Telling a story with architecture. The houses of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Commenting on his work, Juan O‘Gorman, author of the house-atelier of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in San Angel in Mexico City, said that “the house caused quite a stir because until then no construction whose form was completely determined by its function had ever been seen in Mexico”. That he faithfully conformed to the principles of functionalist architecture – form follows function – is something the Mexican architect declared publicly on several occasions; he asserted that “architecture meets the needs of the moment with the adequate technology and the greatest possible economy”. A “rationalist” approach which came natural to an architect who had studied in the Twenties – the years when Le Corbusier‘s “Vers une Architecture” was published in Mexico – and this approach was, according to Diego Rivera, sign of a true artistic vein, and convinced him to entrust the design of the house-atelier he was building for himself and Frida to the young architect, because “something realized strictly on functional criteria is a work of art”. Yet today, when the time and lives of various personalities have written the fascinating and complex plot of one of the most important periods of recent Mexican history, we may safely assert that the architecture built by O‘Gorman went beyond its own premises, and in other words that the author has not merely designed the “form of the function”, direct expression of the new technologies and their correct application, and that the construction has become the form of the content, extreme synthesis between significance and signifier. In fact, the house of Diego and Frida is not a mere representation of the domestic and artistic function of the couple. It is also the story and the material expression of their lives, their union and their love. A result which goes beyond the declared intentions of the architect, but which is not alien to the sensibility and profundity with which he was able to meet, at only 26 and with the experience of just one built architecture behind him, the demands of two of the greatest artists in his country.
O‘Gorman was conscious of the magnitude of his task from the start; indeed, he publicly defined Rivera as the man who “knew how to teach Mexicans what Mexico is”. In spite of this, to design his residence, he did not envisage something “traditional and vernacular”; rather, he interpreted the principles of rational architecture, taking them to extremes, going beyond the technological solutions adopted by Le Corbusier for the Ozenfant house ten years earlier– a artist‘s home which was the natural reference for the young Mexican architect – but introducing, in a way that was as original as it was revolutionary, elements typical of that autochthonous culture, of that popular spirit interpreted by the great painter in his works.
The house erected on a plot on the corner between Calle de Palmas and Avenida Altavista, designed in 1931 and completed the following year, is really two united house-ateliers, a larger and more imposing one for Diego, 21 years older than Frida and massive and imposing in build, and a smaller, one could almost say minute and fragile one, reflecting the nature of Frida. Only a bridge unites them, on roof level: the connection is clearly more symbolic than functional. Diego‘s double-height atelier only opens to the north, where the right illumination for a painter‘s atelier comes through an enormous glazed wall facing the rear of the plot, far from the street and the confusion. Frida‘s workspace, on the contrary, has windows on three sides; the light enters at any hour of the day, and one can look out from the atelier. The privacy and the intensity of the light can be regulated by means of curtains, hung along the entire perimeter. The differences between the two parts of the house are evident; even the stairs, while adopting the languages and stylistic solutions of the Modern Movement, confirm this contrast: one is inspired by solidity, the other by lightness, almost suggesting an inconsistent and unpredictable itinerary. Just like the lives of the two protagonists: one direct, volitional, without deviations, and the other constantly broken by pain,
by accidents, by illness. The bridge is a poetic accentuation of two lives that must be separated and independent in order to be united. The bridge is not a direct connection, it is a complex itinerary, and crossing it is no impulsive matter: one must climb external stairs all the way to the terrace, cross from one building to the other without any protection from sun or weather, to finally reach, after slowly descending, the places where the other spends his or her life. In other aspects the purist language and the stereometric and austere forms are well suited to accommodate the works of the couple, with their intense colours and real and mythic figures, the traditional objects and the keepsakes from their travels, to the point that the architect, departing from the dictates of the “international style”, has chosen not to use white as the predominant colour, preferring red and blue, typical of the Mexican vernacular tradition. Moreover, as compared to technical solutions that are essential to the point of verging on “brutalism” – electric wire and plumbing systems left in view, external water tanks and gutters – O‘Gorman has surrounded the plot by a fence of cactuses, creating a clear contrast between the house, understood as a “machine for living” and the urban space from which it is separated by a domesticated and reused “local nature”.
The house was also the stage of the painful separation between the two artists. Frida discovered that her sister and Diego were having an affair and left San Angel for ever. This happened in 1934, and not until 1940, after having obtained a divorce, did the couple remarry. As of 1941, the year when Frida‘s father died, they went to live in the house where Frida had been born, the Blue house in Coyoacán. Casa Azul is a traditional Mexico City style house, built in 1904 by Guillermo Kahlo and slowly transformed over the years to meet the needs of the family.
When Frida returned to Coyoacán in order to remain there for good, Diego, once again her husband, changed the original plan, determined to once more ideate a design which met the practical needs of a couple who respected their personal needs for autonomy, and to express, through the house, the interests they shared, their passion for art, archaeology and the traditional culture. The house is decorated with elements belonging to the popular culture, a new space has been created for Frieda‘s atelier and an independent bedroom, built with structures of volcanic stone from Pedregal, which has been left in view. The garden has been enriched with fountain, a small terraced pyramid for the display of pre-Columbian idols and a room for keeping archaeological finds.
The two houses therefore both bear witness to affective ties and life choices rather than practical requirements. The language, in both of them, is not the “style” but a way to tell a story, the story of the life of the two artists, the stormy adventure of a love set against a background of epochal changes, among personalities and artists who have made history - Trotsky, Breton, Gershwin, Eisenstein -, and works of art that still bear witness to social commitment, political passion, faith in art. Frida died between the colourful walls of her paternal home in 1954. Three years later Diego Rivera, before dying, donated Casa Azul to the Mexican nation, which has transformed it into a permanent museum dedicated to Frida Kahlo.
Paolo Giardiello, (Naples, 1961), architect, graduated in 1987, then obtained a PhD in Furnishing and Interior Design. From 1999 to 2002 he was a contract professor of Interior Architecture at the "Federico II" University of Naples. Since 2001 he is also associate professor of Interior Architecture at the “Federico II” University of Naples. He engages in research and has published a number of books and essays in Italy and abroad. Among the most recent: Architettura contemporanea in Brasile, 2006; EMBT 1997/2007 10 anni di architetture Miralles Tagliabue, 2008; Smallness. Abitare al minimo, 2009.