Mexico City Modernism - Day 1

| Aug 18, 2010
by Amanda Delorey

Ricardo Legorreta, Camino Real Polanco (1968)

I will begin my recap of our fantastic week in Mexico City by introducing myself: I am a PhD student at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, UK, studying with Dr. Julian Stallabrass and my thesis topic is currently titled The People v the State: Housing Architecture in Mexico City from Modernism to Contemporary Practices. In short, I am looking at modernist social housing projects in Mexico City in comparison with contemporary projects, while taking into consideration the massive amounts of squatter settlements and self-built homes in the city. When I first heard about SAH’s study tour in Mexico City, I was excited about the prospect of an intensive week-long tour of the city led by an expert in the field and, looking back at the amount of ground we covered and the people I met along the way, I realize how truly lucky I was to have won this amazing fellowship.

Kathryn O’Rourke’s Mexico City tour, as promised, focused on modern and contemporary architecture, with a few detours along the way towards older buildings and sympathetic arts, significantly Mexican muralism, which played a vital role in the development of Mexican modernist architecture. The tour also examined the changing face of the city, characterized by massive growth and urban development, and the rich social and political history of the country’s capital. The dualistic nature of Mexican modernism was addressed by contrasting buildings designed to facilitate societal transformation with those tending to eschew that role. We visited well-known sites as well as structures that were new to me, which was quite exciting, and sites that would have been very difficult to get into alone. The tour offered an excellent first-hand introduction to Mexican modern and contemporary architecture for the novice and enthusiast alike.

Flying into Mexico City is both frightening and awe-inspiring: where does an airport fit into this endless cityscape?! Arriving at Ricardo Legorreta’s Polanco hotel for the Camino Real Hotel chain, I am stuck by the hotel’s brilliant gridded pink gate, yellow façade and the churning pool that greets us. I had hoped the hotel was only the first instance of many dramatic buildings to come over the week and, as you will see, I was hardly disappointed. This use of vibrant colour in Mexican architecture as well as striking geometric compositions would be a regular sight along our tour, most notably in the numerous Luis Barragán structures that we were able to walk through.

Ricardo Legorreta, Camino Real Polanco (1968)

After meeting in the shockingly blue lobby bar of our hotel (the following photo was taken later at night), our group set out for a walking tour of the Polanco neighbourhood, an upscale residential area west of the city center. Leaving the hotel, we head west on Campos Eliseos and pass by Chapultepec Park, a centuries-old massive green space that has long been a landmark in the city.

Ricardo Legorreta, Interior of Camino Real Polanco (1968)

Chapultepec Park

The first two buildings we look at are designed by Cesar Pelli: two 31-story condominium skyscrapers, or the Twin Towers of Polanco, and the Coca-Cola’s 13-story North Latin American Headquarters. All three curvilinear buildings feature bands of windows; the towers’ windows alternate with orange terrazzo panels that are decorated with small bands of Mexican red tiles and the Coca-Cola building uses Brazilian green granite.

Cesar Pelli, twin tower condominium skyscrapers (1995-96)

Cesar Pelli, detail of condominium skyscraper (1995-96)

Cesar Pelli's Coca-Cola's North Latin American Headquarters (1995-96)

Walking along the more commercial Presidente Masaryk Avenue, we see contemporary buildings such as TEN Arquitectos’s Hotel Habita. The luxury hotel is clad in sheets of frosted glass typical of contemporary design of the past decade, which seems to mask the building’s use.

TEN Arquitectos, Hotel Habita (2000)

We then walk by various California Colonial Style homes built in the 1930s, which have, O’Rourke points out, earned a heartfelt place in the city’s architectural history despite their gauche nouveau-riche origins. These homes, based on those seen in Hollywood movies of the time, employ extensive ornamentation based on 18thcentury baroque architecture.

California Colonial Style House in Polanco

California Colonial Style House in Polanco

Detail of California Colonial Style House in Polanco

Indicative of the city’s rich architectural history, Polanco’s eclectic mix of styles also includes various Art Deco buildings. Characteristic rounded corners and streamlined design are visible in various cafés and also in entering the Pasaje Polanco courtyard, a residential and commercial complex that combines Art Deco and colonial-revival styles.

Art Deco Apartment Building in Polanco

Francisco Serrano, Pasaje Polanco (1940)

Approaching Leonardo Noriega’s Church of San Augustín (c. 1949-1958), most tour members are taken aback at the “oddest church in Mexico.” References to Byzantine, gothic and baroque architecture make the church difficult to place historically.

Leonardo Noriega, Church of San Augustín (c. 1949-1958)

Leonardo Noriega, Interior of the Church of San Augustín (c. 1949-1958)

Juan Sordo Madaleno’s nearby church dedicated to St. Ignatius Loyola (1961-62) is a small and starkly triangular-shaped building that grows surprisingly larger as you enter the glowing interior space enhanced by the enormous stained glass window seen on the building’s facade.

Juan Sordo Madaleno, Church of St. Ignatius Loyola (1961-62)

Juan Sordo Madaleno, Interior of Church of St. Ignatius Loyola (1961-62)

Juan Sordo Madaleno, Interior of Church of St. Ignatius Loyola (1961-62)

Directly across the street is a building by Sordo Madaleno’s son, Javier, of Sordo Madaleno Architects. The Palacio de Hierro department store (1997) directly references Sordo Madaleno’s church.

Javier Sordo Madaleno, Palacio de Hierro department store (1997)

As a great end to our first day, we enjoyed dinner together at Izote de Patricia Quintana, a contemporary Mexican/Southwestern fusion restaurant that was, for me, one of the best meals of the trip.

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