With a portfolio that ranges widely across geography and function, Ms. Bilbao is attracting an international audience. In Mexico, she has designed everything from a house perched on a wooded mountainside overlooking the city of Monterrey to an art-filled botanical garden, a funeral home, university buildings and an open-air chapel at the start of a Catholic pilgrimage route.
Her work in China and Europe has included a project to design low-income and mid-range housing in an urban renewal project in Lyon, France, and she has begun designing a master plan for the site of a decommissioned power plant in San Francisco, a redevelopment that will serve a largely forgotten population of the city with affordable housing, public areas and market space.
“We’re defining a community,” Ms. Bilbao said with excitement, seated at a long table in her glass-walled fourth-floor office looking out at the treetops flanking Mexico City’s central artery, Paseo de la Reforma. Between a project in Monterrey and commuting to teach at Yale and Columbia universities this semester, it was a rare workday in Mexico City.
“We’re starting to design with the people and thinking what are the needs of the people — not in terms of a bedroom and bathroom and kitchen and a toilet and a sink,” she said, her ideas tumbling forth. “In terms of what are the needs of really living, like the areas of rest, the areas of retreat, the areas of exposure, the areas of intimate sharing of things, the less-intimate sharing with family.”
Those values come first, before square feet, or the size of the parking lot — or even how the building is going to look. Beauty, Ms. Bilbao said, is “very subjective.” Then she qualified her assertion. “I do think there is a certain set of values that are universal that define beauty: proportion, light, scale. This is universal.”
The granddaughter of the Basque architect Tomás Bilbao, who fled to Mexico after the Spanish Civil War, Ms. Bilbao, 45, grew up in Mexico City and studied architecture there at Ibero-American University.
She is part of a generation of younger Mexican architects who have moved away from iconic, mannered work, said Miquel Adrià, an architect and director of the architectural magazine Arquine, and adopted a more inclusive approach based on dialogue.
“In Tatiana’s case, there is a type of collage, uniting different ideas, uniting different forms to assemble the whole,” he said, pointing to her collaboration with other architects, a contrast to the auteur concept that characterized architecture at the end of the 20th century.
Ms. Bilbao’s concern for affordable housing is shared by many of her contemporaries in Mexico, who watched in horror as the government encouraged low-cost developers to build millions of identical homes on cheap land distant from jobs or public services.
“This is the worst part of the story, that nobody learns from others’ examples,” she said, pointing to laws in France that now require developers to include affordable housing in their projects.
Now, the Mexican government has invited Ms. Bilbao and other architects to bring their experience to change that failed policy. She argues that architects can learn from Latin America’s informal housing, where people construct according to their needs and their capacities. “Why are we not there supporting that and giving them the tools to make those spaces better with the same conditions instead of imposing our vision?” she asked.
Her own model for affordable housing overturned a myth that shapes Mexico’s housing landscape — a flat roof ready to add a second floor when there is enough money. Often, exposed rebar is left — Ms. Bilbao calls it “the steel bars of hope” — poking up to the sky.
Instead, her interviews found that people wanted their houses to look finished, with a pitched roof. In response, Ms. Bilbao designed a modular structure that can grow in volume, rather than height. It can be adapted to different materials, including recycled shipping pallets, and different climates. Three years after the houses in Ciudad Acuña were built, Ms. Bilbao plans to return this year to talk to their inhabitants.
She has also been working with other architects to help people rebuild in the towns close to the epicenter of September’s devastating earthquake. The houses that collapsed were constructed incorrectly, she said, but to her frustration many people rejected professional advice and simply rebuilt according to longstanding traditions.
For a long time, Ms. Bilbao, who has two young daughters, bristled at being identified as a woman —- as different — in a field dominated by men. But she has learned to accept it, although with some discomfort, and acknowledged that it has brought her more exposure.
At the same time, she said, she no longer has to play a man’s role, like successful women before her. “I don’t care if I’m in the middle of a meeting — if they call me to tell me that my little one is sick — ” she said. “Ciao.”
She finally realized that she could no longer shrug off her identity as a woman architect when a friend asked her if there was a woman in Mexico she could look to as a model — the way architects around the world looked to Zaha Hadid, a London-based architect born in Iraq who was the first woman to win the highly sought Pritzker Prize in 2004.
“I understand that things right now are changing and I need to be addressing the topic” so that the women architects who follow will no longer have to face questions about whether their work is somehow different,” she said. “ I understand that this is something that fell on me — and I have to address it.”