Of the 30 or so employees of ELHC, the research arm of the Mexico City architecture office APRDELESP, not a single one is a designer. Instead, they are managers, dishwashers, cooks, and servers, supporting a panoply of commercial ventures, or “subspaces”: a restaurant (Café Wi-Fi Café Zena); a café that doubles as a showroom for a made-to-order metal furniture line (Muebles Sullivan); a window display–size art gallery (Galería La Esperanza); a print shop (Macolen); and, until earlier this year, a pair of convenience stores (Comidas, Bebidas, Revistas). For APRDELESP’s Rodrigo Escandón and Guillermo González, architects preoccupied with how space gets used and wary of design that smothers the everyday, the disciplinary imbalance is practically an accomplishment. As Manuel Bueno, a frequent collaborator and ELHC partner who runs his own graphic design studio, jokes, “Instead of buying nice Herman Miller chairs, we just open a space.”
Skeptical of the tired orthodoxies of professional design practice from the start, APRDELESP has been working to circumvent them ever since its first project, a restaurant, in 2011. “It went really bad,” recalls Escandón of the vexed commission. “We were working in a traditional way, trying to defend our ideas and also trying to sell our ideas.” A few months later, already plotting ways to escape this transactional dynamic, the designers were offered the lease on a ground-floor space in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood.
Looking to provide a revenue stream and ensure the 430 square feet remained in a constant social flux, they settled on the idea for Café Wi-Fi Café Zena. They designed the tables and chairs and walls and graphics. And they conceived the collective ownership structure—a joint-venture model with low buy-ins and transferable shares that has been replicated in other subspaces since. Plenty of architects have acted as their own clients to pad out their portfolios, but Escandón and González were interested in what the space could do, and in producing better conditions for their work. “More than a project to show off,” Escandón explains, “we wanted an experimental project, to think.”
In fact, the architects achieved both. As new ELHC subspaces opened, commissions followed (primarily apartment and office renovations), and the entrepreneurialism and experimentation became harder to disentangle from their design work. APRDELESP’s highest-profile (if small-scale) projects involve exploiting ELHC’s resources. When Museo Jumex commissioned fixtures for its new David Chipperfield–designed building in 2014, APRDELESP produced wastebaskets and pamphlet stands from Muebles Sullivan’s furniture system. And last year, when asked by Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura to participate in an exhibition, APRDELESP had a tiny coffee kiosk built along the perimeter of the institution’s walled garden. On one side, the kiosk, which was operated by ELHC, served gallery visitors; on the other side, through a place mat–size opening in the wall, it served pedestrians traversing a barren stretch of sidewalk that abuts a bleak thoroughfare—an infrastructural space that architecture could never compete with but a functioning concession stand proved able to enchant.
Most afternoons, Escandón, González, and Ricardo Matias (a collaborator since 2013) can be found working in one of the subspaces. These are where they met all four of their current clients. “Maybe if you’re private you have to sell yourself,” says González, his hesitation proof of the statement’s veracity. This approach to public relations not only bypasses publicists but, Escandón adds, “puts the emphasis on the dynamic rather than a formal style.”
In resisting a formal signature, APRDELESP has honed a representational style that embodies its design methodology. A project, or case study, as it is referred to, does not culminate with a thoroughly curated set of photographs but lives on as an overabundance of casual snapshots documenting initial surveys to construction to full-fledged inhabitation. (APRDELESP, an abbreviation of apropiación del espacio, is a mantra as much as a name.) Similarly, drawings, color-coded in red, blue, and black, delineate preexisting spaces and recommended changes, as well as catalogue the sorts of belongings most architects would rather pretend do not exist, like kitchen appliances and kitschy knickknacks.
This interest in everyday life and its unprejudiced documentation calls to mind Wajiro Kon, the Japanese architect/ ethnographer who around the middle of the past century critiqued the high Modernist prohibition on “traditional” habits by exhaustively sketching people’s personal possessions in their domestic settings. But are the customs and artifacts of APRDELESP’s clientele—the capital city’s cultural elite—really so ordinary? In this sense, these designers represent business as usual in their field. Which is why their interrogation of business and of the practice of design is so vital.