Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Despite being an incredibly talented painted and architect, Juan O' Gorman never had the career he deserved. He was his own worst enemy, getting in fights with everyone from friends and colleagues to patrons.
He was born to an Irish father Cecil, and Mexican mother Encarnacion , in Coyoacan, on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1905. According to the Irish Times, his father was a noted Irish painter and his great grandfather the first British consul to Mexico City in 1820. In the nineteen twenties he studied architecture at the Academy Carlos at the National Autonomous University where he discovered Le Corbusier's Vers Une Architecture (of course). By 1929 at the age of 24, he built his first project, a home for his father. It was a low-slung, white modernist building that stood out in the upscale, classical Spanish style neighborhood. Legend has it the neighbors were so offended by the building that they demanded his architecture diploma be revoked.
Despite the outrage, or perhaps because of it, he became quite well known and designed classic modernist houses for Diego Rivera, Freida Kahlo and himself which can still be visited today. He was quite successful throughout the thirties, designing schools and public buildings for the Department of Education.
By the nineteen forties he had become disenchanted with modernism and decided to focus on painting. He not only denounced modernism but even his own work, claiming that functionalism was only favored, because wealthy contractors and developers saved money from its austere functionalism. He began painting large format murals inspired by Diego Rivera and his contemporaries. Due to his incredible talent, he quickly became successful with commissions from Edgar Kauffman (of Falling Water) and the government but once again he blew it by antagonizing his patrons. His choice of anti-governmental subject matter for a series of murals at the new Mexico City airport infuriated the officials who had comissioned him, leading to their removal as soon as the murals were complete. Edgar Kauffman brought him to America for a mural commission for the Young Men's and Women's Hebrew Association building near Pittsburgh, but again it appears his choice of subject matter alienated Kauffman. Although sketches for the mural exist, it was never painted. Author HIllary Masters believes that it's likely Kauffman and O' Gorman couldn't agree on subject matter. The sketches feature portraits of the founding father of Pittsburgh exchanging money behind their backs, along with an open toilet and a roll of toilet paper prominently featured above the tableau... There is no documentation as to what happened to the commission but it's easy to imagine that Kauffman withdrew his support. He did however payfor the mural for the library at the Gertrudis Bocanegra library, in Patzcuaro Mexico. Entitled The History of the Michoacan, it depicts the history of the Mexican state from prehistoric time through independence .
In 1943 Diego Rivera convinced him to design a building to house his collection of pre-Columbian art. It was with this building that O' Gorman started designing in a new hybrid of modernism and local building traditions, utilizing local stone and and a sloped base referencing traditional Mexican architecture but also utilizing metal strip windows that we associate with functionalism.
In 1948 he bought a plot of land in Pedregal where he built a home for himself and his family, utilizing a natural cave. He covered the walls in mosaics and stone, mixing Christian and Aztec symbols to create his own organic Mexican style of decoration. One can also see the influence of FLW's later more organic work such asTaliesin West. The unusual house was featured in life magazine and became a tourist attraction.
It was also during this time that he designed the library at UNAM (or the National Autonomous Universidad of Mexico) which has a mosaic surface covered with millions of stone sourced from all over Mexico. It is the only surviving building by him of this period. In 1969 he sold his famous house to a friend who ended up demolishing it. (Needless to say the friendship did not survive.) O' Gorman continued to antagonize and alienate everyone with his withering critiques, which he subjected his own work to as well. According to writer Francisco Gonzales de Canales he referred to the library he designed at the university as "a gringa dressed up as a poblano" His marriage imploded and he led an increasingly isolated life, committing suicide in 1982. The library at UNAM, with its spectacular mosiac is considered one of the most well-known symbols of Mexico City and is now a Unesco World Heritage site.
Francisco Gonzales de Canales Juan O' Gorman The Architectural Review June 2015
Hilary Masters Shadows on A Wall: Juan O' Gorman and the Mural At Patzcuaro
University of Pittsburgh Press 2005
Jessica Traynor, Juan O' Gorman, Architect behind Mexico City's Most Intriguing Buildings
Irish Times Dec. 2018
Thirsty for more? Don't forget to check out the accompanying cocktail, The Maximilian Affair.