Saturday, October 26, 2013

Heavy Industry, Light Art

During my previous Mexican jaunt I had spent quite a bit of time among the northern, colonial mining towns such as Zacatecas, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. I had, however, missed out the largest of them all: Queretaro. I have no idea why I didn't go there the first time, but was glad as it gave me a point to visit on my way north as well as an opportunity to revisit the region with older, more understanding eyes (I'm a little mortified when I read what 23 year-old me was writing about the place). It also allowed me to meet some local people, and here I was really lucky to stumble upon Clara and Mario, a wonderful young couple who not only showed me the town, but also its varied culinary delights; the dry, semi-arid landscape of the central highlands; family life; and even the less picturesque, but deeply atmospheric, legacies of the mining history that can be seen in the ghost towns that dot the region.

The abandoned smelting furnaces of Pozos, one of the many ghost towns left over from the mining boom in Central Mexico.

There was a definite change when heading north out of Mexico City. The roads are wider and better-maintained than in the south; malls and supermarkets become a common fixture of the urban landscape; and things are generally neater and tidier. Queretaro is home to large industrial estates of factories both large and small, heavy and light, including a sprawling Samsung complex that supplies much of the Americas with smartphones and laptops. The industrial theme continued ever more strongly the further north I went until I reached Monterrey.

The "Sultana of the North" feels like a whole different country. Cowboy hats are common (as I was soon to find out, more so than even in Texas), trucks are bigger, and people walk with a swagger. The city has a strong independent streak and its inhabitants cultivate a distinct identity from the capital. Although just as welcoming as other Mexicans, they take pride in being hard workers and entrepreneurs. For long a bit of a backwater and playing not just second fiddle, but more like ninth or tenth, to the urban centres to the south, that all changed with its rapid industrialisation beginning in the late eighteen hundreds. The centrepiece of its importance was the Fundidora steel mill that drew further factories like a magnet and the city hasn't looked back since. Its affluent confidence is evident in the heart of downtown where a dozen city blocks were razed in the 80's to create what is today the fifth-largest urban square in the world. And although its steel industry died in the mid 80's, like many post-industrial cities it has converted its erstwhile heavy industry park into a gentrified leisure area, complete with boating pond, sculpture gardens, ice-skating rink, art galleries, free bicycle rental, concert hall and, most fun of all, a science museum in an old foundry.

Horno3, one of the old steel foundries in the Parque Fundidora, that has now been converted into a hands-on science museum.

However Monterrey and Queretaro were bookends, albeit pleasant ones, to the highlight of my north Mexico trip. I have seen untold colonial towns, historical museums, mountain landscapes, big cities, churches, mosques, rainforests and tropical islands. I still enjoy seeing the variety and local history of each and every place I visit, but I particularly treasure places that are unique and one-of-a-kind in the world. It just so happens that there is such a place some 250km northeast of Queretaro on the gulf side of the Sierra Madre by the small, mountain town of Xilitla. A pretty unremarkable place, yet the slopes behind town are home to one of the greatest syntheses of art and architecture of the 20th century.

A peek through a doorway into the weird world of Edward James.

Edward James was born in Britain, the only son and heir of a sizeable fortune. As with many who were born into money in Britain, he went to the best schools and universities (Eton followed by Oxford) on a well-trodden path to a life of comfort, indolence and venal pleasures. Along the way though he met the likes of Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman and was drawn to the world of the arts and arts patronage. In the 30's he became a major patron of surrealist artists, especially Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. With the coming of WWII he moved to America and after a holiday in Mexico decided to create his very own "Garden of Eden" according to his particular surrealist tastes. And thus was born the incredible estate at Las Pozas. Here the only thing limiting the fantastical buildings and sculptures of the complex, which climbs a jungle-clad hillside gushing with fast-flowing streams, was James's overactive imagination. Pavilions combine elements of Gothic, Art Nouveau, Escheresque constructions and organic shapes mimicking James's beloved orchids. Fantastical pavilion after pavilion is hidden away amongst the thick jungle foliage, at times seemingly part of the forest. A walk through the labyrinthine maze of winding pathways is like a journey through the rabbit hole to a very peculiar reality indeed. It's safe to say that there is nowhere in the world like Las Pozas and probably never will be, as the combination of personal eccentricity, financial independence, and artistic flair required to create such an oeuvre is rare indeed. It's hard to imagine then that such a wonder was almost lost after the death of James in the 80's, and the estate was largely neglected. Recently, however, its worth has been recognised and there is a concerted effort to save and restore the site to its oddball, surrealist glory; a testament to one man's dedication to his chosen art.

The fantastical constructions at Las Pozas, fruit of James's fecund imagination, are among the most intriguing displays of architectural whimsy in the world.

No comments: