The Central Library Mural: A Masterpiece of Painting and Architecture by Juan O'Gorman

This creation by Juan O'Gorman was made with stones of different natural colors, brought from various regions of the country, and arranged over a surface of four thousand square meters. Historical representation of the culture.

The Central Library Mural: A Masterpiece of Painting and Architecture by Juan O'Gorman
Amazing originality in the iconic UNAM mural. Images: UNAM

Juan O'Gorman, a Mexican painter and architect who lived from 1905 to 1982, made the mural Historical Representation of Culture, which covers all four sides of the Central Library of Ciudad Universitaria, with the help of an army of workers between 1951 and 1953. This made it not only the most famous building at the National Autonomous University of Mexico but also one of the most famous and admired buildings in the whole world.

"The Central Library is an extraordinary example of architecture as painting and painting as architecture." That is, it is a project that does not fit into the mold of functionalism because it became a painting. "This is where its originality lies," says Rita Eder, of UNAM's Institute of Aesthetic Research and a specialist in art history.

The origin of the mural Historical Representation of Culture dates back to the mid-1940s, when Diego Rivera, who had already begun to build the Anahuacalli Museum in the town of San Pablo Tepetlapa, in Coyoacán, to house his magnificent collection of pre-Hispanic figures, called O'Gorman and asked him to participate in the creation of mosaic motifs in the interior of that singular construction.

"This experience would be essential for the project that Juan O'Gorman would carry out years later in the Central Library," says the university professor.

Juan O'Gorman was a Mexican painter and architect.
Juan O'Gorman was a Mexican painter and architect.

Juan O'Gorman's Central Library Mural: A Fusion of Function and Art

At first, it was thought that glazed tiles would be used to cover the Central Library, whose architectural design was planned and executed by O'Gorman himself in collaboration with Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco; however, the former did not like this material.

"Let's remember that O'Gorman began as an architect in the purest functionalism, but at some point in his life he stopped being passionate about what he was doing." He later became acquainted with the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in whose architectural design there is a very close relationship between landscape and nature. This relationship, which excited O'Gorman, and his stay with Diego Rivera at the Anahuacalli gave him ideas on how he could modify his initial functionalist vision and attempt architecture with Mexican roots. Thus, when he arrived at Ciudad Universitaria and learned that the Central Library had to respond to the design of rationalist architecture, he decided to apply a total mosaic cladding on the exterior faces of the building," explains Eder.

The Central Library is covered with pure, natural-colored stones that O'Gorman sought in various regions of the country. He found 150 different ones, of which he chose 10 or 12 (some say 10 and others 12) in red, yellow, pink, green, gray, black, and white. And the ones he couldn't find, blue, he replaced with shattered glass of that color so it could be applied.

"One of the main points of mural painting is that it has to do with its durability." If it is a public art and it is outdoors, how can it be preserved? "(David Alfaro) Siqueiros and Rivera did some experiments in this regard, but O'Gorman's proposal was quite effective since the mural made with these stones has resisted and has been preserved in excellent condition to date," adds the researcher.

The UNAM Central Library Mural
The UNAM Central Library Mural

The Iconography and Originality of Juan O'Gorman's Central Library Mural

On the north side of the mural, O'Gorman used images of the Codex Borbonico and the Codex Mendocino to represent the pre-Hispanic era, as his purpose was to make it resemble a kind of amoxcalli, which in Nahuatl means "house of books",  that is, the place where the pre-Columbian codices (pictorial documents made by members of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica to record their history, beliefs, customs, etc.) were kept.

Eder says that the shape of the Central Library is very horizontal, which is similar to the shape of a book and the codices. On the south side, the painter and architect who was born in Coyoacán showed different parts of Western culture and the two sides of the Spanish Conquest and the colonial era.

"The peculiarity of what is observed on this face is that it is unlike any other representation of Colonial history because the debate on science was included as part of it." O'Gorman represented the conflict between the theories of Ptolemy, who believed that the Earth was immobile and occupied the center of the universe and that the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars revolved around it, and Copernicus, who claimed that the Earth and the rest of the planets revolved around the Sun, which went against the geocentrism defended by religious convictions. There are also scenes of the battles during the Conquest and of the triumph of the Church over the beliefs of the indigenous peoples, which come from the so-called Lienzo de Tlaxcala, a colonial codex produced in the second half of the 16th century.

On the eastern side, O'Gorman reproduced his particular vision of the contemporary world, from the Mexican Revolution to the modernity of the mid-20th century, represented by the atomic sign. And finally, on the west side, he worked with elements related to the university and present-day Mexico, among which the UNAM coat of arms with the motto "The spirit will speak for my race" stands out in the upper center.

"Although the iconography of Representación histórica de la cultura is remarkable, in reality, the most important thing is the amazing idea O'Gorman had of covering a large building like the Central Library with stones of different natural colors." In this sense, the originality of this construction is indisputable. I believe that, with what he left on its walls, O'Gorman achieved in the second phase of his life the goal to which he aspired. Incidentally, along with Brasilia, inaugurated in 1960 as the capital of Brazil, the Seagram Building in New York, and other buildings, the Central Library appears in countless books as an example.

Historical Representation of Culture Mural Painting Detail

Juan O'Gorman's Central Library: A Fusion of Painting and Architecture

The Central Library is a work that could well be considered two if it were not an indivisible whole: on the one hand, it is the flagship building of the UNAM, and on the other, it is the best-known mural of Ciudad Universitaria, although, for its author, Juan O'Gorman, it was something more: his return to architecture after a self-imposed exile of 12 years. That was in 1936, as he wrote: "One morning, on leaving home, I had a good idea of closing the office to devote myself to activities more in keeping with my personality and my way of being."

Professor Louise Noelle Gras met O'Gorman in 1976 when she edited the magazine Arquitectura México, and for work, reasons had intermittent meetings with him until 1980, when he left his post to, months later, joined the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (IIE) of UNAM for good. "I wouldn't say he was my friend, but I do remember him as someone very cordial, elegant, serious, and, above all, very severe in judging himself and his creations."

Perhaps this self-criticism, so typical of him, is what made him give up his profession at only 31 years of age and six years of professional practice (from 1929 to 1935), but the invitation made to him by Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, authors of the CU Master Plan, in 1949 to design what would become the Central Library, together with Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco, brought him back. "In his autobiography, he does not explain the reason for this decision, but I believe that his return, and in such a forceful manner, is due to the opportunity offered at that time to combine in one project his two great vocations: painting and architecture."

Right from that period (1950) is his famous Multiple Self-Portrait, an easel work in which O'Gorman represents himself, on the left side of the canvas, as an architect with a square in his hand, while on the right side he personifies himself as a painter with a brush in his right hand. As the emeritus researcher Ida Rodriguez Prampolini once said, "What makes O'Gorman different from most of the notable men is the integration he knew how to make of two faculties that in most human beings are split: the one that defines artists and the one that produces

For Dr. Louise Noelle, the Central Library is the place where, after working in separate spheres, the painter Juan and the architect O'Gorman were finally able to coexist. "Today this building is one of the best examples of plastic integration in Mexico, and to corroborate this, it is enough to imagine that we remove one of the elements: the building would lose part of its meaning without its mural, and the murals would not transmit the same if they were not integrated into the

Le Corbusier once said: "Architecture and the plastic arts are not two juxtaposed things; they are a coherent and solid whole,"  a maxim that O'Gorman put into practice in the Central Library, something that should come as no surprise from a man who, when speaking of architecture, said: "It must always be done as a work of art,"  and when speaking of wall painting, said: "It must be planned as a house is planned."

Detail of Historical Representation of Culture Mural Painting by Juan O'Gorman
Detail of Historical Representation of Culture Mural Painting by Juan O'Gorman

The History and Technique Behind Juan O'Gorman's Central Library Mural

Few people can remember the name of the Central Library's mural, Historical Representation of Culture, but everyone (or almost everyone) knows that it is made of thousands of small stones embedded in the four sides of the collection tower, where they form figures that take us back to our pre-Hispanic past, to the cosmology of New Spain, to Mexico in the mid-20th century, and to UNAM. It is, in other words, history written in stone.

As to why he chose this material, Juan O'Gorman told Alfredo Robert in the biographical documentary Como una pintura nos iremos borrando: "The mosaic of colored stones was made here, at the university, to fill a building that was originally going to be a horrible, dreadful cube. They wanted to cover it with Vitricotta. Imagine the horror if that had been done!

Although in reality, as the painter would clarify in his autobiography, this technique was not born in University City in the 1950s of the last century but a little earlier, in 1945, six kilometers away, at a museum still under construction in San Pablo Tepetlapa. "The first colored stone mosaics made in Mexico were the ones that, with drawings by the master (Diego) Rivera, I made in the Anahuacalli."

On how the idea was conceived, the researcher explains: "Both artists realized that the ceilings of the building, with their bare concrete, did not look good and thought of remedying that without resorting to painting or flattening." It occurred to Rivera that if he painted strokes on the boards of the formwork and, before casting, placed stones of different tones on top of the marks on the wood when it set, he would have a surface with figures outlined in stone. This would be the forerunner of what would be done, shortly after, on the campus.

However, the Central Library is very different from the Anahuac, and to cover its four thousand square meters of exterior walls, O'Gorman had to adapt the technique and draw the entire mural in real size. On this occasion, the procedure consisted of tracing each part of the work on a 1:1 scale. This template was used as a guide to place the polychromatic stones, and then a pre-casting was done. In the end, one-meter slabs were obtained, which were placed like puzzle pieces, one next to the other, to reveal the overall image.

In this project, the selection of the stones was crucial, so O'Gorman, to obtain the necessary tones, traveled much of the country, advised by a mining engineer, a friend of his father. "In the end, I selected a dozen colors: a Venice red, a sienna yellow, two pinks of different quality, a violet gray, the dark gray of Pedregal, black obsidian, and white chalcedony. In addition, there is white marble and two greens, one light and one dark." For the blue, I used colored glass and then crushed it," he wrote.

In Louise Noelle's opinion, what has been achieved in the Central Library is so important that she is not surprised that today it is the most photographed Mexican building. "And who doesn't want a photo there?" You only need to see it up close to appreciate the results. Even though O'Gorman had to deal with thousands of mosaics, we never see broken lines; that's how attentive he was to detail. "Laying all these panels with such care was a filigree job that took him more than a year."

In all these experiments with rock, O'Gorman was pursuing a specific goal: permanence, as he would admit when he wrote: "The paint will eventually fade, but the mosaic of colored stone or glass is permanent." And he was right, adds Professor Louise Noelle: "Although perhaps some parts have been affected by pollution and acid rain, we are facing a mural that, 70 years after its creation, remains almost perfect." This is due to the great ingenuity of the author and also to the durability of the stone.