When Frida Escobedo was about 7 years old, her father gifted her a dollhouse, whose miniature features she found fascinating. “I loved the idea of making small universes,” the Mexico City-based architect recalls. “That was the first time I realized that, rather than just play, this could become reality.” The family also frequented the Mexican capital’s many museums. On one weekend outing, Escobedo saw her first architectural exhibition, which featured the work of Emilio Ambasz. His bold geometric designs and garden-covered façades had a lasting impact. “He had this almost surrealist approach to architecture; it was very experimental,” she says. “I thought it was fantastic.”
Unsure of her path, Escobedo enrolled in architecture studies at the Universidad Iberoamericana in 1998 to give herself a solid foundation. By her first week, it clicked: This was what she loved to do. After school, Escobedo first worked on home renovations with her then-boyfriend, but in 2006, she struck out on her own. One of her first big commissions was to renovate the Boca Chica, a 1950s-era beachfront hotel in Acapulco. In collaboration with designer José Rojas, the team kept the original brickwork and terrazzo floors while accenting the space with brightly colored furniture and neon paint.
Escobedo’s first solo project soon followed. Chosen by a panel of architects over four other candidates, her site-specific design at the Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City features gray concrete blocks sprawled across a courtyard, with a yellow wall jutting into the sky. Visitors can move and play with the blocks, while the museum staff can rearrange them during events. “There was certainly a practical purpose, but it was telling a different kind of story,” she says, noting that the project informed her work on her master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2012.
If the Eco project was her big break, then the Serpentine Pavilion was the “tipping point,” she says, in terms of her visibility as an architect. In 2018, at 38 years old, she was selected to design the pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens, becoming the youngest architect to receive the prestigious annual commission. Drawing on her earlier work, she conceived a courtyard-based structure with latticed cement breeze walls surrounding a pool of water. A pivoted axis refers to the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, London—the imaginary line that indicates 0 degrees longitude. “It became almost like a sundial and a compass that can situate you within a larger geography, one that’s not just physical but also social,” Escobedo explains.
The architect’s ambitious portfolio includes a partnership with patron and philanthropist Dasha Zhukova, whose latest art-centric real estate venture, Ray, includes a transformation of the historic National Black Theatre in Harlem into a 21-story building designed by Escobedo. The designer’s 17-person team has also partnered with beauty brand Aesop to design the interiors of five retail boutiques, and she was among 32 architects and studios to create low-cost housing for the Housing Research and Practical Experimentation Laboratory, an innovative community development in Hidalgo, Mexico led by Mexico’s National Workers’ Housing Fund Institute.
Although her work spans disciplines, Escobedo’s projects share a unifying thread: the use of materials to tell a complex narrative. The approach is evident in Puebla, Mexico where she is working with hotel developer and operator Grupo Habita to transform a 19th-century house into a 10-room hotel slated to open this year. While cleaning out the property, her team found a basalt water reservoir. The simple object inspired the hotel’s design, which incorporates volcanic rock in guestrooms, stairwells, and a dedicated wellness space. “It’s like carving out of a quarry,” says Escobedo.
Her focus on materials is shared more broadly in local architecture. “Belonging and patrimony affect the way we design. It’s important to build something that will last, so you can pass it on to the next generation,” she explains. “That’s one of the reasons we’re so in love with materials here in Mexico.”
This article originally appeared in HD’s June/July 2021 issue.