During a recent visit to Mexico City I met architect Juan Carlos Loyo, a young architect with a passion for alternative modes of architectural practice and working with communities. He was present during a book launch party organized by Arquine, Mexico’s premier architectural publisher. In its multi-volume series titled “Mexican Architectures: The Best of the 21st Century,” Arquine provides an overview of architectural trends shaping Mexican cities and towns. Every two years a new volume documents some of the country’s best architectural practices during that time. Among the excellent selection of contemporary architecture recorded in the most recent volume 6 are Loyo’s Casa Ejidal and Casa de Costuras completed in 2014 and built in only 24 days at a cost of just 3000 Euros. The project is striking for its alternative approach to current trends in Mexico, where homegrown architects have been producing high-tech sleek designs that cater to the country’s growing wealth. Loyo’s approach is markedly different and Arquine recognizes its significance.
Loyo runs a small practice he started eight years ago after he completed his architecture studies. He believes that good management and efficient use of resources can help an office survive its first years, generally the most difficult time in such an endeavor. The office consists of three people, a fact unbelievable to many who learn about the projects already accomplished by such a team. “Small, friendly and agile teams work better for me,” says Loyo. Here is my interview with the aspiring architect.
CO: Introduce us to what you consider to be the core idea in your architectural practice.
We aim to create architecture that is sustainable in all aspects: its environmental impact, social Impact, cultural values, and economics. And also sustainable from a personal perspective: if you’re not excited about doing a project, finding yourself through its process, and pushing your capacities, then there is no point in doing it at all.
Architecture has proven that we can build almost anything, but in our practice we ask ourselves key questions: Why do we believe this should be built? Why make a certain design choice instead of another?
I deeply believe in the transformative power of beauty, the beauty of thought reflected on the human experience of space.
So, I guess the basic idea would be for me to enjoy a complex process that puts my mind and talents to work and to explore possible answers for solving a design problem while being conscious of the implications of my decisions. Easy, right?
CO: Architectural culture appears to be thriving in Mexico with many local professionals designing, building and publishing their work locally and internationally. Are architects reshaping the landscape of Mexican cities?
Poverty is re-shaping the landscapes, not architects. Look around and what you’ll find in Mexico is a system of exclusion and exploitation and a lack of sensibility towards the value and dignity of human life. I’m way more interested in social politics, what’s happening on the streets, towns and villages than I am interested in monuments of power and money.
There are amazing talents in Mexico, great ideas and, I think, the capacity to tackle the issues that spring from inequality through architecture. We just have to shift our perspective on what success is, on what architectural beauty looks like and what success means to architect.
CO: How does your approach fit in the contemporary architectural scene in Mexico?
I think there are more and more isolated cases of people who are exploring sustainable paths that are inclusive and socially aware and invested on the issues I spoke about. So in the future I hope we see more and more of a “scene” for these kinds of practices.
As of how I fit right now, I am not sure. I do not spend much time among architects really. My work (as anybody else) has its internal logic and factors that shape it. Whether it will have a place in the broader picture of what is happening in Mexico today only time can tell.
CO: How do you see the relationship between architects, power and society?
All architecture is social; it is a built document of the social reality that surrounds it. What society are we forming with what we build? Basically: which side are we on?
In Mexico the distance between poverty and wealth is palpable and abysmal; this social path is unsustainable. If there is a way to social peace and prosperity it is equality and opportunity.
I have often said that we have to use all design opportunities to empower, create awareness, and encourage social transformation and inclusion. That is why we decided to use earth and artisanal tiles in Casa Sabinos, which is clearly a rich man’s house. We can create a bridge for social transformation; we can do it with a simple action like building, using sustainable materials and inclusive ambiances. We create scenarios for interaction with architecture. I always keep that in mind when I’m designing.
Poor people have a lot of power, even capital, when we come together. As architects we can help raise their voices, use our skills to create opportunity and search for the beauty of equality and sustainability. We can do this with respect to territories and cultures. That’s what I love about studying “vernacular architectures.” Their ingenuity carries solutions and knowledge that can help us as architects to bridge the social divide.
CO: You spoke fondly of Hassan Fathy, tell us more about your relationship to his body of work and how it impacts yours.
Most of the time we judge architecture on its immediate results. We spoke of how the methods of construction with natural materials and vernacular methods that Fathy utilized are now only being used by rich people. Based on this we can render his efforts as a failure given that housing the poor continues to be a major issue and that the poor have not opted to use the techniques and materials he proposed. However, I disagree. The fact that some rich people choose to use natural material in their “Hassan Fathy style” houses will help the sustainable fight on the long run, they are aspirational examples: earth building should not be indicative of poverty.
Concrete and industrialized materials have played a big role on shaping economies and markets, pushed by profit and money over sustainability and over people. We have to limit the use of these polluting materials to when they are really needed and when they are reasonable solutions. Companies have pushed public policy to their advantage, for capital growth, and for creating captive markets in spite the negative consequences of these materials on how humans live.
What we try to do is to bring back the power of building with local materials to people, to offer communities solutions that are not only based on how much money you have.
CO: But as you know, the poor in Fathy’s native Egypt have gone in the opposite direction from the models he developed, presumably due to economics. It appears that it is simply cheaper for the poor to build housing for themselves and their families with brick and concrete. You see things differently; tell us more about your view.
What we’ve seen with working with community building is the exact opposite. Building with natural materials is cheaper: We’ve achieved a cost of $11.3- $20 USD per m2 using local materials and teaching people to build together, this year we want to achieve a virtual $0.00 cost house. The interesting part of this is that most of the cost of our buildings comes from food for everyone that works with us and transportation for volunteers to the work sites.
Keep in mind that natural materials can be re-used forever; you can fix your own house with your hands and the earth beneath your feet. “Modern” materials are designed for one-time use, once damaged they have to be replaced with new ones.
Not everything should be measured by its monetary value, if we do that we’ve been fooled by capitalism and are being used as cheap labor, and gullible consumers expendable to a system that is not aiming for equality. It is a system that is looking for market growth and for capital accumulation by a few, not happiness nor freedom.
CO: What are some of your recent and current projects?
We are working on a wide variety of projects, all scales and very different cultures, places and materials. We are designing a hospital in Ghana, a school in Mozambique, community-built houses in Mexico and India and a “Rural Arts Center” in Colombia.
All of our community-based projects are implemented through VACA, a non-profit organization I founded along with Sara Marquez 4 year ago. We work mostly in rural areas bringing together architecture volunteers and communities into a participatory design and building process. Through the study of vernacular architecture and conducting fieldwork we create infrastructure and/or housing with very little money and very little time. On February 15th we started building 55 houses and a community hall in Tamil Nadu, India and we have to build all this in 3.5 months. After that we come back to Mexico and build 30 houses and a community kitchen in Chiapas.
We do all this with people, not governments, politicians or companies. We are not waiting for “trickle down economics” to reach people in need of these solutions. Solutions are needed now, and together we can defeat poverty.
CO: You’ve worked in India before, tell us about this experience.
I worked in India under Balkrishna Doshi, there we worked on all sorts of projects, from the Serpentine Gallery to high-rises and schools, but what I loved the most were the poverty relief housing projects. I remember vividly walking through slums and experiencing first hand intense urban poverty.
Solutions to urban poverty have been thought of but can we improve them. India made clear to me that there has to be an awareness from institutions and governments particularly on the subject of landownership, otherwise we might be fighting what American anthropologist Paul Falmer would call “the long defeat.”
India has deeply affected my work, my views and my imagination. Hopefully I can visit Egypt soon; there is much knowledge and beauty to experience there.
CO: Would you like to add anything?
Poverty is not a market; it is not a business opportunity. It is a condition that we have created because it is convenient to some. It is unjust, and its perpetuation diminishes our character. We as architects must get involved and take action to find happiness and peace for ourselves and for the communities we live in.