Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

As busy, busy people who move through the world and occasionally need to sit still, we have a tacit understanding that furniture should be, if not comfortable, at least neutral — ready to accept the buttocks of any size, gender, race, or orientation. Beautiful designs tempt us into repose. However the conceit of universal design is upset when we are forced to recognize that not all bodies fit in or are supported by the most elemental of objects. So when, earlier this year, Hunger and Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay was fat-shamed for requesting a chair sturdy enough to support her frame and outcry ensued against this affront on body acceptance, I was also shocked by how a simple function — sitting — could be weaponized against bodies. It’s with Gay’s incident in mind that I approached maneuvering my wide hips into the dimensions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barrel chair. Low ceilings are generally cited for the architect’s famous disregard for bodies other than his own, his sense of scale being modeled on his (alleged) 5-foot-8-and-1/4-inch height. Designed in 1907 as part of the custom furniture of his Gesamtkunstwerk, Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, the Barrel chair is one of his most popular designs, often replicated in its nearly circular geometries. Settled into a reproduction of its oak corseting and obliged thereby to adopt a morally good posture, I imagine other people, other soft bits, shifting uncomfortably against the constraints of universality, yet comforted by the allure of an icon.

Taking cues from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, architect Tatiana Bilbao frames her practice around the ethics of the “other,” a deep-seated philosophy and an almost moral compulsion to make architecture that puts the human subject first. It’s an idealist position, perhaps even old-fashioned, at a time when architecture’s social agenda is all too often shortchanged for formal hijinks. Indeed, Bilbao, who is in her early forties, began her career alongside other Mexican architects vying for the global stage, such as Fernando Romero, her friend and former business partner, who, with the swoopy shiny Soumaya Museum (2011), landed complex, computational architecture in Mexico City. Formally much quieter, Bilbao’s work carries its own powerful aesthetic — from early conceptual ideas to more recent projects such as the sensitive, light-flooded Tangassi funeral home in San Luis Potosi (2005–11) or the gleaming Bioinnova research building at the Monterrey Institute of Technology (2009–12) — and proves that architecture’s social responsibility doesn’t have to sacrifice beauty, materiality, or form. With 31 employees and projects in Belgium, China, France, Spain, and Switzerland, as well as her native Mexico, her namesake firm, which she runs with partners David Vaner and her sister Catia, is in high demand. But though she may have the schedule of a jet-setting “starchitect,” in person the mother of two small daughters is warm, down-to earth, and generous with the little time she has, sometimes to the point of exhaustion (just prior to the photo shoot for this issue, she was diagnosed with pneumonia). PIN–UP met Bilbao over a Peruvian lunch in downtown Los Angeles to talk about her interest in urban planning, her family history, and how working with Gabriel Orozco led to an architectural epiphany of sorts.

To read the full interview, download PDF here.