Architects Jaqueline Lessa and Francisco Pardo on how looking to Mexico’s past helps them design for the future

Based in São Paulo, Brazil, Jaqueline Lessa created her architecture studio Entre Terras (translation: “between the lands”) two years ago in order to answer human questions through craftsmanship. This philosophy is evident in all of Lessa’s work, from her airy, minimalist design for the Haight clothing store in São Paulo to her fluid exhibition decors for the local Bergamin & Gomide gallery.

After studying in New York City, Francisco Pardo returned to his hometown of Mexico City in the early 2000s; from there he established himself as a leading architect on the international scene. He did so, he said, by embracing the local way of “mixing things up” – a creative freedom that is vital to his work on projects such as Casa Aguacates, where he built a house under a field of avocados in Valle de Bravo, a lakeside town outside of Mexico City.

With Artnet News, Lessa and Pardo shared how they got there in their careers, which further their work and their mutual admiration for Mexico as an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Francisco Pardo and Jaqueline Lessa. Courtesy of the architects.

What is the story behind each of your decisions to pursue a career in architecture?

Jaqueline Lessa (JL): I have thought about this a lot. I was born in the countryside, in a small town called São Lourenço do Sul, in the southernmost state of Brazil. My childhood was very much linked to nature and [the] Earth. I tried to remember all the times I had and it probably made me realize that I wanted to have a creative practice.

I was very close to my grandmother and I spent my childhood watching her grow vegetables and cook them for our family. I think that simple act of changing something and then creating intimacy between people through her work, or something that she was passionate about, was something that awakened my sense to the possibility that certain activities [bring] a new perspective on an ordinary condition.

But I didn’t know I was going to be an architect until I had to choose him.

Francisco Pardo (FP): I was [planning] being an industrial designer, but let himself be drawn into architecture – that was the only career [choice related to] design in my university. I fell in love the first day; I thought it was fantastic.

I had an experience similar to what [you] described, Jacqueline. My grandmother was a painter and I was very close to her. She was also an interior designer at one point in her life. I never really saw her work, but she did mention it.

So there was a connection with the family, but [for me,] decision [of what to pursue] was hit or miss. It is a good thing that I find myself here.

Inside the Casa Aguacates de Pardo.  Photo: Diego Padilla.

Inside the Casa Aguacates de Pardo. Photo: Diego Padilla.

What do you think is the most important factor in maintaining a creative career?

PF: This is a very complicated question because there are a lot of factors [in] the commitment to do something. I gave [it] a lot of thinking lately, especially as an architect, you get into this profession and you end up thinking that everything revolves around architecture.

I think the pandemic has helped me understand that this is not true, that your profession does not define your life. So I tried to get out of the field in my free time and do [other] things that I like. I like to watch movies, I like to go to art festivals and I just like to walk on the street in different cities and see [what’s around me]. This is how I learn [about] architecture.

JL: I agree with [you,] Francois. I think it’s being able to perceive a lot of aspects of life outside of architecture; it’s going back to things that will seem to be true.

I have thought about Paulo Mendes da Rocha a lot this year. I think he was a very good architect, not because he could draw, but because he understood life.

Can you explain what attracted you to Mexico as a successful framework for artistic production?

PF: I lived in New York for five years. It was a very complicated city, with [a lot of] competetion. I realized that being successful in New York would be very difficult. You will probably be 40, 50 years old [years old] even before having a good chance to do architecture.

I am from Mexico. It is a country of ground. I arrived [in] Mexico, I opened a studio and built five six-story buildings when I was 28. My friends from New York were probably doing an interior [project] at most, and they were trained as architects.

I think I was lucky because I entered a new era of Mexican design. Lots of things, artists, architects, chefs and all [of] creative scenes – have been booming for 15 years.

The ceramic sculptures of Lessa from her residence at Pocoapoco in Oaxaca.  Photo: Luvia Lazo.

The ceramic sculptures of Lessa from her residence at Pocoapoco in Oaxaca. Photo: Luvia Lazo.

JL: The last time I was in Mexico, I was a resident in Pocoapoco, Oaxaca. It is a very special city, very anchored in the presence of traditions. [In] Mexico, people are a little more aware of [their] pass. In Brazil, we are still discovering things.

I feel [like] Brazil is an island in Latin America [due to its language and distinct culture]. Going to Mexico was a way to understand Mexico, but I was able to come back to Brazil with more understanding of who I am as a Brazilian and who we are as a country. I also wanted to come back with questions on things that I don’t know, that we are trying to understand.

Can you tell us about your creative processes?

PF: For me and my team, it is very important to consider each project as a different entity, a different prototype. I try to open the discussion formally and programmatically. Each project has its own conditions, so the result [is always] different.

I fix [on] what the site has to say. Each site gives you local information, items, materials. [After] research, the design process is very simple. A lot of planning, very little execution, that’s the main idea.

The creative process for me has to do with the simple things – which is [on] site, sun, wind, all natural elements. For example, at Casa Aguacates, we wanted to keep a field of avocado trees intact, so we decided to bury the house; through [building below ground] we did not affect the sight.

Looking down at the avocado fields where Pardo built the Casa Aguacates.  Photo: Sandra Pereznieto.

Looking down at the avocado field where Pardo built the Casa Aguacates. Photo: Sandra Pereznieto.

JL: I agree with you that when we build something in the countryside, the context gives you information, maybe more strategies. At the start of our practice, we [Entre Terras] had more commercial plans. With those, I didn’t feel like we had a lot of information.

Today we are developing residential projects in a rural area of ​​Juquitiba, known for having the largest green spaces in the state of São Paulo. We consider the context a lot in a way that we weren’t when we were building business ventures.

In one of the [Italian-born Brazilian architect] Fantastic teachings from Lina Bo Bardi, she said she always starts a project with an aspect function, imagining the future of space – not in a formal way, but in a very humanistic way: how to dine is going to happen, how people are going to coexist. We always discuss a project by imagining this moment of use, the life that the space could contain. What kind of moments do we create? What levels of privacy do we generate?

Often artistic creation is rooted in research around a specific interest or inquiry, the work reflecting a unique perspective from which to consider the world in which we live. What areas of concern do you consider to be the most pressing today and are you addressing these issues in your personal practice?

JL: I think this is probably the most pressing problem [we] have right now is climate change. This is an issue that we have considered a lot in the homes that we are developing. [And as an atelier], we are trying to build less.

I believe that architecture is an area where the idea that the future is ancestral applies: we look at the past to understand things from the present and imagine a future. So, [the past] is something we are looking for in the office.

We try to integrate traditional solutions that benefit and take into account the environment, while turning to technology by researching materials and incorporating energy solutions that are more respectful of the environment.

A view of Haight Clothing, designed by Jaqueline Lessa in São Paulo.  Photo: Ruy Teixeira.

A view of Haight Clothing, designed by Jaqueline Lessa in São Paulo. Photo: Ruy Teixeira.

PF: Mexico City is probably the oldest active city on the whole continent; there are other cities that are now in ruins, but Mexico City is the only pre-Columbian and active city. He has layers, which is not a metaphor.

I tend not to demolish or demolish buildings because I think it’s a bad idea for a city. It is more sustainable to reuse an existing structure than to build the most “sustainable” building from scratch. I have convinced clients not to demolish and to restore buildings instead.

Like [you] said, the best architecture is one that imagines a possible future. I always ask two questions: Is this thing we are doing good for people and for society? And are we making an effort to have the least impact? Because we always have an impact.

Yes [either answer is no], then we do it wrong.

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