<em>MECCA X NGV Women in Design Commission 2022 Tatiana Bilbao collage</em>. Photo: Tatiana Bilbao ESTUDIO<br/>

MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission | Tatiana Bilbao


The built environment is constantly evolving. Alterations and additions to existing structures, as well as the development of new housing, offices and civic spaces are designed, by the most thoughtful architects, to respond to shifts in culture and social dynamics. To depart from design conventions, resisting the expectation for economic profit that often influences architectural design, requires the leadership and creativity of activists with imagination who operate outside the conventions of their profession.

Having gained global acclaim for her ecologically sound, politically driven and socially responsible approach to architecture and design, architect Tatiana Bilbao has developed a reputation as an enigmatic industry leader. Since founding her eponymous studio, Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, in Mexico City in 2004 ­­– at a time when very few female architects led independent design offices ­– Bilbao has worked to integrate social values, collaboration and sensitive design approaches into the practice of architecture. In her new work for the inaugural MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission, Bilbao presents a large-scale installation of architectural elements, drawings and textiles that reflect the ideas and research that drive her practice. ­

Bilbao leads the design and construction of projects across a variety of scales and typologies, including urban planning, cultural buildings and education campuses; however, it is her dedication to high-density and affordable housing that is most emblematic of her humanistic approach to design. Responding to the housing shortage in Mexico, a country whose population of 128 million people is growing at one of the fastest rates in Latin America, Bilbao has focused her energy on developing systems that improve the quality and increase the quantity of Mexico’s social housing.

With this ambition she produces housing that is sensitive to its environment, offers flexibility and reinforces the sense of community that is often lost in new housing developments. For Bilbao, who currently holds a recurring teaching position at Yale University School of Architecture in the US and has taught at many other leading universities internationally, her built work is both an outcome of research and a real-world laboratory for implementing the technical and philosophical propositions she develops for her teaching studios, which encourage students to think radically about residential design.

<em>MECCA X NGV Women in Design Commission 2022 Tatiana Bilbao collage</em>. Photo: Tatiana Bilbao ESTUDIO<br/>

La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home)

The domestic realm shapes relationships and is influenced by social, political and economic forces. MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission | Tatiana Bilbao promotes discussion of architecture and encourages alternative approaches to design that provide solutions to longstanding social inequalities. Titled La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home), Bilbao’s installation comprising eighteen concrete washbasins, a system of metal armatures, collaborative textile works, mixed-media collages and large-scale wall drawings, is allegorical. Through architectural elements, the work tells a complex story about the domestic space, unpaid labour and gender roles – focusing on the laundry as a site for potential transformation.

Washing clothing was once a shared and social act, supported by communal laundry infrastructures that provided a framework for human interaction. The labour associated with laundry has since become commodified, privatised and exploitative – hidden within the confines of the home, where it is unpaid or undercompensated. The monumental concrete sink positioned at the centre of La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home), foregrounds an alternative system of domestic labour that can be conducted with transparency. Referencing the Lavadero of Huichapan, a shared laundry site in Mexico, this architectural element is symbolic of existing shared infrastructures of care that are sustainable and allow for better connection within communities. Laundry sites such as this, and more contemporary laundry rooms used throughout the first half of the twentieth century, facilitated resource sharing, and offered a public platform that made domestic labour visible. In this context, laundry was an important act of labour that expressed identity and contributed to the social fabric of urban landscapes.

Suggesting that architecture has imposed limitations on contemporary social structures, MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission | Tatiana Bilbao is embedded with criticism of standardisation in architecture and construction. A challenge to the modernist trope of universal design, that is anything but inclusive, the work invites audiences to question the strict functional plans that predict how people live, mandate behaviour and exacerbate an assumed outline of how domestic spaces are occupied and by what familial model. In the cellular floor plan, where functions are secluded and taken away from the public eye, washing, cleaning, and laundering are positioned as the most maligned domestic work. In La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home) Bilbao asks us to consider how those who care for us through domestic work risk exploitation when the spaces they work in are concealed or relegated through architecture. As Bilbao explains, ‘When work that involves care is tucked away into a space that is individualised and made invisible, it is discriminatory – it eliminates the possibility of understanding the amount of labour that is involved, the amount of expense that is involved, and it removes the opportunity to communicate with others. These limitations have consequences that are not benefitting women or society at all’.1Interview with Gemma Savio by video call, 14 July 2022.

Every element in La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home) is an invitation to reflect on personal experiences of care – who has looked after our clothing and under what conditions. Stitched together during workshops held in Mexico City, Berlin and Melbourne, each piece of fabric in the exhibited textile works is cut from donated preloved clothing and is embedded with its own history of care. The wear and tear of the fabric is a register of the body that it once protected, as well as the conditions of labour that existed to ensure its continued use. The wall drawings that line the gallery are produced by hand, using paintbrush and paint, and depict washhouse scenes that communicate changes in the conditions of domestic labour over time. Mapping the transformation of this commonplace activity from a collective experience to a solitary responsibility veiled by domestic architecture, the wall drawings spotlight the women who carry out this important act of care.

MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission | Tatiana Bilbao engages with the context of the city and the domestic realm, and it is through this engagement with both public and private life that Bilbao can connect the implications of one for the other. By focusing on the laundry, La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home) traces the importance of care in current social structures and suggests avenues for more equitable labour dynamics. In most of the world the responsibility of domestic labour still falls on women and as a fundamentally humanistic discipline ­­– the general underpinning of the architectural profession is to make spaces that are healthy and improve the way we relate to one another – architects and designers have an opportunity to correct gender imbalances that have become broadly assumed as acceptable. Through La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home) and in her practice more broadly, Bilbao explores topics rarely examined by the architecture profession positioning architecture and design as an enduring and politically charged cultural medium.

The MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission is a major series that invites internationally renowned female designers and architects to create significant new work for the NGV Collection. The five-year series is supported by MECCA M-POWER, a social change initiative that aims to champion equality and opportunity for women and girls, including elevating women in art and design.



Interview with Gemma Savio by video call, 14 July 2022.