Isaac Michan is an architect and educator, founder of Michan Architecture based in Mexico City in 2010.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the Universidad Iberoamericana and a Master of Science in Architecture from Pratt Institute. He has been a professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana, the AA Visiting School in Mexico City and is currently a professor at Anahuac University.
In 2020 he was awarded the League Prize for Young Architects + Designers by the Architectural League of New York. In 2019 I received the Design Vanguard Award from Architectural Record magazine. The DL1310 housing building designed in collaboration with Young & Ayata received the 2019 Progressive Architecture Award. In 2015, Z53 Social Housing was recognized in Architizer as the best low-cost housing building.
His work ranges from temporary installations to commercial spaces and large-scale residential projects with a focus on traditional methods of construction and digital thinking.
Hi Isaac, thank so much for giving us this interview and, how are you?
I'm fine, thank you very much for the invitation.
The idea of this interview is to talk to young architects who are shaping themselves as the new pillars of architecture in Mexico. The series of questions relate to AGENCIA magazine which we are planning to launch soon. We are thinking about various topics but in one of the issues of this magazine we would like to address the problem about something that we have detected in different architecture curriculums in the main universities of Mexico, a disconnect between theory and history, a persistent dynamic of vertical hierarchy between teachers and students among other things, and as a problem a lag that becomes more evident when we talk about technology, because in most universities technology is stipulated as only applied to construction, as a stretch in classes that have to do with structures or mechanical systems, in which in some way digital tools are used however, there is really no conception of technology applied to design, everything is done analogue or as a support to construction.
Yes, there is generally no notion of technology as a design tool, it is seen more as a technical support tool that is applied once the project is devised.
It is generally stipulated that your role as an architect is to go out and build. In an earlier conversation, we talked about the responsibility of the architect as well as what construction represents, this question speaks a bit about the construction process and the interesting things about it. Could you talk about the construction process as an extension of the project?
What we talked about was that the construction process itself can be seen an extension of the design process, a continuation in the research of the project.
The construction process/site as a laboratory for the project.
Yes, and it's focused on the way we work in Mexico with material and manual labor. This research is also carried out on site. Obviously you arrive with a completed project, but the proximity to the construction process/site provides a myriad of possibilities for new discoveries, in which this potential return to design you can allow to think about the use of materials, spaces and construction processes. I do not know if in all parts of the world, but in particularly in Mexico, which is where I operate, I see it as an extension of the project’s design, a place where you can experiment and try different ideas. It creates a tension when you translate digital to the regional or artisanal. This generates a remarkably interesting hybrid that offers a lot to explore. In most developed countries, the project is followed 100% with digital tools, from design to construction. This can be a great advantage in Mexico, the translation of the digital as it becomes something very artisanal that can generate a unique set of results and opens the possibilities for this full-scale design process.
In addition, we said that many times when you have a specific idea about some detail, it is in the construction process/site where practices if it works together, and that is where you try out if things work before taking that particular detail to the end result. It would be interesting to talk more about this because it involves something quite interesting, for example, in your work, in many construction site photographs you see that there is this type of experimentation, that is, you are working with the materials, with the techniques, you are testing and experimenting and depending from the results you decide the applications. Thus, the definition of the construction process site (obra negra) is not only an implementation factor, but also a defined design factor, like a design laboratory.
That's right. If changes are made it’s because we are not satisfied with the result or because the result suggests an alteration, that is something very interesting and happens when you are there, when you are doing this. When a project steps out a bit of the construction conventions, you look for a way to develop it and then it becomes a laboratory in which you are developing your processes to land this idea. This process is a little more ambitious than the traditional construction process. It is a hybrid between what exists and creating your own tools and processes. This is one of the advantages that the work has in this specific context.
The next question has to do with the specific ideals about of your office, can you talk about that?
I like to think that there is nothing fixed in the office or that there is still room to talk about ideals. We have visions, intuitions even obsessions that we then when we look back and argue theoretically about what we thought. A lot of this comes from a curiosity of what surrounds us and to search for a familiar architecture, but on the other, escape that familiarity. It is like being between two points, the conventional and pushing it at certain times to the unconventional. This I find interesting because if everything is conventional or weird, there is no surprise, it becomes predictable. And when that line of ambiguity is achieved, there are elements that you don't expect, which can go unnoticed, but when the user lives it, it causes even greater surprise. There is also the context side and its limitations, such as budgets, guidelines, and external factors. Where some external elements are accepted, and moments of intensity high and low resolution (hi-fi-lo-fi) are sought after. How can you make that these two worlds can coexist?
Do you have any plans for the future?
Continue my curiosity remain without being predisposed to an idea of what we want to achieve in terms of design or style. Keep on learning and open so that the work can be transformed and developed on its own.
Do you see any difficulties during and after the COVID-19 pandemic? How are you feeling?
Yes, I think it is a difficult time, the workload has gone down a little bit. Let's hope it's not for long, everything is slower, but we're going to have to adapt to these times and look for new ways to work.
Of course, the next question has to do with the differences between architecture education programs abroad and in Mexico, what is it like to study abroad an return to Mexico? To face several problems that could happen because you have studied outside of the country, have other ideas and trying to implant those in Mexico. What were those challenges and how have you dealt with it?
Yes, it goes hand in hand with the problems that were mentioned earlier about education. There is a notion that digital tools only useful to solve technical issues. If these are used to design, it has a connotation of a meaningless formal experimentation. I believe that all architecture is formal, it is impossible to escape from it, because it is one of the basic elements of architecture. But I think there is this notion of digital architecture as superficial and irresponsible. I have had the chance to be part of academia as an instructor, and I have faced these ideas. For me built work that shows that these practices also have a notion of materiality, spatiality and so on, then these barriers can be broken. That the digital is no longer just a shiny rendering, these ideas that exist since the 90's or 00's.
Do you think this way of thinking is very personal or is it shared?
Maybe. I think there are offices that are thinking about designing with digital tools, and at the same time building with the technology that is within reach, which can be local manual labor. It is not a preconceived ideology, it is designed with what is at hand, in this case digital tools and is equally built with what the context offers, local and even artisanal labor. It is a notion of "Digital Craft", which I’m not say saying I invented this way of working, not at all.
Indeed, but if you are one of the few people who consciously talks about it and applies it on a regular basis, it is part of your research as an architect.
Yes, that is good, hopefully we can work even harder with this idea.
Let us talk about the problem of integrating technology and architecture, from the academy's point of view to the practice. What ideas could arise to produce a harmonious integration of technology and the production of architecture?
For me, it is a problem that the discipline of architecture has had throughout history. I think that would help at the academia, at the end of the day technology is one more tool. As a discipline, we have worked with other types of tools, in modernism, triangles, rulers, and mass production. That made formal language to respond to that time. When perspective was invented, it was also used as a design tool and affected the result. Not thinking of technology as a design tool can limit the outcome. There is this notion that you cannot be creative with digitals tool, as if the computer is a thing that thinks for itself. So, if your work is digital, and this may sound silly, it is as if the computer has done it alone, or the other notion, it's like you think about the project first and pass it to the computer, without any alteration in the process. It's like just like you design with pencil and paper, think and design at the same time, it's a constant feedback where you make the final decision as well as determining the starting point. At the end of the day all offices, use technology, no office delivers a hand-drafted plan. It is just thinking of the plans as a creative medium. How to profit from that, is as you've probably heard what Jeff Kipnis says about Jimi Hendrix and how he plays the electric guitar which makes a unique sound, a kind of union between him and the guitar, rather than the classic one.
So this is the problem, that of the tools and above all this mentality is founded from the academy, that is; many students can say "Well I don't think I agree because I have another way of thinking", but if the teacher does not share this vision and behaves in an adverse way with the student, some of them, as they expressed in other forums that we have conducted in AGENCIA, end up convincing themselves that using the available technologies is equivalent to plagiarism, and the only virtuous thing is to do it analogue. Demonstrating that you can do it is important, then you will digitize it beyond just as a means of documentation, but not as a means of experimentation, coupled with the absence of real software training for this purpose, the criteria ends up being as we have mentioned it is basically focused on construction technology within a more traditional realm and any other interpretation of technology will be totally alien.
I agree. In addition, I see it this way, there are all these tools, you have to use the ones that are useful for each case, and the more they mix these tools you can create something more interesting and ambiguous, difficult to categorize.
The more workflows that exist among all these tools, the more interesting the results are. Do you think this paradigm shift can be made, let’s say within the next five years with the update of the curriculum? I'm saying this because; we have heard it in other interviews conducted by AGENCIA, the problem regarding the lack of curriculum update as a phenomenon of “clientelism” within the universities, perhaps less in public ones, but in the most important private universities nationally. That is, if the acceptance requirements become too demanding, they will lose students, so they prefer to maintain an accessible level less demanding, within this problem, there are considerations like if we demand more technology, it will be more difficult, and what happens is that these institutions do not understand that many of the students were born with technology, it is part of their “natural” tools, as opposed to something completely strange.
That is a definitive factor, but there is also another factor in architecture culture in Mexico, according to other countries as well, who also reject these tools, because collectively they think in terms of trends. I think the trend goes for this idea of social architecture, whatever that means. That agenda is not interested in implementing digital tools. I don't think one idea is not opposed to another, but if I think each agenda prioritizes certain criteria and discards others. Broadly speaking, I do not think this picture will change much in a new curriculum.
What do you think the repercussions of this trend are?
I do not think technology directly tells us about advancement or cutting-edge. There is really good architecture in Mexico rooted in its tradition, style, and material honesty. It is not the one I'm interested in, it's not the one I do, but I think, it's very good and will keep going. What disadvantage do I see in that? For me, it is basically that discourse is not rooted with the work, I’m not sure if I explained myself, there may be a change of discourse in education but architecture remains static, as a modern and regionalist derived from all the great masters of modernism.. The discourse may have already change, but the architectural objects remains the same.
Social discourse is very important, and you can consider these objects as successful the moment that users enjoy, appropriate them, then it becomes a cultural element. At the end of the day I agree with you on the problem of materiality, and that this is the approach that has dominated Mexican architecture, however, one of the problems that became clear with our conversations is that it cannot be generalized, that is to say; it is not valid to think that all the new architects in Mexico who are establishing themselves will all go down this line. But couldn't there be another more technological line? Besides the one that we already know and is otherwise proven, the one that has to do with materiality, etc. Always paying homage to modernism, that is a problem for me. Don't take this as biased of me, what I'm saying is that what I feel that your work has the potential to create a different school, obviously not a disruptive one but innovative, maybe not at opposite end of what is being done, but more focused on the problem of the image, challenging the problem of materiality. When you apply, for example, these striations, perhaps you are challenging the material to become, let’s say, the image, in the representation of the material, a post digital attitude, then as a viewer you do not know if you are prioritizing the nature of the material or the patterns or the striated pattern. Anyway, it starts to generate another type of research, another discourse that has nothing to do with the matter of fact of the material, sincerity in architecture etc. which is beautiful of course, but I’m asking you how over exploited it has become?
I agree with you, for me this romanticism towards "material honesty" becomes problematic, how do you get out of that? Honesty is fine, but you have to push the material to other places, where not only represents the economy of the structure but that seeks to generate ambiguity, hand in hand with the material, but without prioritizing it to represent a material sincerity or some of these notions, as you say, overexploited.
That's right, it's a very ingrained thing, we can acknowledge that it is aesthetically beautiful, it's very well executed, but it's not bringing an innovation about creating architectural spaces, and it ends up just making the project works as far as what people make of it. I also wonder from a cultural aspect if people care to understand a building in a sophisticated in a Miesian sense or from Kahn's philosophy what modernism is. Do you not think that it becomes only for a small or even elitist sector? How many people enjoy these spaces in such manner? Lacking aspects that connect with them, out of the way. What are the current cultural aspects that people without training in architecture that can actually be connected to? How to make architecture for these other sectors?
Yes, that is interesting, and it's something that leaves Mexico out of place because architects keep on trying to follow the ideas of hard modernism, then the cultural context becomes secondary. You and I share a taste for O'Gorman's architecture, he is for me the best example of being aware of your context. He began working as a pure modernist, trying to do something very attached to the work of Le Corbusier but he ended up fully understanding the importance of the local culture, focusing on local materiality, which to me it seems better than his beginnings. His work on the murals for the façades for the UNAM’s library as well as his house are much more sensitive projects to their surroundings, I read that he let himself be carried away by the material culture of Mexico and with this notion the work does not aspire to be perfect in Miesian terms, developing an imperfect perfection.. His house, his cave is a great example that he doesn’t mind being so precise to be more authentic, he understood a new possibility of working in this context.
Above all, what O'Gorman understood and which made it so revolutionary was the limitations of modernism and separated it from materiality and his argument became nature, the argument of how the typecasting of culture to nature is broken, that is in fact a current philosophical topic. So, he really seeks this breakup, and that is why you can read it in his writings, where he was disappointed with modernism, or what I call failed modernism, Now, on the one hand, you understand Mexican culture linked to its materials and on the other hand the fact that it always goes hand in hand with certain aspects of modernism, that is, the frame, geometry or sensibility of the modern box, built with specific materials and not necessarily local. The question then is why we do not work more like O'Gorman who understood this breakup, because some architects never think of this as serious?
Of course, I am increasingly interested in this notion of understanding how we work in Mexico, as we are not Swiss and perhaps our concrete castings cannot be so perfect, but within this "imperfection", there may be a new aesthetic quality of that you cannot deny. Either you're going to live in a fight as an architect with your own work because the result isn't "perfect," or accept the fact that the work is going to increase 5 times the original budget to achieve those initial desires becoming more expensive than what it costs. I am not sure this is clear that you can come up with unique outcome if you accept the facts.
There are many precedents, all the negotiations that took place in El Pedregal, for example, and are precedents that people do not speak of. In Mexico, the discussion is based on phenomenological aspects in architecture, which is very limiting.
Yes, there is a lot of phenomenological burden in architecture theory in Mexico.
They are classic elements, but they are not pointing to any kind of evolution, after a while you get bored.
100% agree. Some time ago I listen to a talk by Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher who talks about the concept of resistance in the work of art. He explains it by the potential and impotence in the work of art, as in any creative process, an artist through limiting his potential, discovers new possibilities. This is where you can say that art is not just a matter of good taste Similar to what we are talking about, which is that the architectural work repeated over and over again become a recipe. This causes only the discourse to change, but the work does not move forward. Through delimiting the potential and impotence you can discover new possibilities for art, architecture, and painting changes the scheme of the work as the place of perfection.
That's right, for example, when you talk about the familiar and the unfamiliar, you have something that is easily recognized and becomes a cliché, and you think, how to those elements of the cliché, no matter what it is, using them to move the discourse the other way. I think that the luckiest people are those who can change the way things are done in Mexico, they are the people who generate proposals within this discourse, being able to change to other directions, not to resist it to have the potential to generate something totally new, but as you say, with what already exists, to seek new challenges.
I totally agree with what you're saying, it's not just stop resisting to everything and produce a 100% radical project, you couldn't do that today and because it would be very alien to the context and the reality in which we are standing. But to remain stagnant, I believe there is an intermediate point.
I apologize but I'm back to this subject. In your opinion what happens with technology within architecture both academically and professionally? How do you apply different technologies in your office?
At the academy, I usually teach one or two Rhino classes and try for students to learn it so they can design with this. At the same time, I do not limit them to any methodology or design software, I only try to expand their tools. Working with digital media can generate more iterations and more options for a project. In a lecture by Reiser-Umemoto, they spoke about Walter Benjamin's text, "The work of art at the time of its technical reproducibility" and how this itself affects the architecture project when working with digital media. There is no longer an "original" project or model. I think this is one of the most important points of working with this.
Do you use Rhino in your office or how do you design?
What we use the most is Rhino and digital models, we try to use the multiple tools, analog and digital. Me would like to run more models as another design tool, but because of cost and time it is not always possible. Sometimes we use scripts, but for extremely specific things. In general, we don't design using with scripts. But I have nothing against that, it simply that it doesn’t suit me.
Do you use 3D printing for your projects?
Yes, but we do not have a 3D printer, we sent them out.
What do you print, because printing the whole model I imagine comes out to be expensive?
The most interesting pieces of each project at different scales. It varies a little depending on the project. These days I'm interested in what we talked about last time, such as carrying two lines of thinking; digital exploration and material exploration, finding expressive accidents these can be translated into projects..
How do you document your projects? I mean, what kind of representation do you like, do you write something about them even if you're not going to publish them just for the purpose of keeping a record of the project, or everything is decided according to the needs?
It is both, most of the time we start with a conceptual idea, let the idea begin to change and take a life of its own generating something totally different. Most of the times it ends up being different from the original, so the work itself becomes the excuse to continue. When we re-analyze it and start moving the project forward, we include interesting aspects that connects them to other projects. I'm not of the idea of writing the concept of the project and then translating it into architecture. I believe that each medium is a type of language, there are architects who work totally the other way, through this process there is also the possibility of getting a good project. We also work with an initial concept which is maturing and at times something interesting things happens.
I'm interested in asking you about the fact that your projects have an important conceptual and discursive aspect, which it is clearly perceived that there was a thought, a formal research, not only about a compositional sense, but it actually had a design research process, either with analog or digital techniques, In the end one documents the ideal version of the project.
I really like that, trying to stay open to be opportunistic in a good way. Sometimes you do not understand what you are doing and when you finally do it then you can go deeper into it. I'm more interested in that than being true to the "original" idea. Another creative way is to talk to friends to better understand what you're doing.
For me what happens with the projects is that when it comes to curing them for either Facebook or for Instagram, there is a revaluation and you start organizing it in different ways then in your mind you are even thinking what kind of references exist. These kinds of practices help us a lot to reorganize the project and often describe it in another way, that is, a constant curatorship of the project.
It is very important to be able to discover new things after the project is already executed.
That's right, making multiple readings, that is, you start reading things in the project that you hadn't even imagined. You understand at that moment how you start to get some feed back, and the project begins to take different turns. Certain questions are trite, however I would like to ask you, for you what is the most challenging aspect about architecture that is how you see it today both generally and in particular? It gives me the impression that you have a great self-confidence, that is my perception, I feel that you see the problems in some quiet, logical and clear way, you do not warmup your head with confound ideas. That quality of seeing the project through in a cool manner and being able to interpret your moment and project yourself into the future.
An essential issue for me is to have doubts about what you are doing. I think when you are too confident and everything seems perfect, you can get stuck in the same thing and you do not even know what are working for anymore. I don't know, it can become extremely repetitive and self-referent if you think everything is okay.
Of course, you are constantly basing yourself on what you've already done with the risk of becoming repetitive without any revision, and this happens to the great architects, the problem of the cliché.
Yes, perhaps, the thing I like most about Frank Gehry is his trajectory. He was extremely experimental and changed the course of things, he did not stay in a comfort zone. The present day is no longer the case, but he still has discovered new things in his latest projects.
In fact, people, his potential clients look for him because of the type of projects and hire him to do those kinds of projects, that is, they know what they will get.
Sure, but within that, he also evolves a little in each project. It is not the same every time. To me the notion of being open investigating new possibilities, it is something that I would like to keep on doing. I am quite interested because I think that is what has moved architecture’s discipline. But I also think that's what moves things in general. That is, moving forward. If we would remain comfortable as a discipline, without changing anything because of comfort. We would have been stuck a long time ago. I think you need this kind of mentality.
How do you see the collaborations? Do you like collaborating, what do think of teamwork?
I love it! I like to collaborate, but with people who contribute to me and that I think I can contribute to them too. For example, the collaboration with Young&Ayata made me learn a lot. I think it is the kind of collaboration where every person contributes something, they are very good. Of course, not all collaborations work. Sometimes, because the word "collaboration" sounds good it seems to be all that matters, but I think we should know where, when and with whom.
For example, having worked with Young&Ayata, which obviously I admire them deeply as well. So how do you see, was it a success? At the same time, you also create a reputation, a structure in which you are considered a design person. So you know you already have that responsibility to do good projects because somehow you already have followers. You understand that there are people who "they look up to you", that is, they already expect the type of project you should be able to give, which are quality projects, a design project. Do you think about that?
Actually, I don't like to think about it. The interest in doing something good is for yourself, because of professional ethics, client ethics, and not just to maintain a standard. If it is about maintain a standard, you will be afraid to change and propose another type of project, you can get comfortable with a type and you would not be able to get out of that line.
Yes of course, that's why I ask you the question, because I consider it important, because a lot of people think, the responsibility is with myself, with my clients, with my work, and not about thinking whether my followers will like this or if my friends are going to say positive things. As you say it's a personal, ethical exercise, professional that really has nothing to do with the external pressure of generating something interesting.
I think obviously the question that if the public response is also part of the way we communicate our projects, via Instagram, and there is something fun about this. How do you see it?
I feel that above all it has to be autonomous, something that has intrinsic value, which is something that comes close to the project. That you know that when a project is good, you trust it, in its process, the decisions made, the collaboration, everything is serious. And you feel good of how it has been developed that is, there is a critical sense. So, when it comes to light, it does not cause any anxiety. Because you understand it was an honest and genuine process, that you are proud. What you said about that sense of collaboration and search, that is what keeps you current. Which becomes that problem of the architect of currency and obsolescence. What brings you to the cliché of obsolescence?
But I think it goes hand in hand what you were saying, that, if you are honest about your work, in what you are doing in your search you can avoid this problem. If you are more sensible and your work has that element of sincerity. In my opinion it can become of higher quality.
Of course I agree.
That's amazing because in the end you're doing different tests that lead you to improve as an architect.
Isaac, because I feel like we have abused your time, I would like to thank you for this interview and congratulations on all your successes. I think this is just the beginning.
Nice to be chatting with you.
Same Here! Congratulations and I hope all your projects move forward!