by Foteini Gougoustamou
A trip to Mexico? To criminality and poverty? Reality comes to refute the rumors that surround the city of Mexico that gradually yet continuously shows that it is a developing city with rich history and great traditional and contemporary architecture.
One land, seven civilizations
In the land of Mexico, two of the greatest civilizations of the world thrived and developed (the civilization of the Maya and of the Aztecs), thus setting the foundations for astronomy and leaving an important scientific and architectural legacy.
The following timeline briefly mentions their contribution to contemporary civilization:
Rich decoration, many colors
The artistic and architectural movement of the new Spanish baroque appears around the end of the 16th century and continues to influence all later constructions up until the mid-18th century.
The most important examples of the new Spanish baroque are found in religious architecture. Characteristic examples are the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico, the church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla in Puebla, the Jesuit monastery in Tepotzotlan, the Rosario Chapel in the Church of Santo Domingo in Puebla, the chapel and church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca and the Santa Prisca church in Taxco. However, the best sample of baroque architecture in the city of Mexico is Biblioteca Palafoxiana (founded by bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza in 1646).
20th century: neo-gothic architecture, modernism, minimalism, color
At the beginning of the previous century, neo-gothic and Art-Nouveau architecture prevails in public buildings which bear a monumental character. Characteristic examples are the Palacio Postal and the Palacio de Bellas Artes designed by the Italian architect Adamo Boari and the old market of Toluca.
The latter was built between the years 1908-1910 by the Mexican engineer Manuel Arratia for the centenary anniversary of the Mexican Independence. The building continued to operate as a market till 1975. From 1978-1980, the Mexican painter, muralist and sculptor Leopoldo Flores (born in 1936) attempted an innovative design with stained glass, which covers the surfaces of the building and comprises of 71 glass panels, which cover 3.200 square meters and contain 45 tones of blown glass and around 500.000 pieces of glass for the particular building which since then roofs the Botanical Garden of Toluca, which is home to more than 500 plant species.
Famous Mexican architects introduced new innovative designs and constructions during the 20th century. Some of the names which stand out in the history of Mexican architecture are Felix Candela (1910-1997), Spanish architect known for his contribution to Mexican architecture, Mathias Goeritz (1915-1990), Mexican architect, sculptor and painter of German origin, Pedro Ramirez Vasquez (1919-2013), Mexican architect who designed the Museum of Anthropology (1963), Juan O’Gorman (1905-1982), architect and painter and the widely known and honored with the Pritzker Prize Mexican architect Luis Barragan (1902-1988).
The work of three of the aforementioned is briefly described:
Felix Candela is considered the creator of a construction system whose two basic characteristics expressed the tendencies of the 20th century: the use of reinforced concrete and the definition of the architectural space in relation to the fourth dimension of time. He worked as an architect in Mexico until 1949, when he started making his distinctive thin-shells of concrete. Candela did most of his work in Mexico until the 60’s. At that time, he was responsible for more than 300 works and 900 projects. Many of his large projects such as the Cosmic Rays Pavilion were assigned to him by the Mexican government.
Juan O’gorman achieves the perception of functionality and rationalism as a “technique” and a means of expression of the architectural composition. This new composition ignores the austere nobility and heavy symbolism of the 20s and pays more attention to the logic rather than the emotion of the creator. O’gorman opposed to the baroque beauty of illusion with the beauty of truth and logic. He developed an organic architecture which combines and draws on the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, the style of Le Corbusier and the Mexican culture and history.
The work which made him famous though was the house studio he designed for painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the suburb of San Anhel in Mexico. This house caused a great scandal in the urban society of the time. Riviera lived and worked in the white and red block of the house until his death, while Kahlo lived for a shorter period in the blue block. The elements which make the construction distinctive are radical and remarkable for that time. All of the electrical and plumbing services were exposed and as connections, they were used as expressive and compositional elements which resembled veins and arteries. Finally, like in Le Corbusier’s work where the window wall element served as a photographic lens in order to capture the landscape, O’gorman’s construction allows curtains to be hanged from the windows, creating an indoor “frame” for both the residents and the “artifacts” in the house. It is therefore observed that the curtain is drawn down the whole window and the outer landscape which is visible from the upper side of the window is blurry and schematic.
Luis Barragan’s constructions are famous for the intelligent treatment of their spaces and light, although he has been particularly known for his architecture of uncovered space, managing to combine the “contemporary” with the warmth and the intensity of the colors prevalent in the Mexican landscape. He influenced the architects of the 20th century, both with the way he reformed uncovered free spaces but also with the style of his buildings, an architectural approach which drew on the cultural and religious traditions of Mexico.
His first big public construction was the Revolution Park in Guadalajara, which he created in co-operation which his engineer brother, Juan Rose, in 1935.
His favorite themes were water and light. Those found their perfect expression in mainly two cases: in 1966, in his work San Cristobal, which included stables, an artificial lake for the horses and a residence and in 1975-1977, in the private residence of Francisco Gilardi, where he created a unique, indoor artificial swimming pool with intense colors reflecting on the water, changing shades during the day depending on the diffusion and the intensity of the light.
In 1945-1954 he worked on El Pedregal (Rocky Gardens), a big extensive residential neighborhood. More specifically, Barragan transformed an area of 6.000.000 m2 of volcanic, desert landscape into a hospitable residential area with a park. Going beyond the traditional garden design, he assigned a local character to his designs: stairs, pathways, artificial pools and stony walls stand like they have been created out of lava.
However, Barragan’s ideas were established in his house and studio that he built in Fransisco Ramirez Street, in the city of Mexico in 1947. The house is since 2004 in the World Heritage List of UNESCO.
In 1957, Barragan together with his friend, Mathias Goeritz, designed the Satellite Towers, one of the landmarks of the Mexico City. The constructions are made of concrete, are of different heights and intense colors and are implanted in a rather busy junction in Boulevard Manuel Ávila Camacho.
From 1958 until 1962 and from 1963 until 1964, he created similar residential neighborhoods, Las Arboledas and Los Clubes, for riders and stablemen, designed according to the standards of the Riding Clubs and the rationale of the private area, so that the buildings would be protected from the tention and the noise of the everyday life in the city. In Las Arboledas, the fountains, the water tanks, the artificial pools, the noises and the whole sense of move which prevails illustrates the constant presence of the element of water.
The work has inspired many later architects like Tadao Anto, Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, who were awarded the Pritzker Prize.
Planning for the future, referring to the past
The last three decades are characterized by an intense building activity, which serves the modern tendencies in architecture. Asymmetry and shells of patterns covering the skeletons of the buildings both on house facades and shops and towers which house businesses and commercial and touristic activities are some of the characteristics of contemporary architecture worldwide and especially of Mexican architecture.
Mexico owes its rapid works construction and architectural development to its own Mexican “stararchitects”. The most famous are Rojkind Arquitectos, FR-EE/Fernando Romero Enterprise, Richard Meier+Partners Architects, David Chipperfield Architects, Alberto Kalach. Equally important but with a smaller activity are TEN Arquitectos (Enrique Norten), Bunker Arquitectura, Arditti+RDT Architects, Pascal Arquitectos, FRENTE Arquitectura, Migdal Arquitectos. All of the aforementioned have managed to stand out and make their presence noticeable in the area of architecture within a very short period of time. Who does not know the Soumaya Museum of Fernando Romero or the Jose Vasconcelos Library of Alberto Kalach for which the president of Mexico had said that « it is one of the most technologically advanced buildings of the 21st century, a building for which the whole world will be talking »
And the future is foreseen even brighter with the designs of not only stararchitects but of many other architects, which are published in architecture sites every year and are gradually but steadily taking shape.
Perhaps, one of the most famous projects which are about to be realized is the new museum Tamayo by Rojkind Arquitectos in collaboration with BIG, the IIX Century Film Archive by the same ( it is under construction right now) and the most recent (2014) project which is about to be completed in the following years is the National Airport of Mexico.
The idea of Rojkind Arquitectos and Foster+Partners is based on Mexican architecture and art. What Foster himself claimed about the design is that it is “inspired by the past, it has the shape of the future”. This refers to a design which has its roots on one of the most imposing Mexican symbols which shows an eagle eating a snake sitting on a cactus. Access to the airport is through a road that symbolizes the serpent. At the arrivals there will be a garden full of cacti, while the shape of the roof resembles the eagle with its wings open. The new national airport of Mexico will be bioclimatic, it will have many gates and it will only have one terminal, thus reducing both the construction costs and any possible delays of the airplanes.
Differentiation and evolution.
A trip to Mexico will give the opportunity to the visitors to discover and get to know the history of the country through its buildings: The pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, the house of Luis Barragan and the national airport by Rojkind Arquitectos. Each architect, each period of time is referring to the past whether through intense colors or through symbols. It is noteworthy that although the period of modernism has been characterized as the period of sameness and the contemporary period as the period of differentiation, the Mexican modernists stood out and differentiated themselves because contrary to the rest of the modernist architects, they designed for the Mexican people, giving emphasis on the history of Mexico. As it seems, Mexican architects had before long understood that whoever does not know or remember the history of their country, cannot evolve and stand out. The same idea or better the same rationale has been adopted by the contemporary stararchitects who seem to aim at never having Mexico excluded from the atlas of great world architecture.
Author: Foteini Gougoustamou
Text Editing: Vanesa Souli
Fotini Goougoustamou was born in Thessaloniki, Greece 1987. She graduated from the department of Architecture in the Polytechnic faculty of the Democritus University of Thrace in 2012. As an architect, she has gained several honorable mentions in National Architectural Competitions, collaborating with architectural teams. She is also one of the organizational members of the Monumenta team of Thessaloniki, NGO for the architectural and natural heritage in Greece and Cyprus.
Vanesa Souli was born in Athens and she currently lives in Thessaloniki. She is a Senior at the English Language and Literature Department in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She speaks four languages and has been working with translation and text editing for one and a half year now, having attended specialized seminars on it. She has worked on technical translation and subtitling and she has volunteered as a translator for Greece4all, ArchiTeam et al. Her biggest interests are centered on matters of multilingualism, translation and culture.