The porous layers of a city

June 26, 2015

There is a common tree here in Cuernavaca locally known as Tabachin (Delonix regia; also known as Poinciana or Flamboyant tree). This red flowering tree produces a long seed pod, one of which John Cage used as an instrument in his 1975 composition Child of Tree. This aleatory piece, in which all of the instruments are plants, includes a rattle made from the dried pod of a Poinciana plant “found near Cuernavaca”, as the composer states in the score. When passing under a Tabachin tree, it’s not difficult to imagine Cage considering adding the large pods to his repertoire, considering his developing interest in using plants as instruments. Cage frequently spent time in the city during the late 1960s and 70s. And during the last century there has been a pilgrimage of other avant-garde minds passing through this place.


Ponciana tree in winter, n.d. Photo: Unknown

In navigating Cuernavaca—a city of 800,000 people forty minutes away from Mexico City—I look not only for culturally important things happening today, but traverse its territory geographically and temporally as well. This is probably because in driving through it, it becomes clear that the city has had better moments than today, making it even more interesting. It’s a place in which one has to fill in the blanks, where one needs to go beyond its surface in order to get its drift. In that sense, most of the time it is the sites and architecture of a place that allow one to experience a place in a diagonal way, and to ask oneself what it is in a city that allows individuals to think in a radical way. 


Blank billboards cluster on the highway entering Cuernavaca. Photographed in 2013 by Mario García Torres

The capital of Morelos state has been for decades both a resort, thanks to its infallibly sunny weather (Alexander von Humboldt called it “the city of the eternal spring”), and a getaway for intellectuals. John Cage was first introduced to Cuernavaca by Dorothy Norman, a photographer and editor from New York. But it was probably the popularity of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel Under the Volcano, written and set in the (then) small town that might have first attracted a number of foreign intellectuals to Cuernavaca. As Norman pointed out years later, “[Cuernavaca was] kind of an international place… There were extremely interesting individuals there.” 

In the last couple of years, my interest has drawn me to this place again and again. I got to spend time here when I recently presented an exhibition at La Tallera, a sort of Kunsthalle in the city, which was once muralist David A. Siqueiros’ studio. When I proposed the exhibition, I had to point out my very specific interest in the venue as it made a number of elements in the project coincide. The museographical essay, first presented at the Berlin Biennial last year, is very much related to the avant-garde composer Conlon Nancarrow, who moved to Mexico from the US in the 1940s and who quickly began hanging out with the circle associated with the Mexican muralists of the time, Siquieros of course being one of them. Later in his life, Nancarrow would spend time in Cuernavaca as well, so La Tallera became a place where those stories met. 


Top: Conlon Nancarrow and Yoko Seigura in their Cuernavaca house in 1987. Photo by Alistair Ridell, courtesy of Alistair Ridell Collection. Bottom: The Nancarrow's house seen from the street, photographed in 2014 by Mario García Torres

Little by little in trips for research and preparation for the exhibition, I bumped into a number of places of interest that started to sketch a different perspective of the city beyond those directly related to the exhibition, like Nancarrow’s house, in search of which I made a few pilgrimages. It is said that Lowry first thought of Under the Volcano while staying at the Hotel Casino de la Selva, not long after it had been opened in the 1930s. Two decades later, the space became an important social place, and an architectural trademark, mainly because of the organic structures that Felix Candela, a Spanish émigré who lived in Mexico City most of his life, designed for it.  


Hotel Casino de la Selva (As remodeled in 1956). Top: Bungalows. Bottom: Auditorium & Restaurant, all photographed in 1994 by Yoshito Isono /

The hotel and most of the murals made for it by a number of artists, including Siquieiros, Jorge Gonzales Camarena, Jose Reyes Meza and Joseph Renau, were destroyed soon after the property was bought by the North American company Costco. If one goes to the site today, one can have breakfast in a cafeteria-type of restaurant that is hosted in a reconstruction of the hotel designed by Candela, which has now been pushed to the supermarket parking lot. 


Restaurante California, Lomas de la Selva, Cuernavaca, 2012. Photo: Mario García Torres

Luckily the Casino de la Selva was actually just the beginning of Candela’s pilgrimage through Cuernavaca, and he left a legacy of a few other important works. In the Palmira neighborhood, not far from the former hotel, there is still an impressive hyperbolic paraboloid structure, which hosts an outdoor church from 1958 that became recognized as one of Candela’s most important and technically stunning works. On the way, one can also see some of the neighborhood’s roundabouts with sculptural fountains designed in collaboration with Manuel Larrosa and Guillermo Rosell.


Felix Candela, Open Chapel in Palmira (1958). Top to bottom: Photographed w/ scaffoldings by Dorothy Candela ca. 1958; destroyed shell, photo by D. Candela (n.d.); detail of the aerial photo made by Nacho Lopez in 1959; Aerial photo by D. Candela (1958)

The Chapel itself deserves a text of its own. Beyond the fact that it represents an important development of Candela’s engineering work and adds an important chapter to the history of shell construction, here the shrine is a place that allows one to experience different moments in its history and to perceive the city in a different way. When one sees images of the construction made by different photographers over the last fifty years, it’s clear that not only the trees planted in its atrium and the development of the surrounding neighborhood allow us to go beyond its thin shell. The fact that the building that has been standing for more than five decades now is not the first version of it (the first version of the Chapel crumbled when the scaffolding was removed) implies that buildings are ideas that transcend their physicality, and that it is possible for them to have more than one life, precisely like the reconstruction of the other Candela structure in the city.


Felix Candela, Open Chapel in Palmira (1958). Top to bottom: Aerial photo by unknown photographer (1958); black and white image possibly by Nacho Lopez in 1959; one made in 1994 by Yoshito Isono /; and the one taken by Bruce M. White (2008)

Throughout the 1950s the city saw a number of modern architects to leave their mark as well. Mario Pani—a promoter of international style in the country—designed a couple of domestic dwellings here, not far from Candela’s chapel. It was later, in 1963, that the Mexican architect would also design a public building: the central market. Although the original design is now blurred by a number of modifications, the place can bring about a very direct sense of the city where one can see the variety of the region’s produce displayed for sale, and also hear the different indigenous languages that are still spoken in the state. 


Mercado Adolfo Lopez Mateos (1963), designed by Mario Pani. Photo: Unknown

If it’s true that the prominence of religion in the city brought interesting developments, it is important to point out that on a few occasions it brought extraordinarily forward-thinking individuals as well. Around the same time the Candela chapel was being constructed, philosopher and priest Ivan Illich founded his Centro Intercultural de Documentación, which, posing as a language school, actually pretended to document the participation of the Vatican in the "modern development" of the so-called third world. In my outings I could not locate any buildings related to Illich’s venture, but it was with great surprise that I discovered the Monasterio de Santa María de la Resurrección, the chapel of which was designed a few years before, by the architect and Benedictine Fray Gabriel Chavez de la Mora. The monastery is an impressive structure, which, although modern, is very conscious of its colonial-theological genealogy. More important, though, is the fact that for a few years the monastery served as the background for Gregorio Lemercier’s religious practice which adopted and used psychoanalysis. It was one of the early intellectual efforts to reconcile Catholicism with the world of science, and helped developed the religious practice of Liberation Theology—or Christianized Marxism, as its detractors called it.


Monasterio Benedictino de Santa María de la Resurrección. Top: View of entrance. Photo: Unknown. Bottom: Interior view of the Monastery's Chapel (1957), designed by Fray Gabriel Chavez de la Mora. Photo: Unknown

By the mid-1960s the small town of Cuernavaca, like many others around the world, started to look like a city very quickly, which turned it into a chaotic place as seen from the pavement. When one navigates the city, it becomes clear that one has little access to see what is happening behind walls. If accessed, however, one usually encounters enclosed sun-filled paradises to live and rest in, one of them being the Chavez de la Mora monastery, which is unfortunately now closed and can only be seen from the outside. 


Back view of the Monasterio Benedictino de Santa María de la Resurrección. Photographed in 2014 by Mario García Torres

Though it is true that the promise of good weather still holds in the city, when one approaches it on the highway, it appears to be more of an industrial place, full of trucks, an overpopulation of billboards, and factory warehouses occupying the landscape. It gives the feeling that things here happen either on an intimate or on a massive scale.


Datsun Mexicana, Cuernavaca (1966) designed by Ricardo Legorreta. Photographed by Kati Horna in 1966

Such development started during the 1960s with, among other industries, the establishment of a new car assembly line by the Japanese brand Datsun (now Nissan). Interestingly, the first non-American company to establish a manufacturing plant in Mexico commissioned Ricardo Legorreta to design their headquarters next to the factory. Today if one visits the building, though, one will only find the image of its surroundings; the early architect’s design has been covered with mirrored glass, which hides the formerly semitransparent façade. A few years prior, the city saw the construction of yet another industrial complex that today is also recognized in the history of modern architecture in Mexico. That is the headquarters of Cartuchos Deportivos, a modern design by architect Juan Sordo Madaleno. 


Cartuchos Deportivos (1964), designed by Juan Sordo Madaleno. Top: Headquarters. Bottom: Assembly and Warehouse Building. Photos by Guillermo Zamora (Date Unknown)

During that same period, after being released from prison in 1964, David Siqueiros started to build his house-workshop and named it La Tallera. The workshop was equipped technically with a system for creating large murals inspired precisely by the automotive industry. The muralist lived and worked in Cuernavaca between 1965 and 1973. Siqueiros died a year after, and in 1995, La Tallera was first opened as a cultural center. Not long ago, in 2012, it was reopened after an impressive and respectful renovation made by architect Frida Escobedo, whose intervention’s main gesture consisted in turning the building around and making the studio’s back garage, where a few billboard-sized mural sketches were stored, into the entrance of the venue. 


La Tallera. Top: Photographed in 2009 by Mario Gallardo Molina. Center: Photographed in 2012 by Rafael Gamo after the remodeling by Frida Escobedo. Bottom: Photographed in 2014 by Mario García Torres

The muralist is not alone in the list of known artists who have decided, even if temporarily, to establish houses and studios in the city. Between 1987 and 1990, artist Jimmie Durham lived here, and Cisco Jimenes still resides here. During the early 1970s, Mathias Goeritz, an artist who very actively participated in the development of modern architecture in the country and who was also involved in concrete poetry, maintained a house here—co-designed by the artist and architect Ricardo Legorreta. The other day as I walked by, I tried to take a picture of the house the same way Julius Shulman had done in 1973. Beyond the colors of the house paint, few things had changed. One tree had flourished and grown and the other had been cut from the trunk and the sidewalk patched. The recognizable style that surely came out of both Goeritz’ and Legorreta’s interactions with architect Luis Barragán was still in place. It reminded me how penetrable time is, and that one can simultaneously read a city, and a culture, in different times with the help of a few clues. 


Mathias Goeritz House, Cuernavaca (Date unknown), designed by Goeritz and Ricardo Legorreta. Top: Photographed in 1973 by Julius Schulman, courtesy of Getty Images. Bottom: Photographed in 2015 by Mario García Torres

The strongest proof of this in Cuernavaca, though, is not Teopanzolco the archeological site, but an abandoned postmodern structure. In the mid-1980s, architect Agustín Hernandez was commissioned to design a meditation center to be built in Cuernavaca. Known for a very precise architectural discourse that aimed to look at the future as well as Mexico’s own pre-Hispanic past in order to react to modern architecture, he erected a sculptural building perched atop one of the city’s hills. In the form of a stylized serpent head, the almost utopic piece (one could argue that the building is nothing but a hole, with only a couple of habitable spaces in it) draws upon pre-historical symbology to define its forms. To bump into the ruins of such a philosophical sculptural construction among overgrown plants and debris provokes meditation not only on the ease of transcending time through stories and places, but about how tactile and physical that traveling can be.


Centro de Meditación (1986), designed by Agustín Hernández. Photographed in 2015 by Mario García Torres