En-Medio: Casa Cueva

January 15, 2020


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Casa Cueva, designed by architect Juan O’Gorman in 1958. © Photograph by Max Cetto. Courtesy of Bettina Cetto, Ciudad de México, México.

En-Medio is produced by Departamento del Distrito in collaboration with illustrator Arina Shabanova. The interview series highlights the delicate status of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City with the evolving stories of six mid-century masterworks. Individual issues are dedicated to the Casa Ortega (1942), Súper Servicio Lomas (1948), Museo Experimental El Eco (1952), Restaurante Los Manantiales (1957), Casa Cueva (1958), and Torre Insignia (1964). Through conversations with those who have lived and worked in the projects of interest, historians who have studied them, activists who have fought for their preservation, and iconoclasts who have wished them dismantled, En-Medio drops into architectural narratives of the city, long underway, to ask what possible futures lie ahead.

Issue four presents the Casa Cueva, the legendary house designed and built in 1958 by architect Juan O’Gorman. Located in the Jardines del Pedregal residential neighborhood, this house and studio constituted the clearest representation of O’Gorman’s theories during the second half of his career, and was where the architect spent some of his most productive years as an intellectual and artist. Two fundamental concepts shaped the project. First was a desire to fully integrate the elements of architecture and site, which informed the main living spaces of the house and their placement within and around an existing, natural cave. The second was an interest to incorporate Mexican building traditions within contemporary architectural practice, which inspired the structure’s distinctive cladding of mosaic with pre-Hispanic motifs, plants, and colorful stones. In 1969 O’Gorman sold the property to then director of the University Museum of Sciences and Art (MUCA), Helen Escobedo. To his surprise, shortly after acquiring the property Escobedo dramatically altered the Casa Cueva, demolishing large portions of the house and transforming others beyond recognition. The destruction of the Casa Cueva—a project that embodied the ultimate crystallization of Juan O’Gorman’s thinking—undoubtedly marked the end of one of the few critical searches started by a Mexican architect to conceptualize a national architecture.

The following conversation was held in August 2017 with Bettina Cetto, writer, public space activist, and the goddaughter of Juan O’Gorman. We met to discuss the life and work of O’Gorman, her experiences visiting the Casa Cueva during her childhood, and the lasting repercussions of the house’s destruction.

Thank you to Luis Carranza for his help organizing this interview, as well as his insight on the life and work of Juan O’Gorman.

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En-Medio No. 4 with front illustration by Arina Shabanova, 2017 © Departamento del Distrito.

Casa Cueva
A conversation with Bettina Cetto

Bettina Cetto: Juan O’Gorman had a very good life. He was born close to where we are speaking now, in Santa Catarina, Coyoacán. Juan’s family was wealthy; his mother was an aristocrat, or as he would say, “of an elegant life.” His father was a chemical engineer. When Juan was little, his family moved to Guanajuato after a mining company hired his father. Later, during the height of the Mexican Revolution, they returned to the capital and bought a house in San Ángel with his father’s savings.

The years of the Revolution were truly difficult and awakened a social sensibility in Juan. Quite suddenly, and after leading a life of privilege, the family had problems finding food and the most basic necessities. I believe it was then that a seed was planted in him, which would become an interest in social justice. Later, when studying architecture at San Carlos he became more restless and revolutionary.

En-Medio: For context, could you describe your family’s relationship with Juan and his wife Helen?

BC: The relationship of our families was very close. On Sundays, while having lunch, my dad would say, “I’m going to call Juanito to see if they’re coming here or we should go there.” Both families were together every Sunday in the afternoon. There was something special in that group, a way of approaching life with scientific curiosity. In that regard, Juan and my dad were very similar. It was a delight to listen to their conversations because they could talk about anything. Physics, chemistry—it didn’t matter. Both of them were encyclopedic.

E-M: What are some of the memories you keep of Juan from your childhood?

BC: One thing I remember clearly is when Juan was painting the murals at Chapultepec Castle. He would arrive to our house on Sunday wearing grey overalls, enter where the spiral staircase was, place himself in the corner, and do a headstand against the wall to increase blood circulation to his head. He was a very funny man.

Another memory is from a trip I took with my father and Juan to Acapulco in 1961. I remember being on the highway and seeing rows of very small houses when Juan told me, “Look, sweet chatita, that is misunderstood functionalism.” That comment is very clear in my memory.

E-M: It seems Juan had a very peculiar character, a playful personality and, especially in his writing, an acerbic humor…

BC: That’s the term—acerbic humor. It’s what I was going to say; it describes him perfectly. He probably got it from his father, because I read that even though his dad was very rigid—of Scottish and English origin—he had a sophisticated sense of humor. Likewise, Juan was terribly tough, but a sense of humor was a fundamental part of his life.

E-M: There must have also been some flexibility embedded in that toughness. His architecture underwent a drastic transformation over his lifetime, going from a form of absolute functionalism to then later completely reject international modernist trends of the time. Do you have any insight on how or why this ideological shift occurred?

BC: Yes, I have some theories. For example, if you look at Juan’s early paintings you can see a clear Surrealist influence. In them you do not yet have the Juan O’Gorman who painted landscapes or portraits of the Mexican elite. At that early moment he only made portraits of his friends and some artists. The paintings are fantastic, coming completely from his imagination, and I believe they announce an ideological turning point.

Later, when Juan designed Casa Cueva, he was influenced by the Mexican painter José María Velasco, along with Gaudí, Ferdinand Cheval, and Raymond Isidore. Isidore was a Frenchman from Chartres with a formidable story. He worked as a grave sweeper in a cemetery, however in parallel he collected scraps of porcelain and glass. He built his own house and used the scraps to cover everything inside and out—absolutely everything, even the furniture! Juan thought this was genius. The home attracted many visitors, and in 1983 was declared a historic monument by the French government. I think that is really unbelievable, particularly in relation to the story of Casa Cueva. The fact that Juan’s house—a project by one of the most important Mexican modernists—was never protected and that Isidore’s house was is worth mentioning.

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Casa Cueva, designed by architect Juan O’Gorman in 1958. © Photograph by Max Cetto. Courtesy of Bettina Cetto, Ciudad de México, México.

E-M: Do you know how Juan found the site of Casa Cueva?

BC: I believe the lot was sold to him by Bustamante and Barragán, and assume my dad had something to do with it because he knew the masterplan of Jardines del Pedregal perfectly. Juan loved the site because it had large trees at the front, and a lot of volcanic stone with vegetation typical of the area. Something interesting is that the natural cave that was eventually used as the main living space of Casa Cueva was not visible when the land was purchased. It was revealed to Juan later on when he was clearing a portion of the site with dynamite.

E-M: From what I’ve seen, the information that has been published on Casa Cueva isn’t enough to make a complete spatial reconstruction of the house. How much of what is shown in drawings and photos is the totality of the project?

BC: It’s true, the drawings that are shown nowadays in various publications are incomplete, perhaps because they are the drawings Juan used to get the construction permit. They read, “Blueprint of the house and studio of Juan O’Gorman,” but well, where is the studio in the house and studio? The drawings always show the bedrooms upstairs, the living room downstairs, the utility room, but where is the studio? In fact, the studio space was quite neutral and was separated from the house by a path that led between rocks and vegetation. I loved going there because I would often find Juan painting at his easel. Another part of the house that does not appear in drawings—although it is shown in some photographs—is the tower where Helen, Juan’s wife, had her studio. She was a very important figure who isn’t mentioned enough.

E-M: Of course, their partnership was fundamental in many ways. Can you speak to their influence on one another, and why Helen was so important?

BC: She was his critic. When he was painting at his easel, he would call Helen to discuss the work. Juan valued her opinion very much and I know as a fact he would always ask for her criticism. She had an enormous artistic sensibility. She was a sculptor who studied under Alexander Archipenko, and came to Mexico looking for Diego Rivera. Helen also had a big influence when it came to gardens and how vegetation would be integrated with the architecture, selecting plants and their placement. Back then she was putting together the book Mexican Flowering Trees and Plants.1 She had a passionate interest in horticulture, and shared this with my mom. They spoke a lot about the subject, and they each designed a garden for the house of their architect. Personally, these are the figures I would like to uncover.

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Casa Cueva, designed by architect Juan O’Gorman in 1958. © Photograph by Max Cetto. Courtesy of Bettina Cetto, Ciudad de México, México.

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Casa Cueva, designed by architect Juan O’Gorman in 1958. © Photograph by Max Cetto. Courtesy of Bettina Cetto, Ciudad de México, México.

E-M: I agree, in the case of Juan and Helen, the two creative entities cannot be separated. What did Casa Cueva represent to them?

BC: For Juan, the house was the castle of his dreams. Right after they moved, Juan would say it was his best architectural work because he felt, I would say, fulfilled in it. It was the synthesis of his entire philosophy, and ultimately it represented the architect-painter. The way in which they integrated the volcanic stone and vegetation of the site was incredible. That was the idea—that the house was part of the garden, part of the construction of nature. In other words it was composed of rocks, plants, and air. You would hardly see the house. It was fantastic.

The technique with which Juan covered walls and ceilings with mosaics is fascinating. Do you know the Anahuacalli Museum with its mosaic ceilings on the ground, first, and second floors?2 The ceilings on the first floor are mostly grey and pretty crude. That was the first trial of this technique, developed by Juan and Diego Rivera. The Anahuacalli was their laboratory, where they experimented, developing the mosaic technique and perfecting the quality. The mosaic ceilings of Casa Cueva were applied with the exact same method.

E-M: What did the method consist of exactly?

BC: The ceilings are a single piece. First a formwork was mounted and on top of it a large piece of cardboard was placed. Then, a sheet of paper was laid out that contained a drawing of the mosaic pattern at the scale of 1:1 marking the colors. On top of that small stones and bits of blue glass were positioned, followed by a fine concrete to set everything in place. There was always great emotion and nervousness when taking down the formwork to see how it had all turned out.

Juan arrived to the mosaics through his interest in rescuing what was truly Mexican. One of the reasons Juan gave up on functionalism was that he asked himself, “Where did we leave our Mexican roots?” It is truly a pity that the mosaic technique is no longer used, and I think it was in part due to the criticism it received both outside and inside of Mexico. For example, Bruno Zevi wrote a critique of Mexican architecture published in Arquitectura México in which he called the work with mosaic “grotesque.”3 That critique fell perfectly in line with what the editors of the magazine believed in, the so-called International Style. Maybe that is why Helen Escobedo dared to destroy the Casa Cueva, because Juan’s architecture was misunderstood at the time.

E-M: In 1969, Juan and Helen sold the Casa Cueva to then director of the University Museum of Sciences and Arts, Helen Escobedo. This decision, it is well known, resulted in the near-total demolition of the house. Do you know why the property was sold?

BC: The main reason behind this decision was that Helen O’Gorman suffered arthritis and the humidity of the house affected her. The house also had waterproofing problems and was difficult to clean. But, as my dad would say, even with such obvious issues the house was to Juan and Helen like a shell is to a snail; it was a perfect fit. Back then, Escobedo was in charge of the art scene at the university, which was a reason Juan believed she would preserve the house. I remember he was initially happy with the sale—for what could be better than the director of a museum purchasing your most important architectural work? Unfortunately, once Escobedo acquired the Casa Cueva, she immediately started destroying it. She didn’t even get demolition permits.

E-M: At that time, how did the demolition of the house become public knowledge?

BC: I believe it was thanks to Mathias Goeritz. Through his friendship with Escobedo, he visited the house at some point and saw it was being destroyed with jackhammers. He took a piece as evidence and showed it to Ida Rodríguez Prampolini, his partner at the time, who exploded and wrote a fantastic text for Excélsior and even ended up on TV.4

E-M: Did this have an impact?

BC: It was something people would talk about and say, “Oh, yes. It’s a crime, a barbarity, it’s so wrong!” But nobody did anything to stop it. Only Ida, and of course what was written by Esther McCoy.5

E-M: Indisputably, Casa Cueva represents a fundamental link in the lineage of Mexican architecture, which was altered with the abrupt destruction of the house. As you’ve mentioned, Juan was keenly aware of the project’s importance. What was his reaction at the time?

BC: For Juan it was insurmountable. Selling the Casa Cueva was a bad idea to begin with because it affected him very much. After its destruction, he was never the same again.

Today, a music school occupies the site and the former house of Escobedo, which still holds a few traces of the Casa Cueva. Personally, I never went back there until a couple of years ago. I made an appointment and told the staff a little bit about the house and they took it very well. They became interested and let me see absolutely everything. I showed them where you could still find fragments of the Casa Cueva—pieces of mosaic in the old bedroom ceilings, in the living room and studio, in the patio, and at the entrance.

It’s funny, but when Escobedo destroyed the Casa Cueva in 1969, that same year Cheval’s house was declared a national heritage site in France. And, did you know the former site was dedicated in memory of the latter? The inscription is still visible in the patio of the music school. It reads: “To the memory of Ferdinand Cheval, forgotten, I dedicate.”

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Conversation with Bettina Cetto for En-Medio No. 4, 2017 © Departamento del Distrito.

En-Medio is supported by funding from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.

Issue two of En-Medio dedicated to Súper Servicio Lomas was published in 2019 in MAS Context Observations

For more information about En-Medio, you can watch Nathan Friedman’s lecture as part of the MAS Context Spring Talks 2018:

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En-Medio No. 4, 2017 © Departamento del Distrito.

1 Helen O’Gorman, Mexican Flowering Trees and Plants (Mexico City: Ammex Associados, 1961).
2 The Anahuacalli Museum, conceptualized and designed by Diego Rivera, houses the artist’s personal collection of pre-Hispanic objects. After Rivera died in 1957, his daughter Ruth and Juan O’Gorman supervised the construction of the project until it was completed in 1963.
3 Bruno Zevi’s critique “Grottesco Messicano” was originally published in Italian in L’Espresso in 1957 and later translated into Spanish and included in the June 1958 issue of Arquitectura México.
4 Ida Rodríguez Prampolini was a historian, researcher, and critic who specialized in Mexican and European contemporary art. She was a member of the Institute of Aesthetic Investigations at UNAM from 1957 until her death in 2017.
5 Esther McCoy was a writer and architectural historian based in California. She was a contributor to several architecture magazines in the United States and Europe, a champion of the modern movement, and wrote numerous articles on the work of Mexican architects including Juan O’Gorman.