The following interview, originally published in Harvard Design Magazine: Issue 49, features a conversation with Mexico City-based designer Frida Escobedo. A 2012 graduate of the GSD’s Master in Design Studies program, Escobedo was recently selected to design the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Modern and contemporary art wing. An upcoming monographic book featuring the work of Escobedo titled Split Subject will be published by Harvard Design Press.
“Whose Space Is It?”
Frida Escobedo & Sala Elise Patterson
Frida Escobedo’s approach to designing for public spaces begins with a consideration of the most vulnerable people in them. Do they feel safe, accounted for, supported? It is an extrapolation of the power dynamics she confronts when designing for the microcosm of the single-family home. Escobedo has developed an eye for the way traditional architecture conceals and oppresses domestic workers in her native Mexico. She responds with projects that encourage an acknowledgment of this largely female class of workers, their needs, and their productive labor.
Her public work, most often temporary installations, scales this concept as “highly activated incubators.” The projects not only reveal and celebrate the individual, but at times they work to further a body politic. Her prizewinning pavilion at the Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City was an experiment in programming a space whose purpose was meant to be deconstructed and transformed by visitors through a shared experience. It is quintessential Escobedo: using the built environment to stimulate an improvised dance between rigid material, human agency, and collective consciousness.
Sala Elise Patterson
Why did you decide to interrogate [or address] social and political issues with your work?
It wasn’t really a decision but rather realizing that if you look at architecture through a lens of inquiry, that’s what naturally comes out. There is not a built environment that doesn’t make a comment on social, economic, and political forces, whether intended or not. Because it’s materializing human life, it will necessarily be a commentary on human life.
When anticipating the different audiences for a public commission, do you find that there are competing needs, with one public taking precedence over the others?
We’re always trying to start with a gender perspective because it reveals how public spaces are created for the group in power—usually men—and therefore align to that way of thinking and behaving. And there is a spectrum of experience that goes from being uncomfortable in a space to the most important condition, which is being at risk or endangered.
When you’re uncomfortable in a space, the message is, “You don’t belong,” because that space was not made for you. This creates a condition of displacement, of being inadequate, both in the public and private spheres And that only reinforces the other intangible experiences that are heightened by not belonging in a space. It’s important to understand how small changes affect both the risk and the sense of belonging and to consider all needs rather than just the patriarchal, binary ones.
Your book, Domestic Orbits, looks at how, through design, certain groups are excluded and rendered invisible in spaces of domestic labor. Does the built environment similarly conceal certain genders, races, or classes?
Yes. I think that’s why we shifted the scale for Domestic Orbits. We started by analyzing the main residential unit, in this case, Luis Barragán’s home studio, a house embedded within a house. But then we moved to a multifamily building and then slowly into larger compounds. You start seeing that the dynamics that happen within the private house are replicated in collective housing, and then in the public sphere.
Can you provide an example?
There was a project for making a public transportation line on Paseo de la Reforma, one of the main avenues in Mexico City that goes from downtown all the way to Lomas de Chapultepec, a very wealthy neighborhood. The initiative was stopped right where Lomas started because residents thought public transportation would damage the image of their neighborhood.
Clearly the most vulnerable person in this case would be an Indigenous woman domestic worker who has to take public transportation either very early in the morning or late at night. She becomes vulnerable. She is dependent on having a specific time frame when she needs to move around the city. So the city does not belong to her.
You talk about how domestic architecture can create spatial inefficiencies when it’s trying to hide unpalatable realities like the labor that keeps a house tidy (e.g., large pantries for concealing appliances). Are there ways to make public spaces more efficient, even if that means exposing tensions we don’t want to see?
Absolutely. Mexico City is a great example, because everything happens in the public space—life and death. An example is the food cart or food truck. If you analyze the time people spend just setting up and breaking down a food truck, it’s half the workday. This idea of them being informal is problematic because by casting them as such we avoid recognizing their needs; but they are actually highly organized and quite fixed, culturally, and physically.
In Guadalajara, a brilliant architect renovated a small plaza and included water taps every few feet and a proper grease trap on the drainage for the street, like the ones in kitchens. It was basic, but it made it much easier to set up a stall and take it down. He was facilitating the use of time and also protecting the infrastructure, if you think about the grease that goes into the sewage system.
To what extent have architecture and design enabled or constrained how we define public space?
It’s interesting to see what’s happening in the public sphere during the pandemic, because it always seems to be controlled by some form of power or domination. For example, during the Ides of March protests last year [which called for the end of gender-based violence in Mexico], some monuments were heavily graffitied. The government’s strategy was to put a fence around these public monuments. It signifies that the streets don’t belong to you. These monuments do not represent you because you are not a citizen, or at least not in the same way that other groups are.
Then this year, the government put a fence around the National Palace, a government building. But this time it was “re-signified” through a very intelligent and powerful strategy: a collective of women organized to have the names of the victims of violence and femicide written on the fence. So these thresholds became a board to endorse or communicate something else. And the people supported it, leaving flowers and candles. It became a huge altar, which the government didn’t expect.
How can we create public spaces where people can actually reveal these kinds of discomforts and resolve them without it turning to violence?
The more we’re able to negotiate those differences in public, the less of a snowball effect we will have. But we don’t have any options right now. Either it’s a public space that’s controlled by the government, or spaces that are controlled privately. There’s no way of having a space that is not politicized or controlled. I wonder, how can we open them up?
Read more selected essays and subscribe to Harvard Design Magazine by visiting its website harvarddesignmagazine.org.