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Modernity and the Architecture of Mexico

Modernity and the Architecture of Mexico
Foreword by Ricardo Legorreta

A critical reappraisal of the notion of modernity in Mexican architecture and its influence on a generation of Mexican architects

June 1997
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232 pages | 6 x 9 | 72 b&w photos, 8 line drawings |

Since the mid 1970s, there has been an extraordinary renewal of interest in early modern architecture, both as a way of gaining insight into contemporary architectural culture and as a reaction to neoconservative postmodernism. This book undertakes a critical reappraisal of the notion of modernity in Mexican architecture and its influence on a generation of Mexican architects whose works spanned the 1920s through the 1960s.

Nine essays by noted architects and architectural historians cover a range of topics from broad-based critical commentaries to discussions of individual architects and buildings. Among the latter are the architects Enrique del Moral, Juan O'Gorman, Carlos Obregón Santacilia, Juan Segura, Mario Pani, and the campus and stadium of the Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City.

Relatively little has been published in English regarding this era in Mexican architecture. Thus, Modernity and the Architecture of Mexico will play a groundbreaking role in making the underlying assumptions, ideological and political constructs, and specific architect's agendas known to a wide audience in the humanities. Likewise, it should inspire greater appreciation for this undervalued body of works as an important contribution to the modern movement.

  • Foreword by Ricardo Legorreta
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Alberto Pérez-Gómez. Mexico, Modernity, And Architecture: An Interview with Alberto Pérez-Gómez
  • Antonio E. Méndez-Vigatá. Politics And Architectural Language: Post-Revolutionary Regimes in Mexico and Their Influence on Mexican Public Architecture, 1920-1952
  • Celia Ester Arredondo Zambrano. Modernity In Mexico: The Case of the Ciudad Universitaria
  • Alberto Kalach. Architecture And Place: The Stadium of the University City
  • William J. R. Curtis. "The General And The Local": Enrique del Moral's Own House, Calle Francisco Ramirez 5, Mexico City, 1948
  • Edward R. Burian. The Architecture Of Juan O'Gorman: Dichotomy and Drift
  • Carlos G. Mijares Bracho. The Architecture Of Carlos Obregón Santacilia: A Work for Its Time and Context
  • Antonio Toca Ferndndez. Juan Segura: The Origins of Modern Architecture in Mexico
  • Louise Noelle Merles. The Architecture And Urbanism Of Mario Pani: Creativity and Compromise
  • Postscript
  • Notes on the Contributors
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Edward R. Burian is a practicing architect based in Tucson, Arizona, whose writings and professional practice focus on the American Southwest and Mexico. He was educated at Yale and the University of Southern California and has taught at several schools of architecture in the American Southwest.


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The title of this book suggests a critical discussion of the notion of modernity and its unique development within Mexican architecture and urbanism from the period of political stabilization that began in 1928 after the Mexican Revolution to the social and political upheaval associated with the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. While revolutions and games are not bookends, in this case they serve as useful demarcations of architectural activity in Mexico.

The publication of this book at this time is particularly appropriate given the current state of architectural culture in both the United States and Mexico. Since the mid-1970s there has been an extraordinary renewed interest in early Modern architecture (at least in terms of form and imagery, if not ideology), both as a way of gaining insight into current architectural culture and as a reaction to the recent phenomenon of neoconservative post-Modernism. The repercussions of this phenomenon have been felt in schools of architecture and in the profession at large. Spurred on by the interests of a generation of architects in North America and Europe, a vast array of books and commentaries have appeared on the architectural scene. In Mexico, the projects of a younger generation of architects have focused renewed attention on the roots of Modern architecture in their country.

The ever more closely intertwined relationship between the United States and Mexico provides a backdrop for this book. In the American Southwest, there is an increased blurring of the border between the two countries in terms of population, economics, and culture. With the recent signing of the NAFTA trade agreements, architects from the United States are looking to Mexico not only in economic terms as a market for their architectural services, but also in broader cultural terms for both insight and inspiration to create a meaningful architecture that engages the issue of place, and more specifically, an architecture appropriate for the conditions of the American Southwest.

While my initial interest in this powerful body of work was from the point of view of a practicing architect from Los Angeles, and was primarily visual and formal, I also desired to understand this work in more critical terms. Thus, this book is a way of understanding this work by examining underlying ideas, ideological and political constructs, and specific architects' agendas for my own personal insight and also for the opportunity to represent this work to a broader audience that barely knows of its existence.

In this context, the intention of this book is to focus on a group of early Modern twentieth-century Mexican architects, and their buildings, projects, and manifestos, that have largely been ignored in architectural literature, particularly in English. Although one cannot ignore the work of such well-known Mexican architects as Luis Barragán, Ricardo Legorreta, Carlos Mijares, Pedro Ramirez Vázquez, Teodoro González de León, Agustin Hernández, and Abraham Zabludovsky, their work is relatively well published in a variety of monographs. My goal is instead to selectively reexamine a generation of early Moderns in Mexico whose works of architecture, projects, and manifestos have largely been jettisoned by history and who are representative of the best work of the period. This early group of moderns includes the following architects, whom I have subdivided by approximate generation in descending order for greater clarity. Even a cursory glance at this list reveals how thoroughly these architects and their work have been forgotten.

  • Manuel Ortiz Monasterio (1887-1967)
  • Carlos Obregón Santacilia (1896-1961)
  • Juan Segura (1898-1989)
  • Vicente Mendiola (1900-1986)
  • Josh Villagrán Garcia (1901-1982)
  • Juan Legarreta (1902-1934)
  • Francisco Serrano (1900-1982)
  • Max Cetto (1903-1980)
  • Juan O'Gorman (1905-1982)
  • Ignacio Diaz Morales (1905-1992)
  • Enrique del Moral (1906-1987)
  • Enrique Aragon Echeagaray (1906-)
  • Enrique de la Mora y Palomar (1907-1978)
  • Josh Gorbea Trueba (1907-)
  • Enrique Yáñez (1908-1990)
  • Augusto Pérez Palacios (1909-)
  • Vladimir Kaspé (1910-)
  • Mario Pani (1911-1993)
  • Augusto Alvarez (1914-1995)
  • Juan Sordo Madaleno (1916-1985)
  • Enrique Landa (1921-)
  • Víctor de la Lama (1919-)
  • Ramón Torres (1924-)
  • Héctor Velázquez (1923-)
  • Jorge González Reyna (1929-1969)

While these architects and others could not all be discussed; with specific essays in this particular volume, it is hoped that the task of reintroducing this work to an English-speaking audience will be continued by other scholars. Only the limitations of time and space prevented me from including several key figures in separate essays. Obvious omissions include Hannes Meyer and his impact on planning theory and urban design in post-Revolutionary Mexico, as well as the extraordinary architecture of Enrique de la Mora and Vladimir Kaspé, among others. However, these architects and others are reexamined more generally within the context of broader critical discussions in this volume. The architects and projects discussed in separate essays were selected on, the basis of the degree to which they have been edited from history, their unique and critical contribution to the development of early Modern architecture in Mexico, as well as the individual interests of the authors who were invited to participate in this project.

Relatively little has been published in English regarding this era of Mexican architecture, and virtually nothing in terms of critical commentary. Previous studies in English have primarily been visual chronologies of individual buildings. The limited commentary that does appear tends to support the notion that Modern architecture was vaguely an extension of pre-Columbian grandeur—a way for Mexico to take her rightful place among the world's progressive, modern nations—and had the ability to remake society and solve Mexico's social problems. In this context, this book attempts to fill a gap in our critical understanding of this era of the architecture of Mexico.

Mexican architects are not even featured in Henry Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson's The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, published in 1932. This body of work first became widely known to an English-speaking audience with the publication of Esther Born's The New Architecture in Mexico, in 1937, followed by I. E. Myers's Mexico's Modern Architecture in 1952. The catalog from the show "4000 Years of Architecture in Mexico," initiated by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA; National Institute of Fine Arts) Department of Architecture and the Secretaria de Educación Pública (SEP; Ministry of Public Education), was published in 1956. Max Cetto's book Modern Architecture in Mexico appeared in 1961, while C. B. Smith's Builders in the Sun was published in 1967. Various books have since been published featuring the work of individual Mexican architects; however, the books mentioned above form the core of works written in English that contribute to our general understanding and conception of the architecture of Mexico during this period.

A brief survey of the literature in Spanish is more extensive, although hardly monolithic. However, even a cursory review reveals a broader discussion in relationship to issues of politics and ideology. Issues of social responsibility, response to contemporary programs, and the fulfillment of the aspirations of the Mexican Revolution, among others, are more fully engaged. Antonio Toca's Arquitectura contemporánea en México appeared in 1989, while Mexico: Nueva arquitectura, written with Anibal Figueroa, was published in 1991. Pablo Quintero's Modernidad en la arquitectura mexicana and Rafael López Rangel's La modernidad arquitectónica mexicana were published in 1990 and 1989, respectively. Louise Noelle's Catálogo guía de arquitectura contemporánea, Ciudad de México was published in 1993, while her Arquitectos contemporáneos de México appeared in 1989. L. Hernández's Análisis crítico de la arquitectura moderna en México appeared in 1965. Israel Katzman's excellent book La arquitectura contemporánea mexicana surfaced in 1963. José Villagrán García himself wrote Panorama de 50 años de arquitectura mexicana contemporánea, while Carlos Obregón Santacilia produced 50 años de arquitectura mexicana, both published in 1952.

The essays in this volume intentionally span a range of issues, from broad-based critical commentaries to discussions of individual architects and buildings, in order to examine modernity both as an ideological issue as well as in relationship to specific works of architecture and their individual qualities. They are presented not as a monolithic survey of the period, but rather as a gathering of scholars and interested observers with differing approaches and voices.

My interview with Alberto Pérez-Gómez provides an introduction and a broad conceptual setting for the essays that follow. Pérez-Gómez discusses the ideological background of the notion of modernity in México. He offers insights into the work and theory of individual architects such as Hannes Meyer, Félix Candela, Enrique de la Mora, and José Villagrán García. He also explores the topics of labor, mass production, nationalism, culture, and modernity itself, among others.

Antonio Méndez-Vigatá makes explicit the role of politics in post-Revolutionary Mexico from 1920 to 1952 in the formulation of architectural language and ideology, and in the forging of a national identity. The powerful role of the Ministry of Education as a formulator and disseminator of ideology and the specific role of Villagrán García as a theoretician are also discussed.

Individual projects are the focus of the next two essays. In her essay, Celia Arredondo discusses the Ciudad Universitaria (CU; University City) as an icon of Modern architecture in Mexico and explores its relationship to the conception of the universal man of the Modern movement versus the conception of a new Mexican man born out of the Mexican Revolution. Alberto Kalach examines the extraordinary stadium that is adjacent to the Ciudad Universitaria. The stadium is discussed in terms of the particular qualities of place—including the site's geology, topography, and history—in relationship to its making and tectonic order.

Discussions of individual architects whose work is largely unknown outside of Mexico round out the book. William Curtis analyzes the form and sequence of Enrique del Moral's residence including its materials and ideas as well as the issues of "the local" and the "universal." My essay on Juan O'Gorman reexamines the work of this complex architect and artist as a manifestation of juxtaposed dichotomies. O'Gorman's transition from "rational" functionalist to "irrational" organicist is redescribed as a bi-directional phenomenon over time, rather than a drastic and paradoxical conversion. Carlos Mijares traces the career of Carlos Obregón Santacilia and the interrelationship of his individual buildings to culture, place, urban sequence, and the urban design of the city. Mijares speaks from his own direct experience of Obregón Santacilia's architecture and its role in the urban order of Mexico City. Antonio Toca Fernández discusses the work of Juan Segura and the portrayal of his work in relationship to the Art Deco movement. Segura's innovative design solutions to complex, modern programs are discussed in terms of their urban design response, formal invention, and careful selection of materials and building systems. The book concludes with Louise Noelle Mertes's examination of the architecture and urbanism of Mario Pani. In her essay, she discusses Pani's multifamiliares (multifamily) housing projects in terms of their innovation and the unique role of public art within them.

The quality of this body of work in Mexico merits further study. Only the limitations of time and space prevent more detailed explorations. The roles of Hannes Meyer in Mexico, Juan Legarreta, Vladimir Kaspé, Jorge González Reyna, and numerous others are stories that are yet to be told in English. The role of women in the development of Modern architecture in Mexico is a subject for serious study that has virtually been excluded from the existing literature. In particular, the role of women in schools of architecture in Mexico and of women working in the offices of Mario Pani and other notable architects of the time are histories that have yet to be written in English or Spanish.

The Modern architecture of Mexico has not been properly assessed despite the efforts of academic leaders and historians in Mexico, including Antonio Toca Fernández, Louise Noelle Merles, Alberto González Pozo, Ramón Vargas Salguero, Aníbal Figueroa, Pablo Quintero, Humberto Ricalde, Rafael López Rangel, and others, whose anonymous contributions are often unnoticed. Institutions such as the INBA and the Colegio Nacional de Arquitectos de México (CNAM; National College of Mexican Architects) have led the effort to recognize and preserve this vital work. Several schools of architecture in Mexico, including the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM), the Universidad de Guadalajara, the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM; Monterrey Institute of Technology and Advanced Studies), as well as the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticos (IIE; Institute for Aesthetic Research), have actively sponsored research and published work in this area.

The fate of individual early Modern buildings in Mexico is currently a matter of concern for both Mexico and the architectural community at large. I can speak from personal experience of the sad fate of many of the greatest works of this period of architecture in Mexico. For example, in Mexico City, the apartments on the Calle Strasburgo by Enrique de la Mora, Juan O'Gorman's nearby studio for Frances Toor, and the early work of Luis Barragán are tragically the victims of unsympathetic alterations and a lack of a sense of curatorship by their owners. In fact, many of Juan O'Gorman's early projects are now eradicated from the fabric of the city. The question of the preservation of these buildings engages issues of political will, ideology, and resource allocation, among others. It also raises the issue of whether the conservation of the image of modernity ironically reduces the work merely to an aesthetic practice.

Works of architecture are again made present through books, which in turn lead to their reevaluation by academics, practicing architects, governmental authorities, the general public, and their daily users. It is hoped that books such as this will lead to a renewed appreciation of this important body of work, and will ultimately bring about its reassessment as one of the great contributions to the Modern movement.

Edward R. Burian
Los Angeles, August 1994


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