Tatiana Bilbao isn’t an architect who eagerly takes the spotlight, but in recent years, her groundbreaking work in social housing and sustainable design has earned her international recognition and countless accolades. Because of her inspiring vision and commitment to changing the landscape of social architecture and urban housing in her native Mexico and beyond, Bilbao is the winner of the 2017 A+Awards Impact Award.
Tatiana Bilbao at the 2017 A+Awards Gala; photo by Sam Deitch/BFA.com
Bilbao is considered one of the premier contemporary architects and urban planners of the developing world. She creates elegant light-filled architecture out of the simplest geometric forms, drawing on local labor and construction materials to manifest her remarkable designs in the most cost-efficient way possible. Bilbao has been praised for her humanitarian approach to architecture and sensitivity to the localities she builds in.
Exhibition Pavilion in Jinhua Architecture Park; photo by Iwan Baan courtesy of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio
Bilbao founded her firm, Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, in 2004. Its first built project, an exhibition pavilion in Jinhua Architecture Park, was a collaboration with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that put her on the map. Over the last 13 years, Bilbao’s eclectic portfolio of work has grown with site-sensitive projects that are as beautiful as they are functional.
Her stunning cliffside Observatory House for artist Gabriel Orozco — a structure with a circular rooftop pool — is highly lauded as one of her studio’s most impressive buildings. She also designed the master plan and open chapel for a pilgrimage route in the Jalisco Mountains as well as an art-filled botanical garden in Culicán.
Observatory House; photo by Iwan Baan via the New York Times
But perhaps the project that has garnered the most attention for Bilbao’s studio is her sustainable housing prototype, created to combat Mexico’s housing shortage. Her team conceived a 463-square-foot model that could be built for as little as $8,000. Introduced at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the flexible design of the affordable home can be altered depending on the needs of the family and location in which it is constructed. The first set of affordable homes were constructed in Ciudad Acuña.
Sustainable Housing at Ciudad Acuña; photo by Iwan Baan courtesy of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio
At this moment in her career, Bilbao is elated with the body of work her firm is producing. Currently the studio is working on a contemporary art museum in Arévalo, Spain, and a housing complex in Lyon, France, as part of a master plan by Herzog & de Meuron. Architizer spoke with Bilbao to discuss the impact her firm has made over the last several years as well as why she isn’t keen on awards.
Sydney Franklin: Congratulations on the Impact Award! What does this particular award mean to you?
Tatiana Bilbao: For me, awards are a big responsibility. Obviously, we’re incredibly happy to receive the Impact Award specifically, but it comes with an added responsibility of being able to continually produce projects that are making a big impact on society. To me, awards are a great encouragement to keep going and really do it, but they come with a responsibility.
Gratitude Chapel; photo by Adam Wiseman via the New York Times
That makes a lot of sense, but you’re clearly doing something right to receive so much international recognition. Why do you think your projects and your firm stand out as more impactful, socially responsible as well as conscious of sustainability and of the context you’re designing in?
I may not be able to tell you why I stand out, but I can tell you why I do what I do. In the beginning of my career, I was coming into a moment of architecture where the industry was trying to be spectacular, in many senses of the word, with singular projects. I realized that architecture has a big responsibility to do more because it’s creating and shaping life. As humans, the first thing we need is health, and for that, we need food. The second need we have is shelter. As architects, I believe we aren’t as relevant as we could be in this sense. If you look at the numbers, the percentage of buildings that are done in the world by architects is minimal. I think it’s because we’ve stepped out of the conversation about the essential things.
Architecture needs to serve the essential need of shelter. And of course, that comes with an important element of beauty and aesthetics. If we could combine those things and really respond to the need of shelter, then we as architects would become relevant and we’d be doing better for the world. When I realized this, a lot of things changed in my way of designing and thinking about architecture.
Bioinnova; photo by Iwan Baan courtesy of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio
In what ways did your approach to architecture change specifically?
At first, I was experimenting with geometries and doing crazy things until I understood that we could do useful, beautiful and impactful work with the simplest of forms. I’ve started working in the direction now of creating simple yet very beautiful living spaces.
My work could look schizophrenic, I realize. I do a lot of different types of projects. But I do believe that in all the ranges on the spectrum, you create a meaningful structure that tackles the needs of people and is simultaneously beautiful. If you look at my architecture, it’s always talking about modularity and the breaking down of each space. I believe we have to scale for human beings. I think architecture went a lot into designing the whole and just plugging in the user wherever, versus for me, it’s more important to understand how you can go from the human to the whole.
Lyon La Confluence; photo by Johnathan Letoublon courtesy of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio
I like that. This leads me to your affordable housing projects. Why have you chosen to tackle this huge issue?
It started with a very political statement that I didn’t like what was happening in my country. The system of providing housing for the masses in Mexico became a financial operation, which is necessary in these days, but it completely left aside an important part, which was thinking about people developing their lives. We started thinking that we could change things by working on little projects, but largely I think that the bigger impact needs to come from policy changes.
We started doing a lot of research to understand exactly what was going on. I was only saying, “Everything’s wrong. Nothing is working. Things shouldn’t be done this way.” But as I approached the government to work collaboratively, I realized that I wasn’t seeing the other side of the story. I never understood what caused this housing crisis to happen and what the economic and financial impacts were, not just the social.
Back in my office, I did more research, but this time, not as the architect, but as the policymaker, trying to place myself in the other side of the story. That’s when we changed our discourse to talking about how the situation could evolve and be solved. At that time, a client approached us to work on a federal program and create a new housing model.
Sustainable Housing Prototype courtesy Tatiana Bilbao Estudio
You’re also very aware of the importance of the construction process and the benefits of using local labor and materials to make a holistic and sustainable project based on its location. This contributes heavily to the end cost of your projects.
Absolutely. It’s very necessary to do this or else we wouldn’t be able to build for cheap. I don’t believe that sustainability is a qualification of architecture. I think it means designing with an ecological, political and social responsibility. For me, sustainability is embedded in the word architecture. There is no other way for me to build architecture than designing holistically for the site and for the people. You need the local knowledge to build these houses. You need to have local people working together to put the project together or else you don’t arrive at the right price.
What is your firm working toward right now in the realm of housing?
We’re currently thinking about how we could now transform the tools of architecture that we learned from the social housing project and embed them in policy in order to create environments that would better the city — without gentrifying existing neighborhoods. We want policy that would allow the community to stay put and still receive and live in great architecture that could enhance people’s lives.
So we’re asking, how can we gentrify the people and not the place? The connotation of that word is never good, but if you break it apart, there is a good meaning, obviously. If people are being gentrified, they can improve themselves as well as their neighborhood. It means they’ll have better services, better surroundings, better possibilities and are then able to develop better lives.
Botanical Garden Culiacán; photo by Iwan Baan courtesy of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio
You’re also heavily involved in architectural education. You recently finished a semester at Yale teaching an advanced studio. What advice do you give to young architects?
I try to remind every single young person who enters the profession that it’s not just about doing beautiful buildings, it’s about creating lives, obviously with beautiful buildings. That’s a huge responsibility. I always say that doctors have the most important responsibility in the world, right? Saving lives. But then it could probably be us, no? We’re shaping lives and creating the spaces where people develop their world.
Hero images (left) by Sam Deitch/BFA.com and (right) Iwan Baan courtesy Tatiana Bilbao Estudio