The labyrinthine San Jerónimo home of Ernesto Gómez Gallardo Argüelles is a study in Mexican modernism – and a treasure trove of the polymath’s many designs.
A bell jar sits on the study table. Inside it, a crucifix and a gilded metal rose. Around it are piles of sketches, poems, blueprints, cartoons and letters. The shelves beyond creak under the weight of encyclopaedias, stories by Jorge Luis Borges and decades-old issues of National Geographic, their spines faded to pale yellow. The mementos tell of an eclectic man. An architect by training, Ernesto Gómez Gallardo Argüelles never confined himself to architecture alone. He was a prodigious industrial designer and draughtsman; he was also a poet, fond of haikus, and a painter, whose pictures adorn the dining room and recall the Italian futurist Carlo Carrà.
In the 1970s the hills of San Jerónimo on the outskirts of Mexico City were dotted with conservative country houses. So it must have been a shock to the residents when Gallardo, breaking with the local style, brought to life his concrete home on Calle Pino. But this territory in the southwest of the capital is now synonymous with the avant-garde of the time.
Starting in the 1940s, the nearby neighbourhood of El Pedregal, formerly a barren lava field, became a playground for the city’s architectural pioneers, among them the godfather of Mexican modernism, Luis Barragán. It was only natural that a visionary like Gallardo, a few decades later, should pick a spot on the hills next to El Pedregal to forge his own creation.
Although the architect passed away in 2012, his wife Guadalupe Latapí Sarre continues to live in the house. It remains the gathering point for their 10 children and countless grandchildren; last Christmas it welcomed some 85 members of the Gallardo clan. Carlos H Matos, himself an architect and bearing a striking resemblance to his grandfather, vividly recalls growing up in this spaceship of a home, made of a mixture of concrete and clay aggregate.
“My grandfather’s style was very sculptural,” he says. “As a kid this place felt like a maze, one that you didn’t understand, with all sorts of hidden doorways and staircases. But it created a unique environment that made family gatherings very special.”Gallardo was fascinated by mathematics, which becomes apparent when standing on the roof of the house. Its shape is a simplified version of the Möbius strip (a geometrical form discovered by German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius in 1858) and resembles an infinity loop.
The roof rises up and doubles back in on itself in a puzzling structure that gives the house a labyrinthine quality. Its underside features triangular hollows – a style in touch with Mexican modernism and an inspiration for the country’s architects today – which reduces the quantity of concrete without detracting from its structural integrity. And this pattern is omnipresent in the house, like an architectural signature, swooping overhead wherever one goes; its cave-like aesthetic creates a subterranean environment.
In 1951, seven years after qualifying as an architect, Gallardo was commissioned to design the new law school building for the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (unam) – a long concrete structure that became a Unesco World Heritage site in 2007 along with the rest of the campus, which includes the quixotic library building by Juan O’Gorman.
While the project secured his reputation as an architect, Gallardo dedicated a significant part of his career to industrial design. Pupils who studied under him during his 30-year-plus professorship at unam’s school of architecture recall how he used furniture, spoons and bicycles to explain form and function.
Back at the house, in the workshop below the study you find his furniture. There’s the 1951 tablet-writing chair for UNAM’s lecture halls, featuring an adjoining writing surface. On the shelf above is a model of his wooden table-bench, once ubiquitous in classrooms across the country and winner of the silver medal at the 1963 Milan Triennale. His most recognisable design is the Pinieta (“comb”) bench; it’s been a permanent fixture in the capital’s Alameda Central park since 1986 and the original sits outside the entrance to the house.
The workshop is replete with paint, tools and scraps of wood. The computers in the corner are decades old; Gallardo preferred to sketch by hand and rarely turned to digital help. Opening a drawer beneath a workbench, grandson Matos finds an empty envelope from France. “It probably contained the outcome of the Pompidou competition,” he says, pointing to the milieu of architectural mock-ups nearby. Gallardo had an insatiable thirst for entering ambitious competitions. His 1971 model for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, again framed on the Möbius strip, came close to winning and is still exhibited at the complex, the commission for which went to a team including Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. “Even two weeks before his death he was entering competitions,” says Matos, fondly adding how impressed he was that a nonagenarian with limited computer skills could find out about the contests in the first place.
Moving to the upstairs living room, Matos leans on one of his grandfather’s tables, the single-legged HemisFair 68 chair, one of the many pieces in the house designed by Gallardo himself, along with the wooden bookshelves and sofas. He crosses the parquet floor, as the afternoon sun floods through the ceiling-high windows, and grabs a weighty brass model of an altar. In 1998 the elderly, life-long Catholic Gallardo won a competition to design the altar of the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, a fitting culmination for his two passions: design and religion. It still stands there today, a triangular figure of brass weighing over a tonne. It’s in stark juxtaposition to the cathedral’s Baroque style – much like Gallardo’s own home, where a weeping effigy of the Virgin Mary looks over modernist furniture.
1951 UNAM law school, together with Alonso Mariscal Abascal
1955 ‘Brussels’ chair for the 1958 Brussels World Fair
1964 Mexico Pavilion at the 1964 New York World Fair
1972 Furniture for Mexican embassies in Washington and Tokyo
1998 Altar for the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
1917 Born in Mexico City
1944 Graduates from Escuela Nacional de Arquitectura de San Carlos
1953 Becomes the director of the Tec de Monterrey, one of Mexico’s first architectural schools
1959-91 Holds various top positions at UNAM
2012 Dies in Mexico City