Modern Architecture in Mexico City: History, Representation, and the Shaping of a Capital
by Kathryn E. O’Rourke
University of Pittsburgh Press, $49.95
Dr. Kathryn O’Rourke is an alumnus of my own alma mater, Wellesley College. At Wellesley, Professor James Oles introduced each of us to the rich history of Mexico’s art and architecture through vivid seminars. With a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, and as an associate professor at Trinity College in San Antonio, O’Rourke has carried forward this dedication to the study of Mexico’s modern built environment. In her first book, “Modern Architecture in Mexico City: History, Representation, and the Shaping of a Capital,” O’Rourke chronicles both the history and historiography of Mexico City’s architectural identity, from its colonial past through midcentury Modernism. Many coffee table books with compelling graphics and photographs of Mexico City have appeared in recent years, as the capital has seen a resurgence of popularity in the design world. Often, they have captured more of the visual excitement, without the cultural thinking behind it. “Modern Architecture” takes an academically rigorous approach to understanding the history and psychology of Mexico City’s architectural development.
It synthesizes historical and contemporary architectural commentary.
While other books evaluate modernism as it is defined by European practices, O’Rourke emphasizes a framework that contextualizes Mexican modernism with Mexican architectural history and visual culture since colonialism: As opposed to focusing on similarities to European modernism, O’Rourke explores the Mexican desire to outwardly express national qualities. She stresses that the modern Mexican focus on facades and ornamentation relates to the colonial Churrigueresque architectural narrative, and notes that even the most functionalist Mexican architects referred to and lectured on Mexican colonial architecture. As opposed to modernism as break from the past, O’Rourke argues that modern Mexico City architecture was driven by a “hemispheric awareness of difference” from Europe. Mexico’s establishment as a nation-state occurred after that of Germany or England, and, as a result, colonial Mexican architecture did not attract attention until the early 20th century.
O’Rourke chronologically surveys 20th-century artists, politicians, writers, and designers in Mexico City as they recognized and reacted to the collision between an industrializing and globalizing economy and a colonial urban framework. What happens when a population sees and comprehends the contrasts between their city’s past and its present? O’Rourke refers to this moment in early-20th-century Mexico as the “invention of Mexican Architecture.” In 1901, an architect, an urban planner/historian, and a photographer — Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, Sylvester Baxter, and Henry Greenwood Peabody, all from the United States — published an English-language book, “Spanish Colonial Architecture in Mexico.” Peabody’s photos depicted the overlay of commercial 19th-century signage advertising coffee and ice cream on the House of the Count of Santiago. Baxter’s writing identified the flowing indigenous hand in the ornament and craft of Spanish colonial facades. In the United States today, to identify indigenous Mexicans as “by no means savages, but belong[ing] to a race that had advanced to a certain degree of civilization” might be read as racism. O’Rourke includes many such citations in her first chapter, in order to introduce the admiring, if not patronizing, tone of Baxter’s literature. Nonetheless, Baxter propelled Mexican scholars to generate their own body of work that recognized the nationalist connection and artistic value of colonial Mexican history.
Subsequently, in 1904, Mexican Finance Minister José Yves Limantour employed Guillermo Kahlo to document all buildings owned by the federal government, which included colonial Mexican churches and Mexico City palaces seized in the 1857 War of Reform that was fought to limit the financial power of the Catholic Church. Photographer Antonio Cortés chronicled Mexican churches in the book he coauthored with Genaro García, “La arquitectura en México: Iglesias.” In 1913, architect of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Federico Mariscal, gave talks at the Universidad Popular Mexicana on colonial architecture. These lectures elucidated Baxter’s thesis that colonial architecture was a national art of Mexico, and that architecture represented social and cultural characteristics of society.
From her first chapter, O’Rourke recognizes the impact of colonial history on the intellectual development of modern Mexico City architects. This approach provides a bold, honest analysis of her primary sources. There is a frank acknowledgment of Mexico City’s colonial past, and it is used as a tool by which to advance architecture and national representation on the global stage. In other critiques that address the roots of Latin American modernist movements and South Asian modernism, popular 21st-century scholarship rejects the idea that the cultural and architectural production of colonial movements positively influenced or were embraced by national architects. Post-colonial architecture theorists like Gwendolyn Wright (2002) and Lawrence Vale (1992) describe the desire for modernism to ascribe a break from the colonial past, and question whether this is possible or merely a narrative sought to disguise control. O’Rourke informs the reader of Mexico’s alternative approach to post-colonial architecture.
In the chapter “Fit and Trim: Pictorial Histories at the Venustiano Carranza Recreation and Athletic Center for Workers,” O’Rourke identifies a monumental 1929 public recreation center and park for Mexico City laborers designed by architect Juan Segura. In her words, the purpose of the Carranza Center was “simultaneously to promote individual welfare and to serve as a vast stage on which local, national, and international audiences would see evidence of social progress.”
Having studied modern Mexican art and architecture for the last five years, prior to reading “Modern Architecture in Mexico City,” I had only glazed over mention of Segura’s modern gymnasium complex. The shortcoming of many narratives of architectural history is that they focus on the formal evolution of architecture without exploring the evolution of the theatrics it conducts. O’Rourke provides a vivid description of the photography and literal choreography at the opening. As in other chapters, after she presents a formal analysis and description of the building’s design, she delves deeper into the corollary spectacle of the indigenous Mexican worker, the prevalence of pre-Hispanic rituals organized by European-origin Mexicans, and the manipulation of race and social class that involved cooperation between government officials and designers.
O’Rourke’s chronographic book achieves not only an analysis of the formation of Mexico’s architectural history, but an alternative perspective on the legacy of Spanish colonialization and racial stratification in mid-century and contemporary Mexico.
Hannah Ahlblad is a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.