Visiting Mexico City several times in recent months enabled me to get to know a number of leading architects there. In the process, I was in turn directed to other architects that were new to me, whom I then discovered were, in fact, the leading and most revered architects in the country according to the local architectural community. I am particularly referring to Alberto Kalach and Mauricio Rocha, whose interviews were published in this column last year, and Benjamín Romano, whose name came up when I asked a number of architects to cite their favorite building from recent years in Mexico City. Along with the absolute favorite, Vasconcelos Library by Kalach, another structure stood out: Torre Reforma, a 57-story office tower, the tallest building in the city. The following conversation with Romano, its architect, took place inside this unusually powerful and inventive structure.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Just to start—is there one particular question that you would want to be asked?
Benjamín Romano: I was asked a number of times this question: Why do I have so few projects and why am I not building internationally? Here is the answer—I focus on improving the building. I like both design and construction, and I like to be involved in everything about the process. I like the idea of making improvements and having total control over the architecture that I am creating. For that reason, I like working on one project at a time; I enjoy it. Lately, I am working on a book called Doing, which is about documenting the process of creating a single building—this building, Torre Reforma. I have thousands of photos from during the construction and I will present the story of this building both along the process of thinking and construction.
VB: What projects are you currently working on?
BR: At this time, I have four projects, all in Mexico and even if you were to invite me to do a project in the Middle East I wouldn’t go. Most of my current projects are right here in Mexico City, including an office building and a residential development designed as part of the new studio and cultural center of contemporary artist Javier Marin, and there is a commercial center in Guadalajara, which will be built over an existing historical house.
VB: I think it would be fair to say that your Torre Reforma here is the most iconic building in Mexico City today. Was this your intention, to create a new iconic form for the city?
BR: Not at all. In fact, when I started the project I was advised to do a straightforward square building, and the historical house on the site was going to be simply enclosed within the new tower. Only during the planning stages did I realize the potential of this site urbanistically. In any case, there was no particular preconceived image. All of the design decisions were based on very specific conditions and requirements. For example, the uninterrupted height without a setback could be twice as high as Paseo de la Reforma is wide, the building’s kink reflects that; it was not purely an artistic gesture. Also, the building’s floor plates are shaped by structural considerations. In my projects I always follow the codes, structure, and other factors that I then manipulate. My compositions always come out of urban conditions. I think it is every architects’ responsibility—first to recognize the restrictions and respond to them before allowing any kind of personal gestures.
VB: You said that architecture is not about having inspirations.
BR: Absolutely not.
VB: You said architecture comes out of analysis of the site, program, structure, and so on. But how can that be true with Torre Reforma? Wouldn’t you agree that if you asked ten architects to design a tower on this site you would have ten completely different solutions? Which means that the design comes from the architect, and all other things only contribute, however greatly, but they don’t define the work. That’s why I suggest that there is always a preconceived vision driven by a particular inspiration.
BR: Not in my case and not in this case. I am very certain of that. But first, let’s define what is an inspiration? An inspiration is a metaphor and it can come from anywhere. I believe in solutions, not inspirations. Again, the site here is a square—40 by 40 meters; the historical house in the corner forced me to come up with triangular floor plans in the tower above. But then the floor area would be very small and not useful for companies. That’s why I proposed to cantilever the building over the historical house and extend the floor plates with chamfered corners. We already talked about the height limitations and the kink. And finally, I knew that eventually, more buildings are going to be built all around here and for that reason I oriented most of the views toward the park. Then there are structural considerations—I hate having columns in the space, which led to a very expressive structure on the outside. There are so many conditions that come before any design decisions. I have to admit that I like triangles and I often use them in my designs. Still, I don’t believe in inspirations that come from nowhere; I believe in solutions that come from real life.
VB: You may be right that inspirations come from nowhere, but they also come for particular reasons. You know, your Torre Reforma profile reminds me of Torres de Satélite by Barragan.
BR: Sure. I like those structures and perhaps they were reflected in my design but if that’s the case, that happened subconsciously. As far as specific proportions, they are not only based on codes but on the Golden Section that I always try to incorporate. I believe in the power of proportions. I believe in order and clarity. People may not be able to read a particular rationale behind a project but I think having an internal logic helps to appreciate it visually. Rem Koolhaas said at one point, “Fuck the context.” But even if I wanted to agree with him, the reality is very different. We, architects, don’t have that kind of freedom. Our buildings are conditioned by so many circumstances conditioned by the city, street, program, structure, and so on. My architecture is a product of context.
VB: You said you see your buildings as powerful and structural expressions. Could you touch on that idea?
BR: I like taking risks. As I mentioned, in Torre Reforma, the idea was to avoid having columns. To achieve that I had to hang the building. And when I started hanging the building I could not foresee the necessary strength of the structure. I love the result and the expression of the structure’s power. There are some towers that may have similar impressions but I believe this one is different because the whole tower is literally hanging. I like that this building is not just about projecting a particular image but to express an incredibly powerful force.
VB: What do you think about signature architecture? For example, Wolf Prix said, “I love when people give buildings nicknames. A city must feature identifiable and iconic buildings.” Do you agree and does Torre Reforma have a nickname?
BR: Yes, I agree. I am not sure our building has a nickname but some people call it the Tetris Building because of the characteristic window patterns in two solid walls. But if you ask me, I would love this building to be known as obelisk. I do love nicknames because it means that people have noticed the architect’s work.
VB: You are a developer in addition to being an architect. Why is that?
BR: When I graduated from Universidad Iberoamericana here in Mexico City there were no jobs for architects. Just during my personal professional career, Mexico went through four economic crises and one major 1985 earthquake. Each of those five cataclysmic events was followed by years of total stagnation; there was no new construction of any kind. That’s why architects here are forced to act as our own clients. 1984 was the final call for many Mexican architects because that year’s crisis came just two years after the 1982 crisis. It was then that I came to a conclusion that I no longer could afford to sit and wait for a phone call. I decided to become a developer. I had no choice and many other Mexican architects didn’t have a choice, and even today many architects prefer this model.
VB: Do you like being both architect and developer? Does that situation give you greater creative freedom?
BR: I think it is better to be just an architect. Absolutely. This is because as developers, we find land, we see the potential, then we look for lenders, and we promise to develop a particular project with a certain quality for x amount of money. We take upon ourselves responsibilities for thousands of people. So, I need to do such excellent work to carry my reputation… That is insane. Isn’t it better to be just an architect?! But I would not survive simply as an architect. Still, today, I have more opportunities and I can choose to work on some projects as an architect only. I like that more.
VB: Do you have a favorite building anywhere in the world?
BR: That would have to be the Ford Foundation on 42nd Street in New York by Kevin Roche. I love the atrium, the structure, the strength of the building, the peaceful contrast inside to the unbearable noise of Manhattan, and the offices upstairs are fantastic. It is also very discreet, and I bet very few people in New York ever heard of it. Its presence on the street is very minimal but the minute you go in—wow!
VB: What about your favorite building here in Mexico City?
BR: I have my favorite spots, from which a number of buildings can be seen. I love modernist buildings here that are very powerful. But to choose one building it would have to be Camino Real that was built for the 1968 Olympics, designed by Ricardo Legorreta.
VB: What single words can you name that describe your architecture best?
BR: Structure, plumbing, piping, which has to go through somewhere, and it is very important to find the right flow. Also, fluidity, functionality.
VB: You teach architecture here in Mexico and internationally. How?
BR: I believe that you can understand buildings only by visiting them. I take my students on trips to visit buildings that are well built, as well as the ones that are badly built to learn from both.
VB: Some people told me that you are different; you are not like other Mexican architects. What do you think they mean? They told me that you are not quite inside of the architectural community here.
BR: I am outside and I like it that way. I teach, I come to my office, I work. I have several architect-friends; we travel together twice a year to see architecture. But architecture is not what my life is all about. I am invited to give talks sometimes—I come, I do my talks, and I leave. [Laughs.] Honestly, I don’t really follow any trends. That’s how I entirely missed Postmodernism. I am convinced that architecture is not just about ideas; architecture is about solutions. And the solutions have to come from you, the architect. They have to be your solutions, not what you saw in magazines.
VB: Do you have a personal agenda in architecture?
BR: What I can tell you is that when I am invited by clients that expect a certain look, I definitely don’t accept their invitations. I need to see and understand the site. I can’t imagine a situation in which someone would ask me to look at another project as a prototype. If you come to me, it will be my project, so do I have an agenda? I think I answered your question.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.