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Mexico’s Augustin Hernandez: 10 of his Most Awe Inspiring Designs

Agustín Hernández Navarro, born February 29, 1924, is a Mexican architect and sculptor. The leading exponent of “emotional” architecture, Hernandez has fused elements from Mexico’s Pre-columbian past in his contemporary architecture. Join me in discovering some of his most awe-inspiring designs. 

Agustin Hernandez Navarro’s buildings connect the interdisciplinary realms of archaeology and philosophy with architecture, linking spaces with humans, and form with function. In a seemingly never-ending combination of materials, his work leaves a monumental mark on Mexico’s architectural scene. The world was nearly denied the opportunity of contemplating Agustin Hernandez Navarro’s architecture. It was both by fortuity and his environment that Navarro wound up studying architecture at UNAM against his desires of becoming an electrical or mechanic engineer. His mother forced him to follow architecture, like his older brother, arguing that this discipline was the way to independence and freedom. Nevertheless, he struggled through the first years of college, beating his initial lack of desire, he then struggled against his professors’ conservatism. Nevertheless both Diego Rivera and Doctor Ati praised his thesis, a cultural center of modern art with nationalist motifs. It was never built due to, Navarro believes, Mexico’s conservative mentality. There’s a lightness to his architecture, with volumes that appear to soar or float, but it’s decidedly monumental; sharp, geometric forms abound, but look closely and you’ll find as many sensual, warm shapes; there’s a freedom in his defiance of gravity, but meticulously controlled design and engineering are needed to achieve it.

 

 

Augustin Hernandez’s Life and Career 

Hernández Navarro was born in Mexico City, the son of politician Lamberto Hernández and Amalia Navarro; he is the brother of choreographer Amalia Hernández, architect Lamberto Hernández, Delfina Hernández and Gabriela Hernández. He studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, earning his degree in 1954, where he has been giving lectures for some time.  Since he was young, he felt more connected to his indigenous roots in Mexico than to any Spanish ancestry. He was fascinated by animals, and had a great connection to the natural and living  world around him. It’s interesting, because his architecture, while deeply in conversation with the natural environment, is not as directly natural in forms as many other architects with similar ideas and philosophies. 

Augustin Hernandez’s Style 

 

Navarro Hernandez draws inspiration from history, exploring pre-Hispanic Mexican cultures. Reediting indigenous notions of space, he designed the Heroico Colegio Militar (1976) to resemble the Zapotec ceremonial centers of Monte Alban and Teotihuacan, with their open spaces and pyramids to venerate the sun and moon-deities. Hernandez Navarro made a monument to the Mexican state. He uses pre-Colombian motifs and glyphs recurrently in the Meditation Centre of Cuernavaca (1984), with one of the buildings reminiscing of an open-mouthed Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent-deity. Nevertheless, he denies that his architecture is nationalist.

This historical conception of architecture is connected to a philosophical exploration of space. Generally architects think of space in a manner inextricably linked to the soil, built on it and bounded by it; Hernandez Navarro’s buildings are boundlessly contained by air. Two of his most prominent works, La casa en el aire (The house in the air, 1991) and his own workshop exemplify this. For the former, he adapted to the steep terrain on which the building was to take place. He hid the garages and services on the slope, and built the main hall as a square tilted 45 degrees, suspended in the air. He describes the place as having: “its garden in the air and the landscape is the mountains beyond, in the horizon.”His own studio built in 1975 is equally challenging to the status quo—and gravity—from its aesthetics to its engineering. Standing like a tree, he seeks the unity of structure, form and function. He says that people in spherical spaces feel like a sphere, alluding to the symbiotic relationship that exists between humans and spaces. The entrance to the studio is a bridge floating between the trees. But inside, the structure is lighter and the furniture is specifically designed to not lose space with the diagonal walls, thus defying the idea that diagonal walls are a waste of space. Both suspended spaces are also meant to cause a feeling of vertigo, making the feeling an essential part of the construction.

“I’ve always sought to make something that’s new. I never repeat myself in my work. 
I have always been driven by the desire 
to find unknown forms, solutions that didn’t exist before. That’s why I don’t have 
a style. Having a style is easy. For me that’s the lazy way out. I am proud I can 
say each work of mine has its own 
vocabulary. There’s nothing worse than falling into repetition of one mode. 
What’s the fun in that?”

Hernandez Navarro has no preferred material for his buildings, changing constantly between clay, steel, concrete and aluminum. This makes it impossible to encapsulate him in a single architectural movement. His studio seems to belong to the brutalist movement, with giant concrete and marble plates, which are interlocked in the form of the pre-Hispanic Tau, being held together by the tension, compression, and interlocking of the elements. Alternatively he plays with sensuous and organic curves in the clay house he designed for his sister Amalia, breaking with the sharp angles present in his own studio, and using ingenuous methods to illuminate the inner gardens. Finally, The House in the Air supports its concrete slabs with steel cantilevers to create a figure that has been distinctly interpreted as a futuristic spaceship or a flying snake. Despite the original intentions of the architect, his works have permeated into the popular culture and acquired a life of its own.

A lesser-known facet of the Mexican architect is his poetic work, Gravity, Geometry and Symbolism published in 1989 by UNAMand his study of space with “the fear of vacuums,” and the interaction between “positive light, and negative shadows.” Thus, he gives an insight into the creative process of the architect’s mind.Despite all, he is an architect for the future and not from the past. The symbolism he uses, or the variety of materials, though belonging to Mexican tradition, are also relevant to the present and a tacit invitation to the future. In his own words: “today’s architecture has to have something from yesterday, but much more of tomorrow.”

“Light is everything. But I like to enhance 
its emotional effect by modulating it, 
controlling how it fills a room and affects the feelings of the person inhabiting the space. If you pay attention, you’ll see that in my houses central covered patios are 
a recurring feature — in the Casa Álvarez you have a garden with a glass ceiling, 
for instance. The goal is to provide each place with what I call a “psycho-biologic” lung. You cannot overestimate the effect on whoever lives there of having a double-height space in a house. Even a small house like the Casa de Adobe (Xalatlaco, 1986), which ended up winning several awards, has a little patio, just four-by-four meters, double height. It’s the house’s lung.”

 

Augustin Hernandez’s 10 Most Awe-Inspiring Buildings 

1.Praxis

Praxis, a geometric treehouse that still towers over the Bosques de las Lomas neighbourhood of Mexico City. The structure envisioned and built to house his practice, further embarks upon these interrelations whilst appearing to challenge the very elements and forces that dictate much of structural necessity. Organically deriving a single column, pedestal form from that of a tree – the entrance embodies a skybridge – floating above the canopy. The interior structure provides relief from the rigidity of the concrete outer skin, with bespoke, built-in joinery and furnishings taking advantage of splayed walls and uniquely glazed surfaces. Standing like a tree, he seeks the unity of structure, form and function. He says that people in spherical spaces feel like a sphere, alluding to the symbiotic relationship that exists between humans and spaces. The entrance to the studio is a bridge floating between the trees. But inside, the structure is lighter and the furniture is specifically designed to not lose space with the diagonal walls, thus defying the idea that diagonal walls are a waste of space. Both suspended spaces are also meant to cause a feeling of vertigo, making the feeling an essential part of the construction.

 

2. Heroico Colegio Militar

The facilities of the Heroic Military College are, without a doubt, one of the most unique and distinctive buildings in Mexico. Designed by the architect Agustín Hernández Navarro in collaboration with Manuel González Rul in 1976, this military architectural complex is located on the outskirts of Mexico City seeking to respond to the urgent needs of the Institution it houses. After founding this institution in Mexico at the beginning of the 19th century, when it was identified as the Academy of Cadets, the different rulers of the country took the trajectory of the institution in various directions, between changes of headquarters and dissolutions, the Military College was located in more than fifteen locations before settling in the current building. Finally, when the military and governmental circumstances allowed it, the development of the new facilities for the Heroic Military College was opened to competition, since the headquarters that preceded it, located in the Building of the Normal School for Teachers (Military College), Popotla, Tacuba, did not respond to the military needs that were developing in parallel with Mexico City around the 70s.

This is how in 1976, the project presented by Hernández Navarro and González Rul was selected to give rise to the formation of the country’s military corps. The project presented by both architects rescues one of the most constant dimensions in the work of Agustín Hernández: the appreciation of elements of the local culture combined with elements coined by modernity. In the particular case of the Heroic Military College, Hernández Navarro points out the close relationship between the overall approach and the contemporary conception of what pre-Hispanic constructions used to be, developing more interest in the volumes and less in the interior spaces of Mesoamerican buildings. According to Agustín Hernández, the appreciation of expressions of order in Mexican archaeological sites, and their reinterpretation when finding a solution for the project program, gives added value to the resolution of the proposed set.

The almost sculptural volumes of Hernández Navarro find a leading role of character and very relevant form in the whole; pyramids, cubes and variations that involved circular insertions and transformations originate specifically in this project of the observation and study of Teotihuacán due to its urban-spatial nature, in El Tajín due to its sunken space and in Monte Albán due to its asymmetry. Although Agustín Hernández declares himself to be ‘anti-militarist'[3], the military heritage that precedes him has a strong weight in the development of the project, the evidence of this attribution is reflected in the understanding of the necessary character to give rise to the Heroic Military College. The imposing materiality of the volumes, combined with the presence of the materials, gives meaning to a particular spatial experience; giving priority to the monumental quality of the building where the experience of the body as an individual is displaced by the experience of the body as a collective.

 

3. Casa en el Aire

The House in the Air (Casa en el aire), built in 1990, looks like a giant ship sailing out from a futuristic port in the sky. Carlos Noriega Jiménez visited the house for uncube and interviewed its architect, Agustín Hernández, at his striking office-cum-home practice, about the background to the project and its design.

Located in the residential area of Bosques de las Lomas in Mexico City, a forty-five degree slope leads up a quiet tree-lined avenue, to where two concrete slabs rise to heaven, like the gates of a dam, with a large circular opening piercing them through. From the centre of this emerges a steel cantilever, composed of four fused triangular shapes, like the keel of a boat.   “This is how materials should work: steel in tension and concrete in compression”. says Agustín Hernández, adding that to form the hipped roof of the cantilever “Everything was modulor and constructed out of prefabricated steel rings”. This meant that even the slightest deviation in measurement or detailing would have had a domino effect, affecting the proportions of the whole monumental composition. In earlier design phases, the composition was originally conceived as a series of square elements “but they created too many gaps and spaces that did not correspond to the programme. So I decided to rotate the cantilever forty-five degrees, so that the garage and all services could be accommodated and allow a smaller space for service ducts in the “keel” underneath. So the ducts are at the bottom, with the services above, then the laundry, bedrooms, living room, and mezzanine”.

 “Inside the main interior space is double height, illuminated by a skylight at the apex, gives you an atmosphere of sheltering under two sloping roofs, just like in traditional houses”. On completion, the work caused huge comment, with people interpretating the vast structure with its strange geometry of multiple triangular volumes, as anything from a clock to a futuristic bridge.  Starting off with a strong formal concept has always been a very important element in the architectural work of Agustín Hernández. For instance in his celebrated early project, Military College (Heroico Colegio Militar, 1976), the key design idea was inspired by the pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacán. Also marked by this search for ancient Mexican roots, another project, the Meditation Centre of Cuernavaca, (Centro de Meditación, 1984), has a shape inspired by the head of the Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent deity of the Aztecs. But the House in the Air is not based on any Pre-Columbian symbolism, but instead plays a different, geometric game, defying gravity:

“It is called a House in the Air, because it is the about use of air, of space, not the soil. Its garden is the air and the landscape of the mountains beyond, of the horizon”.

 

4. Folkloric Ballet School

This building, in turn, materializes another story, the folkloric Ballet of mexico, founded by Amalia Hernández, choreographer, dancer, cultural broadcaster and sister of the architect, whose vision to enrich the dance in our country, led to conceive a new site Educational. Although it did not have its own space, the school started working with two halls that the National Institute of Fine Arts offered the ballet with the aim of creating professional dancers of high performance capable of executing to perfection different Styles of dance and that in turn could be integrated into the COMPANY. there, the dancers rehearsed and classes were taught to children and young people; however, very soon this space proved insufficient because of the growth that the company began to experience and the number of applicants who wanted to study there. This is how Amalia Hernández decided to create a space that would cover all the requirements of a formal school and to carry out such an important task, the talent and extraordinary vision of the architect Agustín Hernández was Necessary. “Amalia was a woman with an incredible spatial consciousness: all her choreography was space and movement, and I inspired to do the school.” I would comment on the architect time After.

In 1966 began the construction of the school in a land located in the street of Violet Corner with Riva Palacio, in the Colony Guerrero, Mexico City and two years later, on March 26, 1968, was inaugurated by then President of Mexico Gustavo Díaz Ordaz . The building is to date, an avant-garde construction by its architectural design, a modern interpretation of neo-pre-hispanic style emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century with prominent authors such as Manuel Amabilis. It retakes the structure of slope and board typical of pre-columbian pyramidal bases: a formal solution of great plasticity to house in its interior two large rehearsal rooms, a theatre and an office Section. Classified by the critic and art historian Louise Noelle as a “habitable sculpture”, where “the movement of pre-hispanic inspiration was the conditioning of design”; According to Beatriz de la Fuente’s evaluation, only details, such as the change of the lattices with the smooth walls, reminiscent of the Ph’uc style; The moldings similar to those found in Monte Alban Las alfardas, as in a late Postclassic temple, and perhaps the lineaments and contrasts of light, evoke Mexico’s past before Spanish Acculturation.

 

5. Amalia Hernández House

In 1973 Agustín Hernández Navarro completed the house for her sister Amalia Hernández who was a dancer, choreographer and the founder of the Ballet Folklórico de México. In the case of Amalia Hernandez’s house, he was inspired by the 16th-century convents of Mexico city. Color and light are introduced to the interior in a very sacred way to generate peace and comfort. The architect embraces the idea that spaces create emotions. Another influence of the house is the nautilus shells, which have a spiral shape and is divided into chambers. Based on this idea, the interior is divided into sections that generate infinite organic forms. In that way, he plays with sensuous and organic curves breaking with the sharp angles present in his own studio and using ingenious methods to illuminate the inner gardens. Overall, there is a lightness in the house with volumes that appear to soar or float, but it is decidedly monumental and sharp. If we look closely, we find many sensual and warm shapes defying gravity.

 

6. Casa Álvarez

Casa Alvarez is a spectacular arrangement of circles, with a lush indoor garden with a series of circular skylights above it. It’s a grid made up entirely 
of circles, in which curved walls run through the exact midpoint of each circle. It wasn’t easy to build, but necessary for what I had in mind. I like it when a precise logic underlies the architecture, rather than shapes that respond merely to a whim, form for form’s sake. In my work, everything follows a clear trajectory based on geometry. That foundation gives me the liberty to create any shape or space I want.

 

7. Casa Neckelmann

Casa Neckelman was built in 1980, and based on the form of a snail. It is one of Hernandez’s less spoken about buildings, perhaps because it is smaller, and a private residence. It is, however, visually striking and perhaps one of his most interesting works. There are not very many photos of it online, so we have no idea what the interior looks like, but I can only imagine it is as unique as the exterior. Augustin Hernandez said of the project: “Doris Neckelmann, who commissioned it, wanted a lot of garden space for her kids to play in, but the lot of land we had to build on was quite small. By making the house subterranean, I was able to give her the garden she wanted.”

 

8. Meditation Center, Cuernavaca

Hernandez Navarro made a monument to the Mexican state. He uses pre-Colombian motifs and glyphs recurrently in the Meditation Centre of Cuernavaca (1984), with one of the buildings reminiscing of an open-mouthed Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent-deity. Nevertheless, he denies that his architecture is nationalist. One of his lesser-known works is a sort of Zen retreat on a hill in Cuernavaca (Centro de Meditación, 1986). It’s abandoned now, but it’s still maybe one of the 
projects that best expresses his interest in symbolism.

“That building was for my sister who had 
a meditation group, and they needed a 
place where they could meditate. A local priest lived nearby and hated the building 
I designed. He thought I’d made some 
sort of demonic monster and was furious, just because I designed it in the form 
of a serpent! And you enter the building through the serpent’s mouth, which 
was not unusual in pre-Hispanic temples.”

He also ascribes some emotional powers to the building, and buildings in general, if done right: “But there was this time when 
a lady entered the meditation center 
and flung herself on the floor in some sort of shock state, and they said it was because the space had affected her 
so much. So maybe my buildings do have magical powers.”

9. Mexican Pavilion, Osaka Expo

The Pavilion of Mexico was a citadel, a modern transposition of the spacious citadels of the ceremonial centres of Teotihuacan (City of the Gods). The overall architectural effect symbolised, with symmetrical dynamism, the pre-Columbian concept of dualism and the dynamic union of opposing elements. The theme was based on the art of language, which has no borders and best expresses the creative genius and spirit of the Mexican people. The motto, “Mexicans, people of the sun, meeting Japan, country of the rising sun, and all the other nations of the world” was inspired by the deep desire rooted in the hearts of all Mexicans that there should be prosperity and social justice for all peoples on earth, manifesting the humanistic supremacy over the Machine, technology and science, so that they could be used to bring about an era of peace and progress for humanity.

To illustrate these concepts, Mexico had used in its pavilion pictorial sculptural symbols, films, masterpieces of art from all eras, crafts, music, dances and sections of the visual arts created especially for Expo’70. From the main vestibule of the “Sunstone”, the “Aztec Calendar”, shone at the head of the remarkable collection of masterpieces of pre-Columbian art, baroque religious and new Spanish works of the 17th century, all national treasures. The many images of “Mexico through the centuries” were projected on a cinema screen with original kaleidoscopic effects. In the pavilion’s two outdoor stages, folkloric dances and concerts were presented daily by famous musicians, called “mariachis”, filling the air with dynamic rhythms, full of vitality and gaiety. Indeed, Mexico conveyed through the rich emotion of its art, harmony, as the main structure of the philosophy and concept of life of its people.

10. Villa Obregón Hospital Complex

The IMSS “Villa Obregón” Hospital Complex, brings together functional aspects that have taken the human being as a measure (patients, medical personnel and other employees) where it integrates the elements and allows the provision of services. services in a pleasant, comfortable and harmonious space: The sculptural and formal tendency of this architect is evident, while he successfully solves the difficult requirements of medical science without neglecting the well-being of patients […] (Gras, Louise Noelle, 1995: 7).

The “Villa Obregón” Hospital Complex is located on Río Magdalena Street, in Pedregal de San Ángel. It consists of two main parts: the Obstetrics-Gynecology Hospital and the Hospital Clinic (T1).6 Its construction took place between 1973 and 1976, when Luís Echeverría Álvarez was president (from 1970 to 1976). It was carried out with the aim of providing family medical care, specialties in childbirth and comprehensive women’s health to all the beneficiaries of the southern zone. Its estimated capacity at that time was planned for 100,000 users. It was inaugurated in June 1976, according to the certificate located at the main entrance of Clinic 8, which indicates that: “The Mexican Institute of Social Security in compliance with the programs of the government of the republic. He built and put into operation this hospital clinic in Mexico, DF for the service of his successors in June 1976”.

Its exterior appearance is perfectly consistent with modern constructions, in which, however, there are pre-Hispanic-Mexican elements, beginning with the general shape of each building, which well they could be seen as a glyph taken from some codex,7 as pre-Hispanic numbering, or, as Peter Krieger affirms, the slope of the archaeological zone of Monte Albán (Krieger, 2006: 227). The shapes he used tend to be horizontally massive, which is marked by the silhouette of the windows as continuous strips that draw lines in motion, which as they move from left to right, assume an undulating shape that curves around the periphery of both buildings; in turn, surrounded by undulating entrances, with gardens, small esplanades and monumental stairs. The complex was built on irregularly shaped land, which led to the idea of generating a common and concave entrance in the middle of both buildings in the manner of an enveloping reception, as if it were a hug. This access leads directly to the emergency area and the ambulance parking lot.The interior structure of the buildings is made of reinforced concrete and the exterior was made from apparent pre-casts of the same material. Both buildings constitute two towers of 4 and 7 floors, with front esplanades in each of them. The finishes of all the angles in steps, corners, accesses and gardens were rounded, to reduce heaviness and severity to the already enormous dimensions of the buildings. Thus, the round becomes a constant in the shapes of stairs, handrails, and interior and exterior steps. Inside, circulation is facilitated by means of a series of ramps and corridors that curve as you go up.

 

 

Augustin Hernandez notes many influences in his design and architecture, from Le Corbusier, to Frank Lloyd Wright, yet his style is entirely his own, taking influence from indigenous Mexican history and forging ahead with a modernist vision of public and private infrastructure. 

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