What happens after a revolution? The recent uprisings and popular revolts in the Middle East have replayed a story that defined the development of Mexico and the former Soviet Union—the first two countries that underwent popular, socialist uprisings during the first decades of the twentieth century. As these decades-long histories attest, the battle for economic and political stability as well as social equity really begins with the end of armed struggle. Architecture as Revolution: Episodes in the History of Modern Mexico by architectural historian Luis E. Carranza weaves together five parallel stories around the complicated emergence of Mexican Post-Revolutionary political and cultural identity and its relationship to architecture.
Written as part of Carranza’s dissertation in Architectural History and Theory at Harvard, Architecture as Revolution explores specific examples of Mexico’s architectural production from 1921 to 1938, beginning just after the end of the Mexican Revolution and ending with the completion of the Monument to the Revolution 17 years later. Carranza purposefully encapsulates an extraordinary era of cultural, political, and social effervescence, when Mexico was in the grip of an optimistic and productive reconstruction both of its physical infrastructure—devastated after 11 years of armed upheaval—and of its modern national identity.
Given the importance of the period to the current state of Mexico’s politics and social identity, analysis and deconstruction of the Post-Revolution is fascinating reading for historians in all fields. Architecture as Revolution threads its way along a well-studied path but adds something new: an extraordinarily detailed analysis of the relationship between literary, philosophical and theoretical ideas and how they impacted the development of architecture and design. Analysis of buildings is interwoven with close readings of the sometimes very eccentric texts and ideas of the main protagonists of Post-Revolutionary leaders. As Carranza explains in the introduction, Architecture as Revolution is not a “teleological history” searching for origins and final causes through stylistic continuity but rather a genealogical analysis that presents five “episodes,” as he calls them, “intended to ‘collide’ with each other to present a fuller and more dialectical vision of the history of Mexican modernism.”
Each of the book’s five chapters can be read independently, and while there are overlaps among the theories, issues, and characters that appear in each, it is part of the author’s structure to maintain a multi-voiced narrative, discontinuous and pluralistic. Chapter 1 looks at the building of the Secretaría de Educación Pública, which is seen as a representative architectural example for an emerging Mexican identity. Chapter 2 explores the influence of the avant-garde movement known as Estridentismo (Stridentism), which was inspired by Dadaism, Futurism, and Cubism, and held a particular fascination with the image of the contemporary, industrialized city as the locus of social, economic, and cultural change. In Chapter 3, Carranza returns to a single structure, this time the Mexican Pavilion at the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition in Seville—a frothy neo-Mayan fantasy that sought to establish Mexico’s Pre-Columbian past as the source of a new progressive modernity. Functionalist Modernism emerges in Chapter 4 through the ambivalent figure of famed architect and artist Juan O’Gorman. This revisionist chapter proposes that it was the influence of the Mexican cement industries that promoted an ultimately successful image of beautified Modernist architecture, instead of O’Gorman’s utopian and progressive social theories which ultimately rejected the aesthetization of Modernism and its dedication to upper-class building types. Finally, Chapter 5, entitled “Monumentalizing the Revolution,” addresses the institutionalization of a system of government that returned, for all intents and purposes, to pre-Revolution rule by a single hegemony, this time held by a political party and a growing bureaucracy rather than by a dictator and his complicit, semi-aristocratic oligarchy.
A more careful look at one of these chapters exposes Carranza’s methodological structure and his privileging of secondary readings over social and political history, while also showing the shortcomings of such an approach. Chapter 1 centers on the controversial figure of José Vasconcelos, the first Minister of Public Education under the Post-Revolutionary government, who commissioned and, as Carranza implies, was the covert designer of the Secretaría de Educación Pública headquarters that he oversaw from 1921 to 1924 during a short but extraordinarily influential three-year mandate. Vasconcelos is credited with shaping the building infrastructure as well as the theoretical foundations of the entire education program going forward, far beyond his years in office. He was also key to the development of a new nationalist identity based on embracing an emergent ethnicity created from the miscegenation of Mexico’s native people’s with the Spanish colonizers. According to Vasconcelos, Post-Revolutionary Mexico could finally break with centuries of colonialist subjugation of native cultures and be the proud result of the marriage between two races. Latin America’s mixed race and original culture represented for Vasconcelos a new stage in evolution towards liberation from the exhaustion of decadent European values and the exploitation of North American utilitarian capitalism.
This is heady and specialized stuff that requires close attention to the text. But it is in resolving specific questions such as these that one misses a more detailed social and political history, accessed through first-hand accounts and other historical resources, instead of the theoretical readings that dominate the study. Such inclusions would add nuance and texture to each chapter and illuminate more specifically the relationship between theory and practice in the physical construction of Post-Revolutionary architecture in Mexico.
Nevertheless, Architecture as Revolution is an important study. It utilizes the sieve of architecture to offer an insightful deconstruction of the historical emergence of Mexico’s identity and its Revolutionary myths. It addresses the internal struggles of its protagonists to create a cultural program as emancipator and impetus for change. And finally, through architecture it narrates the forlorn abandonment of the nation’s ideals in exchange for political stability and the promise of industrialized progress.