LIGA: Speculum Architectorum

Mario Ballesteros
2G Magazine No 69, 'PRODUCTORA', 2014


In the Middle Ages and Renaissance “mirrors for princes” were written, compositions for instructing future rulers in the grim ways that power should be exercised. The specula principum were breviaries in that they detailed everything a future prince had to know, from the subtleties of the court to ruthless ways of confronting enemies —manuals of good and bad political customs. The most famous of these was The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, a landmark in the history of political thought which detonated an existential scandal that lasted centuries and shook up Western culture completely. Now then, not all the mirrors had the same airs. The genre spread to other social sectors and everyday occupations: mirrors of alchemists, merchants, judicial mirrors and even specula virginum. Partly advice books, partly declarations of principles and everyday considerations, the mirrors were books of moral theory and at the same time practical guides to being and acting. If the genre had not been supplanted by self-help books, LIGA, a pocket-sized space for architecture in Mexico City founded by the office PRODUCTORA, would be a mirror for architects: a tool for (self-) exploration and (self-)criticism that articulates, activates and channels their own voice through others. A way on reflecting on others’ work—or at least through collaborations—a fluctuating way of approach and a legible practice under construction. LIGA opened for the first time in the spring of 2011 at the corner of Avenida Insurgentes and Avenida Chiapas in the vibrant Roma district. The small triangular premises had been the headquarters of the Liga Bíblica (Biblical League) of Mexico City. The name was both a knowing wink and a signifier: a link space between ways of making and understanding architecture. In its three short years of existence LIGA has put on exhibitions that have informed the Mexican public about the work of young Latin American architects (with the exceptions for the Spanish architect Izaskun Chinchilla and the Portuguese studio of Ricardo Carvalho + Joana Vilhena). These have been organized in a threefold way: the actual pieces and interventions, accompanying texts and public events.

In contrast to other spaces that are exclusively dedicated to disseminating architecture, this minuscule 16 m2 exhibition venue is managed by an active architecture office with its own regular assignments and construction projects. Why did PRODUCTORA, with all the limitations of a young office, decide to open LIGA? Why making all this public in the form of presentations, debates and publications? What might we learn about PRODUCTORA if we analyse LIGA? Tell me how LIGA came about. Did you always want to set up a dual office with an operating arm and a more reflective one?

In fact no; first we had to get PRODUCTORA going. We always understood LIGA to be something separate, although from the beginning we believed in reflection through action —that’s where the name PRODUCTORA comes from, but also the LIGA’s modus operandi. We try to approach architecture through the project itself, not so much through research and isolated readings.

So, what made you set up PRODUCTORA?

In general you found a studio because you share clear ideas and ambitions with your partners from the start. With PRODUCTORA it wasn’t like that. It was more a set of practical circumstances—the need to share a space or lend each other a hand with a project—that pushed us into working together. It’s strange, interesting anyway, that these affinities started growing over time. Initially we all had different reference frames, a variety of ideas about what architecture is, how to work and how to develop and resolve projects. As the years have passed these reference frames overlap, not just because we spent time together and shared experiences but also because we now have created an internal world of concepts, references and formal solutions. Our experience with LIGA is an important part of this shared basis for our current work. We didn’t use to have this common vocabulary that can nourish our work nowadays.

At present the architecture being produced in Mexico is more about leading figures than schools; it’s individualistic and lacking in collective features. There’s little of this common vocabulary you talk about. Do you think that the collaborative nature of PRODUCTORA and LIGA is another way to construct a shared culture?

As an office and a team we always try to find the common value or interest, although in parallel we maintain our personal interests. This permeates everything we do in the office, from working methods to the resulting projects. When a particular direction for a project interests one of us, sometimes it’s a greater challenge to present it to the other partners than to the client. We make our own school. If we didn’t have these internal clashes or seek references and discussions elsewhere, our production would stagnate. PRODUCTORA does not advance in a straight line. In the same way, LIGA opens up our horizons, takes us out of our routines, enables us to change course and discover new things.

Where did the idea of collaborating with other architectural studios come from?

Our office has always been characterized by this experience of collective work and a pragmatic spirit in which comprehensions and methods are built up as we go along. From the beginnings, we’ve extended the office’s collaborative nature to the outside world. We’ve worked with people from various backgrounds, particularly artists (like Iñaki Bonillas, with whom we’ve collaborated several times). In fact, our first built project was the Francis Alÿs retrospective exhibition Walking Distance from The Studio in the former San Ildefonso College in 2006. It was a very interesting exercise, particularly in terms of understanding authorship. In this kind of collaboration the work is not yours. What we do is offer architectural support to the artist, who may have quite a clear idea but doesn’t know how to implement it, can’t detail it in terms of a construction project. The idea comes more from the artist, but he delegates us the responsibility to resolve it. We have to have some things in common, obviously, since we are designing the supports for their idea or work (for the Alÿs exhibition this was literally true, we designed an elevated platform). The interesting thing is to contribute something, but you are not the author of the project. That’s how PRODUCTORA works: each person contributes, but nobody is really the owner of the project.

Beyond testing the limits of authorship and the rewards of collaborative work, it seems to me that something of that sensitivity towards artistic spaces permeates LIGA. Is that intentional?

There are many exhibition venues for artists in Mexico City. But artists, in general do not share those heavy responsibilities we architects are burdened with: a certain technical rigour which is very remote from the idea of artistic liberty. When we invite an architect to work at LIGA we eliminate that technical responsibility. We leave behind the traditional project’s extensive time period and also try to avoid the requirements of a typical commission or client. LIGA is trying to be a space with the freedom to think and work, without worrying too much about all the things a regular architectural project entails. We think that the interventions reflect this. Artists are used to such freedom, but a commission that allows for the free exploration of one’s interests —that’s rare for an architect. On the other hand the presence of Ruth Estévez, co-founder of LIGA and a person linked to the art world, is surely an important factor. However, we have always been clear that LIGA is a space for architecture, not a space for artistic interventions. The projects are commentaries on the architectural discipline, they do not refer to the world of art.

There have also been invitations to participate as exhibition curators. How much was this curatorial experience a precursor of LIGA?

We worked with José Castillo on an exhibition about Mexican modern architecture for the BOZAR museum in Belgium and we collaborated with the Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura in Mexico City, and these challenges were different from those we had experienced previously with artists. On those occasions, as well as designing the museographic framework, they invited us to act as curators —selecting works and exhibits and thinking how to present them, but also defining how they could be linked in conceptual terms. In this kind of collaboration more authorship is involved. Maybe LIGA is more an intermediate format where we define the terms of the assignment, but each architect is responsible for the idea.

Why did you set out to build an space of exception in such a closed and nepotistic context—almost courtly— like Mexico City’s architectural scene?

It’s not just a Mexican problem, in Latin America in general there are very few critical platforms where people can seriously discuss the work of architects. Latin American magazines publish descriptions that are usually written by the architects themselves. What’s lacking is cultural infrastructure that can give meaning to the local production, and provide architects with the feedback they need about their intellectual work. Meanwhile the fame or failure of an architectural studio in the region is measured by its commercial success—the number of built works—how much commercial magazines have published about it or its popularity on Facebook. Monographs that were commissioned, and paid for, by the architectural offices themselves make it still more difficult to differentiate authentic and really interesting work from businesses that are just “doing well.” Very little is demanded and there’s no culture of expressing, discussing or criticising your own work. If we were good writers perhaps we would have chosen to liaise with critics by collaborating in a publication. But none of the four of us is a prolific writer. In the end, we believe in architecture that comes from the activity of design. We’re interested in the development of a project and the intellectual heft of this process —methodology and solving problems that are as much intellectual as technical. So, it seemed logical to start with a platform that invites young architects to make an exhibition: an excuse to interact and dialogue with our colleagues in a way that is comfortable to us.

LIGA is a strange beast. Not just in Mexico but anywhere, there are very few examples of spaces for exhibiting and disseminating architecture that are so closely linked to an active studio that also builds. I ask again: how and why does an office of architects decide to open a space with these characteristics?

In a way, the idea for LIGA arose from our own difficulties in presenting and discussing our work. What can we say about what we do, and how do we communicate it? We started to be more aware of what surrounded our activities: discussions that seemed interesting, work by some of our colleagues, shared concerns. There is a precedent to all this, which we don’t talk about very much. When we started to work as PRODUCTORA, and our projects started to be somewhat visible, in interviews and at lectures people would ask us: “What do you stand for as an architectural studio?” It seemed to be very difficult to answer this question because we were young, just starting and we had hardly discovered how to work together. In those first years of PRODUCTORA they invited us to participate in the Young Architects Forum of the Architectural League in New York. There they asked a completely different question: we were asked to display ourselves in a space, to intervene in a space. We realized that there we were combining these more theoretical questions and positions with technical and formal problems, with pragmatic issues concerning how to realize within a limited budget and time a representation of what you’re doing as a studio. For us it was a much more comfortable and enjoyable format for work. Five years later, we can say that we ended up implementing more or less this format at LIGA, where people examine and resolve theoretical as well as practical matters in one go (the same as we try to do in our own work at PRODUCTORA).

I imagine that the space itself defines much of LIGA’s character: its tiny triangular plan, its large picture windows onto the street, like a shop front. How important were these factors? To what degree is the character of LIGA—so public and at the same time very intimate—defined by the space itself?

Undoubtedly the space LIGA is in has given form to its objective; a space with such a specific character inspires one to do something. Also, we were very interested in the condition of the triangle; what it means to be between those two neighbourhoods with so much activity, on Avenida Insurgentes, which is one of the most important avenues in Mexico City. And we liked it that the space had been a commercial space with shop windows that connect to the street 24 hours a day. Initially the small size of the space was convenient because it kept the rent down, and smaller exhibitions also meant lower expenditure. Over time we understood that right there we’d found the key element for developing our curatorial approach —those same spatial restrictions rule out any preconceived notions about exhibiting architecture, and force the architects to explore new formats. Intrusive columns, areas of glass, an irregular shape and the limited surface exclude the possibility to simply introduce a series of plans, models or photographs as in a classic architectural exhibition. A different approach is needed. We think that in this space people have generated interventions that are a natural response to the restrictions on what can be done there —set out an idea or a problem. They are almost models.

I’m interested in the fact that you refer to interventions at LIGA as “models.” This is very much along the lines of adding up small gestures rather than making pompous statements, proposing subtle exploration instead of issuing manifestos. Do you believe that these attitudes and this scale provide a better response to the current conditions and challenges in architecture?

In the studio we always work with very basic models that almost perform the role of outline sketches, the expression of basic ideas. Each of our designs is governed and ruled by the commission and the physical context. When we sit down to design we do not start by discussing in abstract or theoretical terms —we work with what is on the table. Looking at LIGA carefully, the interventions there work in a similar way, an initial exercise to make an idea tangible. Rather then as the representation of a project, these models serve as points of departure for subsequent discussions. The constraints in terms of space, time and budgets spurred us on to get our invitees to propose ideas or intentions that are spatial rather than scale representations of projects. When architects show their work, they generally present it in a closed way: a room is a room, a wall is a wall. At LIGA we are looking more for pretexts or stories linked to projects, so each project can be read in many different ways. This also led us to think of emerging architects who are not encumbered by the flaws of a set structure, with visions that are fresh, even if they’re not a hundred percent mature, and that allow this multiplicity of interpretations.

Talking of rules, this is another of the recurring themes in PRODUCTORA’s work. Are you more flexible about LIGA’s rules than those for your own projects or vice versa? I mean rules not so much governing form and formality, more in terms of architectural routine.

Here again we have to look at our experience of internal collaborative work at PRODUCTORA: the importance of negotiating between us a series of rules to organize a project, to force us to explain to others what we want to achieve when we think of a particular geometry, changing a detail, a colour variation. So our projects can never be solely based on personal wishes or intentions —they are always concerted approaches. For LIGA commissions we always try to start from zero and give the collaborators a clean slate. They must take the first step to set out their interests or ideas. In this case the rules have to do with basic limits of space, the time available, budgets, but also the essence of the project. When working as LIGA curators we try to intervene as little as possible, while in our collaborations with artists in general there’s already a strong idea and we just have to design supports for that vision. At LIGA, collaboration is more a way of accompanying. The process has two stages: first we validate the idea the invitees present in outline and we check that it will function in the context of LIGA. The second stage comes months later when the work is going to be produced, and then we intervene with technical suggestions to help realize the proposal as precise as possible. The architects who we invite don’t know the space, and it’s quite difficult for someone who’s going to intervene there to understand its particular conditions. So sometimes we get involved almost against our will —we prefer just to set out a series of parameters and see that people adhere to them.

However, seen its experimental character it could be said that it’s necessary to break the rules from time to time, right?

Sure, but the easy thing is to define rules; breaking them is tricky. As time has passed and we matured as a studio we feel a bit more comfortable breaking the rules, enabling us to discover new things. At LIGA, particularly now that already various interventions have been realized, we feel that we can be more flexible about rules and we dare to try new things. We try to make sure the participating architects do not limit themselves to representing their work, a temptation that is always there. But it’s even more difficult to discuss your work without presenting your projects. Especially when you present your work in a place where they may not know you, your first instinct is to show what you have and what you have done, not to risk doing something new. But we insist that it is important to escape the plan, section or model that represent the work, and to search for other ways of representing architecture. Even though this is something difficult for us as well.

Looking beyond the interventions in the gallery space, what is the importance of LIGA’s complementary supporting formats? I’m referring to posters and commissioned texts, but also to the “Interludes” organized between the various exhibitions.

All are very important but nevertheless they are complementary. The physical presence of the intervention is needed. We are very materialist; we need something tangible, material —something you can see and touch, that you can relate with. At LIGA you have the piece, the text that someone else has written about the work, and finally an informal lecture the architects give to present the installation and their body of work. These are three different approaches, three distinct moments that form part of the same cycle. One can talk a lot about ideas but for us the most important thing is that these ideas get materialized, we want to see how they can be implemented. We believe that nowadays it’s a luxury to comply with these three conditions, and at LIGA we always manage to do that.

How much impact do you think LIGA has had on PRODUCTORA, and on the local Mexico City context?

It’s difficult to assess the impact of a project like LIGA. We don’t measure it by the number of people who come to opening nights, or how many articles appear in the press for example. Perhaps our public is limited to a specific group of people, but that doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant. If we suddenly hear that someone in Brussels or Istanbul wants to replicate the LIGA model and create a space using similar parameters, we think that would make for considerable impact. In Rene Daalder’s documentary about Bas Jan Ader, there’s a moment when the artist puts on one of his most important performances, reading a Reader’s Digest article, “The Boy Who Fell over Niagara Falls,” and gradually drinking a glass of water. As he completes the article he also finishes the water. It’s an important work in the art world. Daalder says in the documentary that he studied the footage several times and he heard nothing else —no sound, no rustling, not even people clearing their throats, coughing or going to the toilet. So he started to think that during the four nights the performance was put on there was nobody else in the gallery. Even so it’s a work that had a big impact in the long run.

I agree —in the long term a small gesture can have a considerable impact. For me LIGA has brought about a change in the way architecture is perceived in this city, particularly between students and young architects. I think that launching this space and these discussions has been a significant move. How does PRODUCTORA see itself in the mirror of LIGA? How has LIGA changed its perception of the creative process, the idea of authorship or originality? How can you put together an operational and experiential narrative through the work of other architects?

It’s very easy to shut ourselves away with our own worries and processes, but through LIGA we always oblige ourselves to see what our colleagues are doing. The space allows us to constantly nourish ourselves with new references and fresh ideas. The fact that it’s an open exploration and not a closed process enriches it even more through other discussions and interpretations. It’s a perfect opportunity to obtain knowledge. The question of authorship has figured in our internal processes at PRODUCTORA and it reappears at LIGA. We like to have these problems examined: what is authorship, what is the relationship between a commission and a designer, how does one foster other people’s work? Rather than praising other architectural studios, we want to tackle these problematic questions. We thought that your reference to The Prince by Machiavelli was very interesting —it’s one of the clearest and most straight forward texts in history but, at the same time, complex and interpretable in multiple ways. That’s how we work, with very factual decisions, very logical, about construction, hierarchies, steps. Sometimes our work can seem a bit plain or dull, but for us it’s rather poetic. We like this interpretation as a collective process, not so much of one designer or specific project —understanding how we continue with certain gestures and working strategies in different projects, and how we follow various paths. Looking at it like that, perhaps LIGA is not as separate from the studio as we would like to think. Although we think of it as a parallel project, in practice it provides feedback for our studio and helps shape it. Perhaps working with LIGA has become an intrinsic part of our work at PRODUCTORA. Something like this interview or your own work as editor —reading and drawing oneself through others.


Note: This text is based on conversations between Mario Ballesteros and the partners of PRODUCTORA. They took place on October 9th and November 4th, 2013, in the office of PRODUCTORA in Mexico City.



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