Integrating Art and Ideology: Murals and Modernist Architecture in Mexico City

Site plan, Ciudad Universitaria. The Library is located on the northwest corner of the open, rectangular green space known as “Las Islas.”

Most visitors to Mexico City gain their first, and perhaps last, insight into the close relationship between art and politics from the murals of Diego Rivera. Located inside the former Secretariat of Education, a neo-colonial building on the capital’s grand central plaza, the murals date to the 1920s, a period of political consolidation after the 1910 Revolution. Rivera’s work is indeed, important evidence of the ways artists have shaped the narrative of Mexican history.

Sacrificios-humanos- C morado
Sacrificios humanos Chavez Morado

But Rivera and the other great muralists were active well beyond the 1920s—state sponsorship of the muralists actually peaked after WWII. During the post-war period, muralists worked with modernist architects to produce another distinctive and highly controversial practice.[1] Integración plástica is the use (or “integration,” hence the awkward English translation “plastic integration”) of art and sculpture in architecture. In the decades after WWII in Mexico, during a period of sustained economic growth and rapid urbanization in the capital, it became something of an official architectural style of the federal government, leveraging the symbolism of muralism to promote a narrative of development.

mural and ip
Sculptural Relief “Medicine in the History of Mexico” by José Chávez Morado and “The History of Medicine in Mexico” by Diego Rivera

Lauded by some as the truest expression of Mexican modernism, integración plástica was criticized by others as contrived, didactic, and even absurd. The architect Max Cetto once compared the “ludicrous” combination of murals and modernist architecture to “feather head-dresses on the heads of businessmen in city clothes.”[2]

The Mexican government had been an important patron of modernist architecture since the 1930s, from functionalist schools in rural towns to headquarters of new government agencies along the grand boulevard of the capital, hospitals, and even some low-cost housing. These buildings were concrete symbols of the post-revolutionary state and its commitment to the basic promises of the revolution, such as delivering primary education, health care, and housing to the masses. By the 1950s, however, the federal government’s architectural and planning efforts became loftier and more ambitious, as did its promises to citizens. Grand plans replaced individual buildings, and the scale of state intervention in the built environment grew exponentially. Yet this expansion of scale was accompanied by a narrowing of political scope, and architectural modernism turned from a radical vision for change into a prosaic tool of development. This shift towards a greater focus on economic development, epitomized by the so-called “businessman president” Miguel Alemán (1946-1952), was reflected not only in overall economic policies, but also in specific building programs.

Chávez Morado at CM

At first glance, integración plástica seems almost too perfect as a metaphor for this post-WWII agenda. And, even today scholars and critics echo Cetto’s critique, noting the limited formal success of this practice. But if anything, integración plástica accurately reflects the tension between radical pretensions and developmentalist goals, the first mostly confined to figuration in two dimensions, the latter unfolding in three-dimensional space, a tension that reveals the contradictions of a political paradigm in its relationship to the urban built environment.[3]

The Central Library at the National University and the Centro Médico Nacional la Raza are two of Mexico City’s major sites of integración plástica. Both projects helped shape the capital’s urban development and the national political imaginary. They were part of a larger endeavor that combined institution building with urban planning; two modes that were far more complementary than the image of the feather headdress on the business man would suggest.

Ciudad University

The Ciudad Universitaria and the Central Library

The Ciudad Universitaria (University City, or CU), inaugurated in 1952, was the most comprehensive planning endeavor and largest construction project in modern Mexico. A vast collaboration among leading architects and artists, it was a showcase for the government of Miguel Alemán and the commitment to training professionals with the technical skill and academic preparation to carry out the promise of a fully industrialized Mexico. Its exterior murals and extensive sculptural programs symbolized a commitment to the radical goals of the revolution, but simultaneously projected the goals of modernization and development. The CU probably has more examples of integración plástica than any other site in the world, including one of the most widely regarded, the University Library, designed by Juan O’Gorman, Gustavo M. Saavedra, and Juan Martínez de Velasco, with murals by O’Gorman.

library before
The Library before ….

The Library rests on a base of local volcanic stone that includes a large-scale sculptural program based on Mexica (Aztec) and Maya cosmology. Architecturally, the building emphasizes the relationship between surface and interior, content and mass. Sitting atop two stories of reading rooms supported by ground-level pilotis, the imposing structure is entirely covered in an intricate mural that depicts what O’Gorman referred to as “A Historical Representation of Culture.” The mosaic mural, composed of stones that O’Gorman collected from across Mexico, occupies the entire surface of the building. It is intricate and complex, but focuses, like the building itself on dualities: life/death, history/future, Mesoamerica/Spain. Resembling the Codices of the early colonial period, the surface of the library purports to be a pictorial narrative that illustrates a framework for understanding the world of Mexico, both in great detail and as a cohesive entity. Like most of the art work on the campus, it directly addresses both history and the potential of the future, as tied to the institution it adorns. The history of Mexico, the mural suggests, should be learned at the CU and from the collection of knowledge within the four walls, a proposal that links progress (through education) to the former greatness of Mexico.

… and after


The IMSS and Centro Médico Nacional la Raza

While the CU is considered the best example of integración plástica, the government agency most closely associated with the practice is the IMSS, Mexico’s Social Security Agency, the leading provider of medical services. From the agency’s founding in 1943 it embarked on two decades of what architectural historian Rodolfo Santa María González calls “a heroic era of hospital building.”[4] This culminated with the Centro Médico Nacional La Raza, designed by Enrique Yáñez, completed in 1961. The complex includes various hospitals, centers of education and research, as well as a cultural center and an auditorium. Hailed as a state-of-the-art medical facility, the complex draws on architecture to emphasize the future, art to connect to the past.

main building
The Main building

The site contains murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Chávez Morado and sculptural works by Federico Cantú and Francisco Zúñiga. The main building combines the rectilinear lines of the international style with a sculpted covered portico designed by the artist Federico Cantú, the artist whose original sculpture became the logo for the agency. The artwork monumentalizes medical service in the context of the legacy of pre-Hispanic cosmology and the historical experience of Mexico, from the colonial period to the revolution. Among the canonical noble peasants, colonial priests, and pre-conquest leaders are doctors and healers. Like the library, the artistic program at Centro Médico tells a story of development and of progress, rooted in history: a narrative that embraces the past but emphasizes the future potential of Mexico.

Much less known than the murals of the 1920s, these examples of art and architecture demonstrate the ongoing engagement of the government with the urban built environment. However limited their aesthetic, they are fascinating examples of material and symbolic interventions that reflect an ambitious and complex moment in the history of Mexico City after WWII.

IMSS Neurologists at Centro Médico, 1970.

Sarah Selvidge received her PhD in history from the University of California Berkeley in 2015. She currently now lectures on Latin American history at Berkeley and Stanford. She is currently at work on a book examining housing, architecture, and urbanism in Mexico City. 

[1] Though they have since been incorporated into the canon of Mexican official culture, the murals were very controversial in their day. On this transformation, see Mary K. Coffey, How a Revolutionary Art became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

[2] Cetto, Max, Modern Architecture in Mexico. New York: Praeger, 1961, page 29.

[3] While free-standing and relief sculpture were a part of integración plástica, it was primarily used as surface decoration.

[4] Rodolfo Santa María González, “Arquitectura para la salud integral: La Obra del IMSS, 1958-1964” in Enrique Ayala Alonso, Marco Tulio Peraza Guzmán, Lourdes Cruz González Franco, eds. Segunda modernidad urbano arquitectónica: proyectos y obras. México: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana 2014, 215.

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