A Mexico City Tour of Architect Juan O'Gorman's Design Legacy

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Walking through the quiet cobbled streets of Mexico City’s San Ángel, a neighborhood surrounded by old ash trees and sprawling colonial style buildings, there’s one structure that doesn’t quite fit in. Two square houses, one painted in blue and another one in red, are connected by a narrow bridge and fenced in by tall cacti. Most recognize it as the former studio of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—or, as tapped-in travelers know it, a less-visited alternative to Kahlo’s Casa Azul. But too few are familiar with the architect and painter who designed it: a young artist, who was just 26 at the time, named Juan O’Gorman.

Many, myself included, are first exposed to O’Gorman’s work this way: through influential people that surrounded him, and the works he created for them. But as Marisol Arguelles, the director of the studio-turned-museum Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo puts it, O’Gorman was an artist who “swam upstream with his contemporaries.” That rebelliousness, she says, “transformed him into a key figure to understanding part of Mexico City’s modern history.” Luckily, several of his most important designs and murals can still be seen in Mexico City, so long as you know where to look—and know that you should look in the first place.

Born in 1905 in the bohemian Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacan, O’Gorman lived a life carved by the country’s history and landscape. Though he made his mark with modernist structures, he was first inspired to be an artist by his grandmother Angela Moreno, who lived in an old Mexico City property with tall saloons and sprawling orchards, where she would tell O’Gorman Aztec mythology and tales of Mexico’s fight for independence—motifs later integral to his work. As his family moved—in 1910, to the city of Guanajuato to escape the revolution budding in the capital, and back just a few years later, landing in San Ángel—he absorbed the landscapes around him. The scenery of Guanajuato, with sharp cliffs and crystalline waterfalls, shown to him by his father, who painted when he wasn’t working in the local mine, became a common backdrop. Those early experiences also gave him a profound and critical scope of material that later appeared in his paintings, like the “Retablo de la Independencia,” a massive fresco that follows Mexico from the final years of the colonial period to the start of independence, and is still visible in Mexico City’s Castillo de Chapultepec.

But what is most interesting about O’Gorman is that his career leveraged the art that Mexico inspired and the functionality that Mexico needed. In his early years as an architect, he applied functionalist methods inspired by Swiss architect Le Corbusier, with houses like the cubist Casa Citrohan in Germany or the Casa Guiette in Belgium—buildings that were made with the least effort for maximum efficiency, a type of work ideally suited for Mexico’s post-revolutionary chaos and demand for practicality.

Built in the year of 1932, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s studio was an astonishing and strange construction for its time that embodied that mix of values. Though it has since been described by the likes of Pritzker Award-winning architect Toyoo Itō as “pure in its form and perfectly rational in its functionality,” it was hardly as heralded in its own time. As one of the first modern and functionalist houses built in Mexico, locals considered it an eyesore in its heyday (people were known to cover their faces while walking past). But the studio, built at the request of Rivera and Kahlo, who had known O’Gorman since high school, did manage to catch the attention of a notable person at the time. 

The Secretary of Education, Narciso Bassols, realized the usefulness of O’Gorman’s work and commissioned him for a project involving the construction of public schools in Mexico City. One of them, the primary school Emiliano Zapata in the working class neighborhood of Industrial, remains today, and is now considered an artistic monument. It integrates O’Gorman’s functionalism with murals from some of the country’s most famous artists at the time: Pablo O’Higgins, Rufino Tamayo, and Julio Castellanos. The building covers nearly an entire city block in the northern neighborhood, while the murals depict the life and social challenges of Mexico’s post-revolutionary period (included, for example, is an image of a farmer teaching a young boy to read).

Following this undertaking, as well as a period during which O’Gorman preferred cabaret painting to architecture, he was contracted for another educational project—this time to build, alongside two other architects, the Central Library at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. “That was the opportunity for O’Gorman to finally integrate architecture and his painting in a public building,” says Juan José Kochen, an architect and journalist behind the online exhibition “O’Gorman O’Gorman 1905-1985.” “He was, at the same time, the most nationalistic and modern architect and painter of his time. The Central Library is the perfect example [of that].”

The building, completed in 1956, is a gigantic stone-colored cube that stands out from the rest of the university’s structures. With a surface area of four thousand square meters, the entire exterior is coated with mosaics made from stones—with vibrant shades of Venetian red, sienna yellow, and bright pink—that O’Gorman collected on a trip around Mexico, with help from a mining friend of his father’s. In a total of ten thoughtfully selected colors, the mosaic narrates what he called “the evolution of culture,” spanning cosmogonic symbols to pre-Hispanic figures and the violent periods of the conquest, to an atom symbolizing modern times. Today, visitors to the school’s Ciudad Universitaria can still see it.

Sadly, not all of O’Gorman’s best works remain. During the same period in which the Central Library was built, O’Gorman planned another house for himself and his family—widely known as “La Cueva”—on San Jeronimo street in the neighborhood of Pedregal. The construction was mainly inspired by the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright—an architect himself deeply influenced by Mesoamerican cultures—who later visited it and congratulated O’Gorman on the structure. Even Rivera told him, “This is the first modern house with a fully Mexican design. I congratulate you because I think this a seed that could grow into a type of architecture which has national and regional values.” Unfortunately, after sixteen years of living there, the architect had to sell the house to pay for his daughter’s education. It was soon demolished, a deep blow for him and his family.

Despite enduring the destruction of several of his works over his lifetime, O’Gorman responded by working harder, with the same depth and rigor. He accepted that working in the public sector would be underpaid and require compromises, but he believed that such work would “give Mexico much more.”

He spent the last years of his life painting portraits in his studio in San Ángel, a house which he ironically described as ugly but functional, “like old slippers you don’t want to get rid of”—a nod to his disenchantment with functionalism, which he believed lost its sense of art in gaining commercial success. But this discreet home, painted in blue with a few large plants covering the entrance and showcasing light-filled interiors, is an intimate step inside his world later in life. Though it is not currently open, it has, in recent years, operated as an Airbnb—and thus, become yet another space for appreciating O’Gorman’s work and legacy. 

(Editor’s note: Some of the sites mentioned here are currently closed to the public due to the pandemic. Please consider this your guide for post-pandemic planning, when sites have reopened.)

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