Seeking Zohn presents works by Mexican-Austrian architect and engineer Alejandro Zohn (1930–2000) through contemporary photography and design. The exhibition takes as subject Zohn’s robust civic and commercial architecture built in Guadalajara from the 1950s to the 1990s, with an interest in how the city’s social, cultural, and material histories are interwoven with his structures.
Commissioned photography and video by artists Adam Wiseman, Lake Verea, Onnis Luque, Sonia Madrigal, and Zara Pfeifer veers from the documentary conceit of architectural photography towards the subjective. This work is decidedly interpretive, seeking out the many narratives contained within parks, markets, collective housing, malls, and bureaucratic buildings. Zohn, a Jewish émigré who fled Vienna during World War II at the age of eight, dedicated his career to creating a modern Guadalajara. Through these photographs—acts of investigation and translation—we find glimpses of his utopian desire amidst the chaos, beauty, and violence of everyday life.
Seeking Zohn is the first presentation of Zohn’s architecture in Los Angeles. The transposition of his work to L.A. places it in dialogue with R.M. Schindler’s designs. Both architects are Jewish émigrés and there is a parallel between the Austrian-Mexican and the Austrian-Angeleno experiences. The installation at the MAK Center creates a resonant triangulation between three cities: Vienna, Guadalajara, and Los Angeles. Billboards placed in the garden navigate between the urban scale of Zohn’s buildings and the intimacy of the Schindler House. Household objects designed by Studio Fabien Cappello and fabricated by artisans in Guadalajara bridge between civic and domestic realms.
As a practitioner, Zohn is a lesser-known figure outside of Mexico and his work has not been widely published or exhibited in the United States. A generation after fellow Guadalajara-born architect Luis Barragán and Mexican-Spanish architect Félix Candela, much of Zohn’s architecture aligns with Late Modernism, a period that’s recently come under re-evaluation. With this consideration comes an expansion of the conventional parallels drawn between Los Angeles and Mexico, which often focuses on designs and actors associated with midcentury Modernism. While Zohn’s early career shows the influence of Candela’s cascarones, or thin-shell concrete arches, his later designs are marked by his own expressive structural gestures, which form a singular geometric vocabulary that carries from project to project, and a sensitivity to the social conditions of the urban fabric.
Notable projects included in Seeking Zohn include his most famous building, Mercado Libertad–San Juan de Dios (1958–59) an indoor public market first proposed as his thesis project; the bandshell Concha Acústica (1958) in Parque Agua Azul; Unidad Deportiva Adolfo López Mateos (1956–59) sports center; the mall and parking garage Edificio Mulbar (1973–74); CTM-Atemajac (1977–79), a collective housing project; and one of his final works, Archivo del Estado de Jalisco (1985–91), a state office building and archive. Artists were each assigned a site for photographic inquiry, the results suggest an architecture bound to the stories and conditions of an evolving city.
—Mimi Zeiger and Tony Macarena
Text by Alejandro Hernández Gálvez
Alejandro Zohn is considered one of the most important architects of the second half of the twentieth century. Unlike some of the better known Mexican architects who were based in Mexico City, Zohn’s life and work were centered in and around Guadalajara, the capital city of the Mexican state of Jalisco. His career was both the result and reason of a mixture of circumstances and conditions, which if not opposed, were different and sometimes distant, like twin bodies orbiting around each other exerting gravitational pull. An Austrian immigrant, he embraced his Mexican identity; he trained as both an engineer and an architect; and while in pursuit of modernity he was a student of local traditions. In claiming “and” rather than “or,” Zohn seems to blend polar ideas and contexts without complications.
Zohn was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria on August 8, 1930. His father was an accountant and his mother a pharmacobiologist of Romanian origin. They left Vienna in 1939, escaping from the Nazis, and settled in San Pedro Tlaquepaque, which was then a town on the outskirts of Guadalajara and now part of its metropolitan area. As a child he was fond of carpentry and later became interested in the machinery at his father’s shirt factory.1 In 1948, he entered the engineering program at the Technological Institute of the University of Guadalajara. There was no school of architecture in Guadalajara at the time. It was a year before architectural engineer Ignacio Díaz Morales (who studied engineering like his friend Luis Barragán) opened the School of Architecture of the University of Guadalajara. In 1949, Diaz Morales hired a group of European architects, such as Horst Hartung, Eric Coufal, Bruno Cadore, and Mathias Goeritz, the best known of the group. Several of Zohn’s fellow students decided to leave engineering and enroll into the newly opened architecture school, but it was Goeritz who suggested that Zohn continue with his engineering studies and also enroll in architecture. In 1955, Zohn graduated as an engineer, then four years later received his architecture degree.
The Nuevo Mercado Libertad, in downtown Guadalajara, was Zohn’s thesis project, which was assigned to him in 1953. It marked the beginning of his career as an architect and is a remarkable achievement for someone fresh out of school. The project has a depth and scope in that urban, architectural, and tectonic terms is, one supposes, difficult to achieve by a single person with what some might call “so little experience.” The experimentation shown in Mercado Libertad would later haunt his career as the early, virtuoso building became his most celebrated.
The first phase of the market was inaugurated in late 1958. In the magazine Arquitectura México, Zohn explained that the neighborhood of San Juan de Dios, where the Mercado Libertad was located, had over time become the popular commercial area of the city.2 The success of the area had left the traditional market insufficient and produced “disastrous conditions.” With his project, Zohn intended to offer “a framework of greater cleanliness, decor, and joy,” but at the same time create a design "without rigidity or mathematical coldness, but rather achieves the natural and spontaneous arrangement that is observed in street markets.”3
Ten years later, Zohn was in charge of developing for a group of businessmen the project Plaza Sol—a shopping center of more than one million square feet in what were then the suburbs of Guadalajara. The approach, however, was similar to the one he proposed for the Nuevo Mercado Libertad: geometric rigor and structural clarity. It is a way of working that not only depends on his double training, as an engineer and architect, but also on his condition as an immigrant, belonging to at least two cultures and two different places. In 1969, again in Arquitectura México magazine (in an issue dedicated to the city of Guadalajara), Zohn answered a questionnaire, together with other local architects, such as Salvador de Alba, Fernando González Gortazar, and his former teachers Hartung and Cadore. His responses give us the idea that he was interested in an architecture capable of revealing a rigorous constructive and formal logic, and kindly welcoming various ways of being. On the weight of tradition and history, he says that there are two ways: one nostalgic and scenographic, and the other “normal,” which implies avoiding what he called “cold, extra-sophisticated, and not very human” environments. Zohn, in contrast, opted for “spontaneity” and “naturalness” in architecture.
Regarding whether aesthetic or technical values predominate in the modern architecture of Guadalajara, a question that reveals the idea that the capital of the country had of the architecture of that city—a bias that differentiates the modernism of the integración plástica movement of the 1950s and 60s, which was aligned with building a national identity, from what might be considered a kind of critical regionalism practiced in Guadalajara and Jalisco. Zohn once again shows himself to be inclusive: Both, he says, clarifying that in a local context the construction of houses is more traditional, while with public buildings the construction technique becomes expressive. Ultimately, however, in urban or housing-related issues, his position is more in line with a canonical Modernism: zoning for the city, industrializing for housing. Still, Zohn was not shy about criticizing some results of architectural modernism. “All the huge housing units that we need are bound to become gigantic slums if they’re not designed properly,” he stated.4
The last question posed by the magazine’s editors asked the architects to weigh in on which were the most significant works of contemporary architecture in Jalisco. While everyone made the effort to name a few local buildings and explain their reasons, Zohn answered briefly with some irony but also optimism. The most important structures are “the ones we all hope to build in the near future.”5 Zohn did build some of the most significant works of the second half of the twentieth century in Jalisco: housing units, the Archivos de Jalisco, and even playgrounds, as well as houses, offices, and more markets. Works in which, beyond materiality and form, at times resemble Brutalism in certain aspects, but are guided by an expressed desire that binds his outsider childhood with his dream for a modern Guadalajara: “I would like to see a world where differences and similarities are authentic, not forced,” he said. “Differences can be entertaining, similarities can be harmonious.”
& Alejandro Zohn
Concha Acústica (1958–59) in Parque Agua Azul
Adam Wiseman, Orden/Caos, 2022–2023
Alejandro Zohn’s Concha Acústica and his Deportivo Lopez Mateos are precise structures of concrete origami nestled in parks of constantly encroaching urban nature, within a city that has always been organic in its urban development. We experience the physical manifestation of order and chaos, structure and nature, formality and play, improvisation and control from the perspective of Austrian-Mexican Zohn, a fusion of distinct cultural sensibilities, apparently opposing forces that are magically never at odds. The Concha Acústica is literally a stage for these contrasting profiles, one that unites them, where Mexico’s iconic Rock and Roll band El Tri can puncture the birdsong that reigns 99% of the time. Where shaky videos of El Tri’s energetic performance can be found side by side on YouTube with one of a solitary man practicing his yo-yo choreography on the same stage.
The title of the video Orden / Caos comes from page 248 of Zohn’s book Manual de Vegetación Urbana para Guadalajara, Jalisco (Editorial Agata, 1995) where Zohn encourages a more structured approach to urban planning when it comes to vegetation. He explains that streets should be lined with the same species of tree (order) versus the “disorder, chaos, and lack of harmony” of a street with different species of trees (chaos), which he identifies as the more common practice.
Mercado Libertad–San Juan de Dios (1958–59)
Lake Verea, Vertical Zohn, 2022–2023
Vertical Zohn is the outcome of our manifest: an ode to Alejandro Zohn’s geometry that defies gravity. We explored the Mercado Libertad–San Juan de Dios (1958) in the summer of 2022 using a 24 x 65 mm full panoramic format camera. The long and narrow format accentuates the interplay between Zohn’s gestural architecture and the everyday use of the market. Inside and outside, walls, ramps, columns, patios, and stairways designed with masterful geometry are maximized by the vendors. The marchantes appropriate the space in a colorful and creative manner that frames the beauty of the Zohn’s design.
Onnis Luque, INFO33, 2022
This series focuses on the complexity and dynamism of the daily social relationships that take place in the Unidad Habitacional CTM-Atemajac, known to its residents as INFO33. In opposition to the fetishized architectural object, these images emphasize appropriation techniques practiced since 1978 by residents on Zohn’s original design.
CTM-Atemajac’s housing units were produced under the context of a “benefactor state,” and were assigned to workers from transport syndicates affiliated with the CTM-Confederación de Trabajadores de México (Confederation of Mexico’s Workers), such as Graciela Velasco’s husband who was a delivery driver for Pepsi or Raúl López who got his house thanks to his brother in law, a materials transport truck driver.
Present day INFO33 is inhabited by a third generation of neighbors, and its social interweaving shows the heterogeneity of those that live there, like the hip-hop artist Pinedo 4:20 or the architecture student Carlos Osbert. Appropriation expressions range from graffiti to hip-hop, from religious altars to the interiors of the households. Each displays an identity that counters the prototypical homogenization and the unity of the modern ideal.
Edificio Mulbar (1973–74)
Sonia Madrigal, Occupy the Landscape, 2022
In Mexico, every day more than ten women are murdered for reasons pertaining to their gender. Violence against us exists in public and private spaces. Atzhiri Paulina Sánchez Sánchez was a victim of femicide in 2019 when, according to testimonies, she went to Edificio Mulbar’s parking lot to take a photograph of the sunset.
In 2022, I attempted to document Zohn’s architecture and Atzhiri Paulina’s final moments, but the security staff at Mulbar forbade me and escorted me from the place. Faced with the impossibility of continuing to document, I tried to appropriate this structure, photographing from my hotel room across the street and translating its architecture from another place. With this action, I try to evoke the many rights—to access and safety—that continue to be denied to women.
Archivo del Estado de Jalisco (1985–91)
Zara Pfeifer, Untitled (El Archivo), 2022
Alejandro Zohn’s architecture is striking, even from a distance—towering over a low residential neighborhood like a concrete castle. Everyone in Guadalajara has been to El Archivo, as a visit is required for registering a birth, marriage, or death. Each cycle of life is intertwined with the structure. The inner courtyard teems with people and street vendors set up shop outside in the shade of the Brutalist blocks. Most of the building itself is closed to the public, but thanks to welcoming staff it was possible to get a glimpse of the municipal offices and archives, which contain urban plans, newspapers, and most other records of Guadalajara’s history.
Zara Pfeifer took her analogue series “El Archivo“ during a five-day stay in September 2022.
OBJETOS DE HOJALATA PARA EL HOGAR
Objetos de Hojalata para el Hogar is a growing collection of functional objects made for daily use in the home that comes out of this investigation around a very valuable yet overlooked technique particular to Guadalajara.
In Mexico, the word hojalata describes a trade that works in the production of functional objects and utensils that are either tin-plated or galvanized, rolled, and embossed from metal sheets. Vases, buckets, watering cans, and all kinds of functional containers are made by cutting and shaping the thin material with a small amount of tooling and a great deal of savoir-faire. The lightness of the manufacturing process and the great possibilities of the technique suggest two reasons why it is still common to find talleres de hojalata in the center of Guadalajara, Jalisco.
In the studio, we began by mapping the different workshops specializing in hojalata and developed relationships with the different makers to understand the economies that sustained the trade. Eventually, we worked with a few workshops to produce specific objects we designed with a consideration of fabrication methods and processes. All the objects included in Seeking Zohn were manufactured by Arturo and Maria Vega in their workshop in Guadalajara’s Plaza de la Bandera neighborhood and by Alejo and Antonio Perez in their workshop in the San Andrés neighborhood.
Curators: Mimi Zeiger and Tony Macarena (Lorena Canales and Alejandro Olávarri)
Graphic Design: Alejandro Olávarri of Tony Macarena
Exhibition Design and Fabrication: Bob Dornberger
Alejandro Zohn Archive and Materials: Diana Zohn Cevallos
Gallery Guide Contributor: Alejandro Hernández Gálvez
Organized by: MAK Center for Art and Architecture
Acknowledgements: Seeking Zohn is made possible, in part, with generous support from the City of West Hollywood, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Pasadena Art Alliance, and the Los Angeles City Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as, Ago Projects, the Austrian Consulate General Los Angeles, Plant Material, and University of East London Production Support.
Special thanks: Ana Ruth Martínez Rizo, Diana Zohn Ceballos, Diego Monraz Escoto, Gracia Ceballos Collard, Iker Gil, Lucero Ramírez Valencia, Noam Saragosti, Renee García Gudiño, and Robert Kett.
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