Juan O’Gorman and the genesis and overcoming of functionalism in Mexican modern architecture



Juan Manuel Heredia



Under the title La Génesis y Superación del Funcionalismo en la Arquitectura, the first published version of Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s seminal book Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science appeared in Mexico in 1980.1 Devoid of Husserlian allusions, Pérez-Gómez’s Spanish title gave no hint of his phenomenological emphasis but was more suited to the Mexican audience. The term functionalism had been at the center of debate in Mexico ever since a group of “radical functionalist” architects initiated that country’s modern movement in the late 1920s. Denying any relevance to art, aesthetics, or “spiritual necessities,” these architects gained their reputation thanks to their uncompromising attitude and the strikingly austere and utilitarian character of their buildings. Conceiving architecture as “engineering of buildings,” their work was also inextricably linked to the creation of the Escuela Superior de Ingeniería y Arquitectura (ESIA) of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN), Pérez-Gómez’s alma mater and the sponsor of his book. Founded in 1936 inspired by the example of the École Polytechnique in Paris, the IPN embodied the positivistic legacy targeted by Pérez-Gómez and embraced in Mexico at many levels of culture since the end of the nineteenth century. Founded four years earlier but immediately incorporated into the IPN, the ESIA advocated the teaching and dissemination of a “technical architecture” in service of post-Revolutionary Mexico. In retrospect, Pérez-Gómez’s book constituted an indirect criticism of his school, of Mexican functionalism, and of Mexican modern architecture in general.

Four decades before the book’s publication, however, an architect also affiliated to the ESIA attempted in Mexico an earlier criticism of functionalism. Indeed, shortly after the school’s opening, its founder and the most radical of Mexican “radicals,” Juan O’Gorman, retreated from his views that regarded functionalism as a vehicle for social emancipation and began considering it an instrument of capitalistic accumulation. O’Gorman’s repentance would not only lead into his formal retirement from the profession but, fifteen years later, to his dual architectural swan song: the mosaic-clad library of the University of Mexico and his surrealistic cave/house on the outskirts of Mexico City. His criticism of functionalism and the implicit and explicit appeals to corporeality and meaning contained in it show many parallels to Pérez-Gómez’s academic work. The deterministic character of his thinking that added to his conflicted personality, however, led him into theoretical conundrums that greatly differed from the latter’s more rigorous and fertile theorizing. Nevertheless O’Gorman’s career as an architect developed with certain autonomy from his theories, showing throughout the years a level of maturation that went unsuspected to the architect himself (Figure 17.1). This essay traces O’Gorman’s architecture and his embrace and criticism of functionalism, acknowledging his importance in the history of modern architecture and in doing so helping to situate the legacy of his unsuspected successor.

Born in Mexico City in 1905, Juan O’Gorman was a central figure of Mexico’s post-revolutionary culture.2 A descendent of British diplomats and Mexican Independence fighters he grew up in a sophisticated environment cultivating a strong nationalistic spirit and a cosmopolitan taste for the humanities, the natural sciences and the arts. Encouraged to pursue his artistic sensibilities through painting, O’Gorman eventually joined the ranks of the socialist artists surrounding Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Instead of painting, however, he decided to study architecture and enrolled in 1922 in the school of architecture of the National University, then the only school of architecture in the country. O’Gorman studied during a transitional period when most of the school’s faculty adhered to an eclectic pedagogy legacy of more than a century of academic instruction in Mexico, but when the combined spirit of renewal of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and the Neues Bauen was strongly felt.3 As a student O’Gorman was in fact pivotal in renovating the school of architecture, mobilizing his classmates to request the support and inclusion of faculty of a more modern persuasion. From these teachers he inherited a structural-rationalist view of building, a proficient knowledge of concrete construction, and a preference for stripping down surfaces from inessentials.4 His most influential teacher, Guillermo Zárraga, transmitted to him a patriotic spirit and an idea of architecture as service for the provision of shelter for the people, yet also encouraging him to consult international periodicals for learning and inspiration. An alleged “anti-Vignolist,” Zárraga was also probably who first introduced him to the work of Le Corbusier.

Figure 17.1 Juan O’Gorman, CTM Union building project, Mexico City, 1936

Indeed, O’Gorman discovered Le Corbusier during his last years at the university. Reportedly the young student became so enthralled with his books that he became known in the corridors of the school as the “kid with Le Corbusier under his arm.” Not surprisingly, as he began practicing architecture, the imprint of Le Corbusier’s work became pervasive on his own. O’Gorman’s often too literal interpretations betrayed the enthusiasm of a young and rebellious architect introducing in Mexico the preeminent symbol of architectural renovation in the world. These interpretations, however, were highly selective, mainly concentrated on the formal and theoretical aspects that he needed for his own polemical uses. Working in a country just emerging from a revolutionary war but with great prospects of reconstruction ahead of it, O’Gorman borrowed from Le Corbusier a technocratic and socially minded mentality, leaving aside the more poetic and transcendental aspects of his work. Moreover, if for Le Corbusier architecture was a substitute for revolution, for Gorman as for indeed most of Mexican modern architects, it was its product and guarantee. O’Gorman’s buildings for their part rehearsed the most distinctive motifs of Le Corbusier’s architecture. This was more evident in his houses, which were often direct emulations of his projects.

In a series of domestic commissions dating from 1929 to 1935 (and that famously included the twin houses for his friends Kahlo and Rivera), O’Gorman demonstrated a precocious assimilation of Le Corbusier’s formal vocabulary (Figure 17.2). More interested in external details and the exposure of electrical, mechanical, and tectonic features (wiring, plumbing, concrete frames and surfaces etc.), however, his projects resulted in largely iconographic exercises bent on expressing a possible modernity for Mexico. Notoriously absent were the formal strategies that could have generated the spatial complexity and sequences that characterized Le Corbusier’s architecture. In aligning the partitions to the structural frame, O’Gorman in fact created highly compartmentalized interiors closer to the idea of existenz­minimum than to a Corbusian “promenade.” Moreover, their proportions were not the result of a careful study of human uses but of a building module (the three-meter spacing of concrete reinforcement for load bearing walls) subdivided or multiplied in consideration of a “function” abstractly and univocally conceived. Along with these modernist features the houses also incorporated a series of “vernacular” motifs: vibrant colors, clay bricks, dry-stone terraces, and cactus fences, etc. Presumably introduced for economic reasons, these elements actually reinforced the houses’ expressive and pictorial character. At any rate, O’Gorman never rationalized his houses in regional terms but instead referred to them as the first “functionalist” houses in Mexico.

Figure 17.2 Juan O’Gorman, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera house-studios, Mexico City, 1931

By functionalism O’Gorman meant when architecture’s form “­completely derived from its utilitarian function.”5 Elsewhere he defined functional architecture as that “only useful for the mechanical aspects of life,” and that “exclusively satisfied the need for shelter.”6 These definitions were in turn based on the “theoretical principle” of “minimum expenditure for maximum efficiency,” and were thus justified in view of the need to act with the outmost economy, objectivity and expediency in Mexico. Circularity of argumentation apart, O’Gorman’s definitions represented the most deterministic notions of function in those years.7 On the one hand, they exhibited a dualistic conception of life that sharply separated corporeal (“mechanical”) from intellectual or spiritual existence. On the other hand, they were oblivious of the codetermining relation between built form and human action.8 More importantly, O’Gorman’s idea of function disregarded the metaphorical meaning that the term had historically possessed since its adoption by architects in the nineteenth century.9 As it has been recently argued, this meaning was still present in twentieth century functionalism, and was present in O’Gorman’s work.10

Indeed, despite his claims O’Gorman’s buildings were conceived as metaphorical, not literal, embodiments of function. Both their modernistic and “traditional” elements were more a matter of display than of actual operation. Admittedly these elements performed, to different degrees of success, in the ways prescribed by the architect. Yet they did it also, but stronger, in the theatrical sense of the term. A collection of pictorial and didactic motifs, the houses lacked the internal and external articulations that could elevate them to a “higher” narrative or poetic level.11 Moreover, O’Gorman’s modular design was exacerbated by his strong interest on spatial economy. This produced very rigid arrangements that made the owners alter them, paradoxically questioning the architect’s claims. This was perhaps more evident in the house for his friend Kahlo: a beautiful object but a rather oppressive setting that obliged its disabled owner to flee into the more spacious adobe of her youth.

Rivera’s patronage of O’Gorman, however, unexpectedly led in 1932 to the architect’s appointment as head of the Department of School Construction of Mexico’s Ministry of Education. Far from gratuitous his appointment obeyed the government’s interest in his theories, and its dissatisfaction with the way public schools had been built until that time, not keeping pace with an increasing demand or with the project for establishing a socialist education in Mexico.12 O’Gorman’s first initiative was the construction and renovation of over fifty elementary schools with an overall budget of one million pesos, the sum normally destined for the construction of a single school designed in the standard eclectic fashion. Although built with the same construction technique, modular logic, and exposed elements as his houses, O’Gorman’s “functionalist” schools were less formally indulgent and designed in real view of economy and potential growth (Figure 17.3). Yet they transpired a similar didactic spirit, which given their programmatic character, was perhaps more appropriate. Linearly and symmetrically arranged, they had a regimented character only alleviated by the strategic detachment of columns in vestibules. O’Gorman also painted the buildings in different colors to make them more agreeable to the people who would inhabit them. More graphically he painted, or rather wrote, the phrase Escuela Primaria (“elementary school”) on selected walls on the outside to make them more recognizable. Giving continuity to the work initiated a decade earlier by Rivera, O’Gorman also invited a group of muralists to decorate the vestibules with frescoes displaying political and pedagogical themes. Despite their realistic style and the seeming lack of correspondence with the buildings’ abstract language, these frescoes could be seen from a variety of perspectives, repeating but extending the didactic character of his houses. Compared to them, however, they were more articulate projects, with a more assertive presence and a greater sense of appropriateness.

O’Gorman’s growing reputation led him, almost immediately, to become part of the committee in charge of establishing the guidelines of technical education in the country. As the only architect on the committee, he was also put in charge of establishing a new model of architectural education. Thus, in 1932 O’Gorman transformed a preexisting construction trade school into the Escuela Superior de Construcción (ESC).13 The immediate predecessor of the ESIA, the ESC offered the degree of “building engineer,” and in this sense materialized O’Gorman’s notion of architecture as engineering of buildings. The building engineer was conceived as someone proficient in advanced construction techniques and architectural design, and whose skills – as opposed to those of university trained architects – would better respond to Mexico’s needs for urban infrastructure.14 Largely developed by O’Gorman, the curriculum provided him with the opportunity to apply his philosophy of functionalism at a larger institutional scale and was characterized by the suppression of almost all “humanistic” and “artistic” courses. Indeed, anticipating Gropius’ more moderate initiatives at Harvard, the ESC offered no courses on history except for one dedicated to the “History and Geography of Mexico.”15 Conversely, the curriculum abounded in technical courses: nomography, statics, geology, hydraulics, topography, railways, roads, ports, sanitation, drafting, building techniques, and administration. Similar to the university, however, architectural design (composición) remained the core of the curriculum taught throughout its four years. Yet without the standard “visual” preparatory course other than one on sketching and relevé (surveying and drawing of historical buildings), architectural design was treated as a problem solving matter focused on the distribution of spaces in plan. Moreover, the buildings selected for relevé needed to be “rationally planned.”16

Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on Juan O’Gorman and the genesis and overcoming of functionalism in Mexican modern architecture
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