Architecture or Revolution: Frida Kahlo’s Houses and the Functionalist Movement
Geometric shapes, exposed reinforced concrete walls, visible electrical installations, large windows that prioritize natural light and ventilation, gardens that value native plants. The first works by the Mexican architect Juan O’Gorman, built between 1929 and 1932, bring an aesthetic that can be seen today, but in reality they are the pure expression of one of the currents of the 20th century modernist movement, functionalism.
Inspired by the concepts of the famous French architect Le Corbusier, who in 1923 published a manifesto in which he proposed the search for an architecture with the spirit of that time, industrial and machinist, O’Gorman was excited and saw an architectural solution for the 1920s Mexico in this disruptive proposal. After the Mexican Revolution, the country’s reconstruction was the priority. Or, as Le Corbusier said in Vers une architecturethese were times when it was necessary to choose between “Architecture or Revolution” – and revolution “can be avoided”.
The idea was to create a universal language that would make it possible to build elements in series, in the same way that a car is produced, explains specialist Claudia Virginia Stinco, professor of Architecture and Urbanism at Mackenzie Presbyterian University. “They imagined that houses could also be made in factories and then assembled. This would help to solve serious problems not only of homelessness, but of efficient and morally decent housing.”
Then, an architecture that was intended to be much more engineering than art emerges. The concern with shapes was put aside, at least in theory, to prioritize an efficient house that used as few resources as possible, be they material, financial or human, with maximum results. “The radical rationalists, a younger wing, of which O’Gorman was a part, said that this [the discussion about forms] was a discussion that could not happen at that time, because the problems in Mexico were more vehement: there was little money to solve a lot of more important things”, explains Stinco. Together with Cláudia Costa Cabral, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and a researcher in the field of modern architecture, she states: it is not possible to diminish functionalism to the category of style. It is a way of looking at architecture, which values efficiency at low cost, understanding that the house is a “machine for living”.
The Houses for Cecil, Diego and Frida
On a plot of land far from the center of Mexico City, O’Gorman, at age 24, decides to build a studio house for his father, engineer Cecil O’Gorman. This is how the first functionalist construction in Latin America, which is now 90 years old, emerged. “We tend to believe that this young architect ends up doing real functionalist architecture, in the houses of Cecil, Frida and Diego, before Le Corbusier himself”, points out Stinco. The gift for his father, who never lived there, was just an excuse to build his first manifesto house, which was soon commissioned by the famous artist Diego Rivera. Next to the first house, two more were built, one for Diego and the other for Frida Kahlo, joined by a bridge. “This double order gives O’Gorman the opportunity to do things that Le Corbusier had not yet done”, points out Claudia Cabral.
From Le Corbusier’s existing designs came the inspiration for the large external spiral staircase with concrete handrail, for the emphasis given to the artists’ studio, with its large windows and double height ceilings, and for the saw-like roof. But O’Gorman, with a focus on Mexico’s needs, could not help but consider the local culture. Instead of the walls in shades of white and gray, one of the maxims of modern architecture, his houses had vibrant colors, alluding to pre-Columbian culture. The red in Rivera’s house, for example, refers to the color used to paint Aztec temples. For the walls, local aggregates of volcanic soil, abundant and resistant. In the gardens, only typical plants that do not need special care to survive — native, are already used to the climate and soil of the region. Around the houses, there are no walls, but a hedge of cactus. Under the houses, thin pilotis. “Building on pilotis means that the ground down there is free, thinking that all the ground is public, it’s common”, says Stinco.
Rebuilding a Country
Besides houses, O’Gorman designed buildings, such as workers’ other villages and schools. When he took over the Department of Schools and the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico, he faced the challenge of helping to solve the situation in the country from an architectural perspective. One of his most famous projects was the “Schools of the Million” (Escuelas del Millón) in which, aiming at maximum efficiency with minimum resources, he proposed the construction of 20 schools, the renovation of another 20 and the expansion of 8 at a total cost of one million pesos. This was the same amount of money that was invested to build a single primary school.
The structures followed the same idea of their first houses: the use of reinforced concrete and exposed installations. For air circulation, clay tubes on the walls. For the total and lifetime functionality of the schools, a plan that foresaw expansions, if necessary. These schools pointed to the maximum rationalization of architecture, depending on the needs of a country.
What was seen as an architectural solution for post-revolution Mexico also emerges as a way out for present times. The creation of elements in series that allow the large-scale assembly of houses, with the involvement of the community itself in the construction, is what guides several contemporary functional proposals that are based onist principles: optimize spaces and costs seeking maximum efficiency. With technological advances, pre-built modular homes have become a possible reality. Added to global social demands, such as sustainability and decent housing, they also become desirable. Behind the idea, a purpose that is not aesthetic, although it also embraces it, but functional – thinking about solutions to real problems.
An example is the project by the Mexican office Zeller & Moye. As a strategy for rural housing in the country, they developed modular houses made of concrete and mud brick. The design can vary according to the wishes and budget of the families. The base is a 90 square meter block with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathroom. According to a note published by the architects, the villas are based “on the analysis of the traditions and current living conditions of the local population, translated into a contemporary form”.
In traditional day-to-day architecture, it is not difficult to find buildings that bring elements of this architectural movement from the 1920s, even if it is not a style. “There are stylistic issues there too, which bring these works together. Today, you see buildings that look like those, so I think so, there is a kind of rehabilitation of this architecture”, points out Cabral. “This modern tradition, it is still alive for architects.”