Not long after Mario Plasencia was born in Mexico in the late 1970s, he became aware of the power of words—specifically how they can box you in. “I always hesitated to say that I wanted to be an architect, a painter, or a nomad,” he explains, “because I didn’t want to feel caged in by a word. But I also knew the importance of defining what it is I wanted to do. So to make things simple, I say now that am a hybrid.”
His vitae notes an architecture degree from Mexico and the completion of a painting program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, while his passport declares him to be a world traveler many times over. Achievements and accolades include Dwell magazine’s “Definitive list of Architects and Designers” and a packed portfolio of eyepopping restaurants, hotels, and dwellings, including a modern apartment building in León, Mexico—where he serves as a board member on the city’s Cultural Institute—constructed from three-dozen recycled shipping containers. “I like to bring people out of their comfort zone,” says the Elena de Cobre Original with a wicked smile that implies he well understands his success at doing just that.
Often, if you admire an architect, you admire his or her stadiums, museums, the big statement things. But I believe the architect has to be almost invisible. The most important things are the small spaces. Museums and stadiums are great but people spend most of their time in the house, the apartment. If you make a huge house for a client, then that client is saddled with a big debt; they are not free. So convincing someone that they need a smaller space, less stuff, is also your job, it’s better for the world. It’s something that we must do.
First of all, my passion is materials. They are my starting point when I begin a design. I’m always trying to make things very raw. I’m obsessed with brick, with very earthy materials because they don’t need to be maintained. That’s why at Elena de Cobre we used copper—it lasts forever! Also, I am obsessed with city planning. I’m reading a book now about cities and all the mistakes we’ve made in the past. You can’t think of city architecture as a single building but as pieces of a larger whole. In Europe, the city is an extension of life. Here in Mexico we have been influenced by America, so people don’t walk anymore. We only use the street to go from Point A to Point B. So what I’m trying to do now in León with university students and residents in the neighborhood is create wider sidewalks, more trees, and, as in Barcelona, put actual symbols on the ground that tell people what specific neighborhood they are in. The point is to create a sense of identity and to make people start feeling proud of their neighborhood.
Luis Barragán is a great hero. He’s the only Mexican to win the Pritzker Prize. He has a strong point of view. I love the magic that he creates with walls. Instead of just being part of the architecture, it seems the architecture is always supporting where the wall is going to be and what it’s going to tell you. I also love the work of sculptor Anish Kapoor. I really admire that he makes you dream. When you see a piece by him, you go in an instant to a magical place. I believe you always have to have fun with design or architecture or art. The more you do, the more you learn. I read somewhere that there is no true architect younger than 50, and that’s true as you need that much experience to become original. If you don’t reach that little child inside of you that makes you go “Whoa!” then I don’t think you are doing your job well.
I always recall the islands of Greece. The light is so different there. But what really makes me love Mykonos or Santorini is that all the structures are white so that the architecture is almost not there! It’s part of the landscape. The architect has become almost invisible, as I said earlier. There, you are not trying to say my architecture is higher, bigger, or more expensive. Rather it’s about texture. Wherever I go in the world, I always think, “This is a good solution or a bad solution;” my brain is always working. But on those islands, that doesn’t happen. I arrive there and I stop thinking about architecture. My mind is silent!