courtyard of serpentine pavilion, wall made of slats

Frida Escobedo Designs with Time

The Mexican architect, who was recently commissioned to design a wing of the Met, has explored the relationship between architecture and time throughout her career.

In March 2022, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced that Frida Escobedo had been selected to realize the renovation of the modern and contemporary galleries in the museum’s Oscar L. Tang and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing.

The commission, for 80,000 square feet of galleries and ancillary spaces, makes Escobedo the first woman to design a wing at The Met—a major accomplishment for an architect who is understood by many to be one of today’s most creative and compelling designers.

Escobedo founded her studio in 2006 with a dedication to architecture, design, and arts, but dismisses the idea of defining her style.

“I think it’s more like the set of preoccupations or interests that you have at the moment that produces a specific form of architecture,” she says about her work.

Yet, the studio operates within a theoretical framework that addresses time as a social operation rather than a historical calibration.  

“Frida understands how to create an enduring space for art while reconciling the wing’s relationship with the existing building and park,” says Jhaelen Hernandez-Eli, the Met’s head of construction.

portrait of Frida Escobedo
Top: Frida Escobedo became the youngest architect to design London’s Serpentine pavilion in 2018. Above: A portrait of the architect TOP: COURTESY RAFAEL GAMO ABOVE: COURTESY ANA GOMEZ DE LEON LOPEZ

The project’s mandates, including a call for a non-chronological narrative intertwining space and time, are fertile ground for exploration by an architect who has long demonstrated a fascination with and sensitivity to the relationship between time and the built environment. Escobedo’s conceptual works have already articulated the idea of social time by creating areas that can be inhabited and experienced in multiple ways by individuals and groups, encouraging time to unfold at different speeds.

The Mexican architect laid the foundation for such an understanding by completing the Art, Design, and Public Domain master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, following her architecture school qualification at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

an art museum comprising three volumes, the middle volume is made of cement blocks
La Tallera in the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico was built in 2010. COURTESY RAFAEL GAMO

Her work across a spectrum of scale and medium—including residential and public buildings such as La Tallera (2010), art installations, and exhibition designs for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (2015) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York (2015-2016)—demonstrates her vision and understanding.

Reflecting on what makes architecture purposeful to her, Escobedo says it’s the prioritization of use value as opposed to exchange value, describing the latter as a way of making capital and part of a toxic cycle of consumption.

“Use value is when it [architecture] creates a meaningful and nourishing environment for the people who inhabit it,” she says.

While Escobedo delights in challenging relationships, being aware of the potential frictions, she believes in diversity and providing space for playing with differences.

“We feel like, to be in a harmonious society, we need to behave the same way. However, the desire to be similar flattens the idea of reality,” says Escobedo. “I think the more we can tolerate those small frictions in the domestic or public sphere, the more we’ll be able to resource the larger issues.”

rows of cinderblocks laud out in a pattern in a courtyard
Escobedo’s installation at El Eco, an experimental museum in Mexico City, was one of her first investigations of the malleability of shared space. COURTESY RAFAEL GAMO

Through career-making endeavors like commissions for the El Eco and Serpentine Pavilions, scrutiny of conventional understandings of space and time have been characteristic of Escobedo’s practice.

Her design for an installation at the Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City (2010) focused on a collective sharing of space by supplementing the programmed layer with a spontaneous one.

“It was the first time I was doing something that was about space, but not necessarily architecture,” Escobedo says of that project, which was her first public project, and won her national recognition.

Stacks of cinderblocks were laid in a precise pattern, while visitors could move and rearrange the blocks, adapting them to their use. 

“It’s more like a field condition where you can modify the space yourself,” Escobedo explains, “so you have to be negotiating with others to modify the pavilion.”

Global success followed when, in 2018 Escobedo became the youngest architect, to create a pavilion on the Serpentine Gallery lawn in London’s Kensington Gardens.

An extremely prestigious annual commission, the Serpentine Pavilion is a temporary site for architectural experimentation, which is used as a café and meeting space by day and a forum for learning, debate and entertainment at night.

a man walks through the serpentine pavilion
the roof of an old-fashioned building appears over the serpentine pavilion wall

Escobedo confessed during a lecture that she almost missed the Serpentine’s invitation sent by e-mail.  

“I thought [the e-mail] was more like a mailing list or to join some sort of supporter’s or sponsor’s group and never imagined that I’d be invited to design the Pavilion.”

Fortunately, she caught her mistake, and went on to create a design based on an idea central to her practice: the expression of time in architecture through the inventive use of everyday materials and simple forms.

The pavilion consisted of an enclosed courtyard comprised of two rectangular volumes positioned at an angle, generating a series of interlinked spaces. Celosia, a traditional breeze wall commonly used in Mexican domestic architecture inspired the pavilion’s lattice walls, which were composed of cement roof tiles arranged into a pattern that partially obscured the visitor’s view.

“We have added the materials of light and shadow, reflection and refraction, turning the building into a timepiece that charts the passage of the day,” she declared at the time.

While architecture gives Escobedo a structure of thinking, it was Robert Irwin, an American installation artist she met during a lecture, who influenced Escobedo’s cerebration beyond specific interpretations.

According to Escobedo, his drive to continuously open up paths of inquiry rather than trying to find answers was liberating to her.

“It’s crucial to understand that at some point, we need to disregard everything we’ve learned and instead, we just need to see,” Escobedo says.

With the reimagining of the Met’s Tang Wing, she hopes to open new paths of inquiry across artwork of different times, geographies, and ideologies, giving the Met and its visitors a new type of museum-going experience.

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