Naucalpan de Juárez, 53950, México

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Raquel Franklin, D.Sc. School of Architecture, Universidad Anáhuac,

Fuente de la Juventud # 53, Av. Lomas Anáhuac s/n, Lomas Anáhuac

Lomas de Tecamachalco, Huixquilucan, 52786, Estado de México

Naucalpan de Juárez, 53950, México

Estado de México, México. Tel: (5255) 56270210 ext. 8379, 8255

Tel: (5255)55 89 56 78

fax: (5255)85 95 90 07


The inauguration of the University City (CU) in 1954 in the southern neighborhood of El Pedregal, in Mexico City, marked not only the consolidation of the International Style in the country, but the integration of the different ways Mexicans conceived architecture.
The changes in the architectural agenda were the product of the political environment after the Second World War. The establishment of the “Good Neighbor Policy” with the United States favored economic growth during the presidency of Manuel Avila Camacho (1940-46). This motivated the adoption of an international architectural language that could properly dialogue with its northern neighbor’s interests. On the other hand, the first regionalist expressions were also the product of this epoch. In 1944, the national program on school construction (CAPFCE) was established1. The different proposals responded to specific conditions in each state, from environmental to cultural. The objectives of the CAPFCE as explained by José Villagrán García summarized this new orientation in architecture:
The architecture of our schools is characterized by its belonging to our time and the geographic region in which it is created (…) Regionalism cannot ignore modernity; nor can it abdicate regionalism; both categories, modernity and regionalism, come together, par excellence, in every authentic work of architecture2
As part of the program, in the southern state of Tabasco, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez proposed an elevated space, functionally organized according to a modern scheme, but executed with local materials and traditional construction methods. Enrique del Moral also experimented with local influences in the state of Michoacán. In his school at Casacuarán the pitched roof of the portico against the stone wall revealed an understanding of specific needs of shade and enclosure, though, there was a modern conception of space.
At the same time, the newly established Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS) developed a national program for the construction of health facilities. Opposed to the regionalist approach of the CAPFCE, the hospital program stressed the functionalist character of such buildings.
The International style became the image of progress. Corporate buildings arouse in the main avenues of Mexico City until the economic crisis of 1946, under Miguel Alemán’s presidency (1946-52), ended with many initiatives, among them, Hannes Meyer’s project for a bank skyscraper in the Corpus Christi block.
Industrial growth provoked immigration from rural to urban settlements; therefore President Miguel Alemán promoted the urban development of several cities around the country, including Acapulco, Mazatlán, Culiacán and Mexico City. Modern urbanism predominated departing from complete schemes, as in the Regional Plan for Yucatán, to partial interventions in housing units or suburban areas such as the Satellite City in Mexico City.
In 1949, the “Multifamiliar Miguel Alemán”, the first housing unit built in Mexico City by architect Mario Pani, introduced the multi-family high-rise building system, standing in a super-block in an arrangement containing housing, commercial, sporting and recreational facilities. The buildings, as in Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin, or Le Corbusier’s Marseilles “Unité de Habitation”, were organized in a two-in-three scheme, where each two apartments occupied three floors. The zigzag organization of four of the six main buildings was inspired by Le Corbusier’s project for the “Ville Contemporaine”, as explained by Louise Noelle:
Effectively, during his professional training, Pani attended the revolutionary lectures of the Swiss master and got to know from first hand the fundaments of the “Ville Contemporaine” and the “Ville Radieuse” (…). Specially are to be remembered the Corbusian proposal of the buildings “a radent” (zigzag) that come from the visionary plan of the “Ville Contemporaine” done in 1922 where a formal and conceptual similarity can be appreciated3.
The housing complex that best represents modern urbanism is the Unidad Habitacional Nonoalco-Tlaltelolco, also designed by Mario Pani in 1965. Freestanding buildings are arranged in an orthogonal grid, combining public plazas, gardens and commercial and educational facilities.
The planning of CU also derived from a functional alienation of activities. After an internal competition, the final project was developed by Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral. To the north, arranged around a pre-Hispanic proportioned courtyard, were the faculties headed by the rectory and the main library. To the south were the sporting facilities. The soccer stadium was placed across the main avenue to the west and the housing units were planned at the southeastern part of the complex. Vehicular circulation was planned in three different circuits, leaving the center of the composition for pedestrian transit only.
The buildings at the University City combined an international style approach and a local will for ornamentation in what was called the Plastic Integration Movement. Pre-Hispanic motives were included in harmony with the natural landscape of volcanic lava, as well as colorful mural paintings on Mexican history themes. The most impressive were the murals on the central library façades, done by Juan O’Gorman4.
O’Gorman’s own house is an example of the evolution of ideas related to architecture. After being a devoted modernist in the early thirties, where he developed the official school building prototype after the neue sachlichkeit principles, during the fifties he turned to an expressionist approach towards architecture in consonance with the natural environment.
The ballgame field and the soccer stadium at CU were also interesting adaptations to cultural and environmental conditions. In the former, Alberto T. Arai resembled a pyramid by using volcanic stone walls as enclosure to the field. In the latter, Augusto Pérez Palacios carved the field as the crater of a volcano, surrounding it with a stone façade that was intended to be completely covered with Diego Rivera’s mural. Only a small part of it was developed.
Luis Barragán adequately exploited the volcanic landscape surrounding CU. He designed the El Pedregal Neighborhood respectfully of the natural environment. Huge parcels were destined to include modern mansions of which many were inspired by Richard Neutra’s approach towards nature. Among them were the houses designed by the German architect Max Cetto who worked for both, Neutra and Barragán, and those designed by Francisco Artigas, who achieved a great integration of glass volumes to an aggressive stone landscape.
Luis Barragán’s approach towards canonical modern architecture changed around 1948 with the construction of its own house. The open free plan of the modern movement was replaced by confined spaces; the thick wall, inherited from local culture, became the most significant element in the achievement of the fluidity of one space into the other, influenced by neo-plasticism. Color was introduced and light enhanced the quality of space.
Abstract sequences of rooms, intimacy and spirituality gave another meaning to Mexican architecture through the work of Barragán. His legacy was understood only after 1968 when Ricardo Legorreta transformed the small scale of Barragán’s work into large scale projects, beginning with Mexico City’s Camino Real Hotel. In Ixtapa’s Camino Real, Legorreta adapted the building to the sloped terrain, creating terraces in each of the rooms. A similar solution was employed at the Cancún Camino Real, where the terraces faced an interior pool creating a staggered building. Barragán’s architecture has been widely misunderstood. Most recognize in Mexican architecture the use of color and rusticated walls as the only important features of it, forgetting the real meaning of space generation.
While Barragán’s influence was not felt immediately, the evolution of the glass box did. In 1956, the first skyscraper located in the historic center of Mexico City appeared. The Torre Latinoamericana, designed by Augusto H. Alvarez, became a landmark contrasting with the horizontal proportion of the city. He also introduced the first curtain wall in Mexico in the design of the Jaysour building, considered one of the best examples of the international style in the country.
Another important landmark in modern Mexican architecture is José Luis Benlliure’s Conjunto Aristos, designed in 1960 according to a free plan structural system of beams and columns. The three apartment buildings arouse from a platform containing the commercial facilities, surrounding a private courtyard.
Very much influenced by Mies van der Rohe’s American architecture, in 1963, Reinaldo Pérez Rayón designed the Instituto Politécnico Nacional, where steel and glass buildings symbolized the achievements in technological development. The same can be said about José Villagrán García’s María Isabel Sheraton hotel located in one of the most important corners in Mexico City, and Enrique de la Mora’s building for Seguros Monterrey where the structure stands on two pillars, leaving the rest of the volume suspended in a canopy. On one support stands also in cantilever Ricardo Legorreta’s Celanese Building, emphasizing the sculptural form of the volume.
Enrique de la Mora worked emphatically in structural advancement to be employed in architecture. He collaborated with the Spaniard Félix Candela, well known for the introduction of concrete shells in Mexican architecture, experimenting with hyperbolic-paraboloid roofs. Together with Candela, de la Mora designed the Chapel of El Altillo in Mexico City, following the same structural principles, in Monterrey he built the Chapel of La Purísima as a parabolic structure.
The sixties were years of urban growth. President Adolfo López Mateos (1958-64) promoted the construction of cultural facilities throughout the city. In the Chapultepec forest, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez designed the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Anthropology. While in the former he adopted the curtain wall for an ameba-like building, in the latter he employed a sophisticated roof system, based in an umbrella supported by a single pillar at the core of the courtyard. Pre-Hispanic features were reinterpreted in an abstract form. The ballgame fields of pre-Hispanic sites inspired the main façade and Mayan ornaments were emulated in the interior brise-soleilles.
Light roofing systems were common in public architecture, especially in the sporting facilities designed for the 1968 Olympic games. The Tokyo games in 1964 established an important precedent. Tensile hanging roofs were employed to cover the Olympic pool and the adjacent gymnasium. In the Palace of Sport Félix Candela designed a mixed structure of steel and concrete, creating a cooper covered cupola.
Pre-Hispanic motives were widely introduced in the work of Agustín Hernández. Following his 1968 Folkloric Dance School, the synthesis between past and present was achieved through the reinterpretation of traditional elements of pre-Hispanic cultures in an abstract modern form. A good example of it is his gynecology-obstetric hospital that resembles the escapularios5 of Mitla’s pyramid or the head of Tlaloc the Aztec god of rain, in the main building at the Military School.
Another kind of reinterpretation of the historic heritage in modern architecture was that of Teodoro González de León and Abraham Zabludovsky. For them, the colonial scheme of cloistered convents served as an organizational model in the Colegio de México (1972), being this the first of the buildings that characterized their future work. The bold hammered concrete walls related to Le Corbusier’s late work increased the sense of monumentality present in pre-Columbian architecture. The brise-soleil gave profundity to the wall playing with light and shadow. In the Rufino Tamayo Museum, the integration to the natural environment of the Chapultepec forest was achieved through the inclusion of a grass covered slope surrounding the building. The concrete volumes were staggered in a pyramidal form allowing light to penetrate the main core of the building.
Mexico has continuously struggled for a place among the developed countries. Its architecture has been the product of a strong will for international recognition, preserving its most valuable asset, its rich culture. The quest for identity has been accomplished through the smooth integration of local tradition into modern architecture, a concern that has been present since the Mexican revolution in 1910, until today. Thus, Mexican architecture during the second half of the Twentieth century, can be classified into two mainstreams; on the one hand the continuity of the Modern Movement through the International Style and, on the other, the interpretation and inclusion of traditional features into modern schemes.

1 The program was called CAPFCE – Comité Administrador del Programa Federal de Construcción de Escuelas (Administrator Committee of the Federal Program of School Construction)

2 José Villagrán García, El Comité Administrador del Programa Federal de Construcción de Escuelas y su Obra, in Memoria CAPFCE 1944-1946, p.11

3 Louise Noelle, Mario Pani: Una visión moderna de la ciudad, CNCA, 2000, p.15

4 The general plan of the CU was done by Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, but the different buildings included in the complex were projected by teams headed by the professors of the faculty of architecture. Renowned architects were included, among them, José Villagrán (architecture), Raúl Cacho (science), Enrique de la Mora (Philosophy and Literature), Vladimir Kaspé (economy), Enrique Yáñez (Chemistry), Francisco Serrano (Engineering), Roberto Álvarez Espinosa (Medicine), etc.

5 The escapulario is an ornamental frame contained in the boards of a Toltec pyramid, especially found in Mitla and Monte Albán.

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