Juan O'Gorman in the house-studio he built for Diego Rivera

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.)

Hannes Meyer

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 Their concerns superseded those of moderate modernistas.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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pop note

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.

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