Filters: mine, writing, id=3086

Remove all filters

Interview with Mauricio Rocha, March 23 2014

A reworked portion of this interview appears in Uncube. This is the full, lightly edited version. It is part of a research project on the adolescence of buildings.

When I met people in Oaxaca and told them that I wrote about architecture, they told me to go to the school. They would talk about it in a conspiratorial way. “Go see what has happened there.” So what happened there?

Mauricio Rocha: It’s a very important building for me. In Mexico you have very good opportunities to make architecture—the chances are there—but at the same time you have vulnerability about the process and what they do with the architecture.

With the school of arts, Francisco Toledo had invited me to think about an AIDS clinic in Oaxaca. Patients have to go once a month to take medicine, and the place they were before was a very sad place. Toledo wanted to make a clinic where they could do something with artists, like working in an engraving workshop, to have a role and a connection with people outside. Finally the project didn’t happen because some people changed and they didn’t want to spend the money, but it was the first ideas I had about patios and private areas without views of other people.

After that I was doing a house for an American, Laurie Litowitz, so I was more in touch [with Oaxaca], and Toledo visited the house and liked it. Finally he told me, do you want to make a school of art [for the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca]? He had talked to the rector [Francisco Martínez Neri] and would also donate some money. Okay. But the problem was that I had to design and they have to finish in one year—or a year and a half.

This was in 2007?

Yes. And we had to finish in May 2008, which was the moment that the authorities changed in the university.

So from the beginning the project was defined by the political situation at the university?

Not only that. They began by to telling me that Toledo would invest 3-4 million pesos, they would give the site, and the budget wase 7 million pesos. Then they gave me the program and I said no… this will make a very small building. So they said maybe they cannot build this building and they will have to build one of their standard buildings for 7 million pesos. I didn’t believe them, really, that those cost so little, but they are supposed to be very standard buildings. I said, “Come on, this is not the type of building you need, what I can do is to design separate buildings.” For two reasons: first of all, if you find the money you can build them at the same time; and second, if you don’t have the money, you can find the money during construction. So the rector says, “Five buildings? Okay. Go.”

I had already done investigations in rammed earth. I begin with the work of Rick Joy, from Arizona, who is a wonderful architect. And I found an enginer who worked with him, and we invited him to do a workshop at Saint Miguel de Allende.

He worked with my construction manager and my structural engineer, with whom I do almost all my buildings. We spent about five days. We had invited him to understand how to make a rammed earth wall, because what we tried before was like Neapolitan ice cream. He had a very disciplined process. The idea was that for the first month, we would make some walls, and all these Mexican and Arizona people would work together, then they would leave and we would finish. That was the idea. We begin the work with this man, work for three or four months and learn this.

So we built a wall, 3-4m long, and I asked my structural guy what he thought of it. “It’s good,” he said, so I told Toledo that we could use this technique. In Mexico we say, “Clave en mano.” [Key in hand.] So we began like this. But meanwhile, behind this rector [Neri] was the other rector, “El Penguino”. He didn’t want me there. The Penguin is a part of a group of architects who have a monopoly on the design of buildings inside the university. They all make money from that. I was the first person in the history of this university from outside this group. And it was Toledo who invited me. Because he gave three million, they couldn’t say no. But nobody wants to change. If somebody says, we want to invite an architect, the director says, “It’s your money, okay, it’s your problem.”

One point Neri says, “Please, Penguin, leave this process.”

The Penguin was involved only because he was part of this group of architects, he wasn’t rector yet?

Yes, this is just because they were supposed to do the new building. The Penguin doesn’t know he will be the new rector. This is one year before.

So finally I began to design the building. And we didn’t have any rules, we didn’t have any supervision. They were supposed to be there, the officials, but they said, “We don’t need problems.” So we had a big opportunity… I was talking to Toledo one or two times a month, but he didn’t want to know about square meters. I thought that at one moment he might say, “I don’t like this,” because of something that is happening at Elta [where Toledo was involved in another construction project]… but to my surprise he never did.

We made a prototype with the earth from Oaxaca, with laboratory tests, and we find out that the green earth of Oaxaca is good earth for this process. Beautiful. But at that moment I had in my head to do the building in red, so maybe one day I will do a building in green.

I don’t know if you are an expert in rammed earth, but adobe and rammed earth are very similar. In adobe you need a clay and for rammed earth you need like a desert earth, a sand. In Oaxaca you have this nearby. The green earth comes from stone, and the red earth is the same, coming from the rocks. What I learned from this process is that you have to be very careful. You take the sand and you shake it in the laboratory, because even from the same place there can be some difference.

Some of the problems in Oaxaca were: one, the bricks; two, the rain. Most of the rammed earth you see is in places like Arizona. But Zumtor made a wall of rammed earth in Cologne where there is snow. You can make rammed earth wherever you want to, but maybe not close to the beach.

Before we go further into the construction, can you clarify the project phases? I understand there were three buildings planned and they were not all built.

At that time we said, we can build these four buildings, and we can design other building closer to the highway. For the second part we need 2-3 million more pesos. We had the money from the state, the federal commission, and we needed the help of Toledo.

For me it’s important in my architecture to make the construction a part of the process. I try to understand what happens with the design as it becomes built. For example, I wanted to make [the studio walls] with only two columns, but then the windows become structural. We can put half as many columns, or leave some inside. I put them outside. So the first problem of the project is that you need to make a line outside, you put a column inside of the rammed earth and you must put a line on the outside of the wall where you don’t see the column. Like when you pour a concrete floor. That’s the last thing the contractor has to do, and they don’t let him do it.

Because there was no time?

Because there was The Penguin. When he got in power, he became very aggressive with us and told us to get out of the building. It was ready for the inauguration, but we still needed to finish many things. We need to make some details after the inauguration, like in many buildings, and he said no.

Neri paid us the last day, his last day, because he knew that if he didn’t pay us, we will not have the money in our contract.

When we did a good [rammed earth] wall, it was as strong as concrete. But the problem, for me, is that for the time we had to make the building and all the processes that you need to control, all the people who work on the building—for example, sometimes you need laboratory tests—we asked the constructor to take care of it, and he says, “I have a guy, I don’t mind.” And I understand, because we had to work very fast… but if I learned something it is that if you are making a public building in a very short time, maybe this is not the process—not because it is Oaxaca… everything is okay technically, but the process just didn’t make it perfect. Even if we didn’t have [to deal with the] the Penguin, but somebody else had wanted to make the school vulnerable…

But the Penguin was doing a very good job of making people think that mysterious things were happening with the school. When we began to win prizes and magazines or books started to include the school, he got very mad, and he began to say, “This is not good.”

He was making threats, “I will do whatever I want.” I was saying, let me help you, I know how to solve this, I saw this study and you should read it, but he didn’t want to see it. Only one time, when he began to change something, I talked with Toledo and became very aggressive, and [the Penguin] said, “Okay, okay, okay, I won’t do anything.”

What was he trying to do?

He began to put some steel in the corners. And other things. I only said, “Please let us be in the process. If you need something we can do it.” Finally, he doesn’t like Toledo, he doesn’t like me, and he begins to throw everyone out. When we finished the construction the Harp Helu Foundation gave a gift for all the vegetation and trees, and they were not allowed to go to the school. “You cannot come inside. I don’t care.” Finally, he doesn’t want anything for the school. Nothing.

And all this is not because of me, just because I was the symbol of something that was not good for this “bolsa trabajo” [literally, employment bureau]. Maybe if my building is good they will get other people from outside for the next one.

What about the corners, the shattered windows, and the auditorium building; how did those happen?

In the corners, because they didn’t make the walls strong enough, the corners were vulnerable. Now they put steel. I am considering whether we have to put steel in every corner or we if we can do something else. In the case of the windows, you can see the glass is broken. The curious thing is that the windows are between steel frames, concrete walls, and concrete foundations. That’s the last place you can have a problem. When they made windows for the school in the final days they made them… exactly, and you have to make them like a half centimeter empty.

Between the glass panes?

Yes. This is a rule. But you never even put this in the drawings; it’s just something everybody knows. But in that moment some stupid man said “We need a glass of one meter,” when he should have said 99cm, 0.5 and 0.5. That’s one way. The other way is the gardeners. There almost never was a gardener there, but when there was, the machine… [makes smashing gesture.] Before all the gardens were terrible. How come all the gardens and all the vegetation are bad, when in other parts of the university they take care? Why did it happen here?

What about the auditorium?

That’s the big problem, and I think it is one of the more important parts of the work [because we tried] to make a wall in a new condition. The curious thing about this wall is that all the walls in the workshops work [structurally] with the roofs, except in this case you only have a [rammed earth] skin with concrete underneath.

The problem was in the structural specifications, in the connection between the column and the roof… was it because he’s stupid or because we made it very fast? We found it when one of the two walls leaned. Everybody said, “This is very bad, very dangerous.” But it was only 5cm. But I went with my structural engineer and we could do many things. Finally, one day, in January of 2012, I was visiting some friends in San Pablo, and I asked, what is happening, why are some people working [at the school]? “They are doing something to the walls.” I went there and I found that they had started to demolish the walls. The Penguin didn’t want to receive me, so I made a big… a very big twitter.

I realized that I needed to stop it one way or another. Finally, [twitter] worked and they had to talk with us. I knew what was wrong and I knew that what they were doing was an aggressive way to deal with it. We could do something else, really. It was terrible what they were doing. If you tear those two walls down it’s very expensive, you could also do this [gesture of pushing the wall].

At the time, I was doing a project for the federal commission so I talked to the Cultural Secretary of Mexico, and they said, okay, we will help you. They had put money into the project, but I learned that if you give money to an autonomous university, they can do whatever they want with it. [A public university] can’t even touch the building within five years. It’s illegal. Maybe if you follow a long process… but in this case, because they were autonomous, they could do whatever they want, even if you had given them money.

So finally they received me at a big table with some people from Mexico City, all the people of the University, and I said, okay, why don’t we do something? You say that this [wall] is falling down, and my structural engineer says it’s okay—why don’t we call a third engineer? “Never! We’ll never put a third engineer.” And finally, they demolished the wall, so we proposed that they build it again in rammed earth, if their engineer and my engineer agree on the solution.

I worked with the two engineers for two months. We knew that their engineer was under a lot of pressure, but finally he said, okay, we can do it like this and it costs 700,000 pesos. I went to the Secretary of Culture and I asked for the money; the building won international prizes… okay. “We will pay.” I went to the Penguin and said, we have everything, but he didn’t want to see me, so somebody else went with the signature of his engineer, and he said, “but we don’t have the money.” No, we have the money [from the Secretary of Culture]. But his answer is still no. “I am an architect, I don’t care if the engineer has signed, I say no. And I don’t care about the money.” He wouldn’t even answer calls from the Secretary of Culture.

Now I could show them, do you understand what is happening here?

But finally, two weeks before the Penguin leaves, this stupid architectural work is there.

In the end, both walls were demolished and rebuilt with the same concrete structure and some kind of cladding?

No. They put another three columns of concrete inside. The other problem was that their engineer was involved in the construction too, so he made money from building more things.

Is that legal?

Well, we are in Mexico. He didn’t to do something that reduced the money he made. On twitter I wrote, “they say these walls are falling down, but they are very helpful that way.” So finally it was easy [for them] to put these artificial walls and paint them the same colour [as the rammed earth]. But only one side, because I stopped them [from painting both].

You thought it should look more obvious?

I didn’t make the walls; they made them. They could not leave the space empty. But they don’t have time to paint the last one, and the [rector] changed and I went and said, “Please, let’s talk. We can do something with this.”

When the new rector came, he called to say, “We want to have new relations with you.” And my structural engineer had made some wonderful studies of the wall movement, the kind of studies they only make in NASA, showing how is it working inside the walls.

We needed a new study of the foundation… and now the new rector said, “I have two years, so I want to finish the school. I know you can get money from the Cultural Secretary.”

This is to complete the project or for repairs?

Both. To finish the project and to change these [auditorium] walls to rammed earth.

Did they also replace the windows on the auditorium?

We have to make an important restoration of the school. We already have an analysis that says we need to do this, this, and this. We just need the money. Maybe the university can find some money, but most of the money will come from other parties. And we are in that moment, I think it could be a a very good end.

What other things are going to be fixed?

The most important are the two walls. Then how to repair some cracks… So finally I am very happy to make this school. I know where its problems are, I know some solutions. We just never had the tools to finish it, and now there is an opportunity and we will do it. I think it is a very important project for us and for Mexican architecture.

I think this is an important story. This sort of thing happens all the time, in different way. All projects have a little Penguin, and it’s stupid not to talk about these problems in public, because how you resolve them is an important part of architecture.

And when you make something different, when you don’t know something, when you are scared… that is what happened at a small scale with the school. It’s a big fear, so corruption survives.

That reminds me, what about the big streetlights they added?

I don’t know when they did that. When they weren’t talking to us. Even now it’s the last part I want to touch because with this money I could do other things, but if I can put other lights I will do it.

I heard it had something to do with union of maintenance people. The ones who knew how to take care of the originas lights left and the new people didn’t know how to repair them, so the lighting got worse until it had to be replaced.

Could be. But all I can tell you is that they never asked me.

And what about the drainage problems underneath the auditorium? Is the groundwater that high?

Well, the original foundation tests were superficial… then they added a new cistern, they put this second one higher up, and there is a valve that automatically shuts off if the water is entering too fast, but it is broken, and so the water goes there. They wanted to fill it [the sunken area below the auditorium], but come on, this was supposed to be the cafeteria! You put some tables in the nice shade, and they want to remove it because they don’t know how to make it work? But they never went to me. Now we are in touch and we will help them.

Now I am involved. I spent a lot of money. I made mechanical proofs with my own money. I paid for all my flights. If they won’t spend some money for my work, I will still come and change the building, but it is not fair.

What happens next?

We are looking for the money. We will try to find 5 million pesos to change everything. I want to work with the students and the community. “You have some questions? Ask me.”

Have you already had comments like that?

Every time I visit. “Do you want to have a conference?” I tell them. Together we will change the school. It happens with every project. Some things change. The good idea is to stay close to the architect.

I had a very nice interview with Ecuadorians and they talked about “contemporary ruins.” And I really liked that. You feel like this existed before. It’s not a bad condition.

The contractor man, after this project, made maybe ten buildings in rammed earth. With new techniques, for example, adding structure in the walls to prevent breaks; so finally he knows better how to make these buildings, and I think he will help me make better restorations.

Weren’t there issues with the original construction quality?

The problem was that the university never finished paying him, so he didn’t have any responsibility. They stopped everything with me and with the construction. It was very stupid. So he says, “Come on, they never pay me. Why do you tell me to finish this?” And I say, “Please, as a favor, for us this building is important.”

They say, “We never had the drawings, they disappeared.” There was a lot of corruption so they make the drawings disappear.

How typical is this?

Every time. Everything to do with this project is very normal for small public buildings. Every time the drawings disappear. We have big opportunities, we have a lot of work, but at the same time it is very vulnerable. We don’t have rules; we don’t have protection. That’s our field and we have to play in that field. We have to learn to play in that field.

I will not stop. I am not afraid. I have to be careful choosing clients and construction techniques. Now I will make a cultural centre for avery poor area in Porta Vaillarte, and I will use again tepetate [pulverized volcanic rock, like the one in Oaxaca.]

What could you have done differently?

If I have to make another building in one year, very fast, I will not use rammed earth. I will use other materials. But… I think it is important for my investigations. I love this material; I don’t need this material, I can do without this material, but someday I will do it. With other materials it is very easy.

Is the third building being built?

It’s not up to me. First we have to fix the [existing] buildings. But I think we need to build it, because the school is not finished. They tell me, “We need space.” But first they need to be academically stronger, to understand what they need. If they do that, they will need a new space; if they don’t, they don’t need one.