The Personal Debate of Juan O’Gorman

September 14, 2015

Essay by Fabrizio Gallanti.


Mas issue debate the personal debate of juan ogorman 01

Juan O’Gorman. © Image by Leo Burnett Department of Design.

Certain adjectives accompanying the word “debate” imply the existence of an intense dialogue between multiple subjects within a specific discipline. In that phrasal construction the word “debate” equates the concept of “discourse,” although it suggests a wider polyphony of voices. The words associated with “debate” are characteristic of the cultural world: the literary debate, the artistic debate, the architectural debate, etc.

In Latin languages the pairing tends to indicate the majority of the positions, proposals, points of views, and juxtaposed opinions around a practice: it defines a field and an atmosphere, what we could call an intellectual context that surrounds and informs a particular aesthetic activity. Dibattito architettonico or debate arquitectonico are not related to specific issues but rather indicate the dominant themes and tendencies around architecture, identified in time and space (and in fact an infinite quantity of thesis or academic research are dedicated to the status of such debates in defined historical periods and locations).

Historians and critics tend therefore to employ dialectic methodologies of analysis, identifying the differences between multiple authors, who often act inside currents and groups. Sometimes the debate actually occurred, with opposed and occasionally virulent opinions, struggling for affirmation and hegemony, using a vast array of media (publications, exhibitions, public presentations).One example could be the struggle in Soviet Russia between Constructivist artists gathered around Naum Gabo and Productivist artists, designers, and architects, for the determination of the role of the arts in the post-revolutionary society.

In other circumstances the differences are reconstructed ex-post with the intention to generate a more accurate portrayal of an era, recognizing nuances and differentiations that were not always perceived in the historical moment. In any case, a sensation of a certain width accompanies this notion as numerous subjects appear on a very populated scene, whether it is the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes in seventeenth-century France around the sources of inspiration for literature or the current discussion around net neutrality.

Considering architecture and because it is completely different than the aforementioned generalization, where many voices are involved, it is fascinating to observe the trajectory of one intellectual, the Mexican architect and artist Juan O’Gorman (1905–1982).

It can be said that a conspicuous part of the “architectural debate” in Mexico, between the ‘20s and ‘50s just happened within one person: him. Through his designed and built work, numerous public presentations, academic teaching, and writings, O’Gorman first strongly advocated for the affirmation of functionalist architecture in Mexico and then violently repudiated it. Both his positions were based not just on questions within the boundaries of architectural thinking, but on a wider moral and political conscience about the role of the architect in a country that emerged from the violence and turmoil of the revolution that lasted between 1910 and 1917.

In his autobiography, published in 1973, O’Gorman dedicates numerous pages about the period of the civil war and the strategies of adaptation and survival vis-à-vis the different warring factions put in place by his father, Cecil Crawford O’Gorman, a mining engineer of Irish origin. Unable to attend school, and blocked at home, O’Gorman observed the cunning actions—a mix of bravery and piety—of his father to protect his family and friends.1

The direct experience of the political violence of the ‘10s exerted a durable impression on him: on one hand stimulating questions about the same notion of Mexico and its identity but also revealing a society segmented along extremely profound lines of class division and inequality. Throughout his career the ethical question of the role of the architect with respect to inequality recurred, determining major consequences in O’Gorman’s life.

In 1921 he started to attend the school of architecture of the Universidad Nacional de México, while working as a draftsman for the cement company Eureka between 7 and 10 in the morning in order to pay for his studies. The school was still under the influence of the Beaux-Arts movement, lazily promoted by aging architects, who almost never appeared to teach. Together with other students, O’Gorman approached the subsecretary of education of the period, who then forced the professors to return to class. Due to his talents in drawing, O’Gorman often collaborated with the offices of architects who incarnated the new emerging tendencies of modern architecture: Carlos Tarditi, José Villagrán García, and Carlos Obregón. He attributed his inclination for the functionalist language of his early projects to the teaching of the architect Guillermo Zárraga and the engineer José Antonio Cuevas. In 1924, O’Gorman received a copy of Vers une architecture of Le Corbusier, a turning point in his trajectory. In 1929, investing the money from his design for a small bank at the Obregón office, he purchased two tennis courts in the San Angel district, where he built a small house that incarnated his ideological position as architect. The project was extreme in its stripped austerity, a small wonder of industrial materials and solutions left visible, surpassing for its radicalism the examples of Le Corbusier that O’Gorman studied carefully.2 In his autobiography he stated that he wanted to create à Corbusieran machine à habiter and so he did. Shortly after, on the adjacent site, artists Diego de Rivera and Frida Kahlo commissioned him to design their studios, finished in 1931, and that became recognizable icons of the new Mexican functionalist architecture.

Mas issue debate the personal debate of juan ogorman 02

House-Studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, 1929-1931, Mexico City. © CNOVIO. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Mas issue debate the personal debate of juan ogorman 03

House-Studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, 1929-1931, Mexico City © Claudia Beatriz Aguilar. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Throughout the ‘30s O’Gorman multiplied his public appearances, through conferences and articles, vehemently supporting the cause of functionalist architecture, considered as the unique way to deliver the necessary quantities of housing and services for the working class. In the same period he was working for the Secretary of Education, designing over twenty-five functionalist schools. He contributed to the foundation of a new architecture school, the Escuela Superior de Ingenieria y Arquitectura Instituto Politecnico Nacional, while still formally a student of the Universidad Nacional (in fact, he was he was threatened with expulsion but then managed to graduate in 1936).

His positions were confronted with those of traditionalist architects, seeking to defend an idea of “humanist” architecture. The promotion of functionalism in architecture was clearly articulated in the lecture that he gave at the Sociedad de Arquitectos Mexicanos in 1933. The debate was organized around the nature of Mexican architecture: eleven traditionalist architects, many of them prominent members of the cultural elite of the country, attacked the only three modernists invited to the seminar, O’Gorman himself, Álvaro Aburto, and Juan Legarreta. The juxtaposition was centered on the notion that architecture could support the transmission of spiritual values, through formalism. The modernists rejected any notion of symbolic value of architecture, defending the goal of efficiency, economy, and the urgency to satisfy basic needs. In fact, the divergence around the issue of spiritual values was primarily political, between reactionary and progressive forces: O’ Gorman wanted to act on the structural level of society, while issues of form, taste, and style were perceived as bourgeois super structural additions.3

In his lecture, O’Gorman proposes to adopt the concept of “technical architecture,” rather than modern, international, or functionalist to strengthen the idea of architecture as a useful practice at the service of the majority of citizens. Through the presentation the figure of the engineer as a model emerged often, analogously to the position of Le Corbusier in Vers une architecture. To mock his pompous opponents he evoked the wisdom of Mies van der Rohe, when accused of just designing boxes: “What’s wrong with boxes?”4

In the light of his extreme and consistent ideological position in the ‘30s, the later rejection of functionalist architecture by O’Gorman represents a fascinating historiographical enigma. Disillusioned by the appropriation of the technical language in architecture by what he considered to be profit seeking developers and investors, after 1935 O’Gorman gradually retrieved from the architectural profession, to dedicate himself to painting, especially public commissioned large murals.5

In his own residence, a cavernous folly built in 1955 in the Pedregal suburb, it is possible to read a novel interest in organic architecture, combined with decorative motifs from pre-Colombian Mexican sources, similar to the mosaics that he was realizing for the new library building of the UNAM campus (1956). In two lectures of the same period, O’Gorman advocated for the approach of Frank Lloyd Wright, while criticizing the lack of humanity of modernist architecture. It is particularly striking how while he attacked numerous architects, whom he earlier admired, O’Gorman included a very harsh self critical analysis of his own trajectory, recognizing to have failed to understand the relevance of Wright: he wrote that because of his “lack of talent” he used Le Corbusier as a reference instead. The negative appraisal of functionalism was rooted in a political reading of the post war condition: the International Style became the language of the new world power, the United States, and thus was being imported in Mexico by the ruling capitalist elites, without acknowledging the legacy of the work developed there in the ‘30s. In a surprising volte-face, traditional Mexican architecture and art appear to be the sole possible incarnation and expression of the oppressed, for whom O’Gorman still wanted to operate: in order to save his ideological position, he had to sacrifice aesthetics.6

Mas issue debate the personal debate of juan ogorman 04

Central Library, Ciudad Universitaria Campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City. © Carlos Cortés. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

O’Gorman said: “the knowledge of traditional forms of art, gives to the artist, and especially to the architect, a material from which to proceed… to create an expressive modern work alive in its own time,” a surprising position that incorporated many of the opinions of his opponents of twenty years earlier.7

Located in the archives of American architecture historian Esther McCoy and studied by Keith Eggener, the unpublished manuscript “The Degeneration of Architecture in Mexico Today” is perhaps the epitome of the controversial inner debate that agitated O’Gorman through his life, combining numerous themes explored in his Mexican conferences.8

As stated by Eggener, the forty-eight pages of typed text submitted to the journal are a paper battlefield, charged with hand written annotations and corrections, a legible proof of the O’Gorman’s tortuous inner struggles (harsh style, perhaps, being one of the reasons for the journal not to publish it). The text includes scathing comments on many modernist “masters”: Gropius is criticized for not understanding organic architecture, Le Corbusier is described as a Swiss Puritan with fascist inclinations, and the work of Mies van der Rohe is dismissed for its abstraction.

“In synthesis, functionalism in architecture is mechanically reasonable and humanly illogical because man is not a machine” is the summary of the distance that O’Gorman feels with his own past. The architectural production in Mexico during the ‘50s is considered as a decorative iteration of functionalist motifs, without being functional. The feeling of loss of an ethic and political position is central in O’Gorman thinking, which is influenced by the popular rejection of the modernist language (“people calls them square boxes with square windows”). This dichotomy between morality and design is similar to the increasing critique of a normative modernism expressed within the CIAM in the ‘50s accompanied by and quest for a return to the progressive origins of modern architecture.9

What is fascinating in the essay is the historical overview of modern architecture, produced from a peripheral platform, Mexico, in that case. The final diagnosis is correct, not only about the discipline (modernism is on the wane), but more in general about the relations between developed and underdeveloped countries, about the class composition of the Mexican society, and the allegiances of the dominant elite to a cosmopolitan jet-set, and about the political struggles ahead.

There is another coherence and continuity to be found in O’Gorman’s thinking, which is about the role of design as a motor of collective progress, where the personal debate between international functionalism and national tradition is just the superficial crust. Not many could engage in such a deep critique. O’Gorman had to do it alone, until his end.

1 Antonio Luna Arroyo, Juan O’Gorman: autobiografía, antología, juicios críticos y documentación exhaustiva sobre su obra (Mexico: Cuadernos Populares de Pintura Mexicana Moderna, 1973).
2 A detailed account of O’Gorman trajectory is included in Valerie Fraser, Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America, 1930–1960 (London: Verso, 2000).
3 See Patrice Elizabeth Olsen, Artifacts of Revolution: Architecture, Society and Politics in Mexico City, 1920–1940 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).
4 Mies van der Rohe (Lecture at the Society of Mexican Architects), Mexico D. F., October 18, 1955) in Arroyo, Juan O’Gorman.
5 In his autobiography the decision to close his studio in 1938 is described as a pragmatic choice, related to costs, very much in line with his materialist attitude. O’Gorman continued though to teach architectural design at the school that he founded.
6 The same idea of Mexicanidad is also a permanent cultural construction, initially promoted by the ruling party, the PRI, artificially blending multiple historical sources. The adoption of stronger nationalist positions from O’Gorman is similar to the ideological changes of the Soviet Union under Stalin, which were very important within the political and cultural debate in Mexico.
7 “Más allá del funcionalismo (I). La arquitectura moderna y su relaciones (¿Su aceptación popular?),” (Lecture at the Society of Mexican Architects), Mexico D. F., October 18, 1955), in Ida Rodríguez Prampolini, Juan O’ Gorman, arquitecto y pintor (Mexico: UNAM, 1982).
8 Keith Eggener, “Juan O’Gorman versus the International Style: An Unpublished Submission to the JSAH,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 68, no. 3 (September 2009).
9 See for instance “The Heroic Period of Modern Architecture,” ed. Alison and Peter Smithson, special issue, Architectural Design (December 1965).