The memory of Juan O'Gorman's Cave-House

Juan O'Gorman's legacy is fundamental in the history of architecture in Mexico. Find out more about it by reading here.

The memory of Juan O'Gorman's Cave-House
Juan O'Gorman Cave-House. Images and text: Cultura

Juan O'Gorman is one of the most important figures of Mexico's cultural life in the 20th century; his ingenuity encompassed painting, muralism, and of course architecture. His legacy remains valid in the public space and cultural identity of Mexico, an example of this is the mural "Historical Representation of Culture", which adorns the outer walls of the Central Library of the National Autonomous University of Mexico -a space that together with Ciudad Universitaria was declared Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2007- and which represents a sample of why O'Gorman is considered one of the most relevant and influential artists of our country.

Another equally outstanding work is undoubtedly the ensemble that today is known as the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo House-Studio, a space safeguarded by the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature, which in 1998 was declared Artistic Heritage of the Nation. This precinct represents one of the key moments in Juan O'Gorman's production, as it is one of the first functionalist architectural structures in Latin America. This space, designed when the artist was only 24 years old and whose form responds completely and solely to the relationship with its utilitarian function, is a reflection of the influence that Le Corbusier, one of the greatest exponents of modern architecture, left on Juan O'Gorman through his work.

We could list a large number of the existing plastic and architectural works that are proof of the talent, postures, and revolutionary look of this painter, architect, and thinker. However, there is one of O'Gorman's works that demonstrates that his legacy is fundamental in the history of architecture in our country; however, this work only exists in the memory of photographic records, plans, and multiple studies that have been generated as a result of the concern that this architectural ensemble awakens for synthesizing part of the thought and theoretical postures of this great architect. It is the so-called Cave-House, the last architectural structure built by Juan O'Gorman and called by the artist himself "the most important architectural work of his life".

The legacy of Juan O'Gorman's cave house.
The legacy of Juan O'Gorman's cave house.

Also known as Casa O'Gorman, Casa del Pedregal or Casa-gruta, it began to be built in 1948 under the postulates of organicism, a form of architecture that seeks harmony between the construction, its functionality, and the integration of the structure into the natural environment. Juan O'Gorman undertook this project influenced by the theoretical positions of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright; the work of Antonio Gaudí and Ferdinand Cheval also nurtured the peculiar forms of the house.

For its construction, O'Gorman chose a site in Pedregal de San Ángel, south of Mexico City, and used a wide variety of materials, such as volcanic stone and red brick, but what gave the building its characteristic touch was the incorporation of a cave formed as a result of the eruption of the Xitle volcano.

Its location is an extension of volcanic rock determined its final forms and finishes, as O'Gorman sought to imitate the nature of the area to achieve an architectural body in harmony with the surroundings. Likewise, O'Gorman was inspired by the constructions of the Mesoamerican civilizations that were destined for religious uses and in which diverse sculptural figures and mosaics were integrated into the architecture, for that reason the interior and exterior decoration represented different gods and symbols of the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico.

The walls of Juan O'Gorman's Cave-House
The walls of Juan O'Gorman's Cave-House.

The walls of the house included the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc, as well as suns, moons, snails, butterflies, jaguars, and an eagle, among other figures. Likewise, the main entrance of the house, whose shape recalls the so-called Mayan Arch, was flanked by two Judas or guardians, while the façade was decorated with murals of natural colored stones from different regions of the country. The monumentality and particularity of this work made the construction to be catalogued as an example of surrealist architecture in Mexico.

The house had a first floor, a second floor, and ten modules in total; it included a living room, a maid's room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a terrace on the upper floor. This space, which would become his family's residence, as he lived there with his wife, the painter Helen Fowler, and his daughter María Elena, was conceived by O'Gorman as a laboratory in which he could freely experiment with his ideas about architecture, as he stated in declarations he gave during an interview for El Universal in 1952:

"It is too rare for Mexicans, but perhaps it initiates a new regional tradition. Most mortals, perhaps, have their house for a castle, but the architect often considers his as a laboratory. To test his ideas about housing, he and his family can eat in semi-caves, use pedestal chairs, sleep in subway bedrooms, and cultivate wall gardens."

Juan O'Gorman
Juan O'Gorman

Likewise, O'Gorman considered that the characteristics of this architectural work responded to the "authentic art of America", which is why his work was "an example of architecture in tune with the current of Mexican, national and regional art", for which reason this construction represented the "antithesis of the so-called international style and of everything that means what is called 'modern' architecture in Mexico today ".

In this sense, the cave-house, as art historian Adriana Sandoval points out, was conceived by O'Gorman "as an essay in organic architecture and was also presented as a protest against civilization and, perhaps, was experienced by the artist as a great catharsis, deriving not necessarily from architecture as the order but from architecture as orientation in the face of the untamed, the wild and the unknown".

For Sandoval, the construction of a work like this, so far from the established standards of the twentieth century, "is sustained by the helplessness of an entire generation that, in the face of industry, greed, excessive population growth and the lack of order in such a spontaneous passage through the present, translated into creative prayers, in the same way, in creative-emotional prayers such as those of Mathias Goeritz in constructions such as the Echo Museum, in the representation of silence and prayer in the architecture of Luis Barragán and the revaluation of local materials for the construction of modern rooms in the case of Max Cetto ".

The History of the Cave-House of Juan O'Gorman
The History of the Cave-House of Juan O'Gorman

However, despite the landmark that this construction represented, the cave-house ceased to exist, or rather, it was modified in such a way that none of its characteristics are preserved today. In 1969, for economic reasons, Juan O'Gorman decided to put his emblematic home up for sale and it was acquired by the artist Helen Escobedo. O'Gorman assured that the buyers of the house had promised not to demolish it, however, in the architect's own words, the house was destroyed and with it, the architectural work was eliminated.

"With the pretension of creating masterpieces, it will turn out to be an ordinary house and I fear it will be something vulgar, without the least architectural interest. Only the color photographs remain, showing the mosaics on the interior and exterior walls," said Juan O'Gorman in a text entitled La venta de mi casa de San Jerónimo No. 162 a la señora Helen Escobedo y la destrucción de la misma por ignorancia (The sale of my house in San Jerónimo No. 162 to Mrs. Helen Escobedo and its destruction due to ignorance).

He also pointed out: "It seems strange to me that an artist like Mrs. Helen Escobedo would have made such an act of destruction. Perhaps the influence of her friend the architect is very important, or the desire to appear more important than she is may have driven her to commit this unnecessary act of destruction".

By David Olvera López