Future Visions

Transforming architecture into an act of care with Tatiana Bilbao



Housing is a human right – but who is it designed for, and what power structures does it support? 

In La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home), the 2022–23 MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission designed by Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao and her studio for the National Gallery of Victoria, Bilbao subverts the domestic space to raise conversations about unpaid labour, gender politics, sustainability and care, and the way homes have become spaces shaped by capitalism and power. Here, Assemble’s Ingrid Langtry speaks with Bilbao about the role of architects and the built environment in forming social connections, communities and home.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Installation view of Tatiana Bilbao’s La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home), 2022 in the MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission: Tatiana Bilbao exhibition on display from 6 October 2022 – 29 January 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Kate Shanasy.

Ingrid Langtry: How did the installation come together? Because it was very powerful but reflects many disparate disciplines. I’d love to know how it happened.

Tatiana Bilbao: The NGV staff invited my studio to do a commission. They accepted it immediately, but also I think they really thought of it as a design piece. For me and my studio, that doesn’t exist. We are not designers. We’re thinkers and we are building the world, and we build a world with thought. So, that’s what we do and that’s what we did.

IL: How has your background, as someone who comes from a family of architects, informed your practice and how you think about buildings and housing? 

TB: Well, I think it was fundamental, but mostly it was not because of my family being architects, it was being who they were. My grandfather1 was an architect, but he was a politician as well, and he escalated in his political jobs because of his true beliefs in the public good and in a communal, collective way of living. I think that absolutely determined my way of thinking.

He was very aware of the responsibility the architecture represented. Maybe not in these words, but he really believed that. I think that he was always concerned with the fact that architecture provides a very basic form of care, and he was always very conscious about the power of architecture, of shaping lives. He worked drastically for the public good, for social housing, for affordable housing

IL: I like this idea of the architect as the activist for the common good, and the responsibility of architecture to address social needs in the community. 

TB: Yeah. I believe also that we really should be able to start to think much more about the architecture rather than the architect. I think someone that endeavours to do architecture has a huge responsibility, but I think we should understand that it’s not necessarily only about who has the title of architect.

IL: That’s an interesting concept, because the architect is just a single person that has a single output, but buildings are usually for people.

TB: The buildings, first of all, are not done by an architect. They’re done by a series of people. But also, I think that we need to start thinking about architecture as a platform for human life. Architects tend to think that only two percent of the world is designed by architects. I’m like, No. Maybe it would be better to think about how we can become part of the other 98 percent because that’s how the world is built.

IL: Yeah, I agree – built by people who really think about it in collaboration.

 I’m fascinated with this idea that the work that you do actually elevates and brings respect to domestic chores and the hidden work, which I just really loved in the exhibition. How did this focus first emerge in your practice and your studio?

TB: I think this is really the core of everything we should be talking about. We live in a moment in society where the notion that to exist, we need to produce, has become an unequivocal statement. The only way you can exist today on this planet is with money. And we have been dispossessed of all the mediums that provide us with our basic needs – the land to grow our food and to provide water, and the land that provides us with the materials that would provide us with shelters. Without those, we need to produce in order to have water, food and shelter. There’s no escape.

I still hope that there is something that really allows us to change the way we are inhabiting this planet. But how can we transform from a society of production to a society of reproduction, which is what we need first?

Architecture cannot do it all. I mean, the fastest change would be if reproductive and care labour were recognised as important, and were paid for as such. That would transform the economy. But that is something that doesn’t depend on architecture. It’s a systemic change that is very hard, and it’s not going to happen overnight, if it happens at all. 

So, what can we do? I mean, as architects, we should be more responsible. Today, the model of a house, the model of a bench, the model of a lamp, the model of everything we’re producing, the model of the bathroom, the model of the kitchen – everything we’re producing responds and enables and fuels that society of production. It doesn’t enable change. Because architecture itself does not recognise the fact that we need that reproductive and care labour to exist. 

Installation view of Tatiana Bilbao’s La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home), 2022 in the MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission: Tatiana Bilbao exhibition on display from 6 October 2022 – 29 January 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Kate Shanasy.

So, I think that what we have to do is to understand how to create spaces for those things to be recognised and to be done in a different way. By not having spaces that recognise those activities, we are not allowing them to happen in any other manner – we are actually promoting individualisation.

Collectivity is something that architecture has suppressed. We have pursued an architecture that has completely surrendered to the paradigm of production –  every structure really responds to this mode of existence.

My proposal is that everybody should rethink where we live and how we live in order to introduce more of these places that could become platforms for these social changes. I’m not saying that when we do these spaces, society will change, but for sure it will be much easier. 

As an example, when the pandemic came, I was one of those very, very privileged persons in the world who was able to stay home. But I also had the problems of that privilege, which was having to do reproductive care and productive labour at the same time. I live in a building of six units. I thought, this is perfect, let’s make a bubble, and let’s share the work. But then I thought, okay, but how do we cook in my one-and-a-half-metre-long kitchen? Ok, maybe we don’t cook for everybody. Maybe we can take care of the kids, and we do turns. But there’s no room. Okay, well maybe the laundry. But how do I do the laundry for the whole building in my eight-kilo machine? It turned out to just be, “Guys, I’m going to the supermarket. Anyone want something?” That was it. I really wanted to share the work and to make it more sustainable for everybody. But it was not possible, because our buildings don’t have the spaces to do that – which is my point.

With this idea in mind, how can we provide a real platform for these activities to start happening in a much more sustainable way, which is communal? I mean, that’s really how it works: it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to sustain a productive society. Right now, it takes a village of women spread all over the world, mostly alone, isolated. Well, let’s put them together and make something happen.

IL: I spent a lot of time at the NGV commission just standing there looking at it all, reading the messages on the fabric and thinking about the women that stitched them together or maybe some men, and the effort and the time taken.

TB: Yeah, there were men. But every conversation revolved around women regardless who was making those textiles. Because we asked people to speak about who cared for their clothes, and everybody ended up talking about mothers and grandmothers and women in their lives. 

So I also think it’s urgent to have this conversation around reproductive care and labour. We are talking about equality, and we want women to work exactly the same as men. But who’s going to care for those men to be productive and for the children coming up and for the elderly growing old? Who’s going to take care of them if we all work the same way? There’s no way of doing it. That’s what has happened: for every woman breaking the glass ceiling, there’s a racialised woman sweeping the floor because we have not really been able to speak about care and about who cleans the mess.

IL: It is a gender issue, along with many other elements.

TB: It’s really a societal issue. That’s the thing. If we don’t talk about care, we cannot talk about equality, about gender equality, about gender differences. 

IL: It really is. We don’t often hear of ‘care’ talked about as a concept in a studio that thinks about design and how they can bring care to the work. How does this work in your studio? Is it something that you talk about? Is it something that is one of your principles? How does this work?

TB: It’s been a process. When I left university around 25 years ago2, I really thought, I must have been sleeping the whole time, because I didn’t think, I can build anything for anybody right now. Many years later, I understood that it wasn’t insecurity, it was simply very difficult for me to understand how someone could build something for someone else. So I started trying to understand how to create an architecture that could be a platform for anybody to create their own existence. I was working a lot on understanding how to open channels to make more affordable places for everybody, and building spaces that would not only become platforms for everybody to create their own lives, but also to enhance their lives in a very broad sense of the world. 

Tatiana Bilbao. Photo: Josh Robenstone

And then, I understood that, really, trying to solve the problems created by the current system was the problem. We have to start thinking about domestic space from a completely different view. We really need to transform things from the core, and the thing is that the city that we need to be building is a city of care, not the productive city that we are building now.

Even with social housing, we’re reinforcing the productive city, because people are still expected to produce. And to produce is to exploit. The system currently relies on the exploitation of everything – of natural resources and people. These are finite. So, we need to really find another system. That’s making me happy that we need to find another system. I hope to find a sustainable one. And if we base our system in care, we don’t need to exploit anybody, and we don’t need to exploit the planet. We don’t need to exploit anybody else. We just need to grow up. 

We need to understand that everybody needs a place to create their own life, but that nobody has the same life as the other one. It’s not about being standardised, homogenised, and any new understanding really needs to understand those aspects of care and reproductive growth.

I mean, in every corner of the world, you could ask a kid what their ideal house was and they would most likely drop the same drawing as someone in the middle of the United States, even if they didn’t come from the same culture, or there wasn’t the same weather, or there wasn’t the same social configuration. But everybody decides to do something the same way, because it’s something that is recognised as modern progress by the media, by society, by the law, by the financial system, everything.

The current model of housing really does not allow anyone to exist in their own way, not even us who might have been born within that culture. In my case, I feel that the bathroom should be a place for encounters, for family growth, for intimacy, for beautiful exchanges. But where? In this closet that you have with no windows? I mean, why? But someone else might love it.

I mean, I really think that we should really understand that life is not able to be defined by a specific system of functions. That only freezes the possibility of no one but capital. Life is a process, and architecture should allow us to do that. But by now, architecture has completely surrendered to capital and it responds to that, not to human lives. 

IL: What interventions can we bring into the public realm and the built form where we could really design this scaffold for social connection? And also, how can we build meaningful communities where people actually feel like they really do belong and have this sense of belonging and pride in their place?

TB: First of all, I think that the most interesting way of building a community is when they build their own space to live, the way they see it. That needs to come from the people who inhabit that place. And the whole process of designing their own space becomes a bonding process. That is how a community is built.

I visited a project in Austria, in Vienna, where the core process of forming the community and creating the basis of their understanding and the design took seven years. They said: “It took us sometimes three days to decide the colour of the windows. But now, we have such a strong community that we have never had an argument that progresses to a point where there is no degree of understanding.” 

And I think that that is the most sustainable way of creating communities. They really have formed an amazing community. But the most important thing, I think, is that they really built their space. I would say that having communal spaces, allowing the architecture not to be efficient, making spaces for encounters to happen, really allows these relationships to emerge. 

Right now, we build efficient buildings to get you to your apartment the fastest way, encountering the fewest number of neighbours in your way, because that reduces conflict. But that really makes it impossible to feed relationships the way they need to be fed, to exist and grow. Relationships come from conflicts and resolutions. And if we can understand that, then we can understand how to create a community, both physically and socially.

  1. Tatiana Bilbao’s grandfather was Tomás Bilbao, an architect and politician who was a minister of urban development for the government of the Second Spanish Republic until they lost the Spanish Civil War.
  2. Bilbao studied Architecture and Urbanism at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, graduating in 1996.