Since its inception nearly two decades ago, the commission to design London’s Serpentine Pavilion has been a roll-call of some of the most exciting and established names in architecture. Attracting thousands of visitors each year, the likes of Sou Fujimoto, OMA/Rem Koolhaas + Cecil Balmond, Francis Kéré, Frank Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer, and Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, have all conjured up distinctive visions of this temporary summertime structure. This year it is the turn of Frida Escobedo, and if hashtags around gender equality of opportunity make you uncomfortable, firstly ask yourself why, then take a look at the work of an architect who is prepared to address the 21st-century head-on.
Frida Escobedo (b. 1979), an architect based in Mexico City, has been selected as the next designer of the Serpentine Pavilion.
The youngest person to receive this honour in its 18-year history, Escobedo is also the first solo woman chosen since Zaha Hadid designed the inaugural pavilion in 2000. Adjacent to the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park, the Pavilion is a temporary structure that draws locals and tourists and is widely considered one of the most prestigious architectural commissions in the world. Appropriately, Escobedo’s design is ambitious. She uses various methods to engage simultaneously with the past and present and unifies references to diverse cultures and histories – an attitude that is increasingly necessary as we continue to grapple with the effects of globalisation.
Recalling both British and Mexican history and material structure, according to the Serpentine Gallery, Escobedo’s winning design consists of a partially-enclosed courtyard composed of two rectangular volumes that intersect at an angle. The surrounding perforated walls suggest a celosía – a type of breeze wall that has a long history in Mexican architecture – which will be constructed out of cement roof tiles sourced locally in England. Beyond these explicit architectural references, the Pavilion will draw on diverse understandings of time, duration and geography, including references both to the Prime Meridian and the cardinal points.
Such notions have always been at the heart of Escobedo’s work. Referring to writings of philosopher Henri Bergson and the idea that time is composed of experiences and interactions, Escobedo explained in an interview with the Serpentine Gallery that, ‘It’s instinctively understood that time and space are intertwined, so for me architecture is the opportunity to express this idea, to create dynamic spaces that allow for multiple and evolving experiences.’ She evokes this idea with two reflecting elements: mirrored panels on the underside of the curved canopy and a geometric pool set into the Pavilion floor, both of which refract light depending on the movement of the visitor, atmospheric conditions, and the position of the sun. The selection of Escobedo for this year’s Serpentine Pavilion is a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. After 17 years of male recipients, the committee’s acknowledgment of the outstanding achievements of women architects is long overdue.
Serpentine Pavilion 2018, designed by Frida Escobedo, Serpentine Gallery, London (15 June – 7 October 2018) © Frida Escobedo, Taller de Arquitectura, Photography © 2018 Iwan Baan
Perhaps it is no coincidence that this appreciation is taking place in a moment of increased recognition of women in many artistic fields. The design itself reflects this sense of openness – particularly the celosía, which welcomes the flow of air in and out of the Pavilion. Escobedo has incorporated the celosía into some of her previous works, namely in the 2012 restructuring of La Tallera Siqueiros in Cuernavaca. For this project, she reimagined the former home and studio of Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, moving his large murals from a private courtyard to frame the entryway. By adding a perforated wall around the perimeter of the complex, the design maintained a sense of privacy while allowing light to filter in throughout the newly established galleries and artist residences.
A crucial element of Mexican vernacular architecture, the celosía was initially common in domestic settings, but became more pronounced in the mid-20th century as modern architects incorporated it into their large-scale designs as a sign of Mexico’s unique approach to modernisation. The Hotel Camino Real – constructed in 1968 in Mexico City as a central hub for the Olympics – is a well- known example of such a visual declaration of Mexico’s modernisation.
By including work of international modern giants such as Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi alongside Mexican vernacular architecture, architects Ricardo Legorreta and Mathias Goeritz, like many cultural producers of the time, presented their country as modernised but still in touch with its ‘authentic’ culture (Luis M. Castañeda, Total Design of an Olympic Metropolis, in Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics, University of Minnesota Press, 2014, p.175– 176). Moreover, like Escobedo’s Serpentine Pavilion, the Camino Real celosía served as protection from the rapidly expanding city, creating a tranquil space for reflection and contemplation. Although Escobedo is working within a different context, the celosía establishes a dialogue between her Pavilion and multiple temporalities throughout Mexico’s history. In her Serpentine Gallery interview, she acknowledges that her influences range ‘from terraced pre-Hispanic structures, to colonial courtyard houses, to the modernism of Luis Barragán, Mathias Goeritz, or Juan O’Gorman’. In fact, the approaches to architecture take by Goeritz and Escobedo are linked in many ways. Goeritz was a decidedly international artist in a moment when Mexico was establishing itself as a global centre for architectural development. His theory of emotional architecture – an anti-rationalist approach to the arts that emphasised the emotional response of the viewer – was central to the Museo Experimental El Eco, an experimental art space that first opened in 1953 and was conceived of as a penetrable sculpture. (See: Jennifer Josten, Mathias Goeritz y la poesía concreta internacional, in Abstracción Temporal, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2011)
In 2010, Escobedo received a solo commission to transform the courtyard of El Eco. An irregularly shaped, enclosed area, Goeritz conceived of the space as a site for interactive and unexpected interventions, and Escobedo’s recent restructuring accomplished just that. Transforming the space completely, she filled the patio with blocks of concrete that could be re-arranged into endless formations. The courtyard became full of expressive potential, inviting viewers to imagine various possibilities for interacting with open space.
While there is undoubtedly continuity between Escobedo’s work and that of forebears like Goeritz, she has established herself as an international architect who is prepared to address the 21st century head on. Her designs propose possibilities for uniting human beings in the face of political and social polarisation. Escobedo’s submission for MoMA PS1’s Young Architect’s Programme in 2016 confronted one of the most urgent dilemmas facing humanity: sustainability. Acknowledging our increasing dependence on technology and its effects on the natural world, Escobedo proposed to shift the soil already in PS1’s courtyard to construct a pyramidal form, leaving empty space where the soil once rested. Through the basic act of redistribution, Escobedo reveals our reliance on the world around us by proposing more direct and harmless interventions.
Escobedo’s work brings together diverse locations, temporalities, and communities. With her designs, including her Serpentine Pavilion, she is positioning herself as a politically-minded creator of space and highlighting the social possibilities of architecture. As she has remarked of her pavilion design to the Serpentine Gallery, ‘I envision it as a good space for conversation, for getting out of the sun, for splashing around in the water a bit.’
Frida Escobedo, Serpentine Pavilion
2018, London, 15 June – 7 October,