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Michel Rojkind: Mexican Identity Under Construction

Architectural Record magazine has named the Mexican architect –who approaches each project as a creative and social challenge– as one of the most innovative in the world.

Mexican identity in Michel Rojkind’s architecture is not found in a design full of traditional reminiscences, but in how he reflects Mexicans’ character: chaotic, ingenious and with a great sense of humor.

“Are you Mexican because you wear a cowboy hat, or are you Mexican because you laugh at life, at death, because you are socially ingenious, chaotic and uncritical by nature? To me it seems there’s a different way of representing what it means to be Mexican. At least in our work, in my architecture, there’s a sense of humor,” says Rojkind (Naucalpan, Estado de México, 1969).

Rojkind belongs to a generation of architects who have little relation to the school of Luis Barragán, the only Mexican Pritzker Prize winner (1980).

His teachers –Alberto Kalach, Enrique Norten, Isaac Broid, and Miquel Adriá, with whom he set up shop at the outset of his career– had already broken with Barragán’s school and Rojkind learned from an architecture that had more international references.

Rojkind’s image does not fit into any kind of archetype. Casual, extrovert and approachable, he seems to be in no hurry. However, he is always up to something. The only label that he accepts is that of constant movement and the non-applicability of labels.

That was his premise when he began working alongside Broid and Adriá in 1999, and it was for that same reason that he set up his own firm in 2002. The list of his projects is the best proof that the young architect is always on the look out for new challenges.

The National Videotheque in Mexico City; luxury residences in large housing developments; bars; corporate buildings; museums and many public works all combine to form an innovative list of projects which led the Architectural Record magazine to consider Rojkind as one of the ten best Design Vanguard firms in 2005.

“I don’t like the comfort zone at all. The zone you already know, where it’s easy because you’ve already done certain things,” says the architect. “I don’t like repetition because I feel like I’m not evolving, I’m not making progress in a personal search.”

Rojkind studied architecture at the Universidad Iberoamericana and architecture has always been his passion. However, he was also a successful musician and formed part of Aleks Syntek’s y La Gente Normal with whom he recorded several albums.

He recognizes that, thanks to music, he was able take the time to develop his own architectural language without being forced to work on projects that did not completely satisfy him.

“The great thing about music is that it gave me financial stability to be able to create the type of architecture that I really wanted. I was never under the pressure that I had to have a firm and produce architecture to pay the bills. Being a musician gave me the advantage of approaching friends and proposing them architectural projects, even though they didn’t have to pay for my work, just so I could show them what I thought would suit them,” says Rojkind.

One of the habits that the music instilled in him was team work. Ever since he begun to work, Rojkind has sought to incorporate other architects or artists from different fields into his projects. For example, he worked with industrial designer Héctor Esrawe for the design of the Tori Tori restaurant in 2009 and with graphic designer Ernesto Moncada on the project for a new building for the Museo Tamayo in Estado de México, as well as with urban planners such as Arturo Ortiz on various competition projects.

Being a musician also taught him to avoid stereotypes and not to hesitate in involving himself in other areas such as industrial design, which led him to create Agent, a company dedicated to product innovation, which makes everything from a transparent football to a luggage set for the contemporary traveler.

“Agent was created in the middle of the financial crisis, when everyone was beginning to panic,” recalls Rojkind. “For me the real crisis comes when you stop thinking, not when there’s a financial crisis. Everyone was sort of paralyzed and we decided to open a product design company, without having any clients on our books. We wanted to be provocative.”

—How did you decide to set up your own firm after working with Broid and Adriá?
I wanted to experiment more with my own processes without committing my partners to take the same direction. I decided that we should go our separate ways; working together on other projects, but each going his own way.

I separated with the idea of continuing to work with whoever I chose, because I’m a firm believer in collaborations. I frequently give conferences outside Mexico, one of them is called Contagious Risk where I talk of the importance of taking the risk of infecting yourself with other minds, other ways of seeing a project, other ways of designing.

We are normally a small firm with less than 20 employees, but each project involves around 120 people, because there’s a finance officer, the economist, a sociologist, a landscape architect, or other architects with whom I sometimes want to work with.

I think it’s a generational shift. Our generation is much more open to collaboration. Networking, what you have within your grasp, gives you the possibility of working with whoever you want and whenever you want—there are no limits.

—Do you work with people from other professions?
I give classes at the UNAM, at the Iberoamericana and I work as a guest lecturer at other universities. So you see that today, with the technology that exists, it’s very easy to propose things that can’t be done. Architecture has to be built and I talk a lot about digital design meeting local production.

The importance of being able to produce in whatever medium you want is how you work with the ironsmith, the bricklayer, the tinsmith, all the right people to be able to build the thing that you want and not be constrained by the construction industry.

That’s sometimes what we do: we bring people from non-construction disciplines to help with what we want to do, because we also select each project as a unique one, our firm doesn’t repeat projects.

If you come to me I’ll make you a tailormade suit, because you are different, your finances are different, your project’s geography and political and social environment are all different. All the ingredients mean that the final product is unrepeatable.

By creating each project as something unique, you go out looking for who you think the right people are to carry out the local production. All the components you need for your architectural project to be buildable.

—How important has architecture become in Mexico?
It has become quite fashionable, we could call it the Guggenheim effect. When that museum was built in Bilbao, it put the city on the map. Ever since, architects don’t want to build cathedrals, they want to make museums to put countries on the map. Architects have recovered a certain status and design has become quite popular.

Mexicans are very sociable. When they build their houses they often design for other people rather than themselves and this has been a major obstacle. I tell them not to design for people coming to their house, but for themselves.

There are two angles: how to explain to them the most human and simple aspects of design, not the pretentious part, and the part when they begin to realize that design is important, that design adds value.

—Why do you think art is what is raising Mexico’s profile?
Maybe because you’ve got other media. Ultimately you’ve just got your head, a good pencil and inspiration with which to develop your ideas.

In terms of art, Mexico is full of talent, there is plenty to inspire you. It’s a country which makes you think the whole time. I love it.

People complain about Mexico but anywhere else you have time to do nothing, not think; in Mexico, however, you’re forced to think of alternatives, to be ingenious.

—How difficult is it to be an architect in Mexico?
I don’t see it as being difficult because things are moving the whole time. My friends in other countries complain about the financial crisis. In Mexico there was a crisis but people kept on building.

I think that the opportunities are always there; there’s always someone asking you to undertake a small remodeling project and then you start to do more, that’s how we all started out. Public spaces need to be worked on, in the residual parts of Mexico City which are abandoned or in old buildings which need to be regenerated for the city to revive itself.

If you’re just doing the designs, then your options are a little more limited; the client always has some relative who’s an architect and then you’re told to get lost. But if you come up with a design strategy, then you become the client’s adviser. The strategy is to start to see where the opportunity niches are, to bring together the right team to make a genuinely sustainable piece of architecture. I mean, you need to close the circle: with social and financial sustainability the projects can permeate, send down roots all around and create benefits.

Conceiving a strategy is key to be able to design. First of all, you’ve got to think about each aspect and then you design the architecture: that’s the final piece of the puzzle.

—What has been your experience of this process?
The Chocolate Museum is an example Nestlé invited us to participate in a competition where they asked to create a walkway through the factory so that children could come to visit it.

When I went to speak with them and spent 40 minutes crossing the city, I thought that by the time the children arrived at the factory they’d be depressed: they would imagine Willy Wonka and when they saw the traffic, the number of identikit industrial buildings, they’d be missing that something special. We also realized that no chocolate museum existed, and this is a 100% Mexican foodstuff and part of the country’s history. I arrived at the appointment and proposed making a museum for them to give something back for what they were selling.

I’m interested in working as an architect but not in keeping my thoughts to myself when working with a client. I’m never going to go along with their ideas just to get the commission. My work as an architect –and this is why people hire my services– is to question and give advice in order to reach the right decision.

Nestlé’s VP presented the project in Switzerland: they approved it and it was a hit. It was nominated in London as one of the 10 best buildings around the world.

So we could undertake a second project with the same company in Querétaro. They began to understand the added value of design.

—What would you never do to sell a project?
I’m very optimistic and for me there are no bad clients, I’ve always believed that you can improve, although I have sometimes come up against brick walls, I take a perverse pleasure in taking on projects I’ve never done before.

For example, in the Nestlé Querétaro project, the local authorities asked us for the design to have arches which would be photo courtesy of Rojkind Arquitectos in harmony with the city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At another point in my career I might have panicked and told me client: “I’ve got a friend who makes beautiful arches and loves cantera stone, I’ll give you his number.” But instead I thought about re-approaching the arches, by making more contemporary vaults, something more fun. We showed it to the local officials and they loved it.

—What’s your dream, what would you love to do?
I’m doing what I love. I can say that I’m very happy; like with Agent: I wanted to make a football and we’re making it.

We have a project underway with Agent on cemeteries: we’re going to revisit the whole issue of cemeteries which is something I’m passionate about. Cemeteries are very sad and somber and there’s a massive amount of history lost in a cemetery.

I’d also love to work on an old-people’s home, so that people can have more fun at the end or their lives.

Rather than having a project like a museum or a cathedral, I want a project that really causes a stir in society.

 
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