On October 26, Enrique Norten received the 2015 Richard Neutra Award for Professional Excellence. Presented by the department Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, the Mexican architect joins a varied and distinguished group of honorees, which include Samuel Mockbee, Thom Mayne, and Tadao Ando.
Norten’s latest project, CENTRO, a cross-disciplinary university focused on the creative fields, recently opened in Mexico City. Meara Daly spoke with him about the 78,700-square-foot campus and how architecture and pedagogy influence each other.
The Architect’s Newspaper: How does your architecture reflect the vision for the CENTRO program?
Enrique Norten: Well, it reflects this experimental spirit of the institution. It is an institution about creation, about innovation. [We wanted to capture] the feeling that you are not in an institution, but you are really in a free-flowing workshop-laboratory that will somehow entice the spirit of creation. Also what has been interesting, as you very well understand, is a school like this is a conglomerate of little schools. Each department is a school and each one has a leader. And each leader has his or her own vision, so it is also sometimes a dissonant symphony. That was always the process, too many voices, too many visions, too many egos and characters. Not in a bad way.
Is the design activated by those voices?
Yes, as a matter of fact, a lot of what you are seeing is work in progress. For example a white box is not meant to be a white box. It will become a mural intervention and the idea is that the space will change periodically and be activated by different interventions. There are also pieces of technology to come.
Were there challenges in designing a whole campus instead of a single building?
Well, this is funny because it is a campus but it is also a whole building. It is both. I would say the biggest challenge was that it was a very complex and ever-changing program. Things were changing constantly and maybe that is reflected in some issues of the work, so we are just trying to keep some general spirit to let it change. It was changing constantly, even through construction.
I don’t know of any city that can open a new campus, a new building but not a new campus.
This is an area that will be changing enormously, which is something that interests me. [The CENTRO campus] is a signal of improvements in the area. Ours is an amazing location—just across the street from Chapultepec Park and right in the center of the city. A new, big train station is coming a few blocks way. When that happens, we will be one of the best-connected areas.
How did your partnership with CENTRO begin? Has is it been a long-standing relationship?
I’ve known founder Gina Diez Barroso and her husband Abraham for many years. As a matter of fact, I am on CENTRO’s board. Before there was anything, she invited me for lunch and was telling me she had this dream and asking if would I be involved with her. I said I would love to if, and only if, she would really mean to have an international institution—an institution at the international level. I wasn’t interested in being simply the best of Mexico.
As design leader, how is your practice is looking to the future of design in Mexico?
Mexico has always had great architecture and design energy. There is a very long, strong, and stable tradition of good design and good architecture here and fortunately, we are going through some exceptional times in these fields. There are many good people doing very good work, especially in this city. We work here, and obviously I am Mexican—born, raised, and educated in Mexico, and I am incredibly proud of that. Nevertheless, we do have part of our practice in New York. We work equally out of the two offices and it is very balanced. Our work is all over Mexico, not just in Mexico City.
Within your studio where does this lie in terms of your projects? You have worked internationally. Do you feel that all of your projects are international even if they are local?
I think they are all local and they are all international. I always say I am very interested in that intersection between the local and the global—the specific and the international. Architecture by definition is site specific, but also part of the global discourse. It is very important because each project is unique to the place but it also belongs to this global discourse and can relate on different levels with other work that is being developed around the world.