Rozana Montiel Studio is an architecture office that acts by parting from certain principles to turn actions into projects. Each action on behalf of this studio has the purpose of transforming, reimagining, resignifying or reactivating a particular space. Just like a book, space has many readings: by combining architecture, research and art, Rozana Montiel Studio offers an artistic re-conceptualisation of space and the public domain, seeking to generate quality spaces with multiple temporal narratives.
If architecture is a platform for expression, activation and reflection, then our ideas should come across through it. Amongst the studio’s projects, Stand Up for the Seas! is a call to action in response to the unsustainable pollution of the seas and an invitation to change our habits and our relationship with the world. On this occasion, we have the pleasure of talking to the woman behind this project herself, Rozana Montiel.
Rozana, how did your journey as an architect engaged with space and its reimagination begin?
Since I was little, I was really inspired by the idea of space and I wanted to be an artist. When I had to decide what to study, my father told me that if I liked the idea of space and art, I could combine them in architecture. And that's how I entered this field, but I never thought I would love it as much as I did. The first semesters of my studies were really difficult and a lot of people were leaving. But afterwards, the workshops were very much related to art and that's when I decided I wanted to become an architect. When I started my own practise, I said to myself: to really be worthy of having an office, we have to be constantly looking very closely to art and other disciplines. For this reason, we work with filmmakers, writers, artists along with traditional roles of architecture, such as engineers and landscape designers. It’s a lot of fun to work with all these other disciplines because I think that they bring different points of view to the product, not only the architect’s.
How has your surrounding environment conditioned your ideas as an architect and artist?
I grew up in an area in the South part of Mexico City, called El Pedregal. This was created from an amazing idea of Luis Barragán, a very famous Mexican architect. The land was covered with huge volcanic rocks and nobody paid attention to it: Barragán had the vision to transform this into a very beautiful residential area. It was the place where I played all the time as a kid. I love the volcanic rocks and the materiality of pre-hispanic constructions in Mexico. I feel that there is a very sincere approach to natural materials. Many times there's just one material, whether it's rock or stone or wood or bamboo, and we have to push it to its limits, experiment with it, rather than cover it up. So being very close to these natural environments was a big inspiration. My house was also made by the architect Diego Villaseñor. He’s an amazing architect that conducts a very profound analysis of each site he deals with, and I had the opportunity of working with him for two years after leaving school. Studying architecture and believing you can do things in a different way also greatly conditioned my ideas. You can take very simple elements, but it’s how you put all these elements together that leads to something truly extraordinary.
Your studio is founded on the principle that beauty is a social right: in your opinion, what has to change in the way architecture has been done traditionally in order to achieve this?
I believe that beauty is a social right because everybody should have beauty in in their lives. For me, beauty is about dignifying people’s lives, the place they inhabit, the public space. I believe that you don't need more financial resources to do this: it's about how you do it. When working with communities in the public spaces of housing units, many people have told me ‘We don't deserve this’. They were used to living in a certain way and when they saw what we were doing with very simple things, but with a lot of care, they were really impressed. They thought that was for rich people. There is this stigma of feeling like they don't deserve these type of spaces with beauty. I think that once you dignify the way that people live with very simple things, thus making with less the most and bringing beauty through the use of materials, space, light, they really engage and feel that they belong there. They take care of it. They feel ownership and they take care of it.
In terms of reconceptualising how we inhabit space, what is the change you envision?
To give you an example, we did a project in Ocuilan, in State of Mexico, to recover a house that had been hit by the earthquake of 2017. A single mother and her two young sons lived there, in a metal space with water leakage, no windows, no inside bathroom nor kitchen. They lived in very precarious conditions. When we re-designed this house in a very small plot, we decided to make it higher so it could have an attic, which became a room for the two kids, and a bathroom. For the roof, we used these wooden poles destined for construction sites that are very simple, but beautiful. It was really small, very simple, but it had all these elements that could change your perception of the space. One of the boys, who was seven years old at the time, was really impressed because he finally had a beautiful home. He felt proud of inviting his friends over. I once heard him say to his mother, ‘Mom, when you come in the house, please take off your shoes so we have a clean house’. Imagine how proud he was and how he wished to preserve this beauty by just taking his shoes off before he entered the house. He had taken ownership of it. He will grow with a different sense of beauty. If he was growing up in the house that he had previously, this would be very different.
Returning to the places you grew up in, how do you think these have changed your relationship and awareness of the environment more generally?
When I grew up, environmental issues were not a concern. We learned about climate change about 30-40 years ago, so we were not thinking about it yet. Now I have a daughter, she’s eleven years old, and I have seen a radical change in the world. I believe we have just started being more conscious about things, but it's never late to understand how we can transform things in a positive way. For me, the notion of sustainability has become a trend, as things are often portrayed as sustainable when this is not true. I have always been careful with that word because for me, sustainability has to do with common sense. When you build a house, it's important to have cross ventilation: because of this, you’re not going to use air conditioning, for instance. That's sustainability. I believe the ecological, is more about the logical: it is about how you order things, so you're capable of becoming conscious and resilient. Sustainability has to do not only with ecological, but also social change. In the projects we have created, being sustainable is represented by the fact that a space becomes sustainable by itself. It is about giving ownership, taking care of it, not abandoning it.
Could you tell us how your project ‘Stand Up For The Seas!’ started?
Stand Up for the Seas! is a call to action against ocean pollution. We often forget that there are no borders within the water itself, rather the names given by human constructs to different oceans according to their nearest land. Our existence depends on the health of these waters. However, every second more than 200 kg of human-generated plastic waste is thrown into the ocean. As much as 80% of all litter in our oceans is made of plastic. By 2050 if this rate of plastic pollution continues, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. If we want to offer a healthy ocean to future generations, we have to change our habits and our relationship with the world. This installation was built with recycled and recovered multifilament nets collected during the clean-up ‘faenas’ from the coasts of Mexico, to raise awareness on the magnitude of global marine pollution. Our project grinds fishing nets with PET-derived microplastics that together create a new building material: floor tiles. This installation invites the viewer to take a stance and experience what it feels like to get caught inside a fishing net. I believe it is imperative to find ways of transforming waste into a resource. ‘Stand Up For The Seas!’ is a very clear example of doing something differently: instead of throwing away the fishing nets and polluting the ocean, why don't we grind and transform them or employ these micro-plastics and macro-plastics to create new materials that can help the environment?
What is womanhood, to you?
Being a woman, for me, is to listen carefully, to take time to understand, to go underneath layers and to do a lot of research. In the projects we do, it also means to take the time to work with other disciplines. To listen to communities and not try to put our own visions, which we obviously have as architects, but rather to listen and take into account what they tell us. I work in a very horizontal way where I want all architects in the office to add something to the brainstorming of ideas. It's not a hierarchy where the architect alone is doing everything. I also think that, as women, we like to weave. As women, we have always woven since early times. Women have woven relationships, woven within the environment. I like this idea of the continuity of weaving. I always believe that these small actions done in repetition, once they are all added up, are building the city. It's not about high rises or massive buildings, but it's about small things with the potential to bring a greater change. So we're also constructing the city. This is what I see as a woman.
All images courtesy of Rozana Montiel Studio - Photographer: Sandra Pereznieto