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Discover Juan O’Gorman’s Fantastical Mixture of Painting and Architecture

Juan O’Gorman was a Mexican painter and architect: a mixture we don’t often see. His unique skillset produced a fantastical oeuvre of works that blend detailed painting and large scale buildings. Join me in discovering his life, and some of his most interesting creations. 

Juan O’Gorman was born on 6 July 1905 in Coyoacán to an Irish immigrant father, Cecil and Encarnación O’Gorman. His parents were distant cousins. He had three younger siblings, Edmundo, Margarita and Tomás. Early in life, O’Gorman was exposed to drawing and composition through his father, Cecil, a well-known Irish painter who settled in Mexico. Despite his father’s influence, O’Gorman chose to focus on architecture early in his career. In 1927, he graduated from Academy of San Carlos, the Art and Architecture school at the National Autonomous University. O’Gorman worked as chief draftsman for Carlos Santacilia and other architects in Mexico City until 1932, at which time he became head of the Department of Building Construction for Mexico City and professor of architecture at the National Polytechnic Institute. He founded a study group for workers’ housing and was responsible for the Functionalist design and construction of about 30 schools. At the beginning of his career, his architecture and painting practices were distinct and separate, yet as he progressed, eventually become entwined. His later buildings take the form of giant living murals, come to life in sculpture and the narrative form of a lived in home. 

Juan O’Gorman’s Life and Career

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.  In 1929, O’Gorman purchased a plot containing two tennis courts in Mexico City’s San Ángel colonia. On the plot, O’Gorman constructed a small house and studio intended for use by his father, now known as the Cecil O’Gorman House. The building’s forms were strongly influenced by the work of Le Corbusier, whose theories of architecture O’Gorman studied. O’Gorman dubbed the house the first functionalist structure in Latin America. The project didn’t make much of an impact, except that the neighbours demanded that his architecture degree be revoked. 

Diego Rivera, a contemporary of O’Gorman, impressed with the design of the Cecil O’Gorman House, commissioned the architect to design a home for him and Frida Kahlo on an adjacent plot. The house was built in a similar functionalist style from 1931 to 1932. The Rivera-Kahlo house was two houses connected by a bridge. Both houses were purchased to be restored and opened to the public with the Rivera-Kahlo house operating as a museum.

He built more houses for family friends, notable members of society who liked parading their rejection of bourgeois decadence. In 1932, Narciso Bassols, then Secretary of Education, appointed O’Gorman to the position of Head of Architectural Office of the Ministry of Public Education, where he went on to design and build 26 elementary schools in Mexico City. The schools were built with the philosophy of “eliminating all architectural style and executing constructions technically.”  After 6 years of functionalist projects, O’Gorman turned away from strict functionalism later in life and worked to develop an organic architecture, combining the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright with traditional Mexican constructions. 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.

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’s most celebrated work due to its creativity, construction technique, and dimensions, are the four thousand square meters murals covering the four faces of the building of the Central Library at Ciudad Universitaria at UNAM. These murals are mosaics made from millions of colored stones that he gathered all around Mexico in order to be able to obtain the different colors he needed.  The north side pictures Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past and the south facade its colonial one, while the east wall depicts the contemporary world, and the west shows the university and contemporary Mexico.

“From the beginning, I had the idea of making mosaics of colored stones in the walls of the collections, with a technique in which I was already well experienced. With these mosaics the library would be different from the other buildings of Ciudad Universitaria, and it would be given a particular Mexican character.”

O’Gorman built and designed his own house in the suburb of Pedregal, which was part built structure part natural cave, which is known as “The Cave House” from 1953 to 1956. It was decorated with mosaics throughout. It was demolished in 1969. His paintings often treated Mexican history, landscape, and legends. A mural commission in Pátzcuaro, Michoacan resulted in the huge “La historia de Michoacán” in the Biblioteca Pública Gertrudis Bocanegra in a former church. He painted the murals in the Independence Room in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle, and the huge murals of his own 1952 Central Library of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, designed with Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco. In 1959, together with fellow artists, Raúl Anguiano, Jesús Guerrero Galván, and Carlos Orozco Romero, O’Gorman founded the militant Unión de Pintores y Grabadores de México (Mexican Painters and Engravers Union). 


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. In 1969, in the midst of his frustration, he sold the house to a local sculptor, who plastered over the mosaics. It seems his life went downhill from there, and he never achieved the level of acclaim he hoped. 

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. He died from suicide in 1982. 


10 of Juan O’Gorman’s Most Beautiful Creations 

1. UNAM library Mural 

UNAM Library, the most elaborate works of his career, was planned in an organic approach having proper symmetry with cubical form and free facades. Due to the requirement of keeping the archives at the tower above, no windows were provided that stopped the light to enter inside that gave Juan O’Gorman four huge canvases to work his magic on. All the murals (measuring 43,000 square feet) were made out of no less than 3 million pieces of colored natural rocks. The walls depict the picture of the university and the Mexican identity combined. Two basalt fountains and decorative reliefs inspired by pre-Hispanic art were placed at the base of the building. The color of the stone in these elements is in plain view, done to take advantage of the stone’s texture as an aesthetic and expressive element and to give a sense of continuity to the external pavement. 

According to the artist, in each of the four walls that make up the surface of the mosaic, he represented three fundamental historical facets of the Mexican culture: the pre-Hispanic era, the most ancient facet; the Spanish colonial era, and the modern age as a result of the two previous periods.This wall corresponds to the pre-Hispanic era and puts into play the life-death duality. This wall is dominated by mythical elements. On the left side of the main axis, separated into three different planes, we can see deities and scenes pertaining to the life-creating principle: on the upper corner is the Sun, framed by Quetzalcoatl in the guise of a serpent; below this, the figure of Tlaloc emerges carrying a mat on his back; the section is complemented by Huitzilopochtli holding a shield and the Xiucoatl, the precious serpent.


2. Anahuacalli

Anahuacalli museum owned by artist Diego Rivera was designed for his pre-Columbian artworks. A brutal black volcanic stone pyramid majorly inclined towards the Teotihuacan culture was also the first stone mosaic O’Gorman made. The studio-house-museum witnessed varied pre-Columbian styles that are visible in the hexagonal arc and rectangular arc as Maya and Aztec influences respectively that act as the entrances to the various showrooms.  

The extravagant architecture of the building is inspired by Mesoamerican structures, with a unique style of its kind that mixes Mayan and Toltec influences mainly, although Rivera himself defined it as an amalgamation of Aztec, Mayan and “Traditional Rivera” styles. The Anahuacalli Museum building is erected with carved volcanic stone, extracted from the same place where it stands. According to the words of the Tabasco museographer and poet Carlos Pellicer (Tabasco, 1897-Mexico City, 1977), who designed the museum’s permanent exhibition at the express indication of Rivera himself, the Anahuacalli responds to the following description:

“It is a personal creation using pre-Hispanic elements, mainly from Toltec architecture and some of the Mayan: sloped walls, serpentine pilasters and rhomboid doors. The pyramidal crown accentuates the magnificent character of the building.”

The Anahuacalli construction began in 1942, in the suburb and town of San Pablo Tepetlapa. A year later, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) wrote a letter to the engineer Marte R. Gómez, then Secretary of Agriculture and Development of the government of President Manuel Ávila Camacho, in which she explained her husband’s need to build a space that houses his collection. Both Rivera and O’Gorman carried out technical and aesthetic experiments for the decorative endings inside the Anahuacalli, using the cast mosaic technique.


3. Self-Portrait

Inspired by artist and friend Diego Rivera, Juan O’Gorman painted several paintings ranging from nature scenes to Mexican culture to portraits. Amongst all the other portraits, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco stand out. However, the most offbeat of all is the Multiple Self-Portrait, a painting that consists of four portraits of him in a single frame. The picture has an artist painting himself who is painting himself painting. A little confusing, but the results are remarkable. The painting is done in oil on masonite in 1950, and is perhaps a depiction of the different directions the artist was pulled in, which played out in his career. Even the little devil on his shoulder seems telling, given his tragic demise. 


4. House and Studio for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Residence-Studio designed for the renowned artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo is counted amongst the landmarks of Mexico and was an integration of two independent concrete blocks. Both individually designed on the 5-points principle of Le Corbusier, respecting both the personalities yet showing the love of the couple by linking the blocks by a narrow bridge. Additionally, the project is viewed as a machine and was one of the first examples of functionalist architecture back in 1931.

The buildings incorporate functionalist elements which, in several cases, have been adapted to the Mexican landscape. Examples of this are the pilotis (slender columns that support the first-floor structure) and the use of concrete, baked clay panels, electrical installations, exposed drainage, open floors in the style of vestibules, and a spiral staircase—the central component which stands out from everything else. A constant element in this space is the organic cactus perimeter fence, which visually integrates it as a whole, from inside and out. It is a fundamental aspect that demonstrates the importance O’Gorman gave to landscape architecture. The house that was lived in, known today as “Casa Frida,” was the part designed to be used as a home, with a bathroom, kitchen, dining room, and bedroom, and a studio on the second floor for Frida Kahlo. The proportions of the spaces are smaller in scale, since functionalism advocated building very small homes. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo returned from their stay in the USA in 1934 and only lived in the houses as a couple for a short time, because Frida left Diego and moved to the “Casa Azul” (Blue House) in Coyoacán, where she had spent her childhood and youth. Even when they were subsequently reconciled, they kept separate homes and did not live together again.


5. Cecil O’Gorman House

Juan O’Gorman built his first residence in 1929 (aged 24) that has a pink exterior and a brick roof, exposed wiring, and huge windows. The house was for his father and ran on a principle of not compromising the functionalism over the aesthetics of the place. Open patio created by elevating one glazed volume of the building with pillars and a striking staircase made of concrete jutting out the other side combined the house to be called brutally minimalist. The house still exists and is available as Airbnb.

This building was annexed to the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo House-Studio Museum site after an exhaustive restoration project, during which original elements of the house were recovered. These included the outline or sinopia of the mural “Between Philosophy and Science There Is a Significant Difference,” painted by Juan O’Gorman himself in what was the dining room, as well as the reconstruction of the spiral staircase.


6. The Cave House

In 1953 O’Gorman designed his own house in an extraordinary way which acted as a stamp for his rejection towards functionalism. The residence was planned in a natural cave which kept the harmony with the gardens surrounding it. He decorated the place with mosaic, decorative motifs from Mexico, and pictures of Aztec mythology. Furthermore, he brought the origin of Architecture back with the cave’s archetype, which means to take refuge.

Either by the same suggestive form of the house, or by the series of gardens that surrounded it, the house managed to become one with the landscape; not withstanding the surprise to the visitor when it was first encountered, in a kind of surrealistic objet trouvé. The choice of the cave as a model for the definition of the house can have different readings that more than contrast are complemented; On the one hand the archetype of the cave recalled the same origins of architecture, an almost unconscious form of returning to the essence of dwelling, that is, to take shelter. On the other hand, the cave evoked directly or indirectly the maternal womb, an idea linked in some way to surrealist thinking.


7. Gertrudis Bocanegra Library

Built in 1576, The Augustine Convent of Pátzcuaro originally consisted of a church and cloister. In 1936, under the presidency of revolutionary leader Lázaro Cárdenas, the former church was remodeled as a library and the cloister as a theater. Today, the Gertrudis Bocanegra Public Library, adorned with murals by Irish-Mexican artist Juan O’Gorman, is an important cultural center of Pátzcuaro. The beautiful public library houses a 14m high x 12.8m wide mural at the back wall on the northern side. The 1941 mural was named the History of Michoacán and was painted with watercolor paints on a flattened surface made of cement, popularly known as the fresco technique. Juan O’Gorman depicted Michoacán’s history starting from pre-Hispanic to the time in the 1910 revolution, in this pictorial work.    O’Gorman’s murals were started in 1941 and completed a year after. Divided into four sections, they depict the indigenous Purépecha cosmogony, their way of life, the Spanish conquest, and life after the conquest. The library’s book collection offers something for everyone, from children’s books to those in English as well a notable number of tomes in Braille.


8. A Confluence of Civilizations

A 130 x 22 feet measuring mosaic mural proposed by Juan O’Gorman for the 1968 HemisFair, currently located on the exterior of Lila Cockrell Theatre, was made in 540 panels weighing 100 pounds each that took him 12 months to construct. Mural with the portrayal of European civilization on the right and indigenous Meso-American on the left was made out of ten varieties of stone of different shades that O’Gorman found traveling throughout Mexico in 1966 and was transported to San Antonio from Mexico which was a huge task in itself.

As a professor at Yale University in the 1960s, O’Gorman lectured at the University of Texas in Austin, where he was invited to San Antonio by Marshall Steves, president of the city’s HemisFair Exposition. Funded with a gift by local philanthropist Flora Cameron Crichton, O’Gorman was commissioned to create the Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas mural, which today adorns one wall of the convention center along San Antonio’s River Walk. The five-ton mosaic measured 2,600 square feet and consisted of 540 numbered panels, each weighing about ninety pounds. The panels were produced at O’Gorman’s studio outside Mexico City and trucked to San Antonio for installation at the newly constructed convention center. On the mural’s far left Quetzalcóatl, the ancient god of Mesoamerica, is resplendent in his cloak of colored feathers and jade. The plumed serpent undulates across the landscape, embodying the spirit of Latin America. On the far right another drama begins in ancient Macedonia as Zeus travels toward the center, past the influences of Europe, the Industrial Age, and religion. Everything is connected along the bottom of the mural by a great river symbolizing change and growth.

The mural’s unveiling at HemisFair ’68 marked a shift in San Antonio’s history, transforming its cultural landscape from one of Spanish colonial settlement and antebellum America into a crossroads of many cultures. Juan O’Gorman tells the story of how a Mexican artist created one of the Southwest’s most important works of public art.


9. The Cry of Independence in the Museum of National History in Chapultepec Castle

The National History Museum at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico treats the visitor with a magnificent mural by Juan O’Gorman that he made in 1961. ‘The Cry of Independence’ portrays the war of independence of Mexico starting from left with the struggles of indigenous people and moving onto the right where New Mexico is documented.

The construction of the castle began in 1785 by order of Bernardo de Galvez, who was viceroy of New Spain at the time. It originally served as the summer home of the serving viceroy, but over time, the building was adapted to different uses, serving as a military college, an astronomical observatory, official residence to Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg and Empress Carlota, and then for several years as the official presidential residence.

This altarpiece is the allegory of a story that began in 1795 and culminates in 1813. The work takes place in four acts: it starts on the left showing the unjust social organization in New Spain. The second act includes some ideological and political precursors located under a neoclassical building that symbolizes the Encyclopedism. The third part refers to the movement itself. The main figure is the priest Hidalgo, who appears twice: one as he is commonly known and the other younger and in costume. The last part of the mural shows the Chilpancingo Congress with José María Morelos at the front, also portrayed twice. Finally, the moon on the left side and the day that is born on the right give the idea that the mural covers a symbolic day in which Mexico passed from the darkness of Spanish domination in the light of its autonomy.


10. Porfirista feudalism

O’Gorman represented the Profirian era in this mural with so much detail that one can feel the actual emotions painted on it. The painting on the left side has politicians, and members of General Diaz’s cabinet, beneath them, are the peasants just like the hierarchy at that time. Additionally, the left part of the mural shows the signs relating to the revolution, whereas, the right side is demonstrating the torture and the silent attitude people followed due to the fear within them.

Despite a cultured and privileged background, Juan O’Gorman’s path was to be a relatively unsteady one, full of reversals of fortune and surprising changes of direction. His very name perhaps exhibits the conflict and tension at the core of his life, that seemed to plague him to the very end. His artistic output, however, is significant and iconic. Undoubtedly, he had a major impact on architecture and modernism in Mexico and beyond, while also working to combine that with vernacular styles and the local materials and histories of his land. 

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