Can Michel Rojkind’s collaborative spirit and latest bold-faced building bring his firm’s work beyond the country’s borders?
By Spencer Bailey
Portrait by Alicia Vera
Video by Vincent Long
January 17, 2018
“Arquitecto,” says a voice behind us.
It’s a breezy Wednesday evening in late November outside Mexico City’s hulking National Auditorium, and the streets are teeming with locals there to see a concert by the Montreal rockers Arcade Fire. I’m with Michel Rojkind, who runs one of the city’s leading architecture offices and—though his 48th birthday is a few weeks away—shares the bravado and vibe of the hip crowd of energetic twenty- and thirtysomethings around us. The voice emanates from a scruffy-looking guy who admiringly tells Rojkind that he took his class at university years ago. Noticeably unfazed by the interaction, Rojkind tells me, with a laugh, that he doesn’t want to reveal how many years ago he taught the guy.
A couple of minutes later, crossing a street, a man yells, out of a truck’s window, “La Gente Normal!” Rojkind chuckles, shakes his head, and waves politely.
It’s unusual, if not surprising, to see strangers in the crowd treating Rojkind with rock-star status. Then again, maybe not: He’s now one of Mexico’s most established names in contemporary architecture, and he was also once the drummer in Aleks Syntek y la Gente Normal, one of Latin America’s most popular rock bands in the early 1990s. Following an impressive eight-year run in the band—during which he also studied architecture and urban planning at Universidad Iberoamericana—Rojkind left to pursue a career in design full-time in 1997.
It’s this background that has made Rojkind a bit of an anomaly in architecture, a field that, until recently has, by and large, required a long-slog path to prominence. Eschewing the expected, he has, over the past two decades, built his name as a shrewd experimenter and adamant believer in pushing forms beyond the norm. Since establishing his firm, Rojkind Arquitectos, in 2002, Rojkind has designed an array of forward-thinking projects throughout his home country, including the Nestlé Chocolate Museum in Toluca de Lerdo (2007), the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City (2014), and the just-opened Foro Boca concert hall in Boca del Rio, near the city of Veracruz. The studio currently has nine projects under construction or in development, among them a winery, spa, and hotel complex in Valle de Guadalupe, with local architect Agustín Pereyra; a Mexico City office complex, with studio Modulo 11; and the Michoacán headquarters of real estate development company Citelis, with Los Angeles–based Clive Wilkinson Architects.
Though he’s now at the height of his fame and accomplishment as a designer, Rojkind has yet to win a commission abroad—something that hasn’t eluded many others of similar notoriety.
Foro Boca could very well bethe career-defining project Rojkind needs to lead his firm toward winning projects in other countries and on other continents. More than just an attention-grabbing building, it’s a culturally and environmentally sensitive structure that’s rooted in a politician’s desire to establish a sense of happiness, hope, and progress in a community that needs all three.
Miguel Ángel Yunes Márquez’s re-election as the mayor of Boca del Río, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, came as the drug war continued to take its toll on his coastal city. (The region’s missing-persons statistics remain bleak: According to The New York Times, when the current Veracruz governor—Márquez’s father, Miguel Ángel Yunes—began his term, in December 2016, he updated the state’s number of the missing to nearly 2,600, up from just hundreds. Earlier that year, the remains of some 300 bodies were found in the state in a covert mass grave.) Even if Márquez couldn’t immediately stop the killing, the self-described “frustrated architect” hoped he could spur change through smart urban planning and a broad cultural gesture. “I’ve always thought about arts and culture as one of the main tools to build social tissue,” he tells me. “The huge problem in Mexico now is that there’s no bonding in communities, there’s no common denominator, children are not being taught values. This has made us a very violent community.”
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Márquez’s solution to giving a boost to the violence-plagued area: form the Boca del Río Philharmonic Orchestra, and create a youth-education program around it. (He was inspired by the publicly financed El Sistema music-education program in Venezuela, created by activist José Antonio Abreu in 1975.)
In just the first nine months of 2014, he established the group, led by conductor Jorge Mester. Next, he successfully petitioned Mexico’s federal government for a budget of 350 million pesos (roughly $17 million) to build a 966-seat concert hall to house the organization, as well as to provide a space for cultural events, various performances, and an after-school social development program for children of low-income families. After meeting with several architects, Márquez chose Rojkind. “We saw what Michel had done with Cineteca Nacional,” he says, “and we liked the concept. In the end, we thought he was really the best architect in Mexico.” He continues, “One of the reasons we chose him is because he was a musician as well as an architect. It was the perfect combination: He knows the power of music, what music can do to people.”
Once the site—a barren pile of rocks at the intersection of the Jamapa River and the Gulf of Mexico—was selected, Rojkind got to work on designing what he calls “an urban detonator,” a house of culture with the potential to trigger significant change in the local community and in the region at large. The just-completed 58,000-square-foot building abuts both Avenue Zamora, home to several restaurants, and Boulevard Vicente Fox Quesada, which features a seaside promenade. Aside from the concert hall, the area largely lacks a sense of neighborhood or place-making. Situated next to a fishing pier and beach, the monolithic, three-story structure proudly announces itself with various jutting concrete blocks—and, in one dramatic case, a massive cantilever at the entrance. The architecture on its own is striking enough, the juxtaposition between the building and its surroundings even more so.
Though the concert hall’s blank concrete facade raised questions from the community—why no windows for enjoying the waterfront views?—it was designed with good reason: to withstand the site’s heavy windstorms. “We knew if we put in windows, it was going to be a maintenance problem all the time,” Márquez says. “So we asked Michel to use a material [that requires] zero maintenance. The concrete he chose is special for marine environments—it’s used for docks.”
Rojkind’s thoughtful approach to materiality and form is on full display at Foro Boca. It’s something Hayes Slade, a partner of the New York firm Slade Architecture and a friend of Rojkind’s, praises. “What sets Michel’s work apart,” she says, “is a sculptural articulation of weight, mass, and thickness. It recurs in a way that’s reminiscent of natural formations, without being mimetic.” Her husband, James, the firm’s other partner, adds, “Michel’s work often has an inventive materiality, transforming the way a material is perceived and understood while being true to its intrinsic qualities.”
In early December, during a weekend of celebratory opening events that included a capacity crowd to see a performance by the philharmonic with the violinist Joshua Bell, I see—and hear—the power of the place firsthand. The 43-year-old Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, the founder of the firm BIG, who has been friends with Rojkind since meeting him in an elevator in Dubai a decade ago, has flown in to attend the event, too, and concurs about the concert hall’s resonance. Describing the building as “Lina Bo Bardi–esque”—a highly complimentary reference to the prolific Italian-born Brazilian Modernist architect—Ingels tells me, “There’s an immediacy and a blatancy to the choice of materials and finishes that ends up working incredibly well.”
Rojkind is the youngest of four siblings, with two sisters and a brother. His father was a professor and doctor, acclaimed for his liver research and an expert on hepatic fibrosis, who in 1985 won Mexico’s National Prize for Arts and Sciences. His mother, who works in real estate, is the family’s spiritual force (“at one point she went to India to look for her guru,” he says). Born in Mexico City in 1969, Rojkind was raised there throughout his youth, aside from living for two years in the Bronx and one year in Scarsdale, New York, from 1975 to 1978, during which Rojkind’s father was employed at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Those early years of being an outsider in the U.S. were, for Rojkind, profound and character-building. “It was super hard. Being a Mexican living in New York, I would get into fights all the time,” he says. “Kids would be like, ‘You’re not Mexican—you’re blonde and have blue eyes. Mexicans are dark-skinned.’”
The family’s home in the Mexico City suburb of Satélite was, in contrast, a social, life-giving place, full of positive energy. Music was omnipresent. His father played traditional folk instruments, like the charango(an armadillo-backed guitar) and the quena(a reed flute), and at age 13, after being introduced to a drummer friend of one of his brothers, Rojkind picked up the drums. Soon, he also became interested in graphic design—something a sibling, already working in real estate, steered him away from, suggesting he instead consider studying architecture. “I never had, until then, thought of architecture as a profession,” Rojkind says.
In 1989, during Rojkind’s first semester at Universidad Iberoamericana, Aleks Syntek y la Gente Normal was offered a record deal with EMI. Rojkind was 18 at the time. “It was like winning the lottery,” he says. Rather than choosing between his studies or the band, he decided to pursue both endeavors—something his mother encouraged him to do. Over the next few years, while touring throughout Latin America with the group, he realized how engaged he was in the design of buildings and urban environments. “I would arrive at a new airport and see the infrastructure, and then go to the hotel and see that, and then go out and see the plazas and the people,” he says. “I started understanding the power of architecture, and how it defines spaces and makes people feel. It was through touring that I fell in love with urbanism, architecture, and the relationship we have to our surroundings. You would think it would have happened in school, but no.” The Mexican designer Héctor Esrawe, a close friend of Rojkind’s since that time, says, “He has always been aware of what surrounds him, and he has never lost that sense of awe.”
In 1994, the band put out the hit song “El Camino” with the album Más Fuerte de lo Que Pensaba. The recording was a hit in Chile, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Argentina, and when the group toured in those countries, its concerts could swell to audiences of 40,000 or more. “I couldn’t believe that we had crowds like that,” Rojkind says. “The power of that.”
Rojkind’s architecture work began to gain steam during this time, too. Though he was until then mostly doing small commissions and creating digital renderings, he was becoming increasingly confident that he could reorient his career from drumming to design. At the same time, Rojkind felt that EMI was making the band less creative and too market-oriented, and because of this he was losing his desire to remain a part of it. When in the studio for the group’s fourth album, Rojkind says, “My mind was out of it. I enjoyed the recording, but soon I said, ‘This is not really what I want to do.’”
The transition to architecture wasn’t so simple. He admits now that he underestimated the shadow his career as a musician would cast. “When I left music for architecture, people were skeptical,” he says. “Because people remembered that I was in a band, they were like, ‘You’re not an architect.’” He sometimes strained to correct them. “I would joke about the clichés of it: ‘I’m going to put cadence in the building, and rhythm and repetition,’” he says with a laugh. “Come on, that never happened!”
Ironically, it was Rojkind’s involvement in that prominent band that landed him a sponsorship with Apple and thus a Macintosh computer featuring the application ArchiCAD. This gave Rojkind access to a digital design tool that few around him in the mid-’90s were using. “That, to me, was incredible, because I started to understand a 3-D environment,” he says. “At some point, I was even doing renders for other people to make a living.” He continues, “Back in those days, there weren’t many architects using Macs. I was one of the first. There was even a brief story about me on the Apple website.”
While the parametric, highly technical designs of Zaha Hadid were beginning to get built and the completion of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao museum was just a few years off, computer technology was still nascent in the field. So much so that when Rojkind was a student there wasn’t a single professor at his university able to teach a class on it. “I was shocked,” he says. “I was like, ‘What?! This is a private school where we’re paying tons of money and they don’t have someone to teach us computers?’” Rojkind’s solution was to simply learn the digital tools himself, by doing and experimenting.
In the late ’90s, his rendering skills caught the attention of Isaac Broid and Miquel Adrià, two leading figures in Mexico City’s architecture scene at that time. The three were partners in a firm together from 1999 to 2002. Rojkind was soon befriending many of the other top Mexican architects of Broid’s and Adrià’s generation: Alberto Kalach, Enrique Norten, Teodoro González de León. For Rojkind, being in the firm was a bit like playing in a band again. As he describes it, “If you’re a musician and you hear somebody play like a motherfucker, you want to jam with him. When I quit music and started architecture, I thought it was the same kind of creative situation.”
The first project Rojkind undertook after founding Rojkind Arquitectos brought him significant attention. A small apartment for a young ballerina, situated atop the 1960s-era home of her father in the Tecamachalco suburb of Mexico City, it received little fanfare in his home city—at first. Soon, though, international design magazines began to bring the project publicity, and in turn Mexico began to take notice and celebrate it, too. Of particular note was its automotive-style quality and arresting red color, painted on the bent-steel facade. Its unusual look and form was not an accident: In addition to bringing on a traditional construction company, Rojkind hired local auto workers to fabricate, bang out, and later paint the exterior. “I learned a lot during that process,” he says of creating the ballerina’s house. “First of all, that I could be very flexible. Secondly, that I didn’t care about the ‘industry.’ And third, that you really can achieve whatever you want to—you just have to figure out who the right people are to [help you] solve it.”
His next big break came in 2005, when he submitted a concept to a competition to design a tower at the Absolute World site in in Mississauga, Canada, and was one of six short-listed. He didn’t receive the commission—it went to Chinese architect Ma Yansong, in 2007—but the entry positioned him as a prominent voice in international design circles and a contemporary of rising stars like Ma, Minsuk Cho, and Bjarke Ingels. In 2007, more notoriety came with the opening of the firm’s Nestlé Chocolate Museum, another—by coincidence—bold red building (“It had to be red because it’s part of the Nestlé logo,” Rojkind says). This led, two years later, to a second Nestlé commission, a development lab located in an industrial zone of Querétaro.
Eager to bring the firm greater reach, in 2010, Rojkind added a second partner, Gerardo Salinas, who helped guide and grow the practice. Salinas, who had studied architecture at the University of Maryland and worked at firms in Washington, D.C., and Denver prior to joining Rojkind Arquitectos, says he was attracted to Rojkind’s “unconventional and sometimes chaotic” leadership style. With this “unstructured approach to things,” Salinas says, “no obstacle was too big to be conquered.” (The two had met in 2005 and quickly became friends; before Salinas joined the practice, they had participated in two competitions together, both of which they won, but neither of which came to fruition.)
A stream of commissions followed: two Japanese restaurants for the Mexico City chain Tori Tori, one in 2010, another in 2016 (a third is in the works); a Liverpool department store in Huixquilucan, in 2011; a second headquarters for the pharmaceuticals company Falcon, in 2014 (his first, one of his earliest projects, was built in 2003); a food-market concept, with Cadena + Asociados, in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, also in 2014; and the upscale High Park residences in Monterrey, in 2015. According to Salinas, the firm’s Liverpool project in particular was a gateway for growth. “Liverpool was a very corporate client with very strict requirements,” he says. “The fact that we were able to deliver a project of this type and size, with its 3-D fabrication complexity, in a short time, gave the office a new credibility.”
But as the studio and its scope expanded, the partnership between Rojkind and Salinas began to fissure. “The biggest difference between us,” Salinas says, “was the way in which we saw how the office should be managed. The office had an internal inertia that had to move forward, since we had to deliver and meet expectations set by new clients and larger projects. Sometimes, these external pressures did not allow for enough explorations, or time to reconsider the concepts and develop new ideas. That created some discomfort for Michel.” He adds, “The fact that Michel was traveling so much and teaching made it very hard to get him involved in every aspect of the projects.”
The swift growth and large size of the in-house team weighed greatly on Rojkind, and in the end was not only not in line with his way of working or thinking, it didn’t seem sustainable. “I would say, ‘Gerry, we can’t afford to have seven people working on one project,’” Rojkind recalls. “I didn’t want to have an office where I didn’t know the name of the people around me. I didn’t want to have an office where I was struggling because the staff wasn’t speaking to each other.”
For Salinas, it was some of the office’s long-running cultural quirks, and its lack of organizational management, that he found troublesome. “I felt that I did not fit into this structure,” he says, “and did not feel it was the right strategy. I was trying to focus on getting work abroad—since this would open the doors for larger and better projects as well as construction budgets. Michel was not in accordance [with my thinking], and we decided it was better to end our partnership.” By 2015, Salinas had left the studio.
Rojkind claims that his firm had at one point grown to an in-house team of 45 (Salinas says it was actually more like 35), but he has since shrunk the size of his staff and built out a broad network of collaborators instead. Today, the staff totals six, and his extended partners number roughly 120. The startup-style arrangement allows him to bring in talent as needed, and to stay nimble between jobs. “What’s interesting,” he says, “is that most of the new generations want to freelance. They don’t want to be in an office anymore. I’m trying to understand that. We’re saying, ‘Okay, you want to freelance? Then let’s do a project together. These are my terms. This is my methodology, this is my production and the way I handle things, this is my manual.’”
Anda Andrei, a New York–based creative director and interior designer, considers Rojkind’s flexibility and willingness to bring in various partners refreshing. “Architects are egocentric, God-complex people,” she says. “This new generation is more in touch with the fact that when different points of view are involved, the work is so much better.” Of Rojkind, as well as his frequent collaborators Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena, Andrei adds, “What they bring is very freeing. There’s a lightness to it. Not that they aren’t serious. There’s just something about the heart. It’s fun and bubbly.”
The Salinas shake-up followed the most challenging momentof Rojkind’s career: the 2014 unveiling of Cineteca Nacional. (Rojkind describes it as a “painful learning process.”) Despite the building being unfinished and not yet up to Rojkind’s architectural specifications or standards, the government insisted on opening it anyway. Grumblings that it was in a rough state and not ready for use began to simmer, and, in one of its first weeks, during a film festival’s premiere of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, a storm wreaked havoc on the site. As Rojkind describes it, “All the press was there. The cinemas were packed. And then it starts pouring like crazy. It starts hailing. The project floods like crazy. Rain comes through the lamps inside of the theaters. Everyone has to evacuate. There was a huge thing in the newspapers: ‘This architect doesn’t know how to build!’ I’m like, ‘I’m not the builder—I’m the designer.’”
He continues, “I learned what trolling was after that project. I was getting all these online trolls screaming ‘You fucking architect!’” It was Rojkind’s highest-profile commission yet, and could have been his greatest opportunity to get the global lift-off he craved. But the opening was a complete disaster.
Shortly after, devastated, Rojkind took the client to the site to point out how many of his specifications, including necessary water pumps, were ignored and never built or installed. In time, the project’s problem areas got fixed, Rojkind says, and its design finally completed—for the most part. Several parts of the plan—the landscape, the parking lot’s facade, the pedestrian access from Cuauhtémoc Avenue, a gallery—have yet to be completed. Despite the false start, the Cineteca quickly become what Rojkind had hoped for: a community connector. And it brought renewed attention to his firm.
Overall, though, the experience left the designer reeling and feeling bitter about doing projects for and with the Mexican government. “I swore that I would never work with the government again after Cineteca,” he says. Little did Rojkind know at the time that he would soon find a soul mate of sorts in Mayor Márquez—someone in government whose vision aligned with his own—and a dream project in Foro Boca.
It’s 6:30 a.m. on the last day of my visit in early December to Boca del Río, and I’m running down the beach toward Foro Boca. From my hotel, an AC Marriott that opened a month ago, it’s about five kilometers to the concert hall. As I run, I begin to see with clarity the immediate impact of Rojkind and Miguel Ángel Yunes Márquez’s vision. Though the neighborhood’s rough-around-the-edges environs have a long way to go before they establish a sense of community or comfort, Márquez’s city-improvement effort of widening the sidewalk and building Foro Boca has decidedly bettered the streetscape.
The bouldering concert hall can be spotted from about a mile down the beach. Large as it is, it looks appropriate on the site on which it sits: the raw-concrete exterior appears as if it’s a natural part of the rocky outcropping, and also subtly blends into its surrounding neighborhood. Somehow, the building is humble, and even for a philharmonic, it doesn’t feel pretentious or intimidating. The architecture, which could be right at home in many seaside first-world cities, exudes the boisterous energy and edgy attitude of its designer, and also matches the tall ambitions of the former mayor who made it happen.
As peculiar as the phrase “urban detonator” is, Rojkind is right to use it when describing Foro Boca. The project is clearly shaking up its surroundings, palpably improving, in a highly visible way, a city and state that are home to some of Mexico’s worst violence and most clandestine criminal operations. It’s the kind of architecture that’s not only going to alter—for the better—the rhythm of the region it serves, it’s sure to bring Rojkind even more recognition. “Michel is so internationally oriented and so generous,” says Bjarke Ingels, one of today’s biggest players in architecture. “When he gets possibilities, he always goes all in. I imagine he will soon overflow the borders of Mexico despite whatever Trump wall of architecture or bias he might have to climb over.”
It’s now a question of when—not if—he will get that big international break. Not surprisingly, while reporting, I heard murmurs that a project beyond Mexico may indeed be on the horizon.