Gregory Melitonov, co-founder of Taller KEN with Inés Guzmán, once stated that “you need the artistic weirdos” in architectural practice. Taller KEN aspires to be just that with their playful and spirited projects ranging from mega roadside-attraction inspired cafes to colorful public pavilions.
Taller KEN (taller meaning workshop or studio, and ken meaning perception, understanding in Spanish) was born through Guzmán and Melitonov’s experiences working at Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW). The Pritzker Prize-winning architect brought Guzmán and Melitonov to the team for projects including the new Whitney Museum of American Art in Lower Manhattan location. In 2013, following a brief period of freelance collaboration while Guzman went back home to Guatemala, the duo opened Taller KEN, now operating in New York and Guatemala City. The firm recently opened a third office in San José, Costa Rica.
With a growing list projects, both built and speculative, and various accolades Taller KEN continues to make an impact. For example, Taller KEN’s internship program, FUNdaMENTAL, connects students worldwide by collaborating on site-specific projects in developing countries. In 2016, the firm was awarded the AIA New Practices New York Award, and was selected as a finalist for the 2018 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program. Just last month, the firm’s portfolio was selected as a winner of the Architectural League Prize for Young Architects + Designers and profiled in Architect as a firm to follow in their column “Next Progressives.” On a call between Guatemala, New York, and Pittsburgh, the Taller KEN duo talks about the challenge of moving from individual creative practices to growing a collaborative business, the inspiration behind their colorful works, and the growing FUndaMENTAL design team.
You met early in your career while at Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW). What were your biggest takeaways? How did this opportunity lead you to found Taller KEN?
Gregory: Renzo Piano is a model for what you can do as a young person if you take initiative. RPBW is a living archive of Piano’s work and process. While employees, we were also students being exposed to the forty years of Piano’s career and understanding what he was already doing at our age—testing lightweight structures and building boats, for example.
Inés: I come from a developing country. Greg comes from a developed concrete jungle. But at the end of the day, it often comes down to talking to the right people and being discovered. Yes, we were working at RPBW, but I was always working on other freelance opportunities as well in my free time. Greg was doing the same in a more organic and artistic way. We realized that we shared more in common than we thought.
Tell me about transitioning your individual creative practices into a joint business. How has the vision of Taller KEN evolved since the beginning?
Gregory: It is isn’t like you flip a switch and just decide to open a business. We were working on independent projects, helping each other with our own portfolios and resumes, applying to competitions together, and eventually going forward with actual projects, all while working at RPBW.
It took a year of working since our first real project was commissioned before we actually decided to start a studio with a name and website. When we made that decision to give ourselves a name, it was like creating a third person. I think that did take the belief we had in ourselves to the next level.
Inés: You probably always think that you have to have things figured out perfectly, but you actually don’t. You just have to work hard and do it. All the dots eventually add up.
A lot of your built work is in Central America–how does location influence your critical thinking?
Gregory: Being an outsider living in NYC coming to Central America, the contrast is crazy. It’s a process of self-discovery—I did not speak any Spanish when I came here and was always asking Inés what the world taller meant. The innocence and naïveté you have being in a new culture leads to a new curiosity about the world around you.
Inés: As an insider, I think those qualities help with developing yourself and your work a little more freely and with more expression. This opens a lot of other opportunities and doors if you have the courage to do it.
Gregory: Developing countries also need to work more to bring people in. When you’re trying to work locally, it means that you have to engage with local people and learn from them, so you bring them into the process. And then the work becomes less about you and your ideas and more about the collaborative spirit of the process. And this is specifically reflected in our work.
The portfolio of Taller KEN plays with color and matching the outdoors with interior spaces. What laid the foundation for these ideas?
Inés: Context definitely plays a big role. The sun is always above us. Shadows are always stronger. Colors are everywhere, especially in Guatemala–in every single thing–the fruits, the clothing, the houses. That is reflected in our work.
Gregory: It’s not only a process for each project, but also an incremental iterative process that over time we’ve grown into ourselves. The color and the nature is a literal reflection of the context but it’s also this unexpected result from bringing in different collaborators and voices–something that could never be planned in advance. There is something about working in a developing country where you really have to allow for a certain amount of unpredictability. This helps distinguish our projects from a lot of other young practices where maybe the work ends up reading as too planned, too focused, or too minimal.
People back at home in New York City always tell me that our ideas and colors would never work in a place like the United States. If you can only use color in Jaipur and in Africa and Latin America, what are you saying? Even though for us color is a reflection of local heritage and traditions, there is something that is universally appealing about it, too. Maybe it’s also a new younger approach to design where everything doesn’t always have to be all white, black, wood, and subway tile with a naked lightbulb.
What inspired you to begin your educational internship program, FUNdaMENTAL Design Build?
Gregory: The idea was sparked by two things. First, we won the AIA New Practices award, and second, we lost a large competition in Guatemala. It was a moment of self reflection. As we mature, we become more interested in our failures than our successes. We lost the competition because we were not “qualified to do such a big project.” While at the same time, because of the award, we received numerous resumes from students looking for jobs. As upset as we were about losing this opportunity, we were seeing an amazing amount of passion and drive from young people who were very excited about our architecture. We wanted to do something to take advantage of all of the things they were learning in school. We sent out a proposal asking if anyone would be interested in coming to Guatemala for three months to do a project. No site in mind. No program in mind, except they would be the authors of the things themselves. Our office would act as a local guide and facilitate, but have a hands-off approach to design and let these talented young people from all over the world bring their expertise to Guatemala.
Inés: We thought that no one was going to respond. The overwhelming response gave us a boost to do things ourselves. We saw that a lot of potential projects don’t need a client, but do need that untapped passion from students. Our interest in FUNdaMENTAL is more social than commercial.
As the most populous country in Central America, Guatemala has very high poverty rates, with over fifty percent of the population living below the poverty line. How do local and international architects working in Guatemala address these conditions?
Inés: There are different ways architecture has responded to it. There’s a small group of people fighting for equality and inclusivity. But on the other hand, the developer mindset is focused on numbers, selling, investment, and return—it leaves behind the rest of the population. Poverty is all over the country. It’s very unequal. And that is something architecture should fight.
Gregory: I have a lot of hope in the Guatemalan architecture community, even though right now there seems to be a very superficial approach to connecting design to place. We want to change that with FUNdaMENTAL as a concept—to start to shape community through design. With this program, you are not just any local architect. You are “architecting the culture,” and that should be the goal for every architect.
Taller KEN has received some exciting press recently! How does this change your perspective and affect the future outlook of Taller KEN?
Inés: We are big believers of feedback loops. At the beginning, press was always a booster. It was something that made us feel good. It made us want to keep going and doing more things. Now, it’s more about the impact that something we do could have on people. We are less interested in publications that tell us “wow, this project had good color,” and more in those that ask “what does it actually do for the people and the place?”
Gregory: To the outside world, Guatemala is a poor place, or a place of unwanted people or people fleeing gang violence. There’s a disconnect between reality and perception of a place that’s very dear to both of us. As a way of putting ourselves out there, we raise a tiny flag through the quality and impact of our work to show how Guatemala isn’t what you think it is. That’s a big goal of FUNdaMENTAL—bringing people from outside who would never in a million years think of coming to Guatemala and inviting them into the city, into neighborhoods, and using this as a way to break down stereotypes and communicate a message.
Jai Kanodia is a B.Arch student with a minor in business administration at Carnegie Mellon University, graduating in May 2019. He was part of Taller KEN’s FUndaMENTAL Design Build team in 2017 and while an intern at Point Line Projects recommended the firm for Architect’s Next Progressive series.