Architect Max Cetto* by Ida Rodríguez Prampolini**
In 1939, when Max Cetto took up residence in Mexico, those fundamental changes occurring in the politics of the country certainly were having repercussions in the field of architecture. Private capital was regaining the power it had lost during the period of revolution and was once again becoming a powerful patron. During the 1930’s Mexican architecture had been characterized by an open struggle between, on the one hand, a young generation fighting to establish functionalism in a purely technical sense as the means of resolving social needs and, on the other, the traditionalists, with their concept of beauty and culture, defending the styles and fashions of the past. After 1940, the political climate favored functionalism, a potentially lucrative international idiom that would achieve maximum gain at minimum cost.
This was the sad fact that Cetto, having fled from European fascism, and hoping to live in a progressive country, had to accept on his arrival in Mexico. After his studies under the great master, Hans Poelzig, his career had begun at the Frankfurt City Planning and Building Office. There, he was responsible for several impressive municipal works but it was his competition entry for the League of Nations Building in Geneva that brought public notice and earned him a place in CIAM at the early age of 24.
The fascist escalation in Germany had halted what promised to be a brilliant career, and finally, in 1938, Cetto abandoned Germany and went to the United States, where he worked for a year with Richard Neutra. In 1939, he established himself in Mexico and adopted the Mexican nationality in 1947.
Cetto’s first important Mexican project, built in collaboration with Jorge Rubio, was the Hotel at San José Purúa. With this building Cetto established the basis of an integral functionalism of a kind different from that which had formerly been practiced in the country. As the site-around an area of natural springs-was rugged and uneven, Cetto actually sketched his plan on the earth with chalk. He wanted to make the best use of the topographical variations and to incorporate views of the countryside as well as its rocks and trees: he studied the various surrounding elements in order to utilize them to best advantage or, alternatively, to avoid them. His method showed that his was an architecture that arose out of nature and was inextricably bound up with it. Three years later, after visiting the hotel, Walter Gropius wrote to him: “The work at San José appeals to me very much indeed. One needs imagination to implant a building among the rocks. The concept of different levels is carried out in a mastery fashion. The details may be a little rough, but the line of the whole, its ‘elan’, stands out above everything”.
By 1949, Cetto had become famous in Mexico and was known affectionately as “El Hombre del Pedregal”. He had built and now lived in the first house in Pedregal; an area of Mexico City devastated during two millennia by volcanic eruption and again threatened by a large and new split in the earth. The rough ground, formed of volcanic lava, with its strange vegetation and coloring, was a challenge to the imagination of the architect, and the complete and successful way in which he overcame the problems, humanizing a hitherto purely technical functionalism in order to solve the psychological problems involved, became a great example to contemporary architects. It might even be claimed, without exaggeration that without this work Mexican residential architecture would have taken a different road. Using natural materials (such as lava stone, mosaic, wood), “sowing” the construction in the natural folds of the earth, integrating the internal and external vistas, the house was a revelation, the basis of a new kind of construction.
The other dwellings that Cetto built in the same volcanic zone of El Pedregal-either alone or in collaboration-are equally successful and beautiful variations of this architectural theme. He applied the same principles when building the Temola Tanning Factory in the torrid valley of Cuautla, where he dispensed with the hitherto indispensable international-style windows and inserted open tile shutters to create currents of air. He employed a similar solution for the Quintana Week-end House in the tropical region of Tequesquitengo, by taking advantage of the cool freshness provided by a nearby lake.
The outstanding work by Max Cetto additionally encompasses the critique and history of architecture, and the teaching practice. In his role as University professor, he was able to devise a method of teaching the result of which is architecture capable of servicing the needs of rural and outlying communities. He has shown his students the uselessness of working in an office in a kind of conceptual vacuum. Creation, according to Cetto, is the product of contact, study, and the appraisal of the reality of a situation in all its aspects. Only an exact but loving comprehension of reality can transform it to the service of man. This is a truth that Cetto has never stopped preaching to students, whom he (at age 77) takes to deprived villages in order to study economic, social and building problems at first hand. To architects, the “visionaries of the future”, to whom he has spoken out, cautioning them against faith in technology as a solution to social problems; and, as it was, to architecture itself in the example of his own work. The problem that preoccupies him is that of alienation and conflict, between nature and man, the individual and society, pure materialism and pure aesthetics. The struggle and commitment of his life has been to recuperate the harmony of man with the world in which he lives.
*This writing appears as a preface to the 2011 facsimile edition-published by the Museo de Arte Moderno, México-of Max Cetto’s Arquitectura Moderna en México/Modern Architecture in Mexico (1961), Praeger, New York. A similar version of this text appeared in Contemporary Architects, Muriel Emanuel (ed.) New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Published with permission of the author.
**Ida Rodríguez Prampolini (24 September 1925 – 26 July 2017) was a Mexican academic, art historian and cultural preservationist, who was heavily involved in the creation of organizations and institutions to preserve the artistic traditions of Mexico. To that end, she founded two art schools, eleven museums, twelve municipal archives, and over fifty houses of culture. She published over 400 articles and critiques of Mexican art and was honored with numerous awards over the course of her career. She was a member of the Mexican Academy of Arts, Mexican Academy of History and the Belgian International Union of Academies as well as a recipient of the National University Prize (Spanish: Premio Universidad Nacional), which recognizes excellence in teaching and academic research, in 1991. In 2001, she was honored with the National Prize for Arts and Sciences in the category of History, Social Sciences and Philosophy.