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17 January 2018

Restoring the past: The Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Home Studio

Alan Rojas Orzechowski, deputy director Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, Mexico City

The Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Home Studio Museum is located in southern Mexico City, in the San Angel district, a historical section renowned for its colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets. The area has a long-standing bourgeois tradition for summer villas in Beaux Arts, neocolonial and picturesque styles, so it may come as a shock for some to discover a hidden gem: the first functionalist house to ever been built in Mexico, by architect Juan O´Gorman (1905-1982).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1906, the lands comprising the hacienda Goicoechea -currently a popular restaurant- were sold and fractioned by the San Angel Land Co., which began the creation of the Altavista residential neighborhood. The homestead was then turned into a hotel, the San Angel Inn. Due to its popularity in the 1920´s, the area was best known as San Angel Inn.

In 1929, young architect Juan O´Gorman purchased two lots that functioned as the hotel´s tennis courts, where he explored the possibility of a new architecture by building a model house in the lower plot. Although he sustained it was created for his father, painter Cecil Crawford O´Gorman, it’s more likely he constructed the site as a showcase for his new architectural proposals.

Self portrait (Autorretrato múltiple), oil on canvas, Museo de Arte Moderno, INBA, Juan O‘Gorman, 1950.

He was well acquainted with the architectural innovations of European avant-garde architects, particularly, functionalist architect Le Corbusier. O´Gorman followed this paradigm with the usage of pilotis, steel and glass, being the study on the upstairs floor a remarkable example; a concrete helicoidal staircase which required a mastered use of geometry and technique, as well as piping and electrical exposed installations as part of an expressive architectural language. The innovation was present by retrieving Mexican folk-art elements as the exposed clay paneled ceilings, saturated colours in exterior walls and a cacti fence, enhancing the nationalist cosmopolitanism which ruled the post-revolutionary epoch.

The 1929 Cecil Crawford O´Gorman, fundamental part of the museum.

The construction was completed in 1931, when he showed the finalized dwelling to lifelong friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Rivera a communist as well, respected Juan O´Gorman’s views on working-class housing and the concept of socialized architecture, consequently the edifice aesthetics fascinated him. We are currently aware the he intended to use this construction as a prototype for low-income families, although the project never occurred.

Preliminary Project for Working Class Housing in Mexico City (Anteproyecto de habitaciones obreras en el D.F.), Juan O´Gorman, 1929.

Consequently, the muralist Rivera commissioned O´Gorman to build his residence in the upper plot, at the intersection of Altavista Avenue and Palmas Street. He requested the building must contain both, living quarters and a large working space.
The result was a compound of three buildings; a main working space, a residential construction known as Frida Kahlo´s house, and a photographic laboratory for Kahlo´s father, Guillermo Kahlo completed in 1932 when the couple were still living in the States. It boasted two entrances, one on Altavista Avenue facing the living quarters, and the other on Palmas Street which leads directly to Rivera´s atelier.

Frida Kahlo´s house (Casa para Frida Kahlo), Juan O´Gorman, 1931.

Diego Rivera´s home and studio (Casa y estudio del pintor Diego Rivera), Juan O´Gorman, 1931.

Following Le Corbusier´s functionalist postulates, the ground floor is freed from walls functioning as a foyer and the upper floors are suspended over pilotis. A cacti fence encloses the plot allowing complete visualization to the Cecil O´Gorman house emphasizing its architectural harmony. Once again, Juan O´Gorman drew inspiration from another Le Corbusier creation, the 1922 home studio of French painter Amédée Ozenfant. Featuring industrial elements as the saw roof, a double external concrete spiral staircase, and exposed electrical and piping, O´Gorman´s creation is far more complex than the Ozenfant atelier.

The living quarters occupy a rather modest structure where the open plan ground floor is interrupted by the service lodgings and a semi-circular staircase visible from the street, which serves as the main access. Novelties were introduced in the form of an outer cantilever staircase leading to the roof terrace with a tubular rail, and the bright red exposed drainage and piping. Both structures, atelier and house, were joint by a concrete bridge.

Diego Rivera resided here from 1934 until his death in 1957. Frida Kahlo´s residency periods varied and were intermittent, preferring to stay at her paternal house in Coyoacan. After Rivera’s passing, his daughters inherited the structures and severely modified the compound.

Rivera´s eldest daughter received the living quarters and subdivided the plot, demolishing the concrete bridge. All the while, his younger offspring Ruth, a respected architect herself, remained at the atelier´s structure. During this period, it was drastically altered to transform the space into a residential dwelling. The open plan ground floor was encased with steel and glazed windows resembling the original design, an entire wing was added to contain a kitchen, main bedroom, and bathroom. Also, a volcanic stone wall replaced the cacti fence.

Views of the museum, prior to the 1997 restoration. Unidentified photographer.

After Ruth deceased, painter and husband Rafael Coronel purchased the adjacent plot from her sister in law and combined them both, recreating the original proportions. He sold the modified compound to the National Institute of Fine Arts in 1981 with the intention of creating a museum dedicated to Diego Rivera, a plan long thought by the artist´s daughter, Ruth Rivera.

After some years of cataloguing documents, private correspondence and photographs, the place opened as the Diego Rivera Museum on December 1986. Although, only the atelier structure was open to visitors, since the living quarters remained first, as a private residence and then as documentation and research facility.

Exterior and interior of the first museum site, ca. 1990. Unidentified photographer.

In 1995, the National Institute of Fine Arts decided to temporarily close the museum for a long-term restoration to return the structures to the original 1930´s floor plans. This required the aid of several architects, scholars, and restorers. Architect Victor Jimenez, who still is a major expert on Juan O´Gorman, lead the team of the two-year restoration plan. They began by demolishing every addition done after the original scheme, freeing the ground floors from the encased glasses and retrieving the original pilotis, while strengthen them with steel rods and concrete. They also demolished a second floor added to Guillermo Kahlo´s photographic studio when it housed the research center. After two years of intense work, research, authentic reconstruction, and restoration when possible, the museum reopened its doors in 1997 and a year later was designated a National Landmark.

Different views of the 1995-1997 restoration process. Unidentified photographer.

In 2011, The National Institute of Fine Arts was presented with the opportunity of acquiring the original 1929 Cecil Crawford house. Once again, a long-term restoration scheme was programmed to recover what was left of the original structure. This house too was relentlessly reformed from its original floorplans by adding an entire wing and the demolition of the helicoidal external staircase. One of the restoration´s accomplishments was to uncover the sinopia -or outlines- of an existing ground floor mural made by Juan O´Gorman in 1948, which he withdrew of the property in the late 1960´s.

As sequence of the permanent preservation program, in 2015 and 2016 the compound underwent extensive maintenance and repainting, fulfilling our duty as keepers of one of the most important milestones of Mexican architecture.

View from Altavista Avenue, ca. 2000. Unidentified photographer.

Publication date 17 January 2018