solitary architectural pleasures
Some people are into feet. Others go for the frostier, decidedly unmeaty appeal of leather or latex. Moving it up a notch, certain individuals get off on brick and mortar (or steel, or glass, or concrete).
Is it really that strange that someone should fall in love with the Berlin Wall or want to
marry the Eiffel Tower? In this cold, cold world of ours, I have to confess that even I have sought solace in structures.
In my tender years, as prone to pseudo-poetic highs and tragicomedy as I was, and living in Mexico City, of all places — an untapped paradise for this sort of thing — I had my share of adolescent crushes on buildings.
I felt like rubbing up against the floating staircase in the Barragán House.
I fancied a ménage-a-trois with O'Gorman's pink-for-Diego and blue-for-Frida
house-studio (I was particularly drawn to the wonderfully phallic cactus fence).
Back then, few things in life made me happier than getting lost in the maze of downtrodden déco and futurist behemoths of the underrated streets of the Centro Histórico: López, Ayuntamiento, Dolores, Luis Moya...
All these fixations were fleeting and childish, though, compared to what a slightly tilted building on the corner of Jalisco and Revolución stirred in me. Juan Segura's Edificio Ermita has been the subject of many-a-fantasy and constant
reverie since I first laid eyes on it. Looming over Tacubaya, it's our own cut-back, depressed take on the billboard-skyscraper, "the Mexican Times Square," some say with a smirk.
O.K., so the Ermita is a wannabe. But this is exactly what makes it a symbol of Mexico City: its aspirational obsessiveness, a self-conscious dread of — and everyday struggle against — underdevelopment. Segura (1898-1989) conceived the building as a beacon of possibility, but today, swamped by 24hr chino cafés, "American-style" eateries with melamine tableware, dingy little dope-spot pocket-parks, black light basement dance clubs and markets where you can get a haircut and a cow-tongue taco from the same stand, it only stands as a stoic testament to things that never were.
The building is kind of schmaltzy, but overall breathtaking. Completed in 1931, it was one of the first skyscrapers in the city. Pictures of the Ermita from around the time it was built show the sleepy farmlands of the area, still largely undeveloped except for a few fin de siècle mansions and even fewer proto-industrial workshops. There's one with burros riding down Avenida Revolución (then Calvario Street). Even today the building feels out of scale. In a strange inversion of what would happen in a genuinely modernist city, instead of sparking a manic let's-see-who-has-the-biggest (uh, I mean tallest) -building construction blitz, the Ermita's presence seems to have inhibited vertical growth. Everything around it stayed flat. This flatness adds visual drama, it creates the effect of a sole survivor left standing after nuclear fallout or something, choking in the stewy afternoon smog. The Ermita is Mexico's own Genbaku Dome, a memorial to our first-round fall in a long fight for Modernidad.
Throughout the day, the grayish-pink Mexico City sunlight pierces through the building's central dome, filling the private interior court shared by neighbors and dressed scantly with tropical greenery. The building has a near-triangular base that fits snuggly on its 1,390 sqm corner site, with an original program that was quite unorthodox for Mexico at the time: shops on two of the outer facades, a large movie theater occupying most of the ground level, and various apartment types on the upper floors. Today, many of the apartments are empty (I don't know why; with their hardwood flooring, white walls, antique bathtubs, and double-height ceilings, I find them quite friggin gorgeous), the regal 1,500-seat movie theater was split into smaller screening rooms and is now abandoned, I think; and the shops have been downgraded to discount pharmacies and crappy dollar stores.
A nicer late addition to the building was the Galaxie dance club, which opened ca 2000 or 2001 if my memory doesn't fail me. Dark and kinky, with mirrored walls, zebra print sofas, tubular furniture, obscene lighting fixtures (huge translucent chandeliers shaped like mushrooms and sea-dollars), full of (early) modern-types, and named after one of the very, very few cars that make me drool, the Galaxie was a precursor of the D.F.'s now much-touted party scene, an already forgotten classic, I'd say. It was the kind of place where no one would blame you for believing that the nineties would have a comeback (there was a backroom dance floor in case you couldn't help yourself and had to relive the joys of M.C. Hammer, C&C Music Factory or Technotronic) and which offered rare nightlife wildlife sightings (Zemmoa as a boy, for example). It was one of the first clubs in Mexico with interiors by Emmanuel Picault, though I remember him complaining about the project being cut back and aesthetically unsuccessful overall. Diamond in the rough. I don't know if the Galaxie is still open, but I'm sure that — like everything else in this city — if it is, it's not what it used to be.
Back in the late-twenties and early-thirties, when Segura was working on the project for the Ermita, Mexican architecture was going through its own version of the late Secession-to-Disruption moment. Clashes were entrenched in architecture and aesthetics just as they were in politics. Almost a decade after the Revolution had officially ended, the route it would take as it settled down into Regime was still more or less up for grabs, and for that matter, so was the building agenda and the look it would claim as its own. These were the years of effervescence: of Creole Ulysseses and Cristeros and both Communist and Fascist conjures; but also of quests for True Modern Mexicanness, be it in the form of populist functionalism, neocolonial pastiche, Aztec Streamline and whatnot. (We'll be looking into all those later on.)
For his hardcore left-wing contemporaries (who in fact would later suffer a similar fate and fall from grace during the process of Revolutionary Institutionalization) Segura was more a Menshevik than a true revolucionario; a moderate, incorrigible bourgeois. Part of the dissing was fueled by his attention to ornamental detail: pale corridors with granite floors and fine wooden banisters ribbonned with
Zapotec-ish fretwork; fabulous Art Déco arched doorways and floral-shaped drains scattered on the floor and signed "Diego Rivera". (Rumor has it that the building skylight was originally a Rivera stained-glass dome that "mysteriously" disappeared.) Even today, critics rarely see Segura's work as true Mexican Modern, but rather dismiss it as a set of quaint "transition" architecture specimens. In the end, unlike many of its unabashedly "revolutionary" counterparts, which later degraded to officialist International Style, the architecture of Juan Segura has managed to keep a delightfully modern aura of wonder and surprise.
O.K., so this isn't hardcore proletarian construction. In fact it's a piece of pure middle-class confidence, the supposedly innocent and apolitical faith in slow and steady progress. In truth though, bourgeois aspirations of modernity in Mexico City during those years — particularly in terms of urbanization and of architectural prowess — were just as significant. (This bourgeois/middle-class illusion came down hard like the proletarian one, though not as quickly.) Besides, Mexico City, like any knowledgeable Mexican historian will tell you, has never really been a revolutionary capital. Revolution comes to Mexico City to culminate, to turn into something else, but it seemingly has a hard time sprouting from here.
But enough of these tidbidts; let me get back to the point of my archi-fetish.
The building took its name from an old chapel that originally occupied the site. The word ermita is Spanish for hermitage: a place of retreat, solitary detachment, confinement and reflection. (And whatever else those crazy old desert folk did throughout the centuries, all alone in their caves or their ashrams or the hideaway of their choice.)
The Ermita for me, for some reason, became an instant symbol of everything the future held. I fantasized of moving out of my parent's house and into one of the tiny 30 sqm apartments, ditching school and leaving my messy sex-life behind, taking up a more modest and more contemplative lifestyle, possibly working the night shift at the Café Shanghai to pay the rent. O.K. I didn't actually think I would quit the sex, but I would have more time to myself, in this perfect white-washed pod, in this perfect monster of a building, quietly overlooking the unstable mass of Mexico City.
It was never meant to be, of course, I've grown too old and too attached to leave everything for the Ermita. Just another pipe dream, permanently postponed. The building will probably still haunt me though — evoking all sorts of messy, complicated intensities in my chest — whenever I catch a quick glimpse of it, riding down Revolución.
*photo "Ermita in the rain" by mfandrich