Firm name: Taller Ken
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala; San José, Costa Rica; New York City
Year founded: 2013
Firm leadership: Inés Guzmán and Gregory Melitonov
Education: Guzmán: B.Arch. and M.Arch., Universidad del Diseño de San José, Costa Rica; Melitonov: B.S., Skidmore College; M.Arch., Yale University
Experience: Prior to founding the practice both Guzmán and Melitonov worked for Pritzker Prize laureate Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, as architectural designer team for the new Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan and the headquarters building for the High Line.
Firm size: Seven architects and one Labrador-boxer mix
Our practice is focused on playful design with social and cultural relevancy. Incorporating a multitude of voices, our work goes beyond merely elevating elements of design to creating an architecture with broad appeal.
We were asked to renovate a single-story concrete-block building in Guatemala City for a menswear brand. The resulting concept store contains retail areas for clothing, home furnishings by local artists, as well as a gallery, café, toilets, and service spaces. The exterior for this project was a particularly interesting opportunity for us—it is inspired by Spanish Colonial architectural heritage of the area, specifically the sculptural openings and the thick stucco walls. We used molded fiberglass panels to give the appearance that the entire project is shrink-wrapped.
For the same client, we created a 4,500-square-foot café and event space located on the most heavily trafficked highway in Guatemala. To draw attention of passing traffic at various speeds, we took inspiration from commercial roadside icons. The exterior was conceived of as a four-sided billboard, a provocative 50-foot-tall neutral cube studded with colorful car chassis. The goal for the project was to blend human and industrial scales. Both the exterior and interior are conceived to reflect a playful, yet critical approach to urban sprawl and sustainability. The scale of the exterior is paired with a lush, highly detailed interior—a pastiche of technical and traditional elements. Exposed steel structure, skylights, and louvers are expressed to emphasize the building’s systems. Reclaimed rainwater is collected in bright blue tanks to water 15-foot palm trees which partition the open floor plan. The floor is made from a patchwork of cement tiles, new and recycled building material from local exterior patios. These elements combine with custom millwork and furnishings, vibrant color palette, and tropical vegetation to create a space that is at once familiar and refreshingly unexpected.
Second favorite project:
Playa Chomo—which translates to Connection Beach in English—is a temporary pavilion and the inaugural project of a self-initiated annual design-build program. Intended to generate public awareness, the project is located at the base of the Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias, a disused green area containing the national theater in the center of Guatemala City. The project was conceived of and executed by an amazing group of student volunteers during a three-month design-build process. The goal of the pavilion was to spark awareness in response to the conditions of the site and initiate the first step in a long process of civic and cultural renewal. The team of international participants constructed a large colorful canopy using recycled elastic ribbons to shelter new programmed cultural events, concerts, and resting areas. An interior gravel pathway leads the public from the street to the theater grounds above.
Origin of firm name
Taller is Spanish for “workshop” and “ken” is an English word meaning “knowledge or understanding” so our practice is a Spanglish mashup of the hands-on and the cerebral.
Biggest career leap:
The firm often works in developing countries and urban areas defined by an imbalance of growth and social inequities. In order to work more closely with local communities, in 2016 we began the Fundamental Design-Build Initiative. As mentioned above, the program brings design interns together with real world problems to engage in all phases of the realizing of a public urban intervention for the collective good. This experience has helped the practice establish its approach to working in the public realm, communicating, and applying its design ethos to non-traditional audiences.
Design tool of choice:
Oddly, it’s becoming WhatsApp. The ability to communicate quickly across multiple countries and projects, rapidly sharing sketches, references, screenshots, et cetera, has helped us to make our work less precious. Bringing in clients and/or builders into the design and construction process message-by-message has helped to demystify our role as architects as well.
The best advice you've ever gotten:
Renzo Piano’s advice was that the first work experience you have in an architecture office has to be one that shows you that anything is possible. His studio in Genoa, Italy, where we each worked for three years could not be a better example of that. Watching Renzo author major commissions of different scales—museums, office towers, exhibits, products—all with a sense of craftsmanship and detail that is inherently “Italian.” Renzo Piano Building Workshop also continually opens its doors to young talented architects from all over the world, embracing an international, diverse team, with an emphasize on hand-on training, an approach Taller Ken continues to embrace.
Favorite place to get inspired:
A big clean desk with natural light, a stack of white paper, and a bucket of colored pencils.
Favorite travel destination for architecture:
The trifecta is Japan, Italy, and Mexico. These places somehow have an amazing patchwork of distinct regional traditions or exemplify what is avant-garde. For exmaple, Tokyo, Milan, and Mexico City could easily be the three best places be informed about what’s “on trend” right now in design, whereas Tuscany, Kansai, Oaxaca can provide a timeless sense of architecture’s continuity and relation to craft, culture, landscape and tradition.
Today architects should be discussing:
Today it’s WeWork. Traditional architecture offices are completely out of step with a company thats able to design, build, and operate a commercial office spaces at scale. Traditional practices will increasing be competing with WeWork and subsequent spin-off companies that are offering competing design services coupled with a more advanced, data driven business model. More importantly they are doing so backed by venture capital, enabling them to take bigger risks a more forgiving bottom line—in other words, the sky is falling.
Skills to master:
Upcycling—using waste material, or even existing material, in reliable construction methods—is of increasing interest to us as a means to create unique, meaningful work. We are currently constructing a beach house in Nosara, Costa Rica, using a “super-adobe” earthbag construction method for the principal walls. This will serve to incorporate the soil excavated for the foundations into the construction of the building and greatly increase the thermal mass of the walls. Much of the building industry has become off-the-shelf, so using these low-tech methods is refreshing and points to potential for future projects.