MEXICAN WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE | Fernanda Canales, Rozana Montiel, Gabriela Carrillo

The female influence and contribution to architecture and design has always been present, driven by professional women, teachers, and clients. However, it has not always been recognized. Now that the gap between male and female professions is closing, women are beginning to receive the recognition they deserve.  

More importantly, women’s mindsets are changing and they are seeing more opportunities for themselves and their creative expression. A sense of freedom has emerged along with a new generation of intellectual, strong and confident women architects and designers around the world. 

In Latin America, which is considered a male-dominant culture, women are breaking through to the architecture scene by taking the positions they want in the field and making their voices heard. Living examples of this are these three women: Fernanda Canales, Rozana Montiel and Gabriela Carrillo, who are among Mexico’s most prominent architects. They are achieving success and gaining momentum not only in their country, but in the international scene.

Fernanda Canales

“We still need to see how cities designed by women would be like. That possibility inspires me every day,” says Mexican architect Fernanda Canales. 

Fernanda has been imagining houses in her head since she was six years old, but she still has no clear definition of what an architect is as she is always discovering something new through her professional practice. But as a continuously expanding human being and architect, she does know that she wants to build better ways of understanding cities, history, and people’s needs and desires.

Her beautiful country Mexico serves Canales as inspiration: “Working in a country with so many contrasts (social, geographical, cultural, economic…) forces [me] to focus on the inspiring nature and history we have. I try to communicate through my work the things we should be looking at and making them accessible to everyone: the paradisiac vegetation, artisan craft, great climate, rich culture and history as well as the local materials.”

Architectural Design: Fernanda Canales + Claudia Rodríguez | Project: Bruma House, 2017 | Location: Mexico State | Photography: ©Rafael Gamo

Architecture is a reflection of our thinking and imagination. When architects design with the best intentions, the buildings they create will benefit our existence. Fernanda embraces the ambiguity and social possibilities of architecture as she states: “Architecture is a wall but it is also a roof, a place that demarcates but also that invites. It has the possibility of offering both conditions: isolate and unite. That is its greatest virtue. Our future lies in the possibility of being able to build architecture that is more cohesive instead of more dividing.” 

Architectural Design: Fernanda Canales | Project: Elena Garro Cultural Center, 2012 | Location: Mexico City | Photography: ©Rafael Gamo

As the first step of her architectural process, she spends as much time as she can in the site in order to understand and feel its unique conditions. Then Canales explains: “I find some unexpected possibility that can open better ways of using and experiencing that place. I imagine myself as the user of that space and how it can improve my day in some way.”

However, Fernanda believes that a building’s life begins when her hand is removed: “The real life of a building begins when the architect is no longer in charge (in Mexico many times that occurs even at the beginning of the construction process), and it is when ideas are proven and reinterpreted. It is when architecture begins and has a life of its own.”

Architectural Design: Fernanda Canales | Project: Soma House, 2015. | Location: Mexico City | Photography: ©Rafael Gamo

Fernanda’s inspiration is simple and clear: “A love for the places we inhabit.”

Rozana Montiel

When we asked architect Rozana Montiel to introduce herself, the first words she said were: “Architecture is my life, not just a part of it. My awareness of space makes me reflect on the way we experience it. I engage the world with an active gaze, constantly on the hunt for details that make a difference. My personal experiences nurture the archive where I churn my creativity and sensitivity. My taste for art is the result of truly believing beauty is a basic right.”

Growing up in a household of art collectors, it is no wonder that since a very early age Rozana could sense the beauty around her and develop an aesthetic awareness of her surroundings. “At the age of ten, it became very natural for me to design my own room. I always had the certainty my career would be involved with art design, and I chose architecture because it had room for everything I liked,” she says. 

Mexico is a territory with many layers of memory, beliefs and materiality. For Rozana, looking on that territory with an active gaze and recreating its skylines it is a way of transforming her lived experiences of Mexico into something for the greater good. She finds formal content in context: “Reinterpreting and resignifying traditional building techniques is a mode of exploring a manifold ground. The daily experience of my city inspires me to make a difference in my social projects. Mexico City is encoded in the people, textures and objects that compose its places.”

Architectural Design: Rozana Montiel | Project: ALBINO ORTEGA HOUSE | Location: Tepoztlán, Morelos | Photography: Sandra Pereznieto

Today, there are more women architects that are recognized as great professionals in their field. On the female influence on architecture, Montiel comments: “Women weave the social fabric in a different way. As a designer, I feel like an embroiderer of cityscapes more than a planner and producer of spaces. Placemaking activates and transforms a city in ways as powerful as a skyscraper. I personally focus more on process, detail, texture, on giving a project the right time to mature; and I judge my success not by the output of brick and mortar but by the effect of the places I design. In other words, I like to linger long enough to reap the consequences of my projects. I think this is the greatest contribution of my female outlook; the story begins after delivery.”

Rozana feels that ‘placemaking’ is a detailed endeavor, and every choice she makes affects the wellbeing of those who enter the spaces she creates.Every detail counts when you seek to produce a haptic perception of space. The elements that converge in the composition of spaces—rhythm, sequence, light, proportion, materiality, movement—conform the art of habitability, the art of placemaking.” 

Architectural Design: Rozana Montiel | Project: From the Territory to the Dweller | Location: Apan, Hidalgo; Mexico | Photography: Sandra Pereznieto

She thinks that by being aware of the spaces we inhabit, we can reap the benefits:Wellbeing begins by opening the eyes of the skin, by becoming aware of our different windows of perception. My work manifests through an awareness of wellbeing.

Montiel believes that spaces take on a life of their own when they are inhabited. “I often revisit the places I build to assess how design played out, what worked and what didn’t. I like to witness how space becomes social time, civic time.”

The lack of experimentation in architecture is mostly due to cost-efficiency and budgets. Rozana believes that the solution is in combining the old and the new: “Traditional building techniques, however, can be reinterpreted by new materials; and old materials become adapted to new living conditions. I believe the symbiosis between craftsman and designer is vital to the process of imagining space,” says Rozana.

Architectural Design: Rozana Montiel + Alin V Wallach | Project: FRESNILLO PLAYGROUND | Location: Manuel M. Ponce Housing Unit, Zacatecas, Mexico | Photography: Sandra Pereznieto

Fundamentally, Montiel’s statement is that simple beauty is capable of transforming space into place; a design that provides wellbeing at home, in the street, the neighborhood, for the city and the planet at large. 

And then she adds, “Can’t we all be, do and have anything we want? The question for me is ‘Do you embrace the consequences of what you can be, do and have?’”

Gabriela Carrillo

It’s fascinating how Gabriela Carrillo is able to balance a fully successful professional and personal life. She embraces her freedom to live by choosing to have it all: “I´m Paulo´s mother, Carlos´ wife, architect, Puma (UNAM is my alma mater), a teacher at EstudioRx (research studio also based at FAunam), workaholic, obsessed with plants, ruins, landart pieces, books and Legos, principal at TALLER RochaCarrillo, passionate about silence and voidness.”

Gabriela feels that finally, we are sharing responsibility and privileges and creating conditions of equality. Her perspective of success is just a choice of doing what she loves: “I fight every day for things I believe I deserve to embrace my happiness.”             

Carrillo defines architecture as “an articulator between humans and the world, always becoming immeasurable, infinite and intangible because of the virtues that proportions, measures and rhythm provide, but with the deconstruction that light, gloom, shadow and reflect can provoke. Architectural practice connects us to many places through theoretical reflection, academia or praxis. In any scenario, it allows us to address the crisis, vulnerability and also the opportunity to think proactively and critically.” 

Architectural Design:Taller | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo | Project: Center for the blind and visually impaired | Location: Iztapalapa, Mexico City. Mexico | Photographer: Luis Gordoa

Talking about her native country of beautiful Mexico, she says: “It is impossible to avoid being inspired by the sacredness of the Cuadrángulo de las Monjas or by the complexity of a ¨Relleno Negro¨ ashes taste. Provocation is a great source for suggesting ideas.”  

The context of the location, usage, culture, people and many other elements influence the process for creative expression of each architectural project. Generally speaking, these are the key components during the design process to manifest the results Gabriela envisions: “The site, especially with the things that are not easily seen, appear once you´ve stopped to observe. The inhabitant and the programming of the project which is already part of the proposal. At last but not least the ideas that I want to pursue and explore. Those decisions will guide the process.”

Gabriela feels quite anxious, when it comes to design. She immerses herself in reading books and seeing images of spaces that excite her: “I often draw the site and its topography to dissect it and scale it to my eyes. The more information I have, the more freedom I feel to propose things. Then I start drawing again and again until I feel I am saying something.”

Architectural Design: Taller | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo | Project: Deans building school of comercial banking | Location: Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico | Photographer: Rafael Gamo

She aims to evoke the same ecstasy that she feels when she discovers something new. “Good architecture is silent and powerfully provocative.”

The Mexican architect feels the magic begins when the project is completed. Unexplained things begin to happen and that’s where Gabriela starts learning for the next project. It is also important for her to understand what we call “tradition” and why it makes sense to preserve it: “Here is historical and material wisdom that we cannot condemn to oblivion, but take advantage of it and make it an accomplice of the present and future.”

She thinks that it is fundamental to feed the daily life of the things that we are passionate about, to give them quality time and to recognize in the simplest actions the deepest echoes.

Architectural Design: Taller | Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo | Project: The Bathrooms Location: Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico | Photographer: Mauricio Rocha

And that is exactly what Gabriela is doing by leaving a better human environment for the next generation… and for her son.

Header Photo: ©Rafael Gamo