When Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta painted one wall a vivid purple in a new shopping center he designed in Tustin, the city's mayor protested so vehemently that Legorreta was forced to recolor the wall a more modest ocher.
"The incident taught me something about the profound differences that lie beneath the surface similarities Southern California shares with my homeland," Legorreta said. "Though the climate and topography are similar, and also much of the cultural heritage, California society is simultaneously more confident and less bold than ours, and this difference is reflected in the architecture."
The weight of architectural history bears down very differently upon the two cultures, he noted.
While Southern California's design traditions are sparse and relatively recent--the oldest is the style of the missions introduced in the 18th Century--Mexico has a 4,000-year heritage that includes such major architectural icons as the Mayan temples of Chichen Itza and the Baroque churches built by the Castillian conquerors.
Still, both design cultures want to be modern. In Los Angeles, this urge to modernity expresses itself as a wish to be on the cutting edge of innovation. In Mexico, it underlies a continuing national struggle to become a full member of the developed world.
"In Mexico we build for the pleasure of building, with passion and authenticity," Legorreta said. "The question is, how may we be both Mexican and modern?"
That was a critical issue addressed when Legorreta and other important figures in Mexican architecture gathered on Jan. 26 for a daylong symposium on contemporary Mexican architecture at the Pacific Design Center. Co-sponsored by the Friends of Mexico Foundation, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the USC School of Architecture, the symposium featured seven prominent designers representing three generations of contemporary Mexican architecture.
Mexico's older architectural generation was represented by Legorreta and Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon. Enrique Norten was the youngest of the group. In between were Bosco Gutierrez Cortina, Felix Sanchez Aguilar, David Munoz Suarez and Augustin Hernandez.
All the architects showed work that confronted Legorreta's question on how to be both Mexican and modern.
"We seek security and solidity in a changing and stressful world," said Gutierrez Cortina. "We require an art distilled through time that embodies spiritual and emotional values."
Strongly influenced by the Spanish-mission tradition of simple wall planes and intense colors, Gutierrez Cortina's architecture also is influenced by the severe sensibility of Luis Barragan, the godfather of Mexican architectural modernism whose powerful shadow falls upon the shoulders of every Mexican designer.
Barragan, a student of Le Corbusier who first adapted the International Style to the Mexican sensibility, built several houses in the El Pedregal district of Mexico City. Their bold geometries were set off by sumptuous textures and primary colors. "I believe in an emotional architecture," he wrote, "one which offers the user a message of beauty and feeling." Emphasizing one of the main themes of Mexican modernism, he insisted: "Any work of architecture that does not express serenity is a mistake. That is why it has been an error to replace the protection of walls with today's intemperate use of enormous glass windows."
The "protection of walls"--powerful plain surfaces punctured by deep-set windows or massive doorways--marks the style of many modern Mexican buildings.
Gonzalez de Leon's Mayan Archeological Complex in Villahermosa, Tabasco Province, features a long black wall slit by a triangular archway painted blood red. The archway mimics the angled profile of the Temple of Chichen Itza, which is seen in the distance, down the length of a corridor designed to symbolize a long journey, burrowing deep into the Yucatan's past.
In his government center for the state of Chiapas Munoz, Suarez superimposed three triangular shapes presenting sharp, blank facades to the surrounding semi-desert landscape. The Chiapas design, mirroring the monumentality of pre-Columbian buildings, reflects the sense of cultural and physical siege in a hostile yet compelling environment that haunts much of Mexico's modern architecture.
As a mannerism, "monumentality"--buildings of large-scale with many blank surfaces--troubles many Mexican designs. It threatens the tranquillity of the famous 1953 University City library by Juan O'Gorman. Its entire windowless facade is covered on all four sides by an overpowering Aztec-style mosaic mural.
Monumentality overwhelms the brutally geometric house for Hernandez Ramirez, resembling a concrete spaceship, designed by Augustin Hernandez.