Modernist masks

Wrapped in its enigmatic texture, the home/studio at Cuernavaca, where Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros lived during the last ten years of his life, is now the core of a new museum and cultural production centre designed by Frida Escobedo.

This article was originally published in Domus 963 / November 2012

Dissimulation is an activity very much like that of actors in the theatre, but the true actor surrenders himself to the role he is playing and embodies it fully, even though he sloughs it off again, like a snake its skin, when the final curtain comes down.
—Octavio Paz, "Máscaras mexicanas", in El laberinto de la soledad [1]

At first glance, the recently inaugurated La Tallera Siqueiros Museum , designed by Mexico City-based architect Frida Escobedo in Cuernavaca, Mexico, seems like a tribute to the country's past. The raw, pyramid-patterned concrete-block screen facade that masks its interior could be read as a salute to the distinct language of government-funded Mexican modernism — an architectural style that is deeply rooted in the country's collective imaginary. It could come across as a safe intervention meant to reiterate the ideals of the country's revolutionary past through its apparent "Mexican design". In other words, Frida Escobedo's La Tallera Siqueiros could be interpreted as a building that nostalgically clings to the country's history.

But there is something much more complex behind the building's "contextual" veil. What the new Tallera Siqueiros really represents is a transitional period in the production of contemporary Mexican culture; a new working strategy that is representative of a new generation of practitioners who disguise themselves in an attempt to radically break out of a legacy that no longer represents them.
The two murals by
Siqueiros, together with a
third, were originally situated
in the courtyard of his atelier/
home. Escobedo turned the
court into a square
The two murals by Siqueiros, together with a third, were originally situated in the courtyard of his atelier/ home. Escobedo turned the court into a square
"We look at our past to move forward," said Consuelo Sáizar, the spearhead of Mexico's cultural government branch, during a press conference that announced the outgoing administration's accomplishments in the matter of culture. And while her statement might be wholehearted, when addressing state-funded culture in Mexico, things just don't seem to move forward. On the contrary, there is something about Mexico's complex cultural landscape that cannot move beyond the memory of its thriving golden years of artistic vanguard. The retrospective agenda generally adhered to by the government might be one of the reasons for this condition. Another might be the bureaucratic circus that surrounds Mexico's contemporary politics. In a country where culture is primarily state-funded, the result tends to represent the government's idea of art, rather than a genuinely progressive approach to it.
La Tallera Siqueiros aims to recover
the cultural role of the legendary site, which during the late 1960s
and early 1970s was home to the late Mexican muralist and political activist
David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), by turning it into an active
“museum, workshop, artist residency and meeting point for the
production and criticism of art”
La Tallera Siqueiros aims to recover the cultural role of the legendary site, which during the late 1960s and early 1970s was home to the late Mexican muralist and political activist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), by turning it into an active “museum, workshop, artist residency and meeting point for the production and criticism of art”
During that same press conference, Sáizar went on to list the many cultural projects that have been inaugurated during the current administration. Among them is the rehabilitation project of La Tallera Siqueiros, the live-work space during the late 1960s and early 1970s of the late Mexican muralist and political activist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). This project aims to recover the cultural role of the legendary site by turning it into an active "museum, workshop, artist residency and meeting point for the production and criticism of art"[2] . Within this context, Escobedo's successful design for the new Tallera responds to the government's retrospective agenda, while also providing a space devoid of the stigmas of a government-funded project.
La Tallera Siqueiros Museum masks itself as modern to become contemporary
The concrete pattern that
envelops the main structure
creates an uncertain border
between interior and exterior
The concrete pattern that envelops the main structure creates an uncertain border between interior and exterior
Siqueiros, one of the founders of the Mexican muralist movement , was no stranger to dealing with this condition. A radical revolutionary throughout his life, he often faced charges for his overtly outspoken left-leaning political messages. Escobedo's message, on the other hand, portrays the audacity of a theatre actor — one who disguises himself only momentarily to portray a character. The new Tallera showcases a masterful sociopolitical and architectural juggle; a well-played act that carefully exhibits a need to look inward, only to provide a genuinely autonomous space for reinvention from within. It masks itself as modern to become contemporary.
Besides providing a visual
link to the square, the
murals mark the volume
that houses the cafeteria on
the right and, on the left, the
archives and library block
Besides providing a visual link to the square, the murals mark the volume that houses the cafeteria on the right and, on the left, the archives and library block
Within its shell, La Tallera's building programme incorporates an artistic and research residency space in Siqueiros's former house, as well as a small archive space where his work will be preserved and made available for research. The most "outspoken" element in the "subtle" proposal is the astute decision to reconfigure the two gigantic Siqueiros murals — which were originally displayed and viewed in full from the building's indoor patio, giving only glimpses of its colourful angular strokes from the street — and position them to face outwards towards a neighbouring public square [3] . To do so, Escobedo took down a perimetral wall, making the private patio public and extending the square's dimensions. The angular direction they now have is a public invitation to access La Tallera. Rather than having private outdoor events, the new design allows for the possibility of public outdoor activities with a much wider area for public gathering.
A geometric concrete
grid composed of triangles
clads parts of the museum,
the initial core of which was
built in 1965 by Siqueiros.
As he once said, La Tallera
Siqueiros is “an idea that
Diego Rivera and I had in the
1920s: a workshop in which to
practise and teach everybody
the technique of murals”
A geometric concrete grid composed of triangles clads parts of the museum, the initial core of which was built in 1965 by Siqueiros. As he once said, La Tallera Siqueiros is “an idea that Diego Rivera and I had in the 1920s: a workshop in which to practise and teach everybody the technique of murals”
Through its use of rudimentary materials, Escobedo's Tallera appears contextual and inviting to the modernist-trained local audience. By leaving the skeleton of the existing building — which encompasses the main exhibition venue — in white, and using only exposed concrete for the new part, the project shows the remnants of the old workshop, which serve as a visual reference to the added space. Moreover, the project recuperates Siqueiros's innovative mural-making technology — comprised of a pit and pulley system — not to celebrate it as a museum piece, but to offer it for use today.
Frida Escobedo uses
materials and colours to
identify the different parts of
the museum: the pre-existing
structure, with the main
exhibition gallery, is painted
white, while the added parts
are in bare concrete
Frida Escobedo uses materials and colours to identify the different parts of the museum: the pre-existing structure, with the main exhibition gallery, is painted white, while the added parts are in bare concrete
In a country that is haunted by the unrealised ideals of its modernist past, where revolutionary messages tend to be co-opted by political parties, the new cultural producers must be able to disguise themselves and cope with this condition to a point that seems almost conservative. As Octavio Paz says in his incisive essay "Mexican Masks": "Dissimulation requires greater subtlety: the person who dissimulates is not counterfeiting but attempting to become invisible, to pass unnoticed without renouncing his individuality" [1] . This is not an easy task, but Frida Escobedo's new, masked Tallera Siqueiros provides a framework for an autonomous laboratory where experiments to articulate the voice of a new generation of cultural producers can take place. José Esparza Chong Cuy, curator and writer (@JoseEsparza)
The original support of the
murals, which the architects
reversed to create an access
through the square
The original support of the murals, which the architects reversed to create an access through the square
Notes:
1. Octavio Paz, "Mexican Masks", in The Labyrinth of Solitude , Grove Press, New York 1985
2. According to the Sistema de Información Cultural's website
3. There were originally three large-scale murals — one of which faced the square — but only two of them were made available for use in the proposal due to lack of funds to restore the third

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