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Juan O’Gorman (1905-1982)

Mexican muralist, revolutionary, mosaic artist and architect, whose career veered from Modernism to vernacular Surrealism

Juan O'Gorman

Source: Skinpop Studio

Maybe he just never matured; this was the secret of his success but also the cause of his demise. He was charming, seductive, playful and lots of fun, but also terrifying. His childlike honesty made him think life’s inconsistencies did not apply to him, so he had to reinvent himself a thousand times, until his own existence became unbearable and he finished it in the most theatrical way. By the end he had both been everything and meant nothing in the Mexican cultural scene: an architect, a painter, a muralist, a mosaic artist, a critic and a professor, and at different points he triumphed at each. However, Mexican modernisation, which wanted nothing to do with uprisings and revolutions, swept him away. The only thing left behind was his reputation as a cursed artist.

Juan O’Gorman was born in Mexico City in 1905. His father, Cecil Crawford O’Gorman, was an Englishman of Irish origin who went to Mexico as a mining engineer. There he met his distant cousin, Encarnación O’Gorman, a pious woman who would give him four sons. Juan was the eldest. During his architecture studies he soon stood out, and in 1926, he came across a copy of Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture that changed everything. He also became a Communist.

‘O’Gorman was never recognised as the great architect of the new Mexican culture, as he had expected; he was merely considered the crazy architect with the outrageous personality who had let everything go to waste’

O’Gorman was the most Modernist of Modernist architects. Under the auspices of the Mexican Revolution he proposed a truly social and functionalist architecture he called the ‘engineering of buildings’, in which he took to extremes the principle of ‘minimum cost and maximum efficiency’. The result was an architecture of sparsity: cubic volumes with exposed concrete slabs and columns, brick walls rendered and painted in cheap and popular colours, large window openings that were divided into smaller, inexpensive panes. O’Gorman made no concessions. Strangely enough, this crusade began in exclusive San Ángel, his own neighbourhood. The client was his father, for whom, aged just 24, he built Mexico’s first Modernist house, opposite a magnificent 17th-century hacienda. The project didn’t make much of an impact, except that the neighbours demanded that his architecture degree be revoked. The house-manifesto that followed was for his friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, co-conspirators in rebellion and figureheads of the Mexican cultural scene. With Rivera’s support, the architect received the necessary impetus for his cause.

Juan O'Gorman, House and Studio for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1931-2

Juan O’Gorman, House and Studio for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1931-2. A bridge links the separate dwellings.

The 1930s were the years of an exalted, dogmatic and vociferous O’Gorman. He gained dedicated followers, such as the dreaded Juan Legarreta and Alvaro Aburto, and in 1932 he founded a school within the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in order to train what he called ‘engineer-architects’. He built more houses for family friends, notable members of society who liked parading their rejection of bourgeois decadence. Between 1932 and 1934 he worked for the Department of Education. Under O’Gorman, 28 functionalist schools were built on a budget previously spent on just one. He had triumphed. But, in 1938, when everyone had fallen head over heels for him, the great apostle of Mexican Functionalism abandoned architecture to dedicate his life to painting, fiercely criticising his colleagues and dropping a bombshell: Functionalism had created the perfect conditions for ‘maximum revenue with minimum investment’, and this capitalist scam had been ‘sanctioned by the world of the “cultured”.’ He was not going to have any of it.


Juan O’Gorman


Key works

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo House and Studio (1931-2)

Anahuacalli (1942)

Cave House, Pedregal (1948-56)

UNAM Library (1949-52)


‘The majority of mortals perhaps think of their house as a castle, but the architect frequently considers his to be a laboratory’

Huge changes in his life ensued: as well as a new career, he found a new wife, divorcing the young Russian-American architect Nina Wright in order to marry the American artist Helen Fowler. During these happy years, the O’Gormans travelled to the United States at the invitation of EJ Kaufmann, and spent a weekend at his house Fallingwater to discuss a commission for a mural: the impressive Historia de Michoacán (1941-42), which is perhaps his most significant work in this genre. It is clearly influenced by Rivera, but there is an added preciousness and erudition that is O’Gorman’s alone, in accordance with his paternalistic aspiration of becoming the ‘objective narrator of collective history’.

Juan O'Gorman, 'Historia de Michoácan', 1941-2

Juan O’Gorman, ‘Historia de Michoácan’, 1941-2

His canvas paintings belong to another realm; ‘occupational therapy’ as he called them. There are many portraits, and his celebrated Multiple Self-Portrait of 1950, but he also painted fantasy landscapes and allegories. Although he denied it there is an affinity with Surrealism, which was then fashionable in Mexico, some of its figureheads having sought exile there at the encouragement of Rivera.

It was Rivera (again) and his own monumental desires who coaxed O’Gorman back into the architecture scene. In 1943 the artist convinced the architect to help him build the Anahuacalli, a studio-house-museum for his huge pre-Columbian art collection. It was conceived as a brutal stone mass, in which diverse pre-Columbian styles mixed freely. With this building, Rivera wanted to show that a truly Mexican architecture was possible. O’Gorman’s first stone mosaics appeared here, and from then on they became the main feature of his architecture.

Juan O'Gorman, Anahuacalli, 1942

Juan O’Gorman, Anahuacalli, 1942

In 1948 he bought a large plot in the rocky Pedregal, and, using a natural cave as a base, built a house in which to live with his wife Helen and his adopted daughter Bunny. He covered the walls with mosaics made of coloured stones from all over Mexico, while Helen took charge of the planting. It was a dream home where flowers mingled with the pre-Columbian deities of the mosaics, but it was also the setting for the couple’s constant disputes. During that period, O’Gorman proposed a building for the central library of the UNAM in the shape of a conical frustum. That design was rejected, and he had to settle for producing his best-known mosaic: a knowledge codex using coloured stones displayed over the canonical Modernist prism of the book depository. Despite the international acclaim it received, he called the building ‘a gringa dressed up as a poblana’.

Juan O'Gorman, UNAM library, 1949-52

Juan O’Gorman, UNAM library, 1949-52

Years passed, and O’Gorman was never recognised as the great architect of the new Mexican culture, as he had expected; he was merely considered the crazy architect with the outrageous personality who had let everything go to waste. Gradually, the O’Gormans isolated themselves from their friends; others, like Frida and Diego, died. Even so, there were bright spots. After being featured in LIFE, busloads of American tourists flocked to the house, where an elegantly dressed O’Gorman entertained with beers and lemonade. Wright even spent a night there, and congratulated its author. But the die had already been cast.

Juan O'Gorman in his Cave House, Pedregal, 1948-56

Juan O’Gorman in his Cave House, Pedregal, 1948-56

In 1969, in the midst of his frustration, he sold the house to a local sculptor, who plastered over the mosaics. From then on O’Gorman’s lucid moments were fewer. Then came the depressions and his distancing from Helen, who could not tolerate his gallantries. A 39-day fast worsened his derangement. He unleashed diatribes in which, shielded by female friends, he said awful things about his male colleagues while violently brandishing his cane in the air. He painted sinister and apocalyptic scenes and scribbled insults on the margins of books: ‘idiot’, ‘idiot again’. Life had become insufferable. On 18 January 1982, he was found hanging from a tree in the yard of his first Functionalist home. He had underlined the act with a dose of poison and a shot in the head. Nothing could go wrong in his world.


Illustration by Mexico City-based Skinpop Studio

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