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INNER LIFE

Eclectico in the city

It's a bohemian oasis in the middle of stressed-out Mexico City: Condesa is home to artists, musicians, novelists and filmmakers who give Mexico its global identity.

July 20, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

In the quake's aftermath, Condesa has become a pioneer in showcasing experimental new forms of residential dwellings. But it also has fought to preserve its rich architectural past. Mexico City reputedly has the hemisphere's highest concentration of Art Deco anywhere south of Miami, and over the last half-dozen or so years Condesa has become ground zero of the capital's Deco revival. Dozens of Deco apartment buildings and private homes dot the neighborhood, many now upgraded or fully restored, a few still deserted and teetering on the brink of extinction -- but unlikely to stay that way for long.

Patricia Arriaga Jordan, 53, a well-known film and television writer, director and producer, says that as a child she used to visit her grandmother's home on Amsterdam Avenue. But many members of her own middle-class generation gave up on the old inner-city neighborhood and fled to developing, Americanized suburbs such as Satelite and Santa Fe. "I think it was a mistake," she says. Mexico City "should have been like Barcelona," she believes, where city officials carefully limited new residential construction, encouraging the middle class to remain in the city.

A year ago, Arriaga Jordan and her husband John Page, 76, a professor of Chinese literature at the Colegio de Mexico, decided that with their children grown it was time to sell their family home in the southern San Angel district. They moved into the 2,475 square-foot penthouse of a meticulously restored Art Deco apartment house built in 1931 on a tranquil Condesa plaza.

Known as the Edificio Lux, the building was constructed by prominent architect Ernesto Buenrostro, who also designed the nearby Edificio San Martin on the Parque Mexico. Because of the structure's architectural merit, its renovation was supervised by the National Institute of Fine Arts. Fortunately, Arriaga Jordan says, the building had not undergone much alteration of its original floor plan or ornamentation over the years.

A granite-covered staircase leads to the couple's penthouse unit, with an enclosed terrace that faces a tree-encircled public fountain on the streets below. Their living room, just off the terrace, artfully contrasts modular modern furniture with Indian sculptures dating stylistically from pre-Columbian times, and a ponderous bookshelf that bisects the room horizontally. Page's study overlooks the terrace, while Arriaga Jordan rents an office just down the street.

Though Page was skeptical of the move at first, the empty-nester couple now appreciate living in a neighborhood with four bookstores, dozens of restaurants, plenty of shared public space and an enveloping sense of community. "The one thing I really like is the mix of people," Arriaga Jordan says. By contrast, she says, in San Angel, a colonial-era district where the rich live barricaded behind high stone walls, "it's all upper-middle class. We all look the same, we dress the same."

The area's Deco piece de resistance is the Edificio Basurto, which rises across Sonora Avenue near the northeast end of Parque Mexico. Built between 1941 and 1944, it's the masterwork of celebrated architect Francisco Serrano. This soaring, geometric edifice, with its garden balconies and spiraling interior reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, incarnates the futurismo optimism of Condesa's mid-century developers.

Hit hard by the '85 quake, the 42-unit building (including two penthouses) has been substantially reinforced and converted to condominiums. It also enjoys protection by the nation's cultural commission, which must approve all changes or renovations, right down to the color of the exterior paint. "It's the most precious, beautiful building," says Adriana Talazuelos, the property's manager. "It's a jewel."

Among the notable names attached in the past to the Basurto are Paul Westheim, a German-Jewish art critic who came to Mexico fleeing the Nazis and became an influential authority on Mexican art; and the Chilean writer-director Tito Davison, who filmed several movies in the building, including "La Diosa Arrodillada" ("The Kneeling Goddess"), a 1947 mystery-melodrama starring screen star Felix.

Other former Condesa and Roma residents linked to famous neighborhood sites include Tina Modotti, the Italian-born actress, ardent communist, photographer and lover-muse of fellow camera bug Edward Weston (she's the subject of one of his most sensual nudes). For a time after moving to Mexico City, Modotti lived in a triangle-shaped building on Veracruz Street, which today bears her name. And Beat writer William S. Burroughs fatally shot his wife Joan while aiming at a cocktail glass on her head while living in Roma. (Their old home has since been torn down.)

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