What becomes of public space once violence is normalized in a city? Though it is naive to believe that architecture by itself can present absolute solutions to complex social and political issues, it is also important to explore and understand its possibilities as an agent of social change, however small.
In Mexico, the wave of violence that has arisen in recent decades is more palpable in certain regions of the country, resulting in entire communities who have been made vulnerable by a fluctuating state of insecurity. For over ten years now, Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao has been participating in the development of a multidisciplinary project in the city of Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa and widely recognized for the drug-related violence it harbors.
The Jardín Botánico Culiacán (Culiacán Botanical Garden) is a public space that undertook an ambitious project in 2002 directed by a local businessman with an extensive private contemporary art collection. A slew of artists were commissioned to visit the site and create installations that added an artistic dimension to the space, inspiring varied reactions in its users and functioning as an aesthetic, sensorial, and intellectual experience.
Somewhat incredibly, this small city in northern Mexico is now home to a public space where one can visit pieces by internationally renowned artists such as James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Dan Graham, Richard Long, Gabriel Orozco, Teresa Margolles, and more.
In the following interview, Bilbao speaks on the completed phases of the project, the phases yet to come, the social responsibility of an architect when working with unfamiliar communities, and the advantages of presenting contemporary art outside of the “white box” offered by traditional museums.
Karina Zatarain: When and how did you get involved in this project?
Tatiana Bilbao: There’s really not an exact date for when this project began… I can tell you I started working on it in June of 2005. The Botanical Garden has undergone many evolutions. At first, there was Carlos Murillo, who focused on the amazing task of building a botanical collection. Then Agustín [Coppel] got involved and began donating a couple of pieces from his art collection, and eventually, he invited Patrick Charpenel to help curate the site. That was when it all really began to take shape, between 2004 and 2005. Patrick proposed a more ambitious project: commissioning each artist to make a site-specific piece for the Garden. That’s when I was invited; I arrived and said “why don’t we do a more integrated project?”
First we decided our main objective was to design a space that would take the Botanical Garden to a new level, making it one of the best in the world. For that, we had to invest strongly in the art collection and how it would be experienced spatially. The local Environmental Operations agency began to work on a classification of all the species present in the Garden. At that moment, Patrick [Charpenel] asked the artists to travel to the site in order to sensitize themselves to the space and the social context that surrounds it. On the other hand, I was trying to find a way to integrate everything spatially: the existent garden, the art collection, and the future construction of some buildings and pavilions that would enable the program to function.
First we analyzed, in terms of built space, what the Garden required: storage and office space, maintenance areas and areas for employees. For the botanical aspect: seed collection, a herbarium, a greenhouse… finally, the educational and art programs: an auditorium, a classroom, exhibition space, and a library. We designed a program and began building in phases.
KZ: The Culiacán Botanical Garden is a project you’ve worked on for over a decade. As an architect, what do you gain by developing a project over such a long span of time?
TB: You gain so much. Back in 2005 it was one of my first projects and it was so exciting; it still is… But at that moment it was the only one. So I wanted to see it all built and ready to use. And now, after so much time has passed, I think back and it’s been incredible…
One thing that we as a profession seem to no longer understand is the time that architecture requires, and that’s very harmful. On one hand there’s the subject of the ephemeral, and of how technology has enabled us to build quickly, and for some programs it’s a positive thing to strip them of the weight of permanence. But I think with public space specifically, it benefits from being developed during a broad period of time. As an architect, time gives you permission to really see what is happening there, to understand the place and react in a deeper way.
And even so, we still don’t understand it fully, I can assure you that someone from Culiacán sees it differently than I. I wasn’t born there and it isn’t my culture, but I do think that being given the opportunity to experience it through time has allowed me to act differently than I would have otherwise.
KZ: In a city facing the social issues Culiacán does, what is architecture’s role or responsibility?
TB: First, the biggest responsibility is not thinking you know everything. It’s very arrogant to arrive thinking you’re going to solve something you’re not familiar with. You must understand that out of everyone there, you have the least knowledge of the place and situation, and only by acting in this way can you offer a real benefit in your outside perspective.
In the Botanical Garden it is amazing to see how all kinds of people converge and how it has become an oasis in the middle of the city. It’s a curious thing, because it’s a fully accessible space where all social strata converge, all ages, and as I see it, it’s something of a refuge from the city. To have generated—and it wasn’t me but Carlos Murillo many years ago—a democratic space that offers interesting activities to all citizens is a very valuable contribution.
That’s what we should promote, in terms of public space: that it be a democratic space, an open space, and that it offer possibilities for all. A space that offers no resistance to whatever society decides to do with it is the best thing architecture can achieve. It’s what has really made the Culiacán Botanical Garden a success.
KZ: I have never seen people interact with art the way they do here, without knowing it’s been deemed art (expensive art, at that) by professionals and academics and yet, seemingly sensing something from it; something different to what is going on in the rest of the city. Why do you think this is?
TB: You know what that is? Breaking the white box. And that was something we didn’t realize until we were there. It’s so impressive to see how the Botanical Garden is promoting contemporary art in Culiacán in a way that nothing ever has before and nothing else would have been able to do.
For instance, the Sinaloa Art Museum [MASin] has undergone many transformations and has presented amazing exhibitions, but it is still a museum. There’s still a symbolic barrier that exists and many people don’t dare enter it, because it remains an institution, a closed space. By adding art in such a spontaneous way, with no restrictions, to an open space, it begins to interact with the public on its own.
KZ: And under the public’s own rules…
TB: Absolutely. For instance, it was curious what happened with Teresa Margolles’ piece, a series of benches made with concrete that was mixed using the same water from the morgue that had washed the bodies of victims of drug-related violence. We installed them, but for a year they lacked the inscription that explained what was going on with that piece. When it was finally installed, it ignited a revolution. People contacted their elected officials, the women that had used the benches complained that nobody had explained this to them. They didn’t understand the piece or what it was trying to achieve. Then Teresa went to the garden and gave a lecture, and suddenly these same women became the most enthusiastic promoters of art in the Garden.
And that’s what contemporary art has to do, that’s what it’s about, being a reflection of our time and allowing people to ponder certain subjects through it. Of course some art is more political than other art, evidently this piece is political, but it’s also a social matter. And what happened with it would never have happened in a museum. These women approached art in a very important way, a very visceral way, because they were confronted by it and had a chance to appropriate it and incorporate it to their everyday lives. That’s the key, breaking the barriers and making art accessible.
So that tells me a lot about how to act. In this case, having a collection and someone to donate the funds, anyone would have thought, great, let’s build a museum! And what would have happened? Nothing. The art would not have permeated into society in the way it did. That leads me to think about how to act from many different angles and to understand that as an architect you can’t impose a certain program. It’s not easy to detach yourself from that habit and I don’t think I’ve managed to do so completely. In the Garden it was an amazing coincidence.
This experience has taught me to reflect deeply before taking any steps forward in my design process… how to act, how to avoid imposing my beliefs about what is good. If this had been a museum, obviously the intentions would have been great. But a good intention does not necessarily produce a good result. By participating in this project I have learned to always question whether what I propose is truly the best solution for that place and culture. It has made me integrate all sorts of people in my process.