Mexican Postmodernism

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Mexican architects have sought to incorporate historical sources and elements to create local, legible, and comfortable variants of modernist forms. Thus, Mexican architecture has been characterized by eclecticism and the cannibalization of architectural styles from the past. Those are also characteristics of postmodernism.

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However, it is difficult to evaluate what distinguishes postmodernism in Mexico in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s from the work done previously since a lack of clear periodization. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mexico began to face economic problems with large public debts and the severe devaluation of the Mexican peso. Throughout the tenures of both Luis Echeverr?­a (1970 1976) and José Lopez Portillo (1976 1982), large infrastructural and public projects were made; however, because of low investor confidence, large-scale and private architectural commissions remained limited. In addition, Mexico never had the political situation that enabled postmodernism to emerge in other Latin American countries as a subtle critique of political or military dictatorships (as in Brazil and Argentina). Unlike other Latin American architects did, Mexican architects in the 1970s and 1980s did not emulate the styles and forms developing in North America or Europe, despite Mexico’s relatively open political system and their proximity to the United States. Despite these circumstances, a particular form of Mexican postmodernism developed as a response to these conditions, and we can define four characteristics or expressions of it as the following below.

The first and most recognizable one is based on the popularity of the architecture of Luis Barragan. His work became the emblem of what Mexican (and, to a certain extent, Latin American) architecture would be as seen from abroad. In this way, the historical references embedded in his work became a synecdoche for traditional Mexican architecture that had undergone the process of modernization. The references pointed to very specific historical forms and colors of the central region of Mexico as well as colonial architecture and its Mediterranean nuances all of which were associated with Barragan’s past and with his travels to Europe. The use of specific elements: bright colors; architectural components such as the staircase in his house; unornamented, plain, heavy, thick walls, etc. became emblematic of a regionalist response to modernism but also a continuation of the experiments of the twentieth century. Characteristic of this tendency is the work of Ricardo Legorreta, a disciple of Luis Barragan and carried Barragan’s ideas to a wider realm. Barragan’s influence can be seen in Legorreta’s design for the Hotel Camino Real (Mexico City, 1968) that has the chromatic references through the use of bright pinks and yellows; the inward focus; the artistic associations such as the large-scale entry screen by Mathias Goeritz; the thick, unornamented walls; and other elements that are present in many of Barragan’s works. Legorreta’s later works, such as the Hotel Camino Real (Ixtapa, Guerrero, 19801981) and the City of the Arts Master Plan and School of Visual Arts (Mexico City, 1994) continue this trend. Both structures show the contrast of bright colors highlighted by natural light, use of large-scale sculptural elements, and the use of historical forms (such as the water troughs from Mexican ranches typical of Barragan, in the first, or the domes from the colonial Capilla Real in Cholula or the pyramidal-shaped spiral stairs reminiscent of pre-Columbian ruins). In the Gutiérrez Cortina House (Mexico City, 1987 1988), Legorreta reproduced the stair without handrails, the contrasting bright colors, and the expression of the wood rafters on the ceiling which can all be found in Barragan’s own house (Mexico City, 1947 1948). In these works, we can see how Barragan’s work became representative of a proto-postmodernism: historical citations without social content that announced the end of the social project of modernism and the avant-garde.

While the hyper-chromaticism of Barragan was the most prominent style, a more North American type of postmodernism emerged in Mexico that was devoid of any theoretical armature. Neither Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) nor Learning from Las Vegas (1972), which developed as historical systems through which to criticize the limits of the modern movement, became points of reference. In addition, there was no clear connection with or influence by the New York school (Peter Eisenman) or, even, with the Spanish neo-avant-garde, such as the architects and theorists who revolved around the Barcelonan magazine Arquitecturas Bisa sort of response to the polemics coming from North America which was involved in investigating the character of European architecture and theory at the time. These tendencies can be seen in Félix Sanchez’s own architectural office (Mexico City, 1986). A rehabilitation of a historical building, the project’s forms and details are typical of a North American postmodernism influenced by Michael Graves’s early work: exposed steel structure, glass block, wood, gray-painted steel tube handrails, inset arches within square openings, among others. Other examples to be cited include the myriad of buildings designed in the Santa Fe district of Mexico City that, at the time, became one of the new centers of financial activity and information economy based on the emerging globalization. Emblematic are office buildings and shopping centers that are modeled primarily on their North American counterparts.

The third expression of Mexican postmodernism is not only tied to a monumental tradition that is indebted to pre-Hispanic architecture, but also to Le Corbusier’s postWorld War II turn to exposed and expressive reinforced concrete. Following many of these tendencies is the work of Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon that can be characterized as neo-Aztec. Along with Abraham Zabludovsky, Gonzalez de Leon developed a new architectural language that would become emblematic of a monumental postmodernism. In the Colegio de Mexico (Mexico City, 1974 – 1976), the primary organizational system is a courtyard that Gonzalez de Leon referenced both colonial and pre-Hispanic plazas. That central open space becomes subdivided into a series of platforms that allow access into the different programs and levels of the building. In addition, the design introduces a triangular geometry in the plan to make the experience of moving from the large open entry portico through the courtyard more dynamic. The concrete used for the construction is hand chiseled to expose the marble aggregate, giving the work becomes less monolithic and signals a return to the importance of the handicrafts of construction. A similar organizational system and approach to handicrafts is present in J. Francisco Serrano’s campus for the Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico City, 1981 1987) that is arranged around a multilevel central courtyard. Like the Colegio de México, the layout of the campus also uses diagonals as a compositional method. Its stepped terraces create a dynamic spatial sense that also allows access to the surrounding structures at differing levels. The most notable difference from the Colegio de México is the use of brick as cladding and infill throughout, giving the different zones and elements a unified and coherent reading. While these examples could be characterized as neo-Aztec, the work of Agust?­n Hernandez that is most emblematic of this and even of a “Aztec High-Tech”. By using contemporary technologies, Hernandez generates forms that pre- Columbian people had built in the past. The Heroico Colegio Militar (Mexico City, 1973 1976) demonstrates this clearly not only because of its overall organization around a large open plaza – reminiscent of the main plaza in Monte Alban, Oaxaca but also because many of the buildings that surround the plaza have glass curtain wall fa?§ades that angle inward to give a pyramidal profile. In other cases, the forms are monolithic constructions with continuous horizontal bands of windows that subdivide the buildings’ masses. One particular structure appears to be a typical International-style building, with horizontal windows and expressive floor slabs, that has tipped over and, thus, appears pyramidal. The most emblematic is the Administration Building, which, formally, looks like an enormous pre-Hispanic mask: its mouth composed of a reinforced concrete tribune, eyes made of cantilevered and angled volumes with horizontal windows, the nose of a protruding volume with glass openings.

The most difficult to stylistically characterize and has had the fewest repercussions is probably the Carlos Mijares’ work, the final variant of Mexican postmodernism. This work features formal manipulation of space based on the use of brick to make primarily industrial architecture and religious buildings. In the Mortuary Chapel (Jungapeo, Michoacan, 1982 1985), the central feature is a hyperarticulated roof plane composed of elaborate brick pendentives and, in the Christ Church (Mexico City, 1991 1992), that is overlapping brick arches. In both cases, the spans of the brick structure allow for the simple square plan to rotate as it moves upward, creating a visual effect reminiscent of the baroque architecture of Guarino Guarini or Piranesian spatial layering. This work is most akin to that of the Uruguayan architect and engineer Eladio Dieste. While the material and inspiration is based on local traditions of construction, the work is hardly regionalist and difficult to define as characteristically Mexican.

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