Interview with Mariana Flores García.
Mariana Flores García – Mariana.
Alfonso Arias Martínez – Alfonso.
Gabriel Esquivel – Gabriel.
Alfonso: Good afternoon, thank you very much for your time and willingness to collaborate with the magazine, if you will allow me I would like to share with you an introduction about our work; AGENCIA magazine seeks to bring information in an accessible way to Mexican society and encourage them to participate in the decision-making regarding their living space and well-being. We want to expand the importance of architecture and urbanism in their everyday. In that sense the fact that you share your work is important to us. We would like you to share with us some of your history, what is your background? What is your perspective in architecture? How do you use the tools you have gained to be able to develop professionally and work with society?
Mariana: A pleasure to be here and participate with AGENCIA magazine and with you. Above all, because when we talk about architecture there is always a lot to say, whether from the field of design, architecture itself, urbanism, interior design and technology, architecture is present everywhere and, in all contexts, and as you said, the issue of health and well-being is of immediate and primordial importance throughout the world. Within the conditions of confinement, we have been able to visualize the fact that this well-being is directly aligned to the design of our environments, not only to the scale of housing, but also in public space and the city itself that has been transformed, almost immediately as a way of reacting to this pandemic due to the creation of other needs, but with certain dynamics that are permanently a factor of change.
How did I become interested on this topic of architecture, and talk a little bit about me? I currently reside in the city of Zacatecas, Mexico. My architecture training at the undergraduate level was at the Autonomous University of Durango. At the postgraduate level, I completed a master's degree in architectural design at the La Salle Bajío University, in León Guanajuato, I did another master's degree in the rehabilitation coefficient of buildings and neighborhoods from the University of Seville in Spain, a doctorate in architecture focused on housing at the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas and a second doctorate in architecture in the line of housing and contemporary habitat at the University of Seville with industrial focus.
In the academic field I have collaborated with various institutions at the bachelor's, master’s, and doctoral levels, among which the Tecnológico de Monterrey in the Zacatecas, Guadalajara and Querétaro campi stand out. I have also collaborated with various institutions in the field of gerontology, touching on important issues due to the demands of an aging population looking at them from an environmental gerontology and in an interdisciplinary way, which has strongly developed in recent years. On the professional side, I work in the public sector since 2006, in project design focused on equipment and services, public space, mobility, development of masterplans at the state level, and above all actively participating within the federation of architects in the line of architecture, housing, accessibility and gender. As of this year (2021) I oversee the National Institute of Architecture and Urbanism of the federation, which is focused on a modality of "think tank" or "ideas lab", in which we will be working on issues of technology and innovation applied to future scenarios for the period of 2030-2050, which are some of the directions that we have to face in front of the global agendas. Very briefly, this is what we have been working on.
Alfonso: Without a doubt Mariana you have been extremely proactive, innovative in a knowledge-generating career, could you tell us about your experience in the professional environment regarding the issue of gender? To be a woman architect in Mexico, has it represented any challenge to overcome or led to opportunities?
Mariana: In general, even in these times we continue to venture into a discipline in which males predominate, this has not been easy, but I believe that opportunities always exist. The issue with gender is that as women, we can influence our profession, not only from the university training itself (which currently it is equally taught between men and women in all universities), beyond making a distinction, men and women have access to the same education, later on the job opportunities to some extent are similar, especially because we already have new fields of study, new areas of development, postgraduate training is also taught with equal gender participation, but there are still some particularities from the social spheres, especially when we assume certain roles such as supporting a family or having children, but I still think that as women we have the possibilities to influence the professional world.
In my career, I have always worked with men more than with women, but so far I have not experienced any complications, on the contrary, I think I have been lucky enough to be a participant in mixed working groups, with the same opportunities and also with the same possibility of contributing, which depends a lot on the groups themselves, currently in the federation we are more or less, 50% men and 50% women, at different levels; national, regional and local, you will find many women who are very active. So, the gender issue I visualize it in two ways, one is the professional performance and another in the sensitive part about the conditions that we currently have in our cities, in homes or in equipment and service. We have different demands for example, in public transportation there is a greater exposure to risk because we move with our children, so when the professional practice part talks about gender, it has to identify these sensitive aspects that have to do with the design of the environment and the city.
Alfonso: I certainly think that this has allowed you to be part of innovative studies that seek to help the majority, so I remember an occasion when you talked to me about "Biophilia in architecture", tell us What is biophilia in architecture? What is its historical context? What is its theoretical basis? What are the areas of opportunity that biophilia offers in Mexico?
Mariana: Of course, biophilic design or biophilia emerged in the 70's, as a movement from environmental psychology that is related to the emotions generated by natural environments. If we talk about an etymological definition, it means the love of nature that in a certain way is already part of our own being, that is, when we go to a natural space (such as a forest or a beach) where we are surrounded by natural elements, we have a feeling of well-being. When we become aware of these emotions and what they generate, this is when we can make a translation into an architectural language. As architects, we seek for the creation of a series of experiences generated by a designed space. The movement itself, is not new, it has had some moments of boom and then decrease as a fashionable tenure, however, what has happened in recent years (especially in this pandemic) is the awareness about the need to have more efficient and more sustainable environments or of minimal environmental impact, We looked into resources such as nature not only to mitigate the stress factors, but to increase the level of comfort outside (in public space) and inside (in buildings).
Biophilic design has different scales of application, if we talk about interior design, we can talk about resources for the integration of certain natural analogies, when we talk about public space, we find the integration of equipment (such as bus stops with green roofs or green walls) that beyond generating mixed uses as points of coexistence and interaction could be quite interesting. I learned about biophilic design thanks to my research topic referring to aging (my doctoral thesis has to do with environmental gerontology), in which one of the most emphasized aspects by this research is green infrastructure. So when we talk about green infrastructure and biophilic design we must point out a difference, because biophilic design can include emotional aspects, identification and appropriation of space, to do this, it relies on green infrastructure but understanding that it is not only to plant a tree, but to be aware of what happens there, what emotions that green space generates, what it means at the city and community level and beyond that. It contributes to improve environmental conditions at this time in which we are in the middle of a climate change crisis.
Alfonso: Thank you Mariana, could you also talk about what tools does biophilia use to perform transdisciplinary links or jumps? You talked about perception, environmental psychology, stimulations that are usually let us say somehow more anthropological. How do you make these epistemological equivalences to architecture? And how are they expressed through design?
Mariana: Sure. When we talk about biophilic design we have some structured and categorized resources, such as the so-called biophilic design patterns that arise from the language of Christopher Alexander in the 70's and that were later rescued in contemporary architecture through semiotics, in such a way that there is always a message, a kind of signal that we give through architecture and that allows us to generate sensations, within the framework of biophilic design these sensations are potentiated precisely by a series of resources that are identified by the level of interaction with the environment.
On the one hand, we have the urban scale, for example in the urban parks, we can have a direct interaction through the view, the colors or the smell coming from some types of plants, we could have non-visual stimuli when we have certain textures so to speak, that are contributing directly with the interventions and integration of green elements that multiply these series of experiences compared to another green space without this type of design.
Within these resources there are a series of patterns (14 patterns) from as I said before, the studies of Christopher Alexander and since 2014 they were reinterpreted and implemented into biophilic design in order to generate strategies to carry out intervention projects categorized with respect to the level of interaction, the first one according to a direct interaction with nature, it is experience that we have when we go to a forest and we are in contact with the elements, the indirect connection to the stimuli created by sounds such as water or birds or the smells that we can perceive without being in direct contact with lavenders but that do generate environmental stimuli, and finally the third category refers to the experiences derived from the interrelationship of the two previous categories, these experiences can give us a feeling of well-being, security, relaxation etc., or quite the opposite for example if it is a neglected green area perhaps the feeling that causes us is that of insecurity.
This design criteria can be applied to interior space, urban scale, street or community scale and these are always associated to the fact that they are integrating elements related to these natural design patterns so that they can allude to those sensations we are seeking to generate, an example of this is the use of wood or stone, reflecting pools or green facades (which are also considered as resources of environmental control and pollution reduction) and that are much kinder to the image of the city, especially when we have very deteriorated areas, these facades are an interesting resource for urban regeneration issues.
Alfonso: Of course, It caught my attention the part where you mention that biophilic design is a contribution that is based on validated resources, this is quite important. I would like to know about what is the role of digital technology in biophilia? Considering that this resource is quite decisive in the contemporary context of architecture.
Mariana: It is a very interesting question, for biophilic design we can have technological applications at any of the spatial scales I mentioned before, the city, community and interior space. Thanks to the development of certain simulation platforms, we can, for example, have indicators of heat islands, indicators of areas that require some kind of environmental conditioning, in public space sometimes there are no shaded areas or there are built areas devoid of vegetated elements where the heat gain is very intense. These simulations allow us to propose how to mitigate all these with elements such as green roofs, or in the streets where the temperatures are so high that you cannot spend more than an hour under the sun because it is unlivable by the amount of heat that radiates from the pavement and sidewalks. We can propose some materials that reduce radiation and are different from those commonly used in the public space, also integrate vegetation to balance these environmental aspects, all can be measured with the use of technology.
On the other hand, there are also applicable technologies such as solar energy accumulation devices for example, for energy transformation issues and that can be applied as alternative energy resources, and when we talk about the interior space, there are also softwares to measure comfort levels, such as lighting, acoustic or temperature control, and through biophilic design we can propose elements of easy maintenance and a pleasant aesthetic due to the familiarity we already have with the elements coming from natural environments.
Gabriel: Mariana, I would like to ask you a question, within these biophilic spheres, at what point is the term ecology used? How do you go from nature to the ecological and from there to the awakening of a consciousness to be proactive with solutions regarding global warming? What are the steps for adapting urban and domestic space in terms of solutions to the problem of climate change?
Mariana: I think this is very interesting question, especially because there are social and design movements at a global level such as green cities, Ecological Urbanism, the Network of Biophilic Cities for example, or the use of the term sustainability that we almost automatically associate with green infrastructure.
The distinction is that biophilia allows the inhabitants to appropriate the space and generate actions at a user scale, usually these strategies can be implemented in different cities at a global level according to their regulations and public policies or actions that have to do with the relationship of government institutions and their inhabitants. The Network of Biophilic Cities is seeking for a responsible and committed participation of the city or the citizenry. As designers, we can propose a project with lots of potential from the governmental sphere but if the citizens do not commit to the project, it fails because there is no feeling of appropriation or committed care, therefore it looks for a way to make the inhabitants become co-participants of these actions with the understanding that this will lead them to a benefit in a time frame of medium to long term.
Usually something that I have seen in the professional area is that as designers we think that the park will be fabulous because the project has elements for the community, however the community does not know about until it begins to live in it and only after they experience it, it is when the appropriation happens or not. Beyond understanding the proposal there may be a certain feeling of rejection because as a community they do not feel part of these projects, that is why much of what biophilic design does is to encourage us to have community participation and that it is a co-design process so that the project has a more of a projection prospect and even the maintenance or reactivation of the spaces is led by the initiative of the community.
Alfonso: Of course, and I think it is part of the next topic that I would like to address. How does biophilia democratize an improvement in the quality of life? You mention some tools like public policies and other similar ones, but how is the relationship designer-user that biophilia recommends? In a direct way, what are the tools that the biophilic designer uses to talk to the neighbors?
Mariana: I think the most important principle at this time is to understand that for biophilia or for green cities it is not enough that you have a green space, this green space should be part of the city dynamics, one of the biggest challenges as I mentioned before, is that the community gets involved not only as a user of the experiences on the day by day basis but from the decision-making perspective where the educational factor is extremely important. We must educate ourselves as a society to first understand and respect the environment, have respect for the non-human species that are part of our ecosystem and understand that we are also part of that ecosystem,. At a global level there are a series of strategies that seek to generate this awareness and the idea is to be active on this matter. An important challenge is also for institutional collaboration, through government entities, society and civil associations, guilds of disciplines, only together we can really achieve that common goal (gradually, this is how it has been developed).
Precisely with the International Network of Biophilic Cities and others we have been working at the Tec of Monterey and the University of Virginia, a lot of work has been done with the social aspect, for these environments where nature is seen from the biophilic point of view, it can be a critical resource to strengthen the social fabric, as well as the normative and political framework will be aligned with these actions.
It happens a lot within the institutions, it is common to see a disarticulation, for example, of the organisms that are dedicated to the care of the environment with those that are dedicated to the infrastructure when in some way they go hand in hand, there is a weird competition.
Gabriel: How do we achieve this awareness at the community level about the demanding need to change the view of the human being as the “center”, a vision that is destroying the planet, and begin to have a vision of inclusivity of the non-human factors with which we co-exist on the same planet? The transformation of anthropocentrism into ecocentrism is so necessary.
Mariana: I think that this reflection is vital because I think we just started to realize that the resources are not at our disposal, that is, because of the abuse of these resources we began to see a water crisis, we began to see dramatic changes in the ecosystems such as the melting of glaciers and places with huge droughts, that makes us wonder what is happening? We are not doing things right! A remarkably interesting example is that in this context of the pandemic not everything has been bad, quite positive things have happened such as how pollution levels went down when factories stopped production for two months and by reducing the use of cars. We saw how at the end of the day, life continued, we found other ways of doing things which shows that finally what is needed is to generate awareness. We talk about sustainability as a nice term or definition to ensure survival in conditions suitable for future generations, but we are not aware of what it implies. So, when we talk about resources and the revaluation of the environment, we talk about generating new healthier lifestyles with less environmental impact, with more awareness. We inevitably return to the educational factor and the cultural topic, how we are becoming familiar with what it means to demand healthy environments, not only in short goals such as not consuming meat for two weeks. No! This becomes futile, we need to see it as a permanent change of life and habits.
Gabriel: Of course, this is what is called "green washing", doing seemingly sustainable things in an uncompromising way, but the critical dates, the dates that are being handled, the limit to 2050, personally terrify me because this is actually profoundly serious. I don’t want to get into politics, but if it's worth noting that in Mexico there's been political direction at the federal level against this situation, it's been directed more towards the reuse of non-renewable energy and other measures that for me are totally backwards in this regard. When the political disposition goes against the environment, how can the country recover from these issues? How does this affect the work of people like you and the work of those groups that are struggling to counter the environmental crisis?
Mariana: I think that beyond creating a discussion regarding politics, but if it is our reality, unfortunately the actions at the federal government have not been the most successful ones, but I believe that one way to influence these conditions is to generate actions at the local level. When there are no actions in the communities at the local level we can have a president who is totally akin to these sustainability policies, but if people do not really understand it, we will not be able to do anything, I think the idea is to start there, and it happens a lot (I think this is important to mention) this fashion of the "green label", that is, not everything that has a green label is sustainable, absolutely not! And we see this a lot in the field of construction and architecture, because we feel great that we bought a prefabricated material that has the green label and is recyclable, but what was the environmental cost of bringing it from Germany? How much did it cost to bring it from the other side of the world? And that means that any value it could have for sustainability is gone.
You have to understand that the construction processes, and materiality have a lot to do with the concepts of recycling and circular economy, but you have to understand also that these processes go beyond having a finished product and this happens in everything. Once again when we talk about a green space of biophilic design in the city, this is not going to be successful if you place it without criteria, you need to involve people, you need them to be part of the project and that obviously this in a collaborative work (where there are resources for it) the result can be richer than the vision of a single planner.
Alfonso: Mariana, expanding what you mentioned and according to your experience. What are the points or situations from which biophilia should be protected? Example the fall into commodification, green washing, or that the improvements that biophilia can generate in an area of the city could become an index of exclusivity and privilege, which would eventually prevent it from improving the quality of life of the complete population.
Mariana: Ok, I think the most complicated thing once again is to understand it, we can go to the global agendas, particularly goal 11 which is "Sustainable and Resilient Cities and Communities" (UN, 2020) where, the concept or the name tells you a lot but, how do you bring it to the city at the community scale? And it also happens with the Network of Biophilic Cities, if we do not understand what there is behind the concept and their dynamics, we will hardly be able to translate it to the local level successfully. We can find movements and even with an extremely attractive "green" market, a market from which we are not exempt from this awareness of the impacts of each action, we can decide if something is viable or not. From the issue of decision-making in the public sphere, but also in the private sector, where we see many housing projects that the least they do is meet with the qualitative demands for housing, they meet the” numbers” as a priority, but not to the core of what housing is. We see it also with the equipment and services, part of these real estate developments where eventually the green space is an added value or left to a residual area that is not buildable and that does not represent an economic value. We have to change these schemes, we must change these initiatives because if in fact quality of life is sold, it should be to the fullest extent of the word and not just as a marketing concept.
Alfonso: This is a huge challenge, and the demands are urgent and displaced by economic interests. To change the bad taste in our mouths a little. I would like you to tell us about the great areas of opportunity when adopting the biophilia. What could we expect from adopting this way of designing cities and communities according to society and nature?
Mariana: Biophilia offers us a very wide range of possibilities, again when we talk about stimulating environments. I believe that we have never felt before this level of risk and vulnerability in our environment. Now with that feeling we look for safe spaces, we look for spaces of well-being, of security, that we are not going to expose ourselves to unwanted situations and nature provides that by itself, without having to do anything else. At the end, I also emphasize that there are resources that we can immediately acquire, we all want to acquire a home with green areas, we want to have a tree where we can read, it was common to hear from our parents and grandparents about having a place where they could have an orchard to grow their own food, this is where this idea of urban gardens comes from.
The point of all this is that we can provide information in a relatively simple way, all people should participate which is one of the main benefits that we can have with these design strategies (I call them that, design strategies).
In some of the projects that we are now developing in Mexico through the Tecnológico de Monterrey, they deal with the participation of the community like the university campus, these campi go beyond the extension of land that they have within the city, they also become entities of certain dynamics for the student environment that affect the adjoining areas. Biophilic design seeks in this context that these dynamics between residents and students can be reinforced with a common language through nature therefore new actions could be added, which I insist, these actions at a particular level that can also have projections in the medium and long term.
I emphasize the educational aspect, of informing the community so that it knows that it is collaborating to achieve an immediate a general and personal well-being obtained through nature, which is fantastic! But on a larger scale such as the city scale, look for this level of awareness. Biophilia can give us many lines of progress to meet these demands of development and well-being on a global scale.
Alfonso: This was incredible Mariana, really, this information is invaluable and without a doubt whoever can access this interview will see in it something that encourages them to participate and share. One of our goals as AGENCIA is to achieve that this number of people becomes the largest possible, thank you very much.
Gabriel: Thank you very much Mariana, we also know that you work with more issues related to aging and health, you have the knowledge about all these urgent crises, the ones we want people to be aware of. We appreciate your participation in this issue of AGENCIA and we leave the door open for you to share more information about your work and research. Thanks again.
Mariana: Count on it. Thank you very much.
Doctor of Architecture from the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, Doctor in Architecture in Housing and contemporary habitats from the University of Seville, Spain, she obtained the First price of Industrial Doctorate in Architecture by the International University of Doctoral Studies of the University of Seville, she was also awarded the University Prize 2020 "Lic. Natividad Garza Leal" to the highest quality doctoral thesis by the UAT. Master in Eco-efficient Rehabilitation of Buildings and Neighborhoods by the University of Seville, master’s in architectural design by the Universidad la Salle Bajío, and bachelor’s degree in Architecture by the Autonomous University of Durango Campus Zacatecas.
Director of the National Institute of Architecture and Urbanism of the National Executive Committee 2021-2022 (CEN) of the Federation of Colleges of Architects of the Mexican Republic (FCARM).
International collaborator for the Research Group of the Master in Rehabilitation and energy eco-efficiency of the U. of Seville. She is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Smart Infrastructures and Smart Cities at University Tech Engineering International School, Mexico & Universidad Cardenal CEU Herrera, Valencia, Spain.
Consultant and Guest Researcher at BURO DAP (Office of Development + Architecture + Planning), International Organization of cooperation and consulting for sustainable urban development in cities of the southern globe, with presence in Asia (India), Latin America (Colombia), USA (Montana) and Mexico. (2019-)
Thematic Honorary Expert Advisor on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focused on the Urban 2030 Agenda to promote a Sustainable Development, legal innovation, and the empowerment of people, in LEED-NET advisory group.
IDA international certificate as expert in Accessibility Mexico-LATAM. Coordinator of Design and Analysis of Infrastructure and Public Works Projects in the Secretariat of Public Works of the Government of the State of Zacatecas, Mexico. Guest Member as a Counselor in Region II of the FCARM, in the Commissions of Women Architects and Accessibility. Research Professor at UNADE American University of Europe and tutor in the Doctorate in Projects, Doctorate in Education and Doctorate in Business Psychology.
Her lines of research are related to topics of environmental gerontology and sustainable environments for older adults, design and accessibility of housing and neighborhood, rehabilitation and energy eco-efficiency, sustainability, public space and city, biophilic design and regenerative design, including publications in high-impact scientific journals in national and international media.