Enrique Norten is the director and founder of TEN Arquitectos. He was born in Mexico City in 1954. He studied architecture in Iberoamericana University (1978) and holds a Master in Architecture from Cornell University (1980). In 1986, he founded TEN Arquitectos and in 2000 opened a second office in New York. TEN ARQUITECTOS develops research projects, design, architecture and infrastructure. Over more than two decades, the office has resized public space, in the adaptation of industrial or historical infrastructure as institutional and emblematic architectures with buildings that become topographies from everyday urban notions to emerging landscape; works and projects with social, environmental, political and financial responsibility, a sustainable cycle where architecture becomes a sequence of places converging in the city. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with Enrique and learn more about his unique approach and philosophy on design.
On becoming an architect
The truth is that I came very late to architecture. Although I probably would’ve loved it if I had more information earlier on. I didn’t know what architecture was. Nobody in my family was in the creative fields, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to any of these disciplines. Also, I went to a very pragmatic school, as many of the schools in my country were at the time. The idea of architecture or the notion of the discipline and the profession of architecture just didn’t exist in my limited world. People were either builders or engineers. There wasn’t that option at least in my life. It took me quite a while after several trial and errors in different fields to little by little find what I wanted to do. I cannot say like many others of my colleagues can that I’ve wanted to be an architect since I was six years old. I don’t have any of that. I had to find it myself and I started falling in love with it, but I was already in my twenties midway through college or by the end of college that I started discovering this fantastic opportunity
On finding his voice as a designer
I went to architecture school in Mexico City. In Mexico, it’s different than college in the US. Here you go to college in a very general manner, we have more of the European tradition in our schools where you have to enroll directly to a profession. After trying several wrong paths I then got enrolled into the school of design. I wasn’t sure what kind of design I was looking for. Little by little I found architecture, then I had to transfer. Obviously it was my classmates and my professors who started giving me those windows that eventually I could open and fall in love with the profession. It was really the beginning and then to start understanding the huge history of architecture. I started seeing and following people, most of them dead, so I’m very grateful to all of those gone that set up great platforms for all of us.
On the experience of starting his own firm
I started my own firm basically almost 30 years ago in Mexico City. As many young practitioners I started my firm with a couple friends, we had no work so we were all teaching at the time, trying to earn a little living on the side although it was our main purpose. We tried to do a competition here, a competition there, or tried to help a friend rebuild his kitchen. That’s how you start a firm. 30 years is a long time, they go very fast though. As I’ve always said, you become successful with a very tiny project, which allows you to get a project that is 1.5x that size and you start building trust. That 1.5 becomes a 3, and that 3 becomes a 6, and that 6 becomes a 12. That’s how you start creating trust and creating attention. We were very lucky from the beginning that with very small projects, they generated national press and generated interest in our work. We were in Mexico City, which was a very closed condition. Needless to say at the time I was teaching in the United States, we had relationships with important thinkers and writers of architecture. They got interested and started publishing our work that was also recognized in our own city. There was a curiosity from other people in our own city who started betting on our capacities, which were very limited at the time. That’s how it started growing little by little until today where we have larger opportunities.
On principles he strives to adhere to
There are many things. As you know by now, architecture is a very complex discipline. I’ve always seen architecture as a reach overlap of many layers of information. Now that I look back, there are many issues that have been present in our practice or research, which is both the same and different, but in the end is one. These issues have always been there and they’re varied. Coming from a country like Mexico and a city like Mexico City, I realized that the urban issues have always been a very important source of information in our work. Those issues at the same time are very complex, they’re from social issues to all the physical issues. I believe that architecture goes way beyond the physicality of it. I could say yes, there are some urban themes that have been important to us and they go from any kind of political, social, environmental, issues of mobility that somehow influence our work. There are also many conditions of physicality and design: public space has always been a very important issue to us. I strongly believe that as I look back I realize that for us — I speak for my whole team — the importance of the object is a secondary condition to the importance of the void in the city. That’s where I started understanding the importance of what makes a city. The city obviously is made by mass and void, but what’s really important and where we’ve missed many opportunities, has been in addressing the void. The void is the part that we’re not hired to look at. We’re always hired or commissioned to look at the mass. There are many issues that have become important that have been there. Such as urban landscape, topography, territory — all of those have been sitting and laying there for all of these 30 years. On the other side, I’ve always been interested in the most pragmatic aspects of architecture, which are issues of constructions, materiality, or systems. We could just keep going with things. Many of these are retrospective reflections, but they’re important because they gave us platforms for the future, to look back and push forward.
On how his projects relate to these principles
Every project has both for us. Every project has the importance of the moment, that you become part of that baggage. Projects refer to each other. Some are more successful than others for many reasons. The process of architecture is very long. Projects may last 3 years or sometimes they last 12–15 years, sometimes more. Obviously when you start conceiving something to when it’s done, we have changed. We look at the world a little differently, things have changed. And then you start looking at all of those missed opportunities. That’s also what keeps us going because that gives us new energy to look differently at the next project. For me, it’s true. I look at all of the work that’s been done as part of that background or baggage of our firm, what I’m interested in what we’re doing now and what’s coming.
On the future of the firm
Just to keep doing what we’re doing. As long as we’re lucky enough to keep having the opportunities, to keep on working with the cities and our communities, doing architecture — those are my aspirations. Every project is important. There are not feelings that I would love to do a certain project, we’re super lucky. We have great projects, we have fabulous counterparts — I don’t like the word clients. I see them as a counterpart in a dialogue that you need to create something. We have the opportunity to be dealing with and working with fabulous peopleand great institutions and each project regardless of the program or the location — they’re amazing, unique opportunities. We want to keep them going and coming in different manners. I would be very happy if we could just keep on doing our research and trying to bring something to our communities to do the best.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
From a physical point of view, I don’t know. We don’t have a crystal ball, but from what I can tell you is something that’s changing with my immediate colleagues. Architects are taking on very serious responsibilities and many issues that have been let go. Our predecessors started with the great modern architects who created amazing work. It’s almost incredible when you look back now and realize the big revolution of 100 years ago. Because they got so involved in doing those amazingly beautiful objects, they got distracted from many issues of responsibilities. The obvious one is the issues of the environment, but those are way too discussed. They’re over-exposed already. Architects stopped being the game changers in fields of politics, of economics, of building infrastructure. Many issues that we just looked away from, when I say we I mean as a guild — the profession. I see that more and more. How many of our colleagues and my own interest is to come back and participate in all of those realms of our communal life that we should’ve kept pushing and we didn’t. Obviously we’re living through these incredible and amazing digital revolution. The initial stage of that revolution are all those new opportunities that the digital world has given to architecture are done, nobody’s interested anymore. It’s one of those little fads, I’m not interested. They’re great tools and the world is much more connected, it’s fabulously communicated. We’re all working in a big, global community, but all of that is dull. All of us have to come back to many of the basics. That’s going to be a big change for architecture, for the perception of architecture, and for the future of the profession.
On the response of the counterparts
The community at large is already starting to understand the capacities of the profession or what the profession can provide. We’re not anymore that group of elitist people that can draw a beautiful facade or that can do crazy things on the computer. That’s really boring. We have to regain that respect that our professional always had and had up to the two big World Wars of the last century. Suddenly we started fading away and ended up at the end of the century in not a very strong or good position. That’s where my generation starts practicing, weare 3rd or 4th generation of Moderns perhaps. That’s when we started reconsidering all of those issues with two big distractions. The distractions of the ’80s and ’90s that now some Historians call Post-Modernism. And the distractions of this early century, which is this new digital imagery that flooded. I see them both as bad and very similar, having lived through both.
On advice he would give himself when first starting
Don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop going way beyond the limits. As one of my professors said, “the limits of reality are in your imagination.” On the other hand, be very patient and careful. Discipline is absolutely fundamental in this profession. Success will take a long time. There are no child prodigies in architecture.