was the fact that they asked for two kitchens: one closed with storage space and the other open, like an island. After talking to the organizers, I understood that the first kitchen was for the service staff, and I realized that they would live there full-time. Therefore, in the remaining space, I designed an independent house for the cleaning staff, cooks, gardeners, et cetera, where they would have their own courtyards, linked to the main construction. For that project, enormous, outrageous houses were designed. I was the youngest among a hundred architects, and my house was the smallest one.

Objects in Frida Escobedo’s home, including concrete panel research and design models, Mexico City, 2019<br />Photographs by Yvonne Venegas for <em>Aperture</em>“>
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Objects in Frida Escobedo’s home, including concrete panel research and design models, Mexico City, 2019
Photographs by Yvonne Venegas for Aperture

For the INFONAVIT (Institute of the National Fund for Workers’ Housing) project (2019), the challenge was quite the opposite: designing with minimal resources and in a reduced area. I was invited, together with other architects, to design a social housing prototype. We created one that would adapt both to a rural area and to an urban context. It is a very flexible vaulted house, which in a rural context can also be adapted as a barn. As for an urban environment, these arches integrate very well with the local architecture, as they are part of the architectural language of that city, Taxco. On a certain level, it is similar to the Casa Negra, which we discussed at the beginning, because it was an open space with a mezzanine offering easy and economical possibilities of expansion without the need for skilled labor. The idea is that instead of repeating that design ad nauseam—as has been the case with many social-housing projects, and I think it is a big mistake to believe that this configuration should be massive and standardized—families living in contiguous houses would have common, adaptable courtyards and spaces that would contribute to building communities.

Frida Escobedo, From Territory to Inhabitant, INFONAVIT, Vivienda Rural, Apan, Hidalgo, Mexico, 2019
Photograph by Rafael Gamo. Courtesy the artist

González Romo: However, the housing project remained in limbo, making evident the government’s lack of commitment to address the precarious condition in which a large part of the Mexican population lives.

Escobedo: As soon as we completed the project for INFONAVIT, we were told that all those prototypes, designed for different contexts, would be exhibited together in a plot intended to become a housing lab for researchers. Thus, instead of giving those houses to people who actually need them, they are in some kind of showroom. That project ended up being tremendously frustrating for me. It was a waste of resources that we cannot afford.

González Romo: Many of your projects transcend the boundaries of architecture and could be read as similar to those of a visual artist. How do your references to other forms of art come into play in projects like the pavilion you created for the Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City, or in your installation for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London?

Escobedo: In the case of El Eco, I was dealing with very high-level architecture—a work by Mathias Goeritz. Thus, profiting from the flexibility offered by loose bricks, I proposed guidelines to build a different space configuration for every event taking place in that courtyard: a stage for concerts, seats for a film projection, or simply a brick sculpture that kids could play with or destroy to build something new. In this case, one of my references was the concrete poetry of Ferreira Gullar, who seeks the maximum expression with a minimal amount of words. At first glance, a brick is a rigid industrial piece. It looks like an object that does not allow much expression. Yet, when people appropriate it, the expressions are infinite.

The project for the Victoria and Albert Museum was developed in the context of the Year of Mexico in England, so the challenge was to make a pavilion in the central courtyard that made reference to Mexico. Nowadays a national pavilion is a somewhat forced idea, because everyone has windows to other countries and cultures, so we intended to enable an exchange, which seemed more interesting. We started from an investigation on land appropriations and decided to allude to the first appropriation that took place in Mexico City after the [Spanish] conquest, to recall the original city, which was a lake city full of reflections. This lake city is literally buried under the urban history of the country’s capital. It is fascinating, even surreal. How did anyone come up with building a city on water? The idea involves high doses of magical realism, but somehow they managed.

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 238, “House & Home.” Translated from the Spanish by Enrique Pérez Rosiles.