Modernism and Mid Century Mexico

In addition to providing aesthetic influence, the tenets of architectural modernism provided the contours for the practice of a socially radical Mexican architecture in the mid twentieth century during the height of the supposedly apolitical post-war International style. Architectural and planning projects in Mexico during the 1950s were conceived in a transnational dialogue of international modernism that began in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century. These projects were implemented in the sphere of national, regional and municipal politics in Mexico, only after they were elaborated within an intense national debate over two issues that had taken shape in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution: the social purpose of architecture and the role of avant-garde artists in the state. The terms of this debate were set both by the political reality of Mexico and the intellectual currents of modernism.

Architectural modernism began in Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century with the rejection of traditional practice, under the premise that the architectural process should be determined by the function of a building and its coherent parts rather than by classical architectural styles. In this article I refer to five modernist precepts:

  1. the relationship between technology, industrialization and modern architecture, specifically the conviction that a modern world fundamentally altered by these advances requires a new architecture.
  2. the simplification of form and rejection of architectural ornamentation.
  3. the belief that architecture has a social purpose and can affect social change.
  4. the influence of avant-garde art on architecture and
  5. the integration of architecture and the arts.

Technological innovations and scientific advances, specifically increased industrialization and the availability of new materials and building techniques (especially reinforced concrete, but also glass production and increased mass fabrication in construction) provided both impulse and inspiration to modernist architects both in its origins in interwar Europe and its application in post WWII Mexico.

Modernist architects sought simplicity of form based on the influence of modern technology and industry, such as the steamboat, motorcar and industrial factories famously praised by Le Corbusier in his groundbreaking Vers une arquitecture (1923), a book that was influential across Europe, the US and in Mexico. The most extreme variation of this doctrine of simplicity of form and the complete rejection of external ornamentation, functionalism, is most equated with the German Bauhaus School, especially in its third phase (1928-1930) under the direction of Hannes Meyer.

Meyer, an avowed Communist who eventually moved to Mexico, advocated design for all, harnessing the concept of mass-producibility for a social purpose. Meyer’s brand of functionalism was driven by the desire for absolute efficiency as a means to provide basic necessities to the greatest number of people. During his early years in Mexico, Meyer had great hopes for radical architecture, but little support from the government. By the 1950s, however, the state was more interested in modernist architecture, which had taken a turn from functionalism to the international style. This internationalist cosmopolitan cultural aspiration (a shift from the relatively inward-looking post-Revolutionary cultural nationalism) went hand-in-hand with the state program of protected industrialization, which economic historian Susan Gauss has called “the foundation for a new version of revolutionary nationalism rooted in statist, urban industrialism” (Gauss, 204).  In the decades following the Mexico Revolution (1910-1917), a broad project of cultural nationalism had been based on incorporating rural peasants and urban workers, which shaped the identity of the PRI’s major constituency, but by the mid-century the party became increasingly concerned with the urban middle class, who began to lobby for their interests more and more through national channels, a state of affairs which, in turn, gave the federal government even greater power in shaping the urban development of the capital (Davis 102-3).

Before large-scale government involvement in the management of urban growth in Mexico City, Meyer and other functionalists primarily proposed modest complexes of casas obreras (workers’ housing). In Meyer’s case, these were basically an adaptation of his “people’s apartment,” developed at the Bauhaus. This solution to the city’s “problema de la habitación” (housing problem) fit with the post-Revolutionary conception of Mexican citizens as rural farmers (campesinos) or workers (obreros) as well as with the radical politics of the functionalists.2 Depending on the particular politics of the architect, these projects were often promoted within a specifically socialist or communist platform.

Functionalism played a major role in architectural debates throughout the 1930s and was intertwined with radical politics. In 1937, for example, the functionalist architect Alberto Arai gave a talk at the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, or LEAR) in which he advocated a new “technical architecture” to replace “aesthetic architecture” (Canales and Hernández Galvez). 3 In 1938, shortly after the disintegration of the LEAR, Arai and a group of functionalist architects founded the Unión de Arquitectos Socialistas (Socialist Union of Architects), which made important connections between architects and the labor movement, focusing especially on the need to construct adequate worker housing. Both the leftist politics behind functionalist architecture and its lack of aesthetic appeal to more traditional tastes (many obreros included) caused an official backlash in favor of more conventional styles. The neo-Colonial style, it was argued, was a more appropriate mode for monumental public building and referenced the specificity of Mexico through its Spanish heritage. In addition to a lack of state funding, functionalism suffered from the early death of the architect Juan Legarreta in 1934 (one of its principal proponents), the changing passions of functionalist architect Juan O’Gorman and the eventual disillusionment of Meyer, many of whose Mexican projects remained uncompleted.

By the 1950s, architects had largely abandoned the explicit connection to labor politics and the interest in solving the “problema de habitación” was no longer only expressed in the need to create housing for workers. Instead, regional planning strategies and grand urban projects were proposed as a means to solve social problems on a national scale. Functionalists had proposed and built groupings of worker housing, but not mega-infrastructure and planning projects.4 The monumental scale of late modernist planning was an important change from functionalism, which had crucial implications in terms of the role of the state in planning and thus the political importance of architects and planners.

These later modernists looked to scientific study, new technology and the importance of a powerful state to achieve the social promises of the Revolution (although those promises were defined in a new way—more on this later). By examining the relationship between architecture and the state, we can begin to uncover with more specificity the formulations of state power after 1940 and the importance of architects and planners in shaping and determining these. This area has been obscured by the onslaught of a massive critique originating with intellectuals on the left after the federal government’s role in the student massacre of 1968 and the accompanying assumption that the increasingly authoritarian state was focused only on its international reputation, capital accumulation and the continuation of its own power. I show here that some intellectuals sought social change by working in collaboration with the increasingly powerful state, despite this power being the heart of the later critique of the post-1940 PRI. State support, these architect-planners argued, would allow them to channel the promise of modernism, affecting change through a new approach to planning.

Mexican modernist architecture during this period did, however, preserve some of the more radical aspects of functionalism, even as it matured stylistically into a variant of the more apolitical International Style. By the 1950s in the United States, the International Style had merged with a post-war corporatism that while imbued with modernist elements, was linked to the goals of the earlier movement only through its formal concerns, becoming what many pejoratively called a style, not a movement. For example, the mass production of building elements influenced by functionalism became a stylistic choice and cost-saving mechanism, not a move driven by social goals. In Mexico, even if the interest of capital and development were behind the flourishing of modernism in the post-WWII period, discussion of social goals was still important to a number of architects, who considered it an essential aspect of their work.

Modern architecture flourished within the increased privatization and business-orientation of the administration of President Miguel Alemán (1946-1952). During his presidency, Alemán developed the coast of Acapulco (where many of Mexico’s most well-known modern architects designed hotels, yacht clubs and homes for the wealthy and famous), completed the CU project and was personally involved in residential and touristic real estate development (including Mexico’s first planned suburb, Ciudad Satélite). How could radical political architectural projects take shape within this arena?

The ideology of the post-WWII PRI has been widely characterized as a decisive “change of direction,” with many scholars accepting its characterization by Daniel Cosío Viellagas as a complete abandonment of the Revolution. The historian Enrique Krauze, for example, has argued that while the Revolution died somewhere around 1940, it lived on as a symbol, the central ideology around which Mexican politics is based. “Beginning in 1940 and with the passage of time, the goals of the Revolution had been wiped away without being resolved” (Krauze, 529). Krauze, like Cosío Villegas before him, largely blames the Revolution’s passing on the politics of Alemán, who he labels “the Businessman President.” Alemán’s initial fortune was made in real estate development. His first venture, Fraccionamientos México, bought large plots of land on the borders of the city, mainly old haciendas of the Porfirian aristocracy (Porfirio Díaz was the Dictator unseated by the Revolution) who needed to sell, “even at low prices, in order to shift their money into urban businesses” (Krauze, 537). During his years as president, Alemán took an active interest in private and public building projects, and modernist architecture specifically.

It would be wrong to assume, however, (as Krauze does) that because Alemán was invested in private development that he did not have a vision for the country, or that these projects were conceived with only his personal enrichment in mind. This portrait of Alemán is a caricature, based on a few simplified and exaggerated qualities. I do not, by any means, intend to suggest that Alemán was a secret revolutionary, only that the larger narrative, in which these architectural and planning projects play an important role, is far more complicated. To begin to understand Alemán’s plans for Mexico, we must reckon with modernism as a key influence.

For example, the scale and grandeur of Alemán’s vision and the application of new technology to building and integrated planning were among the impacts of modernism. The integration of muralism also suited Alemán’s project—in this case its inclusion was symbolic. But it is important not to entirely dismiss Alemán’s interest in Mexican art and artists. The president was an avid participant in modern cultural attractions (especially cinema) and was part of a social circle in which politics and the arts were intermingled in interesting and uniquely Mexican ways. While the intimate intersections of Alemán’s social and political agendas is outside the realm of this paper, it is important to consider the interrelation between these worlds in mid-century Mexico.

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