Serpentine pavilion 2018: Frida Escobedo's ‘intimate public space’
Source:theguardian Author:Rowan Moore Date: 2018-06-04 Size:
“Architecture is always the ruin of its own idea,” says Frida Escobedo……

Design rendering, interior view, of Frida Escobedo’s Serpentine pavilion. Photograph: © Frida Escobedo, Taller de Arquitectura

“Architecture is always the ruin of its own idea,” says Frida Escobedo. I like this. Most architectural talk is so relentlessly promotional, optimistic and optimising, convinced of its own ability to change everything, so unable to acknowledge, as other art forms do, the existence of doubt or shades of light and dark, that it’s refreshing to hear the honest truth. “From the moment you draw it, architecture is a projection of what is going to happen in the future,” as she also says, but it’s an inaccurate one, subject to events beyond the designer’s control.

It is “always incomplete”; architecture, despite its apparent fixity, is always being changed by people who use it and perceive it, which is what makes it interesting. This thinking leads, in terms of Escobedo’s built output, to a series of projects with no obviously unifying style, sometimes possessing a certain looseness, an insouciance to the boundaries between what is found – building materials, existing structures – and the new, authored creation of an architect. Temporary installations and pavilions have made up much of her work. It has some of the properties of art.

Later this month, her version of the Serpentine Gallery’s annual pavilion will open in Kensington Gardens, London. At 39, Escobedo is the youngest architect to be honoured with this commission. Here, she will use walls of stacked-up British roof tiles to create a “porous” enclosure, half-open and half-roofed, “an intimate public space” within the expanse of the park, with light and breeze entering through the gaps between the tiles. A slightly curved ceiling in mirror-polished stainless steel, as smooth as the tiles are rough, will give them an additional and more rarefied existence as reflections.

In a shallow pool, a thin film of water will “come and go, like a shoreline”, adding another layer of reflectivity. Escobedo’s approach is, she says, not about the look of the architectural object, but “how you feel inside the space, how you go about it in the moment”. It is designed for the “very specific space and time” of the Serpentine’s lawn in summer, but is also for the future in which, like previous pavilions, it will be sold to private collectors. Since “we don’t know where it’s going”, the design “can absorb locality no matter where it is”. It can carry snow nicely, for example, or have vines growing up it.

La Tallera art gallery in Cuernavaca, Mexico, designed by Frida Escobedo.

Born in Mexico, the daughter of a doctor and a demographer, Escobedo grew up wanting “to do something to do with the arts”. She was “too scared to be a fine artist”, unwilling to endure the public exposure of her inner self, which she believes that would have required – “I am a shy and private person,” she says. Declining the suggestion of her school careers adviser that she should become a plastic surgeon, she tried architecture. “In my first week I was completely hooked.”

She studied in Mexico and then at Harvard. She has never had a boss or joined an established practice, but worked both in collaboration with others and by herself to create, for example, Casa Negra, a dark, four-legged beast of a house on the outskirts of Mexico City, and the remodelling of a hotel in Acapulco, called the Boca Chica. Her most significant project to date is La Tallera in Cuernavaca, the conversion of the late muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s studio into a public museum. Escobedo’s installations have included an “Aztec-inspired” set of mirrored platforms in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s courtyard in 2015.

The Serpentine commission will bring her a new level of visibility. It is one of several peaks of the architectural establishment that have been conquered by women this year: the curatorship of the Venice biennale; the directorship of the Architectural Association in London; the appointment of the director of the next Chicago biennial. I ask the inevitable Dolly Parton question (“Is it sometimes hard to be a woman…?”): is it annoying that a Google image search comes up more readily with images of her photogenic self than her actual work? Yes, she says, it is. She states what should be obvious: “When we stop feeling that’s surprising [that female architects occupy positions of power], then we will have arrived.”

Throughout Escobedo’s work, there’s an interest in whatever is already there, which she attributes both to the influence of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and to the culture of her country. To Bergson she owes the idea that every action adds to previous actions, like pearls on a necklace, changing the whole but not replacing it: “I love,” she declares, presumably for this reason, “materials that absorb the passage of time.”

El Eco Pavilion, 2010, Mexico City by Frida Escobedo.

In Mexico, she says, nothing is ever entirely new: the colonial buildings, for example, which at first sight make a complete rupture with the past, contain fragments of the precolonial.

She likes “the play of words you can do with the meaning of ‘revolution’. It can be a big change but it can also be something turning round and repeating itself. We Mexicans are very revolutionary in that sense.” In architecture, the country’s version of modernism was “Janus-faced”, trying to be very international and very Mexican at the same time. If the European idea of modernism was that it expressed the “systemised processes” of the machine age, the Mexican version was “more about craft and customisation”.

Escobedo professes affection not only for potent masterpieces of 20th-century architecture, of which Mexico has many, but also for the unofficial and impure versions of modern architecture, particularly in small villas designed by no known architects. Her changes to the Acapulco hotel respond to “what is a very hot town in every sense: hot climate, festive, violent”, by adding concrete parasols and near-kitsch colours to what was already a miscegenated descendant of Gropius and Le Corbusier.

Frida Escobedo: ‘Architecture is always the ruin of its own idea.’

With the Siqueiros studio, the project was a matter partly of preserving the spare, workmanlike spaces in which the artist painted and partly about veiling it in a new, light-filtering screen wall in perforated concrete. Her most dramatic move was to take two large paintings left on the walls of an inner courtyard after the artist’s death and flip them to the exterior. In their new location, they frame the entrance with a big welcoming V and embrace a new plaza that slopes up towards the front door. With this single dramatic move she effects the building’s shift from private workshop to public museum.

There is a deliberate imprecision in Escobedo’s work that comes from her liking for rough materials and her belief in incompleteness. She leaves gaps, literally and metaphorically, within which the activities of the users might complete what she started – for the 2013 Lisbon triennale, for example, she created a “civic stage”, a tilted disc on which the slope increased as more performers and audience got on it. Her architecture aims to be performative, something that itself keeps changing and encourages others to react.

That her work doesn’t look joined-up might also be something to do with the stage she is at. Grateful though she is to build a public museum in her 30s, her portfolio looks like one of someone still early in their career, in part a matter of going with what comes along – some hotel interiors, a pop-up for the skincare company Aesop. There’s nothing wrong with such commissions, and she makes the most of them, but an architect of her potential would want work that contributes to a wider public.

I also get the feeling that her buildings need to catch up with her thoughts, that her intelligence needs to be more fully worked through in materials and construction. This is likely to come, perhaps with some housing projects at present in the office. The great thing for now is that her work, rather than reaching for a finality that isn’t there, is open to whatever the future might bring.

Frida Escobedo’s Serpentine pavilion is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from 15 June to 7 October.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern