The New York Times

February 19, 1995, The New York Times

Where the Mexican Arts May Feel Right at Home

New cultural center celebrates national heritage

MEXICO CITY – Ricardo Legorreta, the Mexican architect who is gaining prominence on both sides of the Rio Grande, was once commissioned by a compatriot to design a house in Los Angeles that proved “Mexico is not the country of siesta or burros and manana.” An innovative champion of native materials, forms and colors, he has likened his architecture to a fervent cry of “Viva Mexico! Viva los Mexicanos!”

Thus Mr. Legorreta was a fitting choice to draw up the master plan and main buildings of Mexico’s new National Center of the Arts, a 35-acre, $105 million complex in the nation’s captial. It is one of the country’s most ambitious architectural undertakings since its modernist national university campus drew international acclaim in the 1950’s.

The center comprises separate facilities for the elite national schools of fine arts, music, film, drama and dance as well as a library, a multimedia center, a theater and a concert hall. The complex will be used by more than 1,300 students. Six other architects were involved in the project, which was officially opened in November by the departing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Some Mexican artists have criticized the project, saying the money could have been better spent on pressing social needs. They view the center as part of a Government drive to portray Mexico, falsely, as a full-fledged member of the first world, a status revealed to be illusory after the recent collapse of the peso under Mr. Salinas’s successor, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon. The construction of the project coincided with a desire among many Mexicans to bolster their country’s cultural distinctiveness in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect last year.

Until the peso plunged in December, the elimination of tariffs under Nafta brought a flood of American products and consumer culture here. But the 63-year-old Mr. Legorreta, who has offices in Mexico City and Los Angeles, is living testimony that culture can flow in two directions. He could, in fact, be termed Nafta’s architectural dynamo. With his services in increasing demand north and south of the border, he has been steadily exporting a potent blend of Mexican-inspired design to Texas and California for public and private projects.

His most prominent project in the United States is the redesign of Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, completed last year in collaboration with Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin. Featuring a purple campanile and aqueduct, a hot-pink colonnade, a circular pool and a canary-yellow outdoor cafe, the space has brought mixed reviews both because of its sizzling colors and, at least for now, the predominance of hard surfaces over greenery.

Mr. Legorreta’s architecture, which has been strongly influenced by the Mexican master Luis Barragan, whose minimalist geometry derived from indigenous Mexican forms, also draws on the layouts of Mexico’s colonial towns and rural haciendas and its pre-Columbian civilizations.

“Mexico has a tremendous tradition and culture,” Mr. Legoretta, lanky and imposingly tall, said in an interview, “but we are not a rich country in the sense of the economy. So there is always the temptation for us to think we get better if we are like the United States. That, I think, is a mistake. We have to design and build buildings for Mexico. That means taking advantage of natural light, the sense of color, of the way that people live.”

This fashioning of a suitably Mexican architecture arose after Mr. Legorreta’s break some 30 years ago with his former mentor, the country’s leading International Style modernist, Jose Villagran. The alternative vision Mr. Legorreta has since pursued is neither parochial nor retrograde; it is grounded in a particular heritage while open to modernity and humane enough to have great resonance.

His bold palette may be one element that does not always travel well, striking some North Americans as garish. “We Mexicans are practically irresponsible in the use of color” is how Mr. Legorreta puts it. At the arts center, he has again run wild with the paintbrush. The bougainvillea-purple fence surrounding the complex can barely contain the exuberance inside. Masonry walls of lemon, flamingo pink and burnt sienna are set against pavements of black volcanic rock to make a playful mix of performance spaces, studios and courtyards.

A series of concourses, ramps and staircases offer vistas from one school to another. Mr. Legorreta’s vibrant colors contrast with the chiseled white concrete of the conservatory, designed by another esteemed Mexican architect, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, in the form of an arc meant to evoke a musical instrument. The schools of dance and theater, by Luis Vicente Flores and Enrique Norten, respectively, are more modish contemporary assemblages of metal and glass. The theater, by Alfonso Lopez Bas and Javier Calleja, has an undulating facade of creamy white stone, accented by red steel bands and green columns, a scheme inspired by the national flag.

The elongated barrelvault ceiling of Mr. Legorreta’s library and the cruciform plan of his main lecture hall echo those of mission churches, while benches and sills recall ancient Indian millstones. The Islamic legacy brought by Spanish conquistadors to the New World surfaces in aqua tiled domes atop the painting and sculpture studios. Mr. Legorreta integrates the whole, using the signature details like grillwork, recessed lighting patterns and alluring angles that added distinction to his earlier projects, including factories, resort hotels and museums.

He has placed a 14 story futuristic tower painted orange at the center of the site, which is a long, narrow strip wedged between a highway, the Churubusco film studios and a golf course south of the capital’s historic center. The tower acts as the center’s focal point, providing a needed source of orientation for the awkwardly shaped campus.

But its grandiose sculptural form also sets an excessively monumental tone. Some of Mr. Legorreta’s colleagues responded with showcase buildings better suited to a world’s fair than to everyday use as educational institutions. The tower itself, studded with protruding window frames that serve as sun shields, resembles a mammoth cheese grater or perhaps a distended pinata. And, as in the popular party game, some Mexicans are lining up to take a whack at it.

A group of 70 visual artists, musicians and critics signed an open letter when the center opened charging that the center was hastily conceived with too little consideration of students’ practical needs. “There are other priorities,” said Sylvia Navarrete, an art critic who contributes to the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada. “We don’t have the money to make these projects. There are Indians who are starving, and they make these centers. . . . It would have been wiser to improve the artistic education rather than build this kind of showy architecture.”

Roughly 30 percent of the money for the center was given by private donors. Since the project was planned and built in less than two years, there was inevitable corner cutting so Mr. Salinas could inaugurate it before leaving office in December. Mr. Legorreta conceded that time constraints led to shoddy workmanship but said he hoped that some flaws could be corrected when finishing touches are in place.

Despite the imperfections, the complex represents an impressive Government commitment to arts education, and even its critics agree that the creation of a single center will promote fruitful exchanges among disciplines. At the National Center of the Arts, the training ground of tomorrow’s Diego Riveras and Frida Kahlos, Ricardo Legorreta’s watchword of “Viva Mexico!” resounds with new vigor.