- Modern Architecture in Mexico City: History, Representation, and the Shaping of a Capital by Kathryn E. O'Rourke
Despite housing many of the most vibrant and intense works of modern architecture, Latin America in general and Mexico in particular are little known in Anglo scholarly literature on the history of architecture. Kathryn O'Rourke's Modern Architecture in Mexico City is an important step in bridging this gap. Well researched, well written, and carefully organized, the book presents a fresh perspective on Mexico City's modern accomplishments for English-speaking readers.
Starting with the entanglement of painting and photography at the dawn of modern architecture in Mexico, O'Rourke presents the idea of mestizaje as a driving force at that time, but does not problematize it enough. Discussions of mestizaje are common in the literature about Mexico (written by Anglo scholars but also by Mexicans themselves) but rarely present in the discussion of modernism in the USA or Australia where people of European descent also controls land previously occupied by indigenous societies. Similarly, in Europe itself, nobody mentions that Italians are the result of mestizaje between Romans, Greeks and Northern Europeans. More broadly, O'Rourke fails to problematize national identity. The preoccupation with national identity was an important drive in Frank Lloyd Wright's work around the same time (e.g., Usonian houses) but never analyzed through the same lenses that dominate scholarship on Mexico.
The following chapter does a much better job by diving into the discussion of one building, avoiding the paradoxes mentioned above. The fact that this structure— the Ministry of Health headquarters, designed by Carlos Obregon Santacilia between 1925 and 1929—is barely mentioned by the canonical texts on Mexican Modern Architecture (in English and in Spanish) makes it even better. Nevertheless, O'Rourke is again limited by her Anglocentric perspective when she insists that in Mexico "the issues of standardization and mass production exerted neither the practical nor the psychological influence that they did in Europe and the United States" (75). As reminded by Arturo Escobar, we should know by now that modernization paths were many, all of them incomplete and all of them accelerators of inequalities, whether in Mexico, in New England, or in Germany for that matter. Architectural historians need to be more careful when discussing social histories and the impact of technologies and spatial concepts in the broader construction industry sector.
That works as a good preamble for the best part of the book, the third chapter discussing the Venustiano Carranza Recreation and Athletic Center for [End Page 969] Workers. Carranza himself needs to be better known by Latin Americanists in general but the sports complex designed by Juan Segura is a historical jewel rescued by O'Rourke. Here we have it all: an unknown architect designing a significant building that was extremely modern in the sense that it housed a new program (sports center), for new clients (workers), built with new materials (reinforced concrete). O'Rourke is at her best when she stated that Segura's works "resist easy categorization, and in their classicism and restrained, abstract approach to ornament, in some aspects resemble the modern buildings in the United States of the 1920s and early 1930s" (138). I can't help but point out that Anglo architectural historians fall too easily into the "exoticization" trap, looking to Mexico as a different place and never as something similar. By rescuing Juan Segura's athletic park, O'Rourke made a significant contribution to the understanding of the similarities among modernizing experiences in the Americas.
Chapter 4 provides a nuanced analysis of Juan O'Gorman, a central albeit complex figure in Mexican modern art and architecture. He had astounding success as a rationalist architect before abandoning this craft to dedicate himself to the plastic arts, being the author of many important public murals, the most famous being the UNAM library building. The UNAM campus is the subject of the following chapter, with O'Rourke correctly pointing to the design of the...