“The most important architectural work of my life”: That’s how Juan O’Gorman, legendary architect of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s studios and Mexico’s mural-wrapped Central Library, remembered the home he built in 1954 on a natural lava cave in the Mexico City neighborhood of El Pedregal. Last month, the only existing scale model of O’Gorman’s mystical “Casa Cueva” landed improbably in New York’s Noguchi Museum, along with three more takes on cavernous habitation by Mathias Goeritz, Carlos Lazo, and Javier Senosiain.
The model of O’Gorman’s house is significant because Casa Cueva no longer exists. Its destruction more than five decades ago — and the bitter discourse that it engendered — pitted two great artists against each other in what remains one of the most divisive episodes in the recent history of Mexican art.
With its kaleidoscopic, Gaudí-esque mosaics and overflowing gardens, Casa Cueva has long been a subject of fascination and myth-making in Mexico. Elsewhere, O’Gorman’s fantastical dwelling has mostly remained a niche curiosity, the province of specialized blogs and expert scholarship. Its relative obscurity is due at least in part to a dearth of documentation: The house was acquired and transformed in 1969 by Helen Escobedo, artist and and longtime director of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Fine Art Department, and for decades, only a scattering of photographs testified to its grandeur. That changed with the recent arrival of the complete maquette, first shown last year at INBA’s Museo Nacional de Arquitectura and now as part of the exhibition In Praise of Caves. There, it is staged amid works by artist Isamu Noguchi, who did not himself dabble in the domestic adaptation of caves but whose sunken gardens and biomorphic sculptures are sublime tributes to the endless formal possibilities of topography.
In recent years, noble attempts to preserve the memory of O’Gorman’s cave house have also dredged up the controversy around its disappearance. In 1969, O’Gorman sold the property to Escobedo on the basis — according to his account — of her verbal promise to preserve it. She proceeded to demolish parts of the house and transform others beyond recognition, with little resistance from the cultural community. Only Ida Prampolini, wife of artist Mathias Goeritz, was vocal about her criticism, publishing a scathing essay in protest. “Aren’t museum directors in charge of preserving art?” she wrote of Escobedo, who was then at the helm of the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte. “If it’s true that Mrs. Escobedo wants to construct her own ‘sculptural house,’ couldn’t she buy a different plot of land, or a house that is not of artistic value?”
“What motives could have led her to purchase a work of art to then destroy it?” Prampolini continued.
Throughout her lifetime, Escobedo, who died in 2010, insisted that she had always been transparent about her intentions; that she never pledged to preserve the house, and that she in fact conveyed from her earliest conversations with the architect her plans to raze it and replace it with her very own “Casa Pueblo” (a project O’Gorman later derided as “common” and “vulgar.”) In a short article for a 1970 issue of Progressive Architecture by architectural historian Esther McCoy, Escobedo is quoted as saying that the cave was “uninhabitable, particularly in times of rain.” O’Gorman, on his end, was eager to sell: as his daughter’s health declined, he and his wife sought drier conditions than a home made of stone could provide.
Still, O’Gorman maintained that Escobedo reneged on a promise, an accusation all the more damning because of what the house symbolized. For O’Gorman, whose buildings had long respected the utilitarian, modular, and stripped-down philosophy of Functionalism, Casa Cueva — his last architectural project, which he designed without blueprints by tracing the natural curves of the lava cave — marked his definitive passage to Organic architecture. With its colored stone mosaics of Indigenous motifs embedded in the basaltic flows left by the eruption of the Xitle voclano over 1,600 years ago, Casa Cueva embraced regionalism and storytelling, an approach starkly different from that of the abstract, monumental sculpture artists like Escobedo were beginning to pursue at the time. O’Gorman’s visual language was specific, local, legible to the Mexican community; Escobedo’s was broad, sweeping, and universal.
Indeed, Escobedo — then 35 years old — inherited the dissident legacy of the so-called “generación de la ruptura,” a group of artists in mid-20th century Mexico who reacted against the dominant art forms of preceding decades, particularly muralismo and the Mexican School of Painting. In majestic public artworks such as “Coatl” (1980), Escobedo also invoked landscape and locality, but did so with a distinctly non-objective vocabulary (“God forbid we should have any more painting with ‘messages’ and ‘figurative art,’” she reportedly told an interviewer on one occasion.) As a museum professional, Escobedo brought to Mexico the work of artists like Julio Le Parc and Arshile Gorky. Meanwhile, Prampolini wrote, O’Gorman’s Casa Cueva was “the antithesis of the so-called ‘international style.'” O’Gorman himself, in a text decrying that more people did not speak up when the house was razed, evoked a rigid dichotomy: “Unarguably, in Mexico there is a difference of opinions which I’ve already referred to in relation to the two currents of art that exist and prevail: one which corresponds to Mexico, its people, its tradition, its geography, and its history; the other is a current of art imported to our country.”
These deceptively simple binaries — old guard versus new; tradition versus modernity — gave way to an unrelenting lore that seems to rekindle every few years. In an interview with artist Pedro Reyes, who has been vocal about the house’s destruction, architect Carlos González Lobo claims that he attempted to reason with Escobedo at the time but ultimately observed on her part “una voluntad de destruir la obra,” an unyielding will to eradicate O’Gorman’s work. In advance of a sprawling survey of Escobedo’s career at MUAC in 2107, local newspaper El Universal reported in the tone of a gossip column that its curator had been confronted about the disappearance of the O’Gorman house and whether it would be excluded from the exhibition, “as it has in recent monographs.” As recently as this January, an informative Twitter thread about Casa Cueva posted by Mexico’s Secretary of Culture that mentions Escobedo’s “modifications” saw the polemic resurface. “Modified?” one user scoffed. “She completely demolished it.”
Sandra Cerisola, director of the Fondo Artístico Helen Escobedo, laments that Escobedo’s own artistic contributions have been obscured by the controversy.
“Helen Escobedo was a woman who did a lot for art in Mexico, not just through her artistic practice but as a museum administrator and researcher,” Cerisola said in an interview. “It’s sad that her name is now primarily associated with the ‘destruction of Casa Cueva,’ which is not just a brutal reduction of her trajectory and conceals her legacy, but is also unfair because she is being judged after her death, without the ability to tell her side of the story.”
The fact that O’Gorman’s version of the facts continues to be prioritized over hers, Cerisola adds, demonstrates that “machismo in the arts is still taking place actively and on very different levels.”
The house at Avenida San Jerónimo 162, mostly unrecognizable, is today occupied by a music conservatory. It’s unclear how much of Escobedo’s vision for her own “Casa Pueblo” remains, either — the elegant white structures she constructed have since been painted in gaudy coats of violet and orange. No one at the music school answered a request for comment.
Adriana Sandoval, who curated the exhibition in Mexico where the maquette was first shown, mourns the loss of Casa Cueva while acknowledging the “fantasies and false arguments” surrounding the final chapter of its history. She focuses rather on the possibility of the home’s recovery — a dream now conceivable thanks to the existence of the model designed by Senosiain Arquitectos and plans by Iván Arellano, who reconstructed the house for his 2016 PhD dissertation “Casa O’Gorman: Habitando la Cueva.”
“There is a yearning on the part of the public — and if I can be more romantic, a need for justice that the public demands for its right to that patrimony that was lost,” Sandoval mused.
At the Noguchi, visitors pause to sit on a mirrored snake sculpture that winds around a pole near a maquette of “El Nido de Quetzalcóatl,” Javier Senosiain’s “organic architecture theme park.” Another sculpture, designed by Mathias Goeritz for the cavernous entrance of his Museo Experimental El Eco, sits across from Noguchi’s rock garden. A model of Carlos Lazo’s “Atomic Age Cave House,” an unbuilt structure described as a “synthesis of the Flintstones and the Jetsons,” has its own dedicated gallery, as does O’Gorman’s house, which unfurls spectacularly under protective glass. A pamphlet for the exhibition does not delve into the house’s destruction, stating simply that it was “tragically ruined.” Instead, the show recaptures the symbolic and literal meaning of caves as natural refuges; their potential to achieve harmony between people and their surroundings.
“Humans, before they are born, are warm and swaddled in the curved shape of the placenta,” says Ricardo Suárez Haro, who organized the exhibition with Noguchi’s senior curator Dakin Hart. “Then, suddenly, they come out into the world and are forced into squares: A square crib, square room, a square grave. Senosiain says that in things that are organic, in things that are round, human beings find spaces of happiness. We are returning to our origins.”