MEXICO CITY — Unlike most art museums or galleries, one enters Casa de la Literatura Gabriel García Márquez as a guest encountering a private home — with humility and gratitude. The coolness within the building’s walls is a welcome reprieve after standing a mere few seconds outside its imposing wooden doors and rocky facade, both beaten by the midday sun. The crisp central garden is surrounded on one side by the main home and on the other by an outbuilding; each is arranged as the ying to the other’s yang, lulling us into a sense of tranquility in a place where the air is heavy with history.
Gabriel García Márquez resided there from 1975 until his death. But even if you didn’t know who lived at the house, its beauty is deserving of respect. The leafy garden with its kempt lawn, seemingly immune to the hundreds of footsteps that stomp across it, is the centerpiece. Whitewashed brick structures flaunt flourishes of rustic stone masonry and wooden beams. It’s all perfectly representative of the novelist and journalist who found his final home in the beating heart of Mexico City.
And so it was that nearly five decades ago, Mercedes Barcha and Gabriel García Márquez — los Gabos, as the couple was known — purchased 144 Fuego Street in the Pedregal, a neighborhood named after the volcanic bedrock it was built on. Now, La Casa de la Literatura García Márquez is a strange and wonderful new home for Mexico’s ever-changing arts scene.
“The little cabin was what seduced my parents,” Gonzalo García Barcha, Gabriel’s son, told Hyperallergic, referencing the now extended detached L-shaped office and living room where the Colombian Nobel Prize winner wrote much of his work.
From the outside, one can peek in through a long but squat window spanning much of its length. In the morning and afternoon it lets in the soft natural light from the garden, reflecting off the mostly white carpet, ceilings, and walls and highlighting the colors of the art and the thousands of books along the walls. Its cozy gallery aesthetic no doubt played a role in its leap from private intellectual nook to public cultural center.
The transformation of the García Márquez family home has been a fine balancing act. In its new era, the downstairs portion of the house and the writer’s studio have been opened to the public, providing an intimate space for contemporary Mexican artists to display their work as part of the García Márquez family’s burgeoning effort to give the structure a new life as a public exhibition space. They must commune with the historical weight of what went on behind the walls where their works will hang, and the house’s intimate mid-century modern style limits Mexico’s penchant for monumental exhibitions.
Deciding exactly what was appropriate to go into the cultural center depended in part on what aesthetic vision had imbued the space originally. Felipe Leal, a Mexican architect close to the country’s cultural and artistic scene, had a hand in extending the cabin that enamored los Gabos. Who had built the original house, though, had long been a bit of a mystery.
“This isn’t Parra’s,” García Barcha recalled a friend authoritatively telling him as they discussed the building’s origins. José Luis Cortés was not just any friend though, he is the president of the International Union of Architects. He was referring to Mexican architect and designer Manuel Parra, whose past works include the monumental nearby home of acclaimed actor and director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández. That building makes the García Márquez home look quaint by comparison, but the recycled colonial arches rescued from the 20th-century attempts to “modernize” Mexico City live on in Parra’s oeuvre and across this particular building as well.
Many others have left their mark on the García Márquez’s home, casually sipping coffee and eating the spaghetti that Mercedes Barcha always had on hand when some historical figure or another turned up unannounced: Fidel Castro, Shimon Peres, Sean Penn … Others require a bit more introduction, like William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, or photographer Graciela Iturbide and artist Vicente Rojo. Finally, there were those who remained nameless but whose presence may have had the strongest effect on the rules of the house. “No more Central American revolutionaries,” decreed Barcha in the 1980s. It wasn’t that she didn’t like their company, quite the opposite. She despaired at the image of ever-younger guerrillas sitting at her table, eating her spaghetti, only to go off to die in the mountains of Nicaragua.
A respect for both García Márquez and Barcha’s legacies has defined how the current administrators run Casa García Márquez in its latest incarnation. “It has been a great responsibility,” Emilia García Elizondo, head of Casa García Márquez and granddaughter of its former inhabitants, told Hyperallergic. “It’s sometimes been a bit scary.”
García Elizondo’s fear stems from not striking the right balance: keeping the place how los Gabos would have wanted it while giving visitors a properly curated experience. Sometimes that’s relatively easy: People want to see how the great man lived and worked. So to see his extensive library or his desk laid out as if he’d just popped out to Aracataca, his home town in Colombia, hits just the right note.
When change comes knocking at 144 Fuego’s door, however, things get trickier. Artists must coexist with its past inhabitants. Diane Wilke, a sculptor and painter, was delighted to do so when she was invited to exhibit at the house.
“I could let my work just be, just like it exists in my workshop, that is, in a sort of informal setting,” Wilke said. “Emilia [García Elizondo] and I decided that the pieces we’d exhibit would be ones visitors could touch. Hence the title of the exhibition: Se vale tocar (‘Ok to Touch.’)” In the show, visitors were shown a broad swath of Wilke’s oeuvre ranging from sculptures to intervened books and paintings arranged in a seemingly casual manner as they would be in the artist’s studio. Se Vale Tocar, running from April to May, was the house’s first foray as a public gallery.
Emilia was delighted that the home’s legacy not only worked alongside Wilke’s art but also complemented it, making it a part of the space itself.
“Lots of visitors arrived without knowing about Diane [Wilke]’s exhibition and asked us if Gabo had put those pieces there,” she said. “It was really exciting for us, because it confirmed that the art was where it was meant to be.”