This is Uruapan, a smallish town in the State of Michoacán. Same place where heads rolled (literally, on the dance floor of a dirty nightclub) in the little skit that just might mark the dawn of Narco-Statehood in Mexico.
For more of this ganster's paradise, see the Skyscrapercity thread "Uruapan. Paraíso Michoacano".
Some of you out there have been complaining that my posts are too long and nostalgic, so today I’m keeping it short and contempo.
According to the Real Academia, the word antro (derived from the Latin antrum and the Greek antron; a cavity or chamber) refers to:
1. A cavern, cave or grotto.
2. A place, establishment, residence, etc. of poor aspect or reputation.
The English equivalent of antro would be a dive or shithole. Mexico City has an entire neighborhood that is one big antro: the Zona Rosa.
Once it was posh and cosmopolitan, now it is gaudy and queer.
It’s a fallen neighborhood. Only the dated tourist guides still consider the area one of the city’s “main attractions.” Unless you’re into sex tourism, that is. The Zona Rosa's streets are full of huge, old German or Dutch men holding hands with skinny underage brown boys with their pants hanging down to their groins.
You might spot a scared, lost, straight gringo couple that had been here once in the seventies and wanted to relive the good ‘ol days. You feel bad for them.
The Pink Zone was originally called that because it was a soft and prissy version of a red light district. Nowadays it's gotten so seedy that people are actually calling it Zona Roja or Zonaja for short. (Sonaja means rattle in Spanish.) The Zona Rosa is Mexico City’s take on the zonas (tolerance zones, or “Boystowns”) that made Mexican bordertowns infamous in the 1920s. But gayer.
Today, the Zona Rosa is more pink as in splattered brains or insides.
Many of Mexico City's central neighborhoods have made a comeback and turned posh again after the 1985 post-earthquake exodus, but not the Zona Rosa.
The area is packed with shady teibols (table-dance clubs), merengue dance halls, gay clubs with Styrofoam cave-like interiors, Korean fast food joints, Korean hair salons, Korean Karaoke bars with Carpenters songs. There’s also a bunch of clubs without names or street numbers; backrooms for swingers parties, orgies, dress-code parties, show-and-tell parties, or whatever type of party you can think of.
The bars that do have a name are called Keops, Pussy, Boybar, Atenea, Lipstick, Crazy, Pink, Bgay, Shiva, Boots, Neon, Safari, and VIP.
It’s the only place in town where you can get contraband unfiltered Lucky Strikes.
The urban scale and the architecture of this gangrenous limb of the Colonia Juárez are fantastic. As one of the first modern, upper-class planned subdivisions of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Zona Rosa boasts a surreal array of architectural styles: Neoclassical, Neo-Colonial, French Colonial, Mission (known as Estilo California in Mexico), Art Déco, Mexican Streamline, etc. In the later decades, International Style, Barraganesco, Bureaucratic Baroque (or Estilo Priísta Tardío), and Corporate Kitsch have been layered on top.
Until recently, the Zona Rosa was the only part of the city with exclusively pedestrian streets. But they were used more for cruising than walking.
Needless to say, I'm a fan.
Alfredo Salce, "The USSR defends the liberties of the world. Let us help her!" (1941)
I was vaguely familiar with the work of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphics Workshop, or TGP) but I never knew it had been directed by Hannes Meyer or that it was still standing today.
The TGP as it stands today, in the infamous yet picturesque Colonia Doctores
The TGP was established in 1937, during the golden age of Cardenismo, of course, on a street that was famous for its prostitutes. Most of the workshop's original members also belonged to the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios, the Revolutionary Writers and Artists League, or LEAR.
Leopoldo Méndez, "Nazism. 5th Conference. Nazi propaganda and espionage. Keynote speaker: J. Loredo Aparicio" The conferences was sponsored by the Pro-German Culture League of Mexico, an anti-fascist group of Teutonic expats.
Leopoldo Méndez, "Bring to the conscience of the popular masses, the conviction that the necessary elimination of Imperialist wars depends on the solidarity of workers. The Pacifist Congress" (1937)
The TGP printed everything from theater posters to populist didactic flyers and embellished political pamphlets.
Luis Arenal, "Enroll in the Communist Party. For the unity of the People. For the complete triumph of the Revolution. For a free, joyous Mexico" (1938)
Like most of the cultural production of the postrevolutionary ferment, by the late 1940s the TGP fell prey to the institutionalization of the Revolution, little more than an outlet for officialist propaganda of the "Pacific Revolution".
Alberto Beltrán,"May 1st. Labor Day. The CTM (the Confederation of Mexican Workers) united with all Mexicans for the greatness of the Nation" (1947)
Alberto Beltrán, "The corrido of the Peace Congress" (1949)
Despite being considered a more pure, efficient and rational approach to building, especially when compared with the remnants of nineteenth-century theatricality and pastiche that were still en vogue at the time, functionalism in Mexico in the early 1930s was hardly neutral or detached. In fact, it was a thoroughly politicized movement, overcharged with symbolism: the anti-style style.
Funcionalismo promised a cool, effective balm that would counter the aesthetic and ideological malaise of the disruption produced by the Mexican Revolution; a steady hand that could shake Mexican modernism out of its adolescent identity crisis. It was basically a focusing of ideals: architecture should be cheap, solid and clean.
In his early years, Juan O’ Gorman was the champion of this tidying-up tendency. Born in 1905 to a Mexican mother and an Irish father, in his twenties he decided he wanted to be a painter and architect, after a brief stint as a Med student. He grew up to be one of the great modern architectural figures in Mexico, with all the traits of a proper revolucionario: grandiloquent, vociferous, slightly dogmatic and profoundly contradictory.
Juan O'Gorman, Self-portrait (1950)
O’Gorman hit the drawing board precisely at the time when President Cárdenas had invited Hannes Meyer —the lesser-known director of the Bauhaus and ardent Marxist who left Weimar to create an architectural “Left Column” in the USSR — to settle in Mexico and lead the way for the proletarian phase of the Constructive Revolution. With Cárdenas’s blessing, the recently founded Instituto Politécnico (or El Poli, as it's known in common-folk parlance) took him in as the director of the Architecture and Urbanism program, with the intention of creating a suitable rival to the conservative Escuela Nacional (the former San Carlos academy), still seeped in a stale beaux-arts tradition. (See pop note below.)
Meyer returned to Europe in 1949, but he left a permanent mark on Modern Mexican architecture. His groupies — technical rationalists and funcionalistas — had assimilated the notion of architecture as a technology-driven discipline (not Art). Their concerns superseded those of moderate modernistas. Not only were they trying to give Mexico a Modern Face, an image; they also saw themselves paving the way for a rational, socialist future. Following Meyer’s cues, they were convinced that architecture’s function was to cover basic needs and promote a leveling of society.
José Chávez Morado. Fascism in Latin America. From the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) volume, Estampa Mexicana, edited by Hannes Meyer (1949)
The suizo’s ideas had a major influence on O’Gorman and many of his contemporaries. Meyer’s neue baulehre, along with his discovery of Le Corbusier, lured O’Gorman into the barrage of the early Modern Movement. (The fact that, in his own words, O’Gorman only did a “selective reading” of Corb doesn’t mean he only superficially or partially dipped into the work, but more that he handpicked key concepts and tried to adjust them to the Mexico’s very particular material, labor, economic and social conditions.)
Juan O’ Gorman started making a name for himself as a fierce critic of the symbolist architecture that the first postrevolutionary regime had adopted under the cultural command of José Vasconcelos — who’s lavish, practically mystical hispanismo deformed into an unfortunate cuddling-up to fascism in his later years. For O’Gorman, the neocolonial agenda that dominated the official quest for a modern, national cultural production was pure architectural fanatism. Yet his own understanding of the power and lure of architecture was very close to that of the cultural caudillo.They both understood architecture as a tool for politics, and they both trusted its didactic and socially transformative capacities.
Carlos Obregon Santacilia, Mexican Pavilion at the 1922 Rio de Janeiro Exhibition
In terms of style though, O’Gorman very vocally distanced himself from Vasconcelos. He dismissed the stylistic obsession of the prior decades, adopting a supposedly neutral, objective, “scientific” approach to construction.
Juan O'Gorman, Sketch of the M. Toussaint house
But by the mid-1960s, O’Gorman thought differently:
Man needs more than functionalism, a building has to be something more than simply useful … Man’s requirements go beyond this: aspect, environment, beautiful proportion, appearance, a space of pleasurable sensations, forms and colors that give satisfaction and pleasure. All this is beyond the scope of any strict functionalist. But subjective needs, in many cases, are more important than the objective ones … Functionalism should be the base … It is wrong to believe that functionalism is in itself an end. (source)
But that was after he had taken refuge in his neo-primitive house/grotto (volcanic rock, colored mosaic, giant butterflies, jaguars, Aztec Eagle Warriors), after ditching the role of functionalist prophet for an even more colorful part: shaman of organicist Mexotica.
Juan O'Gorman looking out his bedroom window (1959) Source: LIFE
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The Escuela Nacional was later incorporated into the UNAM. Rivalry with El Poli transcended mere architectural predilection. In fact, competition was so fierce and so deeply imbedded in popular perception, that in the early fifties the one-and-only Dámaso Pérez Prado, exiled Cuban and ballroom king, dedicated a special mambo to each one of them. I don't know if the tunes were commissioned, but considering this was a time when government-owned cabarets where common and the entire country was being steadily seduced by mass media, I wouldn't be surprised.
Burian's Four O'Gorman Dichotomies:
1. Cosmopolitanism vs Nativism
2. Mechanicism vs Organicism
3. Abstraction vs Figuration
4. Technology vs Representation
Or, the Mexican Modernist Dharma Wheel
*Wiring detail in O'Gorman's Casa Estudio Diego Rivera. Photo by Tal Schori.
As Mexico went from Third to First World and back throughout the 1990s, signs of the puffed-up success and subsequent failure of the latest wave of modernization sweeping the country (and the capital in particular) dotted the built landscape.
Early in that manic-depressive decade, the promises of neoliberalism were materialized in blue-hued mirrored glass and pink limestone. After remaining empty for years, The Hotel de México — a desarrollismo era icon-to-be turned massive structural carcass — was scheduled to reopen as a new WTC, complete with a Hilton and a J.C. Penny’s. Mini-skyscrapers and chain restaurants sprung up on lots left empty in the aftermath of the '85 earthquake, inner-city factories turned into Costcos, and the decadent movie theaters of my childhood, with their sticky floors and rat infestations and mid-movie intermissions, became proper multi-screen cineplexes with soda machine refills and self-service candy buffets stuffed with the once-exotic treats imported from the States (Nerds, Bubblegum Tape, Jelly Belly jelly beans... Stuff that in the old days you could only buy from black market peddlers squatting outside elementary schools). We were becoming modern, global, North American, gringos, and it was glorious.
Soon enough, the new life modernization injected turned Frankenstein on us.
In 1994, just as the signing of Nafta was supposed to crown the Mexican Neo-miracle, the irruption of the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army, in case you didn’t know), growing political violence (including the slaying of the 70-year-rule official party’s presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio) and the peso crash of December all contributed to the country’s downgrade from neoliberal poster child to paradigm of distorted development.
As a consequence of the financial breakdown, prices soared, jobs were lost, construction halted and violence erupted like we had never seen: fingers, ears and other body fragments arrived by mail to families as proof that a loved one’s kidnappers weren’t kidding, drivers were randomly gunned down on traffic-jammed highways in broad daylight, taxis became deathtraps, glue-sniffing kids would knife you for a Casio. Everyone had an intimate quotidian violence tale to tell.
In the dreadful vertigo of those years, a wave of superstition and bogus spirituality arose in the city, eventually morphing into a millenarian, pseudo-religious revival (with its corresponding architecture).
Major TV networks were covering a series of bizarre attacks on livestock in different parts of the country and attributed them to the chupacabras, a demonic creature with tiger fangs and wolf fur and a rat’s face (and in a couple of eyewitness accounts, bat wings), making the most ridiculous of folktale monsters seem biologically plausible in comparison.
Top government intelligence agencies hired Francisca Zetina aka "La Paca", a fortune-teller and cult leader, to solve a string of political murders. The charade included a televised manhunt led by her visions. La Paca was arrested when it was discovered she had actually stolen and then planted the human remains that had supposedly "contacted" her and that the whole investigation was tainted.
Popular taste for the occult, nevertheless, kept being exploited. Morning shows had their own spook sections with ghostbuster expert panels and live reports from cemeteries and haunted houses. Saints that where believed to offer protection from being snatched or having your S.U.V stolen became especially popular among the well-to-do crowd. Soon enough, captors and carjackers found their own spiritual patrons.
The fact that social instability encourages deviant spiritualities and mystical upsurges that feed off turmoil is well-established. In Mexico City, during la crisis of the 1990s, these virulent impulses — triggered by fear, moral and material disruptions, and a sectarian mood set off by the crumbling political regime and the dissolution of corporate and traditionalist social bonds — started seeping into everyday life.
Our dubious spiritual reawakening became more visible in a series of small and ephemeral urban events. One of most noted occurrences was the miraculous apparition of the Virgen del Metro, the Subway Virgin. The Hidalgo metro station became an instant pilgrimage destination in 1997 after a water leak drew a familiar shape on the floor in one of its corridors. The stain was taken for the Virgin of Gualupe. People flocked around the stain and lit candles and kissed the floor, undisturbed by rush hour crowds squeezing into and out of trains. The floor tile had to be removed and encased in a glass altar. This led to a chain of replications across the city. There were reports of la Virgen showing up on tree-trunks and tortillas. I remember that in the same week, only a few blocks away from my parents’ house, a two-day roadblock was installed because La Virgen had appeared in the middle a narrow street, its dark silhouette etched onto the asphalt. Camera crews kept rolling in until a couple of teenagers that lived on the same block confessed to having drawn the Virgin themselves with motor oil.
Eventually, the shams gave way to more systematic and permanent imprints on the urban fabric.
One day, out of the blue, a handful of the city’s grand movie theaters of yore traded their crumbling marquees for billboards boasting a Valentine’s day blood-red heart with a white dove hovering over it, and a killer motto stamped in bold, blue lettering: Pare de sufrir, "stop suffering".
The billboards cried out to the battered and bruised inhabitants of the capital. At first no one knew what the hell they were. A stupid add campaign for low fat mayonnaise or sunglasses? A new telenovela or political party? The first Pare de sufrir sign I saw was draped over the entrance of the Teatro Silvia Pinal (see pop note below) an old government-owned theater I held dear ever since I saw my first-ever Broadway-style musical there: an adaptation of Cats. I first thought "Stop Suffering" might be a sequel to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I wasn’t that far-off.
It turned out that the theaters were bought and readapted by a South American
corporate sect that was still pretty obscure back then: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). The UCKG doesn’t only select theaters and large entertainment venues for their seating capacity: they are the perfect architectural choice — physically and symbolically — for mounting Christian consumerist extravaganzas with inspirational music powerful like a Menudo ballad, dead of night infomercials, golden Styrofoam thresholds, salvation cash deposits, Monday Godly Entrepreneurial Meetings and Saturday Hopeless Case and Love Therapies, and sales on selected items (holy water from the River Jordan, holy cloth from Jerusalem, middle-eastern Sharon roses, stones from the grave of Jesus Christ, miraculous oils from the olive trees of Gethsemane, etc).
Historically, the relationship between religion and modernity has been complicated and contradictory. At times religious beliefs have been fuel for change, at times the target of its assaults. Mexican Modernism (Modern Mexico in general) played this pull and push game repeatedly: it’s had a little bit of everything, from the Jacobin church demolitions of the Reforma wars to the soul-searching structural calculations of Felix Candela’s 1950s suburban chapels.
The curious thing about the more recent run-ins between modernizing and ritual tendencies in Mexico is that, at least as far as spatial phenomena go, these tendencies seem to be going in a direction opposite to what theory would dictate. The painful processes of becoming Modern — particularly painful when they go awry — have spurred a confusion of roles, strategies and spatial patterns. ¿Where are the Modern and the Traditional in a decrepit secular temple (movie theater) readapted as Church that has embraced the coarsest, most predatory features of consumer culture? Or when deaf-ear superstition actively colonizes the purest and most rational products of Modernity (mass transit)? More than a result of the eternal fight between Progress and the Primitive, these anomalous religious urban outbursts are symptoms of modernization looking for a way out of its own snares.
*photo by Flickr user manu
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The theater was named after Silvia Pinal: Buñuel muse. Former wife and onstage partner of Enrique Guzmán (1960s teddybear hunk singer). Grandmother of naughty minor rockstar Stephanie Salas (who bore the firstborn child of the ultimate pop idol of the late twentieth century in Mexico; a blong Pedro Infante of sorts: Luis Miguel) and mother of naughty major popstar Alejandra Guzmán (the “Mexican Madonna"). Host and matriarch of the hit daytime television show, Mujer, casos de la vida real. The show
has been running since ran from the mid-eighties to 2007, and but Pinal’s charm and face are as tight as ever. Mujer is an arresting staged-reality show with actors replaying the confidences sent via standard courier ( maybe it’s e-mail now, not sure. I haven’t been able to watch in ages and apparently e-mail towards the end) by female (or, occasionally, transgender) viewers. Delivering one hour of none-stop tear-jerking bliss, the show deserves a post of its own. Maybe.