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November 11, 2022
On view at the Noguchi Museum through February 2023, the exhibition showcases visionary works by four artist-architects from Mexico.
By: Jaxson Leilah Stone
Photography: Nicholas Knight
The snake is a primordial creature. Across millennia and countless cultures, the serpent has presided over the realms of life and death, serving as an ancestral spirit, a guide, and a potent symbol of transformation and return. For German-Mexican architect Mathias Goeritz, the snake is a “fever chart” of the human condition. In his work, the reptile serves as a connector, not only metaphorically and sculpturally but structurally, as a cosmic form that shapes the experience of his architecture, functioning not only as a link between space and program but between individual consciousness and the universe.
This month, when guests pay a visit to The Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, Goeritz’s serpents greet them, serving as the guide through its latest exhibition, In Praise of Caves: Organic Architecture Projects from Mexico by Carlos Lazo, Mathias Goeritz, Juan O’Gorman, and Javier Senosiain. The monumental El Eco Serpent (1953), made of painted steel, wraps around the Long Island City museum’s cinderblock walls, emerging from a landscape of Isamu Noguchi’s rock garden, looming over the monolithic stone structures that appear small in its presence.
The serpent is a full-scale copy of a sculpture Goeritz made for his Mexico City Museo Experimental El Eco, an example of what he called “Emotional Architecture.” For Goeritz, architecture’s aim was to create a modern spiritual connection and “psychic emotions for man, without falling into an empty and theatrical decorativeness,” he wrote in his 1953 Manifiesto de la Arquitectura Emocional. In the experimental museum, the snake occupied the interior of the building, whose entrance was designed to make visitors feel like they were slipping into the mouth of a cave.
Curated by Dakin Hart, senior curator of The Noguchi Museum, In Praise of Caves descends into a conception of architecture that is both ancient and otherworldly. He writes in the exhibition pamphlet’s introduction: “Let ‘cave’ be a metaphor: for our instinctive dust-to-dust returns to earth, for our inviolable connection to it, and let all of these snakes act as our surrogates and guides.” The show highlights the work of four Mexican “artist-architects” that reflect on an interest of the inhabitability of caves, all organized under a rubric of organic architecture.
It should be noted that while Noguchi himself spent time in Mexico from the 1930s to 1980s, the exhibition is more about conceptual, not personal, relationships. Hart reflects, “All Noguchi sculpture is about giving you an awareness and a realization of standing in a specific spot on a little rock spinning around in a massive void, and this sense of perspective that we just aren’t that important. What’s our place in the order of things? That’s something that Goeritz was really motivated by as well.”
But friendship is at the heart of the exhibition in a different way. It was exhibition consultant Ricardo Suárez Haro’s long-standing relationship with architect and Arquitectura Orgánica founder Javier Senosiaian Aguilar that inspired the idea of a show focusing on Mexican Organic architecture to begin with. Born in 1948, Senosiain was Goertiz’ student at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, becoming a professor there as well as a leader of the second generation of Mexican organic architects, following in the footsteps of pivotal figures such as Juan O’Gorman and Carlos Lazos.
Known for his early functionalist buildings, including the studio houses of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, throughout the 1950s O’Gorman became a champion of organic architecture and a prolific visionary painter whose social art depicted nationalistic and anti-fascist themes. Located in Area 6 of the museum, O’Gorman’s work draws viewers in through a large photograph depicting the architect and his wife playing chess in their (now destroyed) Mexico City cave home, Casa O’Gorman (1959). For the architect, organic architecture was a way of correcting the troubled relationship between man and earth, built environment and natural landscape. Yet, cave architecture wasn’t so much about returning to the past as it was about looking to tradition and ancestral knowledge for new ways to move forward.
This is particularly evident in the work of Carlos Lazo, an architect and public official who served as the head of the Mexican Secretariat of Communications and Public Works from 1952–55. In his Cuevas Civilizadas (Civilized Caves) project, which was essentially a public housing idea, the architect would have included 110 modern but affordable homes dug into a canyon wall in Mexico City. “What unites these visionary projects is an absence of nostalgia,” notes Hart, “These makers of modern Mexico view caves as a traditional technology worthy of modern development.”
Senosiain’s devotion to the legacy of his predecessor’s work is made clear by the objects in the show, including an elaborate and carefully constructed models of Casa O’Gorman and Lazo’s Casa-Cueva de la Era Atomica, in addition to La Coata, a 2022 sculptural serpent bench commissioned for the exhibition––closing the visitor’s journey just as El Eco began it. The concrete and mosaic structure of the La Coata echoes the construction of Senosiain’s buildings, including the El Nido de Quetzalcoatl, a vast complex that Hart describes as an “organic architecture theme park” a model of which is also on view. Hart says, “[La Coata] is built exactly the way his buildings were built. For him, there’s really no difference between architecture and sculpture.”
“In Praise of Caves is a defense of our ancestors and their intelligence in inhabiting caves and using caves,” Hart continues. The exhibition title itself comes from a chapter of The Prodigious Builders: Notes Toward a Natural History of Architecture (1977), a book by the cultural critic, and friend of Noguchi, Bernard Rudofsky. Rudofsky believed that we needed to make peace with the idea of inhabiting caves sooner rather than later, Hart explains, “we will eventually have to move underground once we have irreparably despoiled the surface of the Earth.” Not only that, but the exhibition provides a powerful statement on an emotional state characterized by harmony and happiness, a spiritual state that the four architects believed could be achieved through architecture and right relationship with the natural world. After experiencing the psychic depths of these projects within the Noguchi Museum’s walls, the prospect of cave dwelling doesn’t seem all that bad.
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