Architecture: Humble huts and vast haciendas: Jonathan Glancey on a book that celebrates the vivid, spectacular architecture of Mexico

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The Independent Culture
The Traditional Architecture of Mexico (by Mariana Yampolsky and Chloe Sayer, Thames and Hudson, pounds 24.95) is haunting my desk. I doubt it is the best book on the subject - it crams a lot into few pages - nor the most comprehensive. But it makes me want to be in Mexico now: troubles packed up along with sketchbook and camera, a battered pick-up for transport and a compass pointing across those infinite dusty roads to Acolman, Actopan, Huejotzingo and Yucatan.

If Mexico is unfamiliar territory, a few key facts might help you to understand its extraordinarily rich architectural heritage. It was home to the great Mayan and Aztec (or Mexican) civilisations. It was conquered by Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores from 1519 and the native Indians were killed off (worked to death, mostly) at a rapid pace by their colonial masters; a population of approximately 10 million Indians was reduced to 5 million in 1550 and 2 million by the end of the 16th century.

Nevertheless, 56 Indian peoples survive and a million of them speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Today, many are members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army fighting the permanent revolutionary government in their attempt to regain lands they have lost and to be treated as equal to the criollos, or Spanish Mexicans, who form the bulk of the population.

Mexico won its independence, through war, in 1821, but the pseudo-feudal system of land ownership established by the criollos continued until the 1911 revolution, led by Emiliano Zapata, still a folk hero for Mexico's poor, landless and oppressed.

This dramatic history and heterogeneous population have resulted in the overlapping waves of vernacular and spectacular architecture shown in Yampolsky and Sayer's book, from the sun-dried, rye-stalk huts of the Nahua of El Carmen Tequexquitla to the Neo-Classical pomp of the 238- room Colegio de Mineria, Tolsa (1797-1813).

Traditional Mexican architecture encompasses some of the greatest farm buildings in the world - haciendas built on the scale of small towns (many now converted into conference centres or country hotels for wealthy aesthetes) - and the stupendous ruins of the great Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian churches that stamped Catholicism here in solid stone. But what visitors remember most is the vibrant colours and the inventive and idiosyncratic decoration that makes the most humble building, from peasant hut to barroco popular church, a joy to behold.

Many of the old Indian ways of building survive, yet, perhaps sadly, just when contemporary architects are learning from Mexico's heterogeneous past and beginning to design buildings that reflect traditional forms and motifs, most Indians, together with the urban poor, have turned to concrete and corrugated iron to build new homes.

The architect best known for fusing traditional Mexican ways of building with modern design is Luis Barragan (1902-88). Barragan's elemental villas will come as a pleasant shock to those brought up to believe that Modern Movement houses are white, machine-like and puritanical: his use of colour was both an abstraction and a heightening of the natural pigments that imprint Mexico indelibly in the mind's eye of travellers.

If you want to experience the depth and breadth of Mexico's traditional architecture, you will have to cope with prodigious poverty, unrelenting heat, numbing distances, gunfire, suspicious police and misunderstandings. Alternatively, you might read this book and dream of some of the richest and most invigorating architecture the world has to offer.

(Photographs omitted)

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