Monday, April 2, 2018

Re-Examining The Spanish Colonial Revival

http://www.latimes.com; March 30, 2018


Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a fresh full week on The Blog.  Yours Truly is back and ready to write.  Human Typist is ready to go as well.  The weekend was rather blissful, POTUS tweets, Ted Nugent and Laura Ingram rants aside.  Shall we start?

If you have or had the occasion to travel around Southern California, you notice that the predominant style of architecture, especially residential architecture, is something called Spanish Colonial--really, Colonial Californiano.  Carolina A. Miranda explains what Colonial Californiano is in her Los Angeles Times article "Why so many Mexicans revile the Colonial Californiano architectural hybrid that spread from SoCal," "It is Mexico as filtered by California and then re-appropriated by Mexico in a different guise."

The story of how this particular architectural style came into being is a tale of idea bouncing back and forth between two cultures in the most impossible ways.  It is a story that has left its indelible mark on Mexico City, to this very day, manifesting in apartment buildings and mansion--"neocolonial structures whose immediate design antecedents lie not in Mexico, but, ironically in the United States."

Wendy Kaplan, the head of the decorative arts and design department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, elaborates,

This was a style for the newly rich, aspirational Mexicans who wanted some kind of national expression,... But who also. wanted to show how up-to-date they were.

However, although the Colonial Californiano was wildly popular in its period of signicance in the early 20th century, it was nearly "universally reviled by Mexican scholars and avant-grade architects."  Why was it so detested in Mexico?

Mexico's National Autonomous University architecture professor Cristina Lopez Uribe explains,

They hated it because people thought it was Mexican,... But it was really a copy of the Spanish Revival--which hailed from the United States.

Specifically, California.  Allow Blogger to provide context.

Europeans first set foot in California in the 1530s when Hernando Cortes's men ventured into Baja, California.  It was not until 1542, when the Spanish sailed north to Alta California (present day California) and Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo made landfall farther north, in modern day Santa Barbara.  Over two hundred years elapsed before Spain made a real effort to colonize the coastal region Juan Cabrillo claimed for the monarchy.  The coastal winds and currents made the northern passage even more arduous and Spanish sailors failed to find a safe place to dock their ships.  Thus, Baja, California became the northwest boundary of Sapnish colonization. Nevertheless, efforts to colonize and convert the indigenous population to Christianity was half-hearted, at best.  It was not until the Seven Years War (1756-63) reconfigured European alliance and their imperial ambitions, did Spain seriously attempt to exert control over Alta Calfiornia.  (www.loc.gov; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018)  

This next part is crucial to our post.  The Spanish asserted themselves through a combination of presidios (military forts) and mission churches administered by the Franciscan monks, under the leadership of Junipero Serra.  In 1769, the first group of explorers set out from Baja, and a network of coastal settlements were established by soldiers (at the presidios) and the priests (missions).  By the end of the 18th-century, there were presidios in Monterey, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara and twenty-one missions stretching from San Diego to San Rafael in present day Marin County.  Although small towns (pueblos) sprang up around the missions and presidios, in 1777 an independent civil pueblo was established in San Jose, with other to follow.  The pueblos were governed by an alcalde (part-mayor, part-judge) in conjunction with a council--the ayuntamiento. (Ibid)

What makes it so detested in Mexico?  The answer lies in the Spanish colonization of Mexico (1531-1821).  The Conquista--the destruction of the Aztec Empire--was carried out without official recognition.  With little preparation, Spain found itself ruling over a far away land, more populated and larger than it.  The question was how would it control and convert a land that took many months, by ship?  The Spanish began by renaming the Aztec capital, Tenochititlan, Mexico City, redesignated as the capital of Nueva Espana (New Spain).  Hernando Cortes granted his soldiers encomiendas (land grants) which were extended to entire towns and their Native Mexican population.  The Native Mexicans were presessedinto forced labor, disguised as slavery.  The grant holders were also supposed to convert the indigenous population and look after their welfare.  Of course, that was not the case, the grant holders were more like absentee landlords (mexicanhistory.org; date Apr. 2, 2018).  In the 19th-century when rebellion, overthrew the royalists, under the leadership of Father Miguel Hidalgo, the person considered the "Father of Mexican Independence" (fsmitha.org; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018).

The emergence of Colonial Californiano is a footnote in the recently closed comprehensive exhibition "Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915-85 (lacma.org; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018), yet it is a fascinating one.  Wendy Kaplan, the co-curator of the exhibition told the L.A. Times, It is a very complicated and fascinating story.  It is a story that begins at the turn 20th-century.

California was admitted into the United States in 1851.  The state had a reputation as this untamed place at the western edge of the continent.  It was also a place where a person could reinvent themselves.  At the start of the 20th-century, the state was in search of an architectural identity, and taking a cue from the national romantic movement of the early 19th-century, looked to its Mexican past, "fusing elements of colonial design into early Modern structures: white stucco, red-tile roofs, arched openings and iron-grille window.  It is the colonial stripped down and made breezy, redefined for an era of mass media and the automobile."

Thus, the Spanish Colonial Revival sprang to life.  It was described by one American architect of the twenties as a true California type.

Private residents, public spaces--El Paseo promenade/mall in Santa Barbara as an example and government buildings: the Beverly Hills water treatment plant (1928) by Arthur Taylor, later the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study (laconservancy.org; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018)--sprang forth in variations on the theme.

The point was a structural embodiment of the fairy tale land perfumed with orange blossoms and eternal sunshine.  This fantasy spread beyond California's borders via architects who spent time in Los Angeles and traveled elsewhere and glossy periodicals featuring the homes of movie stars.  "Howard Hughes (la.curbed.com; July 10, 2017; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018), Charlie Chaplin and Delores del Rio all, at one point or another, had pads designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style by architects such as Wallace Neff, who helped popularize the style."

Eventually, it made the leap elsewhere, in particular, early 20th-century Mexico, where it was re-named Colonial Californiano by architects and developers looking sell designs that were both fashionable and traditional.

In the affluent Mexico City Polanco district, architect Francisco J. Serrano, who frequently traveled to Los Angeles to buy movies for the cinema he owned, designed the undulating Pasaje Polanco, "a mixed-used apartment complex completed in 1939."  The Modern designed ticked off all the design boxes of the Colonial Californiano.

Just a few blocks to the south, on the corner of Luis Urbina and Alejandro Dumas streets, is the home of lottery tycoon Elias Henaine (grandecasasdemexico.blogspot.com; Mar. 16, 2017; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018), designed by Eduardo Fuhrken.  Carolina Miranda notes, "Interestingly, many Colonial Californiano homes were built and occupied by immigrants--serving as visual badges of Mexican-ness.  Henaine, for example, was of Lebanese origin."

On a recent visit to Mexico City, Ms. Miranda was taken on a walking tour of the Polanco by Cristina Lopez Uribe who pointed out some of the extant examples--including the spectacular Colonial Californiano home that has been re-purposed as the Mexican branch of Japanese fusion restaurant Nobu.

Ms. Lopez, who contributed an essay on "the synergies between the architecture of Mexico and California" for the notable Found in Translation catalog (prestelpublishing.randomhouse.de; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018) explains why this style is detested by so many Mexican Modernist.

In the early 20th-century, Mexican design was also in the process of revisiting historical period styles--for the purpose of creating a national identity following the Mexican Revolution.  The Spanish Colonial Revival, took extensive liberties with these historic design elements.

The foundation of Mexican colonial tradition is "a building typically surrounded an outdoor patio; in Spanish Colonial Revival, buildings were often sited at the center of the property and surrounded by garden.  Spanish Colonial Revival design were frequently asymmetrical and incorporated elements like a tower (torreon), basements and pitched red-tile roofs-design components that were not part of the Mexican colony.

Of course the name, Spanish Colonial Revival, was problematic, which took its ancestors from Europe, not Mexico.

Ms. Lopez noted,

The 'Mexican' had a primitive connotation--we were the aggressors of the Mexican Revolution,... So when they establish their style in the United States, it was best to establish a connection with European rather than the Mexican.

Re-branding it as the Spanish Colonial Revival effectively erased the Mexican influence from Californian architecture.

To wit, "When Santa Barbara's El Paseo debuted in the 1920s, for example, it was described as A Bit of Andalusia the the Santa Barbara Daily News."  Completely oblivious to the fact that architect James Osborne Craig specifically referenced a structure in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

F.O.B. (Friend of Blog) former L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne called it "...a common ploy" in his review of "Found in Translation (latimes.com; Feb. 15, 2018; date accessed Apr. 2, 2018).  He wrote,

When Myron Hunt and George Washington Smith produced their most ambitious Spanish Colonial designs between 1900 and 1930, they weren't just gazing back to Southern California's Spanish and Mexican pasts; they were pointedly giving a foothold to a respectable Eurocentricisms here,... It was commonplace to 'misidentifying Mexican artifacts as Spanish... precisely because of this preference for a European lineage over a pan-American one.

Mexican Modernist Luis Barragan observed the ridiculousness of the matter at a California architectural event in 1951.  He told the assembly,

In Mexico we have had the misfortune of the influence of California Colonial...the use of which in our country is so absurd, since this style was to Mexico, and from Mexico to California,...Los Angeles and Hollywood then exported it once again to Mexico as California's Spanish Colonial.

Thom Anderson's 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself is a critique of the Spanish Colonial Revival, calling it loaded with "phony historicism."

LACMA's Wendy Kaplan told the L.A. Times,

Found in Translation casts a light on how much Mexican design and architecture have been left out of the history of California design and, of course, design throughout the United States.

The exhibition also revealed the strange ways in which California inspired the architecture of place like Mexico City.  Cristina Lopez Uribe picks up the conversation thread,

When these were built, architecture was in its Modernist phase and many architects despised this style,... It was usually done by engineers and developers...it was the style done in tourist neighborhoods.

Time has passed and the kitschy of the past has evolved into a something with a story to tell about the way ideas travel and take shape.  Ms. Lopez adds, They deserve to be studied

Even "phony historicism" can tell us about ourselves as much as the real history.