‘Architecture doesn’t respond well to change, and it’s a shame because it takes so long to build.’

‘Architecture doesn’t respond well to change, and it’s a shame because it takes so long to build.’


Designer Jorge Mendez talks time, tools and instant gratification at Kings Cross

5 minute read / Rosanna Vitiello

It’s no surprise Jorge asks to meet me at a train station. Of all the people 'always on the go', this guy tops the list — he once visited visited four countries in 11 hours and his place of residence is officially in transit. Jorge is a man curious about the world, with a generosity and enthusiasm for life that is plain infectious. An AA-trained architect, he expands space to dream up concepts at all scales: from the vastness of an airport to the craft in a piece of cutlery. From Zaha to Heatherwick, he's worked with the greats to make some truly iconic places. Yet he remains conscious of the very human on-the-ground experience, always quick with an anecdote or a story to explain his ideas. It's this intuition that interested us, so we caught up at a spot that holds a lot of emotion for him personally: St Pancras Station in London. Here's Jorge…

Jorge, why did you bring us here to meet? What is it about this place that holds a story for you?
This station always gets me. The last times I’ve gone home to Puerto Rico, I’ve been super-pumped here at St Pancras before my flight. And I love that about stations and airports: you meet up with someone, or someone comes to town, or you’re going somewhere together. They don't have to be cold. 

Stations are always about promise - something is about to happen. 
Right, and there’s also the multilayered thing, with many different programmes going on at once here: so many things can happen. Down there you have the Eurostar, you have these guys playing the pianos on the concourse below: you even have a yoga class in the middle of the station!

You're an architect, but your attitude seems attuned to different ways of looking at the cultural and social aspects of the world. Where does that viewpoint come from? 
There’s something about the word 'designer' that I like, compared to 'architect'. I learnt that from Thomas (Heatherwick): ‘you don’t architect things, you design things’ and it gives you more possibilities. Something that makes me angry about architecture is the wait.

With design, there’s more gratification than architecture because you can get to the thing quicker. So I’m into tools.

A fork is a tool, a pen is a tool. And I’m jealous of fashion designers because they get to try it out, build their thing and it’s there: boom. When you have a building the gratification can be more intense because you’ve been waiting, but I’m not that patient. It’s the difference between a slow cooker and a frying pan.

Is your approach about that sense of fascination in looking beyond the building?
Did I tell you about the ‘Play with your Food’ project from the Architectural Association (AA) Summer School Drew Merkle and I taught in Puerto Rico? That’s based on the idea that pasta is to a building what flour is to concrete. It’s the same ingredients, different methods and so many different results, but it’s all design. At our AA classes we asked the students what we could learn from that metaphor in terms of building. We studied the ways of confectioning food in Puerto Rico, and did a seminar on roasting, distilling, and frying. All of these methods are rudimentary, but rather than use richer ingredients, we’re working on new tools to make the output more considered. So, for instance, there’s no glass for rum, like you have a wine glass or a glass for brandy. And by having that tool you can change someone’s experience. 

By looking at tools, you’re looking at design across a whole country, not just one site. Are you influenced by where you’re from in Puerto Rico?
Yes, but it’s a very small country! I’ve always been all over the place, but by having the small scale of an island the possibilities are endless, there’s a lot that hasn’t been explored. When you’re exposed to a bigger country you have to be more focused.

There was a time when I only read about architecture. And then I noticed I was really boring when I was going on dates.


When I moved to London I decided I wasn’t going to read anything that had to do with architecture, but rather business, or cooking. That has influenced what I’ve been working on, and I’m getting better at it.

Let’s talk about research. If you’re designing a new place or object where do you start?  
There’s no go-to method. It depends on parameters and constraints. That’s one of the things we’ve been teaching at the AA. We’ve been working on a unit where there is no brief, but there are constraints. For example, my co-professor Drew and I are working on a wine bottle for a company in California. The only constraint is that it’s a single serve. We come up with a series of ‘what if?’ questions. The same at Heatherwick: what if the building is a bunch of boxes? What if we enter from the side?

You travel a lot and you’re a curious person, always looking at the world. How does that experience tie into your research on places?
I’ve been on holiday once, and it was the most scary moment of my life. I just can’t do nothing. But I want to see places, so I go on these microadventures. They’re little boosts of happiness. They’re random destinations but there’s always a building or a place in the back of my head I want to see. Each time I go I try to go to a really expensive place and a really cheap place. My only big expense on these trips is a dinner. That’s what I did in Cambodia. I did the country in a day. We ate at a super fancy restaurant and the next day we’re eating in a butcher’s shop full of flies. That contrast gives you balance.

One thing we spoke about the beginning is timeframe. If you're building a new place, there’s a long wait. Yet you’re into fluidity and flux, and you’re always in transit anyway. How can we make places that respond to that sense of change?
Going back to the airport, there have been so many changes in the way that transport security affects architecture. Architecture doesn’t respond that well to change, and it’s a shame because it takes so long to build. Terminal 3 in Tokyo Narita is an example of what to do. It’s new, low budget, but designed for change. It’s designed around a running track so they can change those paths. Also the SALK institute. The whole thing is a lab designed for different types of research - you can change the walls, where the entrance is. It works.

How else can you bring that notion of time into architecture and places? At some point during your Pier 55 project you used gaming technology. 
A lot of the Pier is about discovery. You’re using a technology that allows you to build that story. We’re able to implement a way that the landscape architect can tell us where the trees are. It gives us that sense of discovery, like when you turn around to see that framed view of the city, or see a spot to sit at 3pm on a winter day. The good thing about gaming is that its non-linear.

You’ve worked on a number of iconic places. A lot of cities want an icon, so what does it take to make one? 

Making an icon is about connecting with different people, not necessarily designers.

That’s what I like about Pier 55 in New York. There’s a concert venue, a theatre, so many different people will go there and the place will become an iconic place to meet. I don’t know any icon that doesn’t connect random layers of stuff, and make sense of it. There’s something Thomas Heatherwick always said that sticks: 'think about it as if you were going to look at it from Google Maps.' And what’s the Instagram moment?

There’s awesome realtime render technology that video games have that architectural rendering programmes don’t. You ‘get’ the experience. At the Pier, we were able to change seasons, change the age of the trees. From the client side it allows them to see this thing changing over time. For people who don't understand drawings or that 2D aspect, it’s cool. You can walk around.

So what would you hope for a place you designed?
That people use it. I’m a fan of Tadao Ando, but there’s a lot of places that he’s designed, and they’re empty. And that’s a shame. There are two typologies that I enjoy, and people use both: restaurants - food and beverage, gathering places - and also airports, the logistics, the huge numbers of people. They have nothing in common.

Do you think that narrative helps to make that connection, so that people use a space?
You need to make a story. It’s all about speculation and a story helps. There’s a story about how you enter the building, a journey that you map out.

If you were to give us one principle to pass onto people making places, what would it be?
Oh man, I’m not old enough to answer that. 

Here's something we can learn from the places you enjoy working. Both seem to have chronology in common. They’re both places in transit.
They’re never static places. It’s about storyboarding the experience. There’s something in Middle Eastern architecture that I find fascinating: it is always unveiling little rooms to a big room. The Peter Zumthor Serpentine Pavillion played off of that too. That ‘boom, boom, boom’ thing. You don’t know what to expect. If you want to get people hooked, you need that. There’s nothing worse than a convention centre. You have to give that unveiling.

The Takeaway Drawing on Jorge's approach


Time is too often forgotten when designing places. We have landscape architects responsible for planting, anthropologists focusing on people, urban designers in charge of form and circulation. But who looks after that fourth dimension of time? Where are the time designers? 

Momentum is not easy to get to grips with: it flows at different rhythms from century-long chronologies to millisecond beats. Yet it's essential to narrative — as it's essential to life: stories simply don't exist without time-based notions of progression. Get a grasp of it, and time an become a place's superpower.

Upping the tempo
We're hooked on our impatient digital world, but it's out of sync with the slow beat of building. By designing lighter and quicker, we can create experiments in construction, whose successes and failures can be measured and refined, just in the way digital does. And by learning from cinematographers and game designers, we can bring more nuanced concepts of time into the experience design of places, and think of a place as a stage for a journey. 

Slowing your roll
Cityscapes and landscapes are defined by change, but taking the long view helps us create places that deal better with that. The Demos Report Resilient Places argues for the importance of chronology when regenerating places with heritage infrastructure, evolving longer term narratives. London's Battersea Powerstation's Placebook outlines how natural rhythms were the inspiration for an evolutionary approach to 'staged placemaking': from pioneer stage to mature.