Jose Castillo MArch ’95, DDes ’00 and Saidee Springall MArch ’96 founded the award-winning Mexico City–based firm a|911, an independent practice based in Mexico City, committed to architecture, urban design, and planning projects. Their work includes research, cultural, institutional, housing, mobility projects, and mixed-use master plans in various cities in Mexico. Among their built projects are the expansion of the Spanish Cultural Center and the transformation of the Sala Siqueiros, both in Mexico City, and the Monterrey Center for Higher Learning of Design (CEDIM).
Awards and recognitions received by a|911 include Mexico’s National Housing Award (2011); the Bronze Medal of the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction Latin America (2011); Emerging Voices Award from the Architectural League of New York (2012); Best of Year by Interior Design, as well as the Project of the Year by ArchDaily and Plataforma Arquitectura (2013); Travel + Leisure Design Award 2014; and the Audi Urban Future Award (2014). In 2015, a|911 was recognized as the most visionary architectural firm in Mexico by Obras Magazine.
This summer, Castillo and Springall are Richard Rogers Fellows at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) and are spending their three-month residency at the Wimbledon House, the landmarked residence designed by acclaimed architect Richard Rogers for his parents in the late 1960s. Lord Richard and his wife, Lady Ruth Rogers, generously gifted the house to the GSD to create the program, which will serve as an international platform to bring together experts and practitioners whose work is focused on the built environment and its capacity to advance the quality of human life.
In this Alumni Q&A. Castillo and Springall share their research as Richard Rogers Fellows and what inspired their work.
1. Tell us about your background.
JC and SS: We were both born in Mexico City, and we’ve lived most of our lives in Mexico City. As teenagers, we both spent a year abroad (Saidee in Cambridge, UK, and Jose in St. Louis, MO). We both have a Bachelor in Architecture degree from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, which came prior to our MArch II’s from the GSD and Castillo’s Doctor of Design degree.
2. Who or what inspires you and your work?
JC: Conversations with friends and colleagues continuously inspire our work. Also relevant is the discovery of unknown geographies and architectures of cities. Personally, reading fiction is a way of understanding the shaping of space and cities. Cooking and investigating about food is also connected to our work beyond a mere hedonistic/cultural pursuit.
SS: The work of young architects fascinates me. Revisiting iconic works of architecture with different eyes and after a long time is quite inspiring. I am also interested in the way that unforeseen social behavior and dynamics in urban space inform architecture.
3. What is the most significant thing you learned as a Richard Rogers Fellow?
JC and SS: One that has to do with the Wimbledon House itself, which is that radical experimentation about a set of ideas, can inform a whole life of professional work as in the case of Lord Richard Rogers. It is about using design as a tool for material, spatial, and intellectual research. The specific relationship between the open and the closed transparency and the degrees of privacy in the house are quite inspiring.
The other has to do with being neither a foreigner nor a local, neither citizen nor tourist in a place like London. You learn to see it, experience it, wander through it, and live it without prejudices of time and space. This has become a key lesson for both of us, and one we take back to our everyday practice.
4. What is your favorite memory of living in Wimbledon so far?
JC and SS: We would probably say changing our daily routine completely, taking the bus and the train to London, returning to run/walk in Wimbledon Common and cooking at home. Richard Rogers’ Birthday Party at the Wimbledon House was also a very nice moment.
5. How will this experience be helpful in shaping your career?
JC and SS: The idea of ‘making a pause’ in our professional lives has been fundamental; to be able to leave the 35 person office behind for three months and re-focus our way of working, communicating, spending our time is no minor lesson. Distance allows for some shifts in the way we work. In addition, after visiting projects and offices, meeting and talking to colleagues here in London, we see challenges and will take back lessons of problems we have faced.
One tends to be really critical of one’s own city, but after three months in London, we see that the difficulties and opportunities of urban life are similar everywhere (transportation, quality of life, housing, public space, conflict & security, etc…)
6. About what design problems are you passionate
JC: I am interested in the way that ‘everyday’ aesthetics inform architecture; how material processes and tectonics we find in the generic city are adapted by formal design processes. This also relates to the notion of adaptability over time of architectures in the city; how objects, buildings, blocks, and districts become part of our ‘normative’ way of understanding the city as interesting, beautiful, or successful.
SS: I am very much interested and continuously consumed by the relationship between housing typologies, the shape of the city and the success (or not) that they have in producing community.
7. Tell us about your award winning practice based in Mexico City, arquitectura 911sc, which has shaped the face of the city through projects such as the Ara Iztacalco housing project, the Spanish Cultural Center, and others. What do you feel is your practice’s strongest area, and how have you worked to develop it over the past years?
JC and SS: In many ways, we have been lucky to be able to develop a kind of practice that engages in areas and modes of work such as research, collaborations, work at different scales, and programs. Recently we have been asked to develop much more urban design and planning work, specially needed in a place like Mexico, which connects to our previous work with affordable housing. We see this as an interesting continuum we want to keep pursuing; the relationship between ways of organizing the territory and the specific possibilities of buildings.
The office has grown to 35 people, (small for the US but medium to large sized for Mexico), and we now have a third partner and an associate. This means that the organizational aspect of the work becomes more relevant and requires different skills.
8. How did you learn about the Richard Rogers Fellowship? What motivated you to apply?
JC and SS: We learned about the Fellowship through a number of media including the alumni emails and social media. We really liked the prospect of the residency/fellowship as a way to ‘take stock’ of what we had been doing in recent years. It also connected two ideas we are curious about in our work, which is the relationship between domestic space (the house, the dwelling) and the city (how and what to ‘Learn from London’)
9. Jose, your research aims to extend the work you began as fellow of the Mexican National Endowment for the Arts, which investigates the way in which food and cooking transform cities. Tell us about your work and what you hope to gain from this Fellowship.
JC: It’s been some time since I have been fascinated with the question of food and cities (in spite of the fact that it seems to be a hot topic now). Similar to other research concerns I’ve had earlier (tourism, informality), I am keen on finding the ways in which disciplines external to architecture become relevant forces in ‘informing’ architectures and cities. We take for granted what it means, spatially, infrastructurally, culturally, to have food on our tables, to eat in a restaurant, or to buy fresh produce that was grown thousands of miles away. By relating my research on London to what I have inquired before in Mexico, I hope to ask questions and inquire about some of these issues and how can they become more useful to our understanding of cities.
10. Saidee, your research is on affordable housing in London, focused on analyzing policies and financial structures, and new models of community participation. What approach are you taking to your research? Has the Fellowship shaped the direction of your work or opened new doors?
SS: Being able to visit post-war, as well as recent housing projects in London, have shown how housing needs to be constantly reinvented; the housing question is in constant flux. It’s not only about the ‘right to housing’ but how it gets executed (or not) through new models of participation from public agencies, charities, cooperative, and integration with communities for residents with mixed income and for mixed use.
A crisis such as the fire in Grenfell tower, which happened during my time here, brought back the relevance of social housing as a public topic with multiple implications for all stakeholders; from the State to housing associations, from planners to architects.
11. Tell us about your work/life balance? What occupies you when you are not working?
JC and SS: Being partners in life and work means that we can compensate a bit on both. A few years ago, we decided to move the office out of the same building where we lived and discovered that distance from the office is important. Because of our own different strengths and interests, we avoid ‘competing’ with one another and rather find the moments where the conversation really makes the work better.
Family life is very important to us. We have two teenage daughters who we are close to and enjoy being a part of their lives. Small quotidian moments, whether taking our Vizsla dog to the forest for a walk, to cooking and hosting dinner parties is part of this shared life.
12. How do you engage with the GSD alumni community? What do you value about this engagement?
JC and SS: My ongoing teaching at the GSD has kept me in touch with colleagues who are either teaching or working in the area. We are also close with some of the alumni based in Mexico through work and or social events. There is not a year in which we are not in contact with global friends and colleagues from our times at the GSD in the 1990’s. Now during our time in London, we even got to meet some of them. For us keeping in touch is important and a way to continuously ‘take stock’ of ideas and professional work ‘distilled’ over time. Friendships are really important to us.
13. What advice do you have for GSD students and/or alumni?
JC and SS: Harvard and the GSD is an incredible resource for meaningful work and conversations. Make sure you ‘expand’ the conversation in time and space. Remain in touch because it matters. These ‘life-long’ conversations make things more interesting.
14. Jose, you have taught at several design schools including UPenn, Tulane, and the Universidad Iberoamericana. How do you think GSD students are uniquely prepared to enter the design fields?
JC: I think GSD students have a unique combination of intellectual and critical tools on top of their design and representation abilities. The design fields require more of this sort of reflexive attitude that goes beyond talent and capacities. In my mind, this is an approach where GSD students are second to none. It’s not a coincidence that an important number of deans, chairs and key faculty in architecture schools in the U.S. are GSD graduates. This relates in my mind to the double intertwined commitment to design and teaching, which is evident in Gund Hall.
15. What would surprise us about you?
JC: That in spite of my passion for architecture and urbanism, I would probably leave the profession with little hesitation and move on to a career in the food business.
SS: Most people are still surprised when I tell them that before attending the GSD, I was kicked out from four schools for bad behavior.