The Long Thread - Concrete Jungleby Selvedge Team
Read on for the latest in our series of 'The Long Thread' articles, written by Damian Hannigan.
Images: Statues of the evangelists in front of the Cathedral of Brasília
Concrete; (Welcome to the) Jungle
In the years after the first World War a number of cultural movements, broadly described as Modernist, gained popularity across Europe and the United States. One of these, known as the International Style was amongst the first within architecture to be widely adopted. Its large span, open plan and light filled spaces were made possible by advances in construction technology and more specifically the use of steel reinforced concrete. Championed by the likes of Le Corbusier as the material of its time, concrete became synonymous with forward thinking architecture, driven as much by social needs as market forces.
By the late 1930s the International Style, and by association concrete, had become a global symbol of modernity. No more so than in the changing social and economic conditions of Latin America where nations felt a keen desire to distance themselves from colonial pasts and compete economically with the established world powers of Europe and North America. Modernist master plans were conceived and executed at an unprecedented scale. Vast developments of concrete in the form of Brasilía in the Brazilian Highlands and UNAM campus in Mexico city became physical representations of post colonial societies.
Image: Facade of the Central Library at UNAM, Mexico City
In Mexico much of this coincided with an inward looking development strategy known today as the Mexican Miracle, a period of sustained economic growth between 1946 and the mid 1970s during which reinforced concrete found a spiritual home thanks to a combination of low labour costs, sunshine and governments eager to define themselves through change.
A Sculpted Garden
The political and social changes of post war Mexico presented a fertile environment for its introduction but it was concrete’s own democratising effect upon construction which allowed it to flourish. As national investment increased under the ‘Mexican Miracle’, development was decentralised away from Mexico city to small towns and villages. Trades and craftsmen traditionally associated with building were less common in these locations but the production method of concrete enabled a discrete division of skilled and unskilled labour. Formwork for repeated concrete components or elaborate details could be manufactured off site by skilled craftsmen, in quality controlled workshops. These could then be transported to a chosen location, assembled by local labourers and filled with concrete that had been mixed on site. Beautiful yet hitherto inhospitable locations became viable sites and simultaneously the cost to build there decreased dramatically.
Image: Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico
One such location, Xilitla, is a small community located ten hours' drive north east of Mexico City, in the midst of a tropical rainforest. It was here, in 1945, that Edward James, a wealthy Englishman, poet and patron of Magritte and Dali amongst others, embarked on what was to become a lifelong creation of Las Pozas (The Pools). A kind of English Landscape garden à la William Kent, transported to the rainforests of Mexico and populated by an array of concrete sculptures and follies in the Surrealist style.
James employed local labourers to construct more than forty concrete structures comprising pools, stairs, walkways and towers. Each one carefully negotiates the extreme terrain of the site but it is a significant peculiarity of Mexico that the Surrealism of the composition comes not so much from the juxtaposition of these structures against the forest backdrop, but rather, from their apparent structural precariousness. It is difficult, for example, to see these forms appear through the forest canopy without thinking immediately of the ancient Mayan ruins at Coba or Calakmul but the conservative pyramidal approach to construction seen at both archaeological sites is eschewed at Las Pozas in favour of an upwards and outwards expansion resembling the surrounding trees. It is a casual flouting of the laws of gravity made possible by reinforced concrete.
Image: The Reyes House by Pedro Reyes and Carla Fernandez
A Painted House
If Las Pozas demonstrates the sculptural and formal possibilities of concrete then the home of Carla Fernandez and Pedro Reyes in Mexico City is an exercise in its textural range. Walls, ceilings, bookshelves, kitchen joinery and countertops, bathroom fixtures, stairs and balustrades. The house is maximum concrete yet any tendency towards the monolithic has been tempered by the continuous shifts in the scale of surface finishes. The concrete becomes less material and more a medium through which the house has been realised.
Spaces have been hatched, scratched, stippled and scraped into existence and it appears perhaps to be a physical response to the question, ‘if a building can be sculptural can it also be painterly?’
A range of concrete finishes including board-marked, polished, bush-hammered, smooth precast and painted are combined in apparent approximation of the hatching, stippling, dry-brushing and sgraffito techniques synonymous with Impressionist painting. The effect of which is to generate finely nuanced patterns of shadow, shifting and evolving over the course of the day. Akin to the Impressionist effect of ‘broken colour’ whereby the sensation of light itself is replicated. Perhaps most famously in Monet’s ‘Haystacks, End of Summer’
A Mexican Aesthetic
In his 1980 Pritzker Prize acceptance speech the celebrated Mexican architect Luis Barragán, made the following observation. “In the creation of a garden, the architect invites the partnership of the Kingdom of Nature. In a beautiful garden, the majesty of Nature is ever present, but Nature reduced to human proportions and thus transformed into the most efficient haven against the aggressiveness of contemporary life.”
Barragán spoke, in general terms, of architecture not as the opposite to nature but as an intermediary between the human body and the natural world. A means by which an experience of the pre-existing is facilitated or augmented. This sensibility and its resulting aesthetic is perhaps more specific to Mexico than he realised.
Image: Cuadra San Cristobal, Luis Barragán
There is a robust earthiness to Barragán’s work that is at once familiar and new. It contains the same struggle for harmony between the man made and natural, the historic and prehistoric, the precise and imprecise that we see at Las Pozas or the home of Carla Fernandez and Pedro Reyes. In each instance there is an attempt to engage with the natural, plants and light respectively, without wishing to control or suppress it and in each instance the terms of this engagement are the aesthetic principles of an art movement rather than a quantitative science. This is interesting in that it suggests a fundamental preference for participation over observation. As everything required for its production can be found in nature it is possible that concrete, as a material, satisfies this preference by simply being accessible.
Written by Damian Hannigan
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