La Serenissima

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mexican Architecture

From pre-Columbian times to chic, minimalist modern

When you first visit Mexico, even if it’s just to Mexico City, you are immediately struck by the layers of history and culture reflected in its architecture. Interestingly, to my eye at least, Mexico’s modern architects combine the strong, geometric shapes of pre-Columbian constructions with the brilliance of the Colonial colour pallet. I am indebted, through  Google images, to several websites for supplementing our own photos of Templo Mayor, Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Rufino Tamayo and the work of Luis Barragan. The specific websites are noted through and at the end of this story. If you Google Mexican contemporary architects, you will find a fabulous range of sites featuring modern designs including houses, offices/commercial buildings and chapels.

Pre-Columbian architecture

You just need to go to the Zocalo and head towards the Templo Mayor, where you will see ruins of an Aztec temple unearthed in the 1970’s. It stands in the heart of Tenochtitlan, which was nearly, but not quite, destroyed by the Spaniards.

On the outskirts of Mexico City is Tlatelolco, the twin city of Tenochtitlan, where you will find Plaza de las Tres Culturas which reflects the mix of modern, colonial and pre-Columbian architecture located in the same space.

Further afield, you can see Teotihuacan, regarded by some as one of the ancient world’s most impressive cities. It was established before the Christian era, was about 20 square kilometres in size. It is thought to have been abandoned around AD650. The reasons for this are not clear, but there is some speculation about disease infestation or perhaps prolonged drought, which made life unsustainable. Whatever the cause, there is little known about its creators or the people who lived there. Later the Aztecs held the site in great reverence. What is clear is its enormity and majesty that we can see through its pyramids, temples, palaces and avenues.

Although not quite on the same grand scale, is the great Zapotec site of Monte Alban. Strong geometric lines characterise the temples and pyramids.

Spanish Colonial architecture

Then there are many architectural delights from the Spanish colonial period, which is not only in evidence in Mexico City but also places like Puebla, Guadalajara, Queretaro, Guanajuato and San Miguel De Allende. Buildings are characteristically graceful and elegant, with use of colour and internal gardens a hallmark.

Classical and modern architecture

Equally, a major cultural institution such as Bellas Artes, whilst influenced in its exterior design by the Paris Opera, its interior is firmly art deco.

... and the beauty of the staircase in Mexico City's main Post Office

20th century architecture

It would be wrong to exclude the beauty and inventiveness of Mexico’s modern architecture. It confounds me why there hasn’t been more acclamation for modern Mexican architects since the 1960’s. Ranging from designs for houses (Casas) and haciendas, probably most famously done by one of Mexico’s great and influential architects Luis Barragan, to commercial buildings and museums, the architecture is characterised by boldness, colour and simplicity. 

There are many examples, but one is the entrance to Museo Antropologia in Mexico City. An enormous fountain supports the large roof area that marks the entrance but also forms part of a central courtyard. It is one of the largest single pieces of concrete supported by one column in the world.

Wikipedia describes it: "Designed in 1963 by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares, it has an impressive architecture with exhibition halls surrounding a patio with a huge pond and a vast square concrete umbrella supported by a single slender pillar (known as "el paraguas", Spanish for "the umbrella") around which splashes an artificial cascade. The halls are ringed by gardens, many of which contain outdoor exhibits. The museum has 23 rooms for exhibits and covers an area of 79,700 square meters (almost 8 hectares) or 857,890 square feet (almost 20 acres)."

Angie Galicia from Inside Mexico Publishing further elaborates: "The inverted fountain, also located in the central patio, is a marvelous sculpture that records on its metal column, the two races who merged, the Indigenous and the Spanish,  to create a new nation. And around this pillar a circular curtain of rain falls gently, endowing the whole place with a fresh coolness and solemnity."

Iconic artists and architects – Tamayo and Barragàn 

Another equally impressive museum is the Museo Rufino Tamayo, located in Chapultapec Park. This modern architectural jewel displays works of the artist himself as well as temporary exhibitions. The museum is reviewed on Trip Advisor (Museo Rufino Tamayo - Mexico City - Trip Advisor) and also Wikipedia (Museo Rufino Tamayo - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). The photos shown here are from Trip Advisor.


Luis Barragàn 

The Design Museum (  describes Luis Barragàn (1902-1988): (He) " was one of Mexico’s most influential 20th century architects. Famed for his mastery of space and light, he reinvented the International Style as a colourful, sensuous genre of Mexican modernism.

Barragán transformed the International Style into a vibrant, sensuous Mexican aesthetic by adding vivid colours and textural contrasts and accentuating his buildings' natural surroundings.He once said that light and water were his favourite themes, and soon became skilled at manipulating them both in buildings like the 1966 Folke Egerstrom House and Stables built around a brightly coloured, sculptural sequence of horse pools (Barragán loved horse riding) and the 1975-77 Francisco Gilardi House framing an indoor pool. Info

If you Google Luis Barragan photos, you will see a huge repository of examples of his work. Quite a visual feast!

Here are some examples of his work.

Museo Soumaya

The museum opened in March 2011. It is not only an extraordinary piece of architecture from the outside, but has an open and vast feel inside, very suitable for exhibiting large sculptures such as those by Rodin.

The New York Times, in it's blog tmagazine, said "(for) the museum’s founder, Carlos Slim Helú, building the museum was labor of love." He is "the world’s richest man (who is also a creditor and minority shareholder of The New York Times Company), and the museum, named after Slim’s late wife, has certainly got the city — and the art world — talking."  The opening gala was attended by President Calderón and Gabriel García Márquez. (The museum is free to the public.)"

"The loudest part of the buzz about Soumaya is the love it-or-hate it design by Slim’s architect son-in-law, Fernando Romero. The building resembles a trapezoid in motion, which Romero, who has worked at Rem Koolhaas’s firm, covered in 16,000 hexagonal aluminum plates that reflect sunlight, most beautifully at sunset. The structure also cribs features from some of the world’s top museums, including a grand Met-like exterior staircase that has already become a place to meet and snap photos, and stark, all-white interiors that recall New York’s Guggenheim — you take the elevator to the top floor and descend via ramps.

Though Slim’s collection is reportedly 70,000 pieces strong and worth $750 million, the six floors and 183,000 square feet of exhibition space showcase only a fraction of it at any one time. The top-floor sculpture garden, dominated by a spectacular skylight, displays numerous Rodins (Slim is said to have the largest collection outside France), and elsewhere are paintings and murals by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, as well as works from Miró, Van Gogh, Botero, Matisse and El Greco. The museum also has a 350-seat auditorium, a public library, a gift shop and a cafe."

Playful street art

Finally, Mexico’s streetscapes reflect particularly the influence of colonial architecture but also include some interesting modern twists and playful humour. An example of this is the street sculptures in Mexico City. An illustration is a series of public seats, Dialogas de Bancas, which are based on whimsical themes, such as playing cards, a boat, and a seat topped by an inverted seat with people sitting on it!

Decorative, imaginative and practical – all at once!

A final example of the Mexican architectural ingenuity is El Caballito – a bright yellow, modern sculpture of a horse's head. It partly commemorates a much older sculpture of the same name, by Manuel Tolsa,  which is now displayed in the plaza outside Museo Nacional de Arte. But the modern version performs a practical purpose. It is a vent for the main sewer through Mexico City!

Wikipedia states that  the modern El Caballito stands in front of the "Torre del Caballito, a skyscraper located on the Paseo de la Reforma #10 at the Cuauhtemoc delegation in Mexico City. It was designed by Grupo Posadas de Mexico. It is 135 metres (443 feet) and 35 storeys tall. 33 of the floors are used as office space which measures 60,000 square meters. It also has 15 underground parking levels. The building's total area is 131,000 square meters.”

Manuel Tolsa’s original statue is commonly known as El Caballito, meaning "little horse." It was originally placed in the Zocalo but when Mexico gained independence, the nation's first president, Guadalupe Victoria, had it removed. It resided in several different locations before being placed here, in the Plaza Tolsa, in 1979.

The impressive building behind the statue was completed in 1911 and since 1982 has housed the National Art Museum (Museo Nacional de Arte), which has a large collection of Mexican art, primarily paintings showing Mexico's art development between 1810 and 1950.

The photo of the original El caballito, taken by Bruce Herman, is included in the following link:

Links and resources

Luis Barragàn 

Casa Antonio Galvez, by Luis Barragan, at San Angel, Mexico, 1954.

Casa Luis Barragan, by Luis Barragan, at Tacubaya, Mexico, 1947.

Museo Soumaya

Mexican architecture
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Architecture of Mexico – general

Hotel Camino Real, by Ricardo Legorreta, at Cancun, Mexico, 1973 to 1975.
Houses in Mexicali, by Christopher Alexander, at Mexicali, Mexico, 1975 to 1976.
Los Manantiales, by Felix Candela, at Xochimilco, Mexico, 1958.
Monte Alban Complex, by unknown, at Monte Alban, Mexico, 100 to 800.
Teotihuacan, by unknown, at Teotihuacan, Mexico, 200 to 800.
UNAM Library, by Juan O'Gorman, at Mexico City, Mexico, 1953.
Uxmal, by unknown, at Uxmal, Mexico, 800 to 1400.

National Council for culture and the arts, Mexico:

Luis Barragàn 

Museo Antropologia