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What creates a healthy neighborhood? That is just one of the many questions posed by Tatiana Bilbao in her current exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Rather than use the show to display built designs, the Mexican architect seized upon it as a chance to spark discussion. At the center of the gallery, forum-style seating surrounds a model of Hunters Point, the nearby neighborhood where Bilbao is redesigning an electrical substation. As part of that project, she is encouraging the client to offer much of the site back to the surrounding community. The SFMoMA show invites visitors to consider how: Painted blocks representing civic services, businesses, educational institutions, and cultural organizations can be placed inside the interactive map, enlisting museumgoers to weigh priorities and trade-offs. Collages by local residents, meanwhile, reveal their own visions for Hunters Point.
“It’s a contentious site in a neighborhood that has experienced 50 years of civic neglect and environmental injustice,” reflects curator Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, head of SFMoMA’s architecture and design department. “Bilbao takes the exhibition space seriously as a space for dialogue.”
Engaging the public has long been at the heart of Bilbao’s practice. “I am hesitant about the role of the architect as the sole person who knows how everyone should live,” she reflects. “My search is for integrating other voices, other notions. The most important goal is to empower people to participate in the conversation.”
Architecture, she believes, can be a platform for people to design their own existences. Her celebrated approach to affordable housing, for instance, eschews cookie-cutter solutions in favor of a modular system that can be adapted to suit each family. Each home costs as little as $7,000 to build yet stands apart from its neighbors, reflecting the needs and personality of its inhabitants. (Versions have been realized in various parts of Mexico following natural disasters.) For these dwellings, as with all her residential projects, regardless of budget, Bilbao favors raw local materials and manual construction. “It’s about making spaces by people for people,” she notes, alluding to the jobs created by labor-intensive techniques. At SFMoMA, four models reveal the applications of four materials, while drawings explore residential typologies for city and country. “It’s all at the ideas level,” Dunlop notes of the images, which mix built projects with unrealized design concepts. “[Bilbao] isn’t just thinking about shelter but about identity and well-being.”
Current projects include a Cistercian monastery in Germany, a commission which, Bilbao notes, “has allowed me to put all my ideas about living together so boldly.” In Mazatlán, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez, meanwhile, she is reimagining one-time plans for an aquarium as a coastal research center, one in which the built environment is invaded by flora and fauna. “Why would you have an aquarium when you have an aquarium at your doorstep?” she says. “Humans will be able to discover it.”