Mexico’s robust and distinctive tradition of modernism is anything but a secret among architects and artists. Yet it’s encouraging to see that newer generations of visitors to Mexico City are taking time out to visit some of Mexico’s modernist treasures alongside the more traditional tourist appeal of Spanish Colonial edifices and bright folkloric attractions. Not that these are mutually exclusive. After all, it was Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo who led the way in encouraging Mexico’s modern artists not only to look to Europe for ideas but also to draw on the rich seam of indigenous culture and folklore.
A trip to the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo House and Studios complex in picturesque San Angel only confirms this. Now a museum, commissioned by the quirky artist duo, the building – effectively two buildings connected by an aerial walkway – was designed by the Irish-Mexican architect Juan O’Gorman and completed in 1932. At the time its design sparked controversy and heated debate. But this didn’t come from the neighbours as you might expect. After all, the brave new building was like nothing else in this neighbourhood with its numerous historic haciendas. Rather, it was the international architectural elite that was whipped up into a frenzy.
On one hand the followers of the rigid schools of European modernity that saw modernism as an international architectural language based in form and function were appalled by O’Gorman’s use of traditional Mexican materials and colour, seeing them as a sentimental contamination of modernist purity. On the other side of the divide were the architect and, fortunately, Rivera and Kahlo. They saw it as essential that modernism respond to local context if it was ever to gain any relevance in Mexico itself. And, as history tends to suggest, they were right. The Mexican traditions of modernism, together with those that grew up in India, are considered among the most important developments in its evolution, particularly to newly independent countries or those that were still, at the time, struggling for some form of independence from European empires.
Drawing on the ideas of Le Corbusier and influential Dutch schools of architecture, O’Gorman’s building has an industrial feel to it. It’s meant to be a “machine for living” and, in this case, working. But it also has its symbolic elements. Diego is represented by the block in deep red, Frida by the one in radiant blue. The bridge that connects the buildings is the symbol of their connection; their love. Well, at least that’s the theory. Informed observers might well offer another reading. Rivera and Kahlo were most certainly an odd couple and you might also deduce that it was impossible for them to live or work in the same building. The bridge could just as easily be one of co-dependency as love. Kahlo’s nutty behaviour extended to hypochondria, declaring herself unable to walk and deciding to live in her bed, which only gave her more time to linger on her justified suspicions that Rivera was putting it about. One of those cliché artist marriages that are seldom a reality, theirs really was an ongoing circus of emotion, each committing various infidelities, yet each confronting the other’s transgressions with temper and violence. They married in 1929 after he left his first wife for her. They divorced in 1939 and then remarried in 1940. Yep, one only wonders why O’Gorman’s design for the two houses didn’t make use of a drawbridge instead of the vehemently fixed one actually deployed.
It’s hard to imagine their turbulent relationship, however, when visiting the house today. Snooping through where they lived out their lives or worked in their respective studios, you’re immediately struck by the tranquillity of the place and how O’Gorman’s stark design is somehow the only congruent solution ensuring this given the nature of their respective work. The only thing ‘bad’ about this museum is that you can’t move in. Besides the buildings themselves, it’s in a beautiful neighbourhood, overrun with historic buildings and exquisite gardens, another reason to make the trip and explore the surrounds on the way there or back.