Alejandro Hernández is an architect and critic of Mexican architecture and ideas around architecture. In relation to your field, not to art necessarily, how do you feel that abstraction has taken form in architecture and how is this experience of sipping in the users into de building start to reveal new information or new layers to the space.
Alejandro Hernández: Well, first I want to, I will try to tell a very short story that I read this morning, I was trying to read something about abstraction and went to the dictionary, any dictionary, I went to Felix de Azua Dictionary, and the second entry in the dictionary…
Felix de Azua, Felix de Azua. And the second entry is abstraction, the first entry is A, letter A, second entry is abstraction, abstract not abstraction. And he says that, the story is that when Kandinsky, once in his studio he saw a painting of him and didn’t recognize it, and it was beautiful but he didn’t know what he was looking at. Later on he realized that the painting was upside down and that’s why he didn’t recognize his own painting.
So Felix de Azua, from that point, he says that abstraction has to do with a movement of the observer, in this case it was a movement of the painting but you can move the observer to build abstraction. And that made me think about Juan O’Gorman, one of Mexico’s greatest muralists and architects also, well he was trained as an architect but he rejected architecture because he says architecture turned to him into a Frankenstein and then he began to paint murals and then he went back to architecture, and once he wrote that all painting is abstract.
I was thinking, when you say something like that, you’re saying nothing because if every painting is abstract, then everything is abstract and nothing is abstract, but he was trying to explain that, one of his favorite painters was José María Velasco, one of Mexico’s greatest landscape painters of the 19th century, and he said that Velasco was abstract because he was able to build space and make visible air without need of perspective because there are landscape painters that are not built according to traditional or western perspectival (sic) rules, and I think that O’Gorman was very aware of this, this idea that you have to make the spectator or observer aware of something according to some rules that has to do with abstraction, bringing that to architecture I think that in the case of O’Gorman has to do with his two periods as an architect, as you may know he built Diego and Frida’s houses and studios which are this two boxes, blue and red, really abstract architecture, and after building that, it’s what he, I don’t know about 30 schools in Mexico in the 1930’s was what he said that architecture was the only functional and not emotional, which is not the word he used, he was saying that architecture wasn’t communicating to the people, it was only to satisfy need, it was building engineering, the term he used, and not architecture.
So when he went back to architecture, is the time when he began to cover his buildings with murals, with murals that told stories and what is very interesting from him, of the case of O’Gorman is that, for instance in the case of the Central Library in National University Campus, the building is rather abstract a set of boxes interlocked one in another and covered with a mural that is supposed to tell a story but you can’t read it if you don’t know the story, this is a very complex story, on one side is the story of the world, the cosmos and on the other side is the story of Mexico and it is all in such a, a lot of narrative in such small, a big facade but small space for such a big story that what you are looking at is a pattern.
So this idea that architecture should be transformed into a narrative in order to be, not abstract but easy to understand to the people, to common people, is very interesting in the case of O’Gorman because it ended up in an abstract covering of the building in order to make it less abstract.
So I think that’s a game that has been played in Mexico at least in modern architecture from the 40’s to the 60’s, when in Mexico we had this they called at least in spanish Integración Plástica or plastic integration where architects were looking for artists, sculptures or painters to cover up their buildings to make them less abstract more communical (sic) to the people, but in a very paradoxical way because painters were making abstract paintings, not all of them Rivera wasn’t making abstract paintings, but in a way you can say that a big mural with a lot of small dots of color of pixels because they were mosaics is a kind of abstract painting when you look in a distance. So the play between abstraction space and abstraction representation is central in Mexican architecture.
I think also that brings out that very interesting relation between what Gunila was talking about. I mean first you were talking about the need to move the observer, that you can move by moving the observer, create abstraction, and you ended up talking about O’Gormans’ attempts to communicate more but actually becoming a little more abstract because you cannot read it, you faced it as a viewer cannot read this story if he’s not, he doesn’t know the story.
I think this presents also an interesting question about public space because, in terms of the public sphere, because in this case where the works are not going to be transformed by others than you, but in the case of public space the viewer or the interventions might also change meaning through time by participating on a public space not necessarily by someone transforming it directly but by changes of the viewer’s idiosyncrasy or concept of framework and you were talking about how O’Gorman himself looked at his own building in a different manner after time. I don’t know if you can further more a little bit about this abstract interventions in the public realm, for example there’s a lot of reference here in Mexico like the “Ruta de la Amistad”, which is a circuit of abstract sculptures that Mathias Goeritz invited many Latin-American artists to participate during the Olympics of 1968, 1968 yes, and how that has been changing the perception of art, or for example the Mathias Goeritz towers of Satelite (suburban neighborhood in Mexico City), but also as buildings, when do we start relating more to the building or the building starts sipping to, or into our unconscious in order to reveal the meaning, or even public space that not necessarily are buildings, that relationship of the viewer with buildings.
I like that in, again in a dictionary, a Spanish dictionary, it has two meanings for abstract. One it says, it has to do with the art and abstract art which is not realist and all of that, and the other which is really strange use of abstract, I haven’t used it that way I guess, says that abstract is something that has to do but is independent from the subject, but has not to do with a subject, it is independent from it. So, and I also like that abstraction, and this in Spanish also in English, has descend traction, and if you look for traction in the dictionary this effect of being submitted to forces, to two kind of forces that move you, that breaks you maybe. To be tract, traction I don’t know if in English is also traction, but the idea that this forces are in a way independent, I’m trying to join these two definitions. Independent of the subject is what makes me think that abstraction works in space and what architects are trying to do when they try to do abstract spaces.
Because it’s very funny that you’re mentioning for instance Mathias Goeritz and you spoke about Mathias Goeritz in the context of abstraction when he was trying to do what he labeled as emotional architecture, but again maybe this was a kind of abstract emotion an emotion that was not depending on the subject, the way of a subject understood and thought about emotion, but in emotion per se, emotion itself, and how this emotion could be attached to a thing in this case the sculpture, to a plain, to a tower, to an empty space like in the Museum, the Eco, and this I think this is important in the way that when you see, like this exhibition, when you see the work of artists put in a context that they thought it be in the first instance, you are like making this emotions abstract. They don’t depend more nor in the subject as the artist, the producer, or the subject the observer but they depend in each other. It’s like the emotion, I don’t know if it is keeps or kept in the work of art, like you were saying, like the footsteps mark on the floor it’s like the emotions are kept in the objects, and we’re playing with this emotions in the abstract, like we’re keeping them playing by themselves so I think that’s what one thing that architecture is always trying, not always, but some kind of architecture is always trying to do to make it available to the public without any dependence to one subject, the author or the observer.
This conversation took place the 26th of March, 2011 at the Museo Tamayo as part of the public program accompanying the exhibition Abstract Possible: The Tamayo Take. To hear Wade Guyton’s participation in the same conversation click here.