Michel Rojkind on a design strategy to cope with overstimulation

The Mexican architect shares three ways he wades through our world of chaos and flux to create award-winning work.

“One thing is for sure,” says Mexican architect Michel Rojkind. “In a country like ours, you are going to get overstimulated.”

The founder of Rojkind Arquitectos, based in Mexico City, spoke about his work at Design Indaba Conference 2014. In his presentation, he outlined his three-part design strategy to cope with this overstimulation: attention, selection and adaptation.

Pay attention

Attention, Rojkind tells us, is the mental process of selectively concentrating on an aspect of the surrounding while ignoring the rest. It is a way of attending to and trying to understand our environment or of building it.

But what are we really paying attention to in an age where we are bombarded with images and streams of information on world events - in an age in which we are experiencing a financial and natural crisis? he asks.

The answer for Rojkind lies in applying our attention more selectively. 

In the design of a residential building, for example, he concentrated on the communal space despite developers' reluctance to spend money on more public space because they could not sell or rent these. He designed a lobby atrium with glass bridges that created both a physical and visual connection between the residences of the building.   

In another project, a house for a ballerina, he foussed on fabrication. “When I was studying architecture I really didn't give a damn whether I could find solutions in the construction industry,” he says.  “So now as soon as I start designing, I start thinking of a way to fabricate the stuff that I am doing.”

The house required extensive Corten steel construction but when the contractor wasn't doing an adequate job, Rojkind called on the back-street panelbeaters that "fix your car while you have tacos in the corner.”

“I remembered these guys who were great at their craft and I went back and got them to finish the house. Not only did they do a much better job, they were also less expensive than the contractor,” he recalls.

In the design of Videoteca Nacional, the national library, he wanted to challenge being stereotyped for a specific design approach. “I didn't want to be pigeonholed as an architect with some type of design [style]; I am a contemporary thinker.”

Finally, when asked to design a tunnel inside a Nestle factory for children to experience the chocolate making process, he focussed on pushing the client to go beyond the original brief. His research revealed that Mexico, despite its Aztec heritage of trading in cocoa, didn't have a museum of chocolate. Rojkind convinced Nestle to build one - a brilliant example of making visible what the client themselves couldn't see. 

Be selective 

For Rojkind, being selective is about sampling. He eschews the profession's traditional preoccupation with context for the selection processes that go into making context. Rather than looking at materiality, his focus is on how digital design tools and local fabrication or manufacturing can help him design better. Rather than thinking about space, he thinks about flexibility and how space can accommodate different needs in our ever-changing society. 

“I don't hire people based on portfolios, I hire people because they are good thinkers. I enjoy a having a good thinker next to me more than a guy who can do a good sketch or a great computer render.”

Rojkind Arquitectos developed a tool called ADD, Adaptive Diagnostic Design, to encourage critical thinking. “When we told our clients we did research, they would make fun of us. So we developed this tool to really make them understand that it was important that we give them the things they didn't see... how we can add value. The diagnosis is already a design strategy. It’s not only an investigation of what happens or what exists, but rather all of what could happen or what could be.”

The studio has a penchant for collaboration. “We don't collaborate because we don't know how to do certain things. We collaborate because we enjoy being contaminated by other ideas. We bring in graphic designers, industrial landscapers, financial guys and sociologists at an early stage to come up with better outcomes." 

The architects used the ADD tool to go beyond the brief in three projects, with some surprising and striking results. 

The first is the refurbishment of the Cineteca, which turned into a campus-like complex with an additional rooftop performance space and an outdoor cinema that now attracts 65 000 more people every month.

The second is the design of a façade for an anchor tenant in a shopping mall, which resulted in a new income-generating garden park on the roof.  The park includes a restaurant that is a new hub for the suburb's youth. “The client told me they wanted iconic and I told them I didn't want an icon because of looks, I wanted an icon because it can really make a difference,” he says.

Learn to adapt

According to Rojkind, designers need to embrace instability in order to survive. “This is not a stable world, you have to understand how things work, you have to be flexible,” he says.

During the financial crisis when work for architects was scarce, Rojkind Arquitectos started a product design company, Agent.  “I always thought the worst crisis is not an economic one but a mental one. Any crisis can happen – if we are good thinkers, we can think around it.”

Agent's projects have included an airless soccer ball made from the technology used in defence vehicles and multi-functional luggage that can also be used as a trolley, a scooter to commute from one part of the airport to another, and a seat or pullcart for children.

Rojkind implores designers: “Stop looking for things, pay attention. Have an opinion. Get out there, experiment and explore.”

Watch the Interview with Michel Rojkind