Mexico City Modernism - Day 2 – August 5, 2010 – Historical Centre of the City

| Aug 18, 2010
by Amanda Delorey

We begin our second day early, boarding the tour bus and driving down Reforma for a full day of walking around the historic centre of the city. We begin in the Alameda, an area that has been largely rebuilt since it was greatly damaged in the 1985 earthquake and thus offering an interesting mix of new and old buildings. We begin to see some recurring motifs in Mexican architecture: the serpent, the jaguar and, most notably, an eagle clutching a serpent that has landed on a cactus (mythology claims that the sight of this trinity was a sign to settle and the once nomadic Aztecs chose to build their capital, Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City’s historic centre, on this site).

We first stop at Ricardo Legorreta’s Juarez Complex. Legorreta’s red and beige towers house the Superior Court of Justice of the Federal District and the Foreign Affairs Secretariat respectively. Walking into one of the complex’s more interesting interior courtyards, Plaza Juarez, I am surprised to see a large shallow pool filled with rust-coloured pyramids. The fountain, designed by artist Vincente Rojo, was part of a major revitalization project for this part of the city after the Earthquake and reveals an ongoing interest in staying connected with the city’s historical past.

Vincent Rojo, fountain for Plaza Juarez (2003)

Ricardo Legorreta, Juarez Complex (2003)

As we approach Manuel de la Colina and Augusto H. Alvarez’s Torre Latinoamericana (1956), I am immediately reminded of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The glazing and form of this structure set it apart from surrounding buildings; though only 44 stories, it is much taller than any other structure in Mexico City’s historic centre and it was, for a period, the tallest building in Latin America. Engineers Leonardo and Adolfo Zeevaert planned for the structure to stand on steel beams in a foundation forty-four feet below ground – a necessary precaution. The building stood up to the 1985 earthquake while surrounding structures were destroyed.

Manuel de la Colina and Augusto H. Alvarez, Torre Latinoamericana (1956)

Though there is a lower enclosed viewing area, the tower’s outdoor observation deck sits on the top floor of the building and offers an impressive 360-degree view of the city. The aerial view reveals many red rooftops and offers insight into the scale of many the city’s popular landmarks, such as the large Plaza de la Constitución, more commonly known as the Zócalo, and the massive Tlatelolco housing project.

View from Torre Latinoamericana, Mario Pani's Tlatelolco housing complex begins with pyramidal tower in the distance and ends outside of the image

View from Torre Latinoamericana, Zócalo in center

View from Torre Latinoamericana

Walking through the city centre, it becomes clear as to why Mexico City was known as the “city of palaces.”  We pass by numerous heavily decorated facades of private residences, commercial buildings or converted gallery spaces, which reveal the eclectic nature of palatial architecture during the first quarter of the 20th century in Mexico City. The palatial structures seem crowded in the busy streets as previously empty areas have now been built up.

Francisco Guerrero y Torres, Casa del Marqués de Jaral Barrio, or Palacio de Iturbide (1779)

The view entering the Zócalo is partly marred by a festival that has overtaken the immense space with booths, stages and unsightly blow-up sculptures for children. Nonetheless, the scale of the site is felt as we look around at the landmarks flanking the plaza: the National Palace, the old Ayuntameinto (Town Hall) building, and the massive Metropolitan Cathedral – the largest in the Americas. The Zócalo is also a popular site for political protests given the location and proximity to important civic structures.

Claudio Arciniega, The Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (began in 1573, with many significant alterations over the centuries)

Organ inside the The Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

Interior of the The Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

We enter the National Palace to see an important fresco by Diego Rivera, The History of Mexico (1929-1935). Covering a massive staircase leading to the palaces upper levels, the fresco is impossible to miss, nor is the political message, which depicts the Rivera’s vision of the past, present and future of Mexico City from a revolutionary and nationalistic point of view. Rivera depicts the champions of his city’s history: Aztec warriors in Jaguar costumes fight iron-clad Spanish invaders; modern workers hold a copy of Marx’s Capital.

Inner Courtyard, Palacio Nacional

Detail of Diego Rivera's History of Mexico (1929-35)

Detail of Diego Rivera's History of Mexico (1929-35)

The Palacio de Minería (1797-1813) was designed by Manuel Tolsa for the Royal Mining Office and engineering school and is an early indication of a move towards French-inspired architecture. An international classicism is evident in the austere interior with exact proportions and a masterful us of light and space and this spoke of the city’s growing wealth and permanence.

Manuel Tolsa, The Palacio de Minería (1797-1813)

Interior, Manuel Tolsa, The Palacio de Minería (1797-1813)

Interior, Manuel Tolsa, The Palacio de Minería (1797-1813)

Interior, Manuel Tolsa, The Palacio de Minería (1797-1813)

The Postal Palace is a stunning structure, like many other palatial structures in the historic centre, but with an interesting mix of architectural styles from Islamic forms to Tudor gothic, which I learn is a rare instance of the plasteresque revival, a highly decorated Spanish architecture of the 16th century drawing on numerous influences. Despite the fantastic exterior, I was unprepared for the building’s interior: it felt as though I had entered a living palace, light reflects off of golden walls and marble staircases lead up to open hallways covered by a gigantic domed skylight. This building, once intended to wow visitors and announce the city’s prosperity still does so very successfully.

Adamo Boari, Postal Palace (1902-07)

detail, Adamo Boari, Postal Palace (1902-07)

Interior, Postal Palace

Interior, Postal Palace

In 1919, pharmacy and restaurant chain Sanborn’s acquired the famous Casa de los Azulejos. We stop into this building covered in painted blue tiles for a drink and we are amazed that the detail on the exterior is continued inside. The first staircase houses a mural by José Clemente Orozco, Omniscience (1925), and from above we are able to look down into the central dining room. Overwhelming amounts of decoration coat the walls, floors and ceilings while plants, hanging lamps, fountains, and light beaming in from stained-glass windows fill any remaining spatial voids.

Casa de los Azulejos (Sanborn's)

Orozco's Omniscience (1925), interior of Sanborn's

Interior, Sanborn's

To finish this extensive walking tour, O’Rourke leads us to the Palacio Bellas Artes. The exterior, designed by Adamo Boari and begun in 1905, was not completed until 1932-34 under Federico Mariscal due to the country’s Revolution. President Porfirio Diaz (in office 1884 – 1911) believed that his country’s architectural progress required alignments with European standards of the time and this had a visible impact on early twentieth century Mexican architecture; Western European, most often Parisian, architects were employed to design a ‘civilised’ Mexico using neoclassical architecture. The exterior of the Palacio Bellas Artes reveals a Porfirian tendency towards the French style popular in the part of the early 20th century, however the art nouveau exterior still incorporates Mexican motifs. The interior, designed by Mariscal, is quite different. Dark pink, white and black marble are used to create the art deco space that houses some of the most important murals of Mexico’s top three: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.

Adamo Boari/Antonio Muñoz García/Federico Mariscal, Palacio Bellas Artes (1905-1934)

Detail of serpent and jaguar, Palacio Bellas Artes

Federico Mariscal, Interior of the Palacio Bellas Artes (1932-1934)

Federico Mariscal, Interior of the Palacio Bellas Artes (1932-1934)

David Alfaro Siqueiros, New Democracy (1945) in Palacio Bellas Artes

Detail, Orozco, Catharsis (1934) in Palacio Bellas Artes

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