“Architecture, city, and activism” are the words that define Taller ACÁ, an emerging practice led by Jorge Villatoro and Hans Schwarz in Guatemala City. Among their projects are the Tiny House Quinn and the Community Center Plantando Semillas, which were recently selected as the winners of the Danta Awards at the 2023 Guatemala Architecture Biennial. In the following conversation, Villatoro and Schwarz provide detailed insights into their inspirations, working processes, and future projections for architecture, both in the country and in Central America.
Fabian Dejtiar (FD): How does Taller ACÁ operate? What is it like to work in Guatemala?
Hans Schwarz (HS): Guatemala is a complex context, particularly in terms of urban dynamics surrounding each project. Gradually, we have been witnessing how architecture recognizes its active role within the city. I believe that the challenges of the projects we undertake are to increasingly and effectively contribute to this context. Currently, we are around 14 people, mostly young and talented architects. The projects we undertake are always oriented towards people, and we aim to consistently contribute to these urban dynamics and the immediate context.
Jorge Villatoro (JV): Over seven years ago, we formed a partnership primarily driven by a shared vision. We named the company ACÁ, with the idea of valuing local elements and recognizing that we work here, in this context. I think what makes working in Guatemala and the region exciting are all the challenges that Central America has faced. North America and South America may be mentioned, but Central America seems somewhat forgotten as if it is still waiting to be discovered, and for us, it is a world of its own. Reclaiming the legacy that has been present for a long time is an important task because we have had good architectural references. However, these have not been acknowledged for a long time.
FD: Speaking of references, which ones would be significant for you?
JV: The pre-Hispanic architecture, which should influence us significantly, and also the Spanish architecture, which left us a good legacy. I think Guatemala also had its classical period that we still remember, marked by a significant portion of modernism. We have the Civic Center and these references that involved plastic arts and public space. I believe the most prominent reference is Efraín Recinos, the author of the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center, and others like Jorge Montes, Carlos Haeussler, and Raúl Minondo. It’s worth acknowledging them and understanding how far they went because, in the end, it’s a reference that they are passing on to our generation, and now we also have to pass it on to the next generation.
HS: Jorge and I met while working at the municipality, specifically in the urban planning unit called ‘urbanística‘, which experienced a period of significant growth and continues to engage in interesting public space projects. We had the opportunity to collaborate with other individuals who have become mentors for us, and from whom we learned a great deal through a dynamic of constant collaboration. Here, we gained a deeper understanding of the role of public architecture and the importance of public space. This was something we carried with us and have consistently tried to keep very present in what we do.
FD: For you, what does contemporary architecture in Guatemala look like?
JV: It is responding to the market, but at the same time, it is seeking to have a discourse, a voice. From there, we aim to stand out by embodying many of the local values. I think this is an opportunity. Guatemala likely faces a lot of scarcity, much poverty in some places, and I believe our work has been a response to that. We are alongside other colleagues as well, who I think contribute to the construction of the country. And I believe contemporary architecture is in progress. It’s under construction.
HS: It’s really a matter of the words you choose to convey things because when we talk about market logic, we’re also talking about understanding the needs and aspirations of the people. Some might say they are consumers, others might say they are citizens, but working for these same people is something interesting. The market is changing and is now seeking a better city. What used to be large walls now aspire to be large windows, and what used to prioritize vehicular entrances now translates into broader sidewalks. But ultimately, we understand the logic of the market, the logic of users, and of citizens. So, yes, in the same way, if we think about contemporary architecture, Guatemala is under construction.
FD: How does this translate into your work process? What is the day-to-day like in the office?
HS: It is reflected in the space we have. The idea of the space is that we don’t have fixed places; we have flexible spaces. You can sit according to who you are working with. Each project has its own team. We aim for the talent present in the workshop today to contribute their strengths to each process. We are very clear that we all have different personalities with completely different profiles, but that’s what makes a project much richer, and the best projects in the workshop are when we truly manage to combine all the strengths. This comes only from the richness of working collaboratively, and I believe that all the projects that go through here benefit a bit from those multiple perspectives.
JV: Naming ourselves as a workshop reminds us that we are not an office in the traditional sense—impersonal and rigid. It reminds us of an experience in which we can open up plans, sketch freely. It’s worth mentioning that we work on two fronts, not in the sense that one is the creative and the other is the financial, but rather, we often find ourselves playing these different roles simultaneously and forming diverse teams, always aiming to intersect for feedback. We believe in the spirit of critique, the spirit of involving everyone in the projects; it’s something very beneficial, and we try to incorporate it into all our projects, even in homes. We have clients who are here in the workshop, moving pieces and sketching. This extends from social projects to real estate ventures, involving executives in the exploration of areas, questioning how we can improve architecture. This idea of creating architecture, building cities, and being activists has always driven us.
FD: Can you tell us about a project you are proud of?
We don’t have any favorite children. We cherish all the projects with very fond memories. It’s worth mentioning the Ronald McDonald House, which was an officially invited competition, and as a young firm, we approached it like winning a championship. I remember participating with the Foundation and volunteering to get to know the users very well. There’s also the Plantando Semillas Community Center, a project that took five years, from the first sketch with participatory workshops to a period of fundraising and construction. Another one was the Tiny House, almost like an industrial design project, where we were fortunate to have Gaby, our client, who really gave us a lot of freedom to work.
HS: I also remember the project “Mil y una noches,” which we carried out in collaboration with our friends from Little Coins, another architecture and interior design firm. It was very valuable to join forces to move forward. However, the challenge was how to create a project that was going to be temporary and would eventually be demolished. So, the story of “Mil y una noches” was about how we could tell stories to make people fall in love with a project. This one had a temporality, and the time came to an end. There will be another real estate project now, but we wanted to remember and intervene in a project that we had even studied at university: the central headquarters of the former BANEX (Export Bank), which was a bank in the eighties, with a brutalist style.
FD: What other projects are you working on?
HS: We are currently collaborating with the landscaping firm Native Asia, from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Much of this is about trying to understand what works on-site. It truly involves architecture that emerges from the landscape. Usually, architecture is done first, and landscaping comes later. But this project starts with landscaping. So that was an interesting surprise, where we connected very well with the client and another culture. We were also able to apply other technologies. For example, the whole BIM (Building Information Modeling) aspect greatly contributed to identifying these integrations, especially due to the distance we had to work on things. It was a project that was in development 24 hours a day. We worked on the architecture, had overlaps with engineering, went to sleep, and then woke up with the engineering issues already resolved.
We are also working in Honduras, and we have a recently completed project, the Beta Building, which was an atypical process, especially because the construction began when the pandemic started. There, we learned that it is possible to supervise through video calls. Unfortunately, we couldn’t travel as much as we would have liked. We were asked to create a project where you could work in residential spaces and, at the same time, eventually convert it into a home. The second project we are working on here is Duna Residences, in a special economic development zone where many companies are already setting up, generating demand for work and housing. Therefore, our response was a mixed-use typology.
Source : Arch Daily