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Kunsthistorisches Institut

Substances of Modernity: Materials and their Meanings in Swiss and Mexican Architecture

EPFL Seed Money Grant Latin America – Exploratory Mandate

The project Substances of Modernity: Materials and their Meanings in Swiss and Mexican Architecture, a common research initiative between the Institute of Art History of the University of Zurich (UZH) and the Instituto de Investigaciones Estética of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), has been selected for funding by the EPFL Seed Money 2015 Call for Projects with Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.

Project Summary

The project analyses materials and their meanings in modern and contemporary architecture in Switzerland and Mexico. By addressing a question of common interest and exchanging perspectives, the present project seeks to strengthen an existing dialogue between UZH and UNAM. The topic of the research centers around the notion of regionalism in relation to the use of materials in modern and contemporary architecture, questioning their aesthetic, symbolic and political meaning by taking into account both the local context and a global perspective. The activities will consist of site visits in Mexico in Switzerland organized with the assistance of the host institutions. These visits will permit the study of objects on site, access to archive and research material, as well as meetings with local experts. The ensuing case studies will result in essays and publication or exhibition projects, contributing to a transfer of ideas and knowledge between Switzerland and Mexico in the field of architecture and art history. The project is meant as a starting point for an ongoing scientific exchange between both institutions.


The main goal of the project is to intensify the existing exchange between the institutes of art history of the UZH and UNAM by discussing a topic of mutual interest. The notion of exchange lies at the core of the project, which aims at creating a dialogue through different perspectives on a common field of interest, based on site visits of researchers from Switzerland and Mexico in the respective other country. The dialogue shall be fuelled by the cross-perspectives of researchers studying and discussing the heritage of their respective partners. Beyond the discussion of content questions, the exchange will also extend to operational aspects. The cooperation will thus facilitate access to local research material; furthermore the respective institutes will assist with the realization of the site visits in their host country and provide helpful contacts. With this tandem cooperation, we hope to establish a substantial and lasting research experience, reinforcing the partnership between both institutes and leading to potential follow-up projects.

Main Research Questions

The project will analyze different aspects of materiality in modern and contemporary architecture. It will circle around mutual questions approached via different objects of investigation with individual case studies in Switzerland and Mexico. The research will focus on the relationship between existing and new materials, between local and imported materials, taking into account transhistorical and transcultural aspects. More specifically, we will ask, for instance, how existing structures can serve as building material, raising questions around the notion of sustainability, but also on how to deal with preservation issues of the modernist heritage. Further fields of questions will include the analysis of specific building materials with regards to identity politics, asking how the appropriation of new materials served to assert modernity on a broader social and political level, how combining them with traditional techniques and local materials fulfilled the function of constructing identity through architecture. Addressing different forms of regionalism and local adaptations, the project will also consider the relevance of the global trade of raw materials.


In order to foster an in-depth dialogue between researchers from Switzerland and Mexico around the question of materials used in modern and contemporary architecture, the project will consist in case studies highlighting different aspects of the topic. This approach will enable to engage in thorough research through the focus on specific objects while addressing general questions of mutual concern, opening thereby the possibility to reflect the methods and engage in a critical discourse. The research will be carried out through site visits, comprising the study of the objects, access to archives, libraries and further research materials, as well as interviews with local experts and practitioners. The guest researchers will share and discuss their own projects with their local hosts during their visit.


Peter Krieger (UNAM) – Existing Structures as Material in Swiss Contemporary Architecture

The Zurich architectural office EM2N has distinguished itself in the contemporary architecture debate by dealing in a responsible and creative way with existing buildings for new construction projects. They do not consider present structures as obstacles which need to be removed, rather they take them as starting points for their design strategy, leading to new buildings both aesthetically appealing and contextually meaningful. During their visit to Mexico in the spring of 2014, on the occasion of the exhibition Swiss Positions, it has become clear that this topic is of utmost relevance. The construction practice in Mexico is still characterized by a “tabula rasa” way of thinking, eliminating all existing building structures. The research in Switzerland will be used to investigate the integrative building concept of EM2N and further architects in Switzerland (such as Meili Peter, Burkhalter Sumi, Buol Zünd, Fickert Knapkiewicz, Buchner Bründler, Valerio Olgiati, Peter Märkli, Mäder Mäder Architekten) who work with the principle of creative recycling. In cooperation with colleagues from UZH, ETH and other Swiss universities, systematic visits and analyses of selected buildings in Switzerland (Basel, Cham, Flims, Liestal, Luzern, Rapperswil, Volketswil, Walenstadtberg, Winterthur, Zurich) will result in a publication and exhibition project with contributions by Swiss and Mexican authors, with the aim of showing the potential of a sustainable and creative reuse of existing materials to an interested audience in Mexico and Latin America, possibly instigating a transfer of ideas.

Fabiola Hernández Flores (UNAM) – Cement, Construction Material of Post-Revolutionary Mexico. Analysis on Production, Distribution and Reception of Images

The aim of this research is to analyze the function and cultural effects of cement advertising in Mexico from 1920 to 1950. The analysis focusses on the production, distribution and reception of images, based on a multidisciplinary standpoint, revealing that cement advertising was a wide scope cultural phenomena related to political agendas of the post-revolutionary governments; the transition from handcrafted building techniques to mass construction and its close relationship with the marketing strategies developed by U.S. and European industries; the avant-garde architecture; the modernization of Mexico City and its environmental impact; as well as the iconographic transfer among different media. Since cement industry in Mexico was held mainly by foreign investment, the marketing and advertising strategies also followed iconographic and discursive patterns from abroad, including street posters, press publicity, manuals for construction and photographic exhibitions displayed at industrial world fairs. The cement advertising agenda was frequently transferred from Europe to America by transnational enterprises. Switzerland, a country which has developed a modern culture of the use of concrete as a refined artistic material, is a particularly important country in this respect. Thus, the famous Graphic and Poster Collections of the Museum für Gestaltung Zurich are an important research field to find posters, manuals for craft and design and other visual sources, in order to set up comparative outlines aimed to develop a critical inquiry on the aesthetics of architecture globalization, standardization, cultural transfer, and how visual strategies were adapted into the local visual culture during the industrialized age.


Tristan Weddigen (UZH) – Buildings Materials in Modern Mexican Architecture as Markers of Space and Time

Starting from the idea of Latin American architecture as a negotiating site of cultural “contact zones,” and as expressing the desire to create a local identity in the process of a modern nation building, this research will investigate the incorporation of pre-Hispanic and baroque legacies in modern Mexican buildings. It will analyze the appropriation and adaption of architectural styles and the construction of national myths of modernity through specific materials. These aspects will permit to address general questions of methodology, historiography, and politics. The focus will be laid on ideological and aesthetic constructions of history by the means of cultural hybridization and the amalgamation of materials associated with different epochs and geographical regions. Case studies will include works by Juan O’Gorman, for instance his use of black volcanic rock and translucent onyx for the Anahuacalli museum or his mosaic facades made of natural stones from different regions of Mexico; the thin shell concrete constructions of Felix Candela; the combination of concrete and lava stone in the work of Mathias Goeritz; and the poetic combination of primary materials and colors in the oeuvre of Luis Barragán.

Charlotte Matter (UZH) – Aesthetics of the Desert: Cactus and Concrete in Modern Mexican Architecture

This investigation of Modern architecture in Mexico will focus on a “global” modern architecture vocabulary using “local” organic materials. It will analyze the relationship between concrete buildings and the Mexican flora, specifically the use of local plants such as cacti and other endemic greenery as architectural elements, for instance as fences – as in the house and studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo by Juan O’Gorman – or in the composition of gardens and courtyards. The research will consider the categories of the Mexican vegetation and landscapes and their symbolic as well as political implications. It will analyze the connection between the aesthetics of the arid desert and the “brutalist” materiality of cement. The case studies will include buildings in Mexico City as well as in rural areas, comparing the insertion of “nature” in the megalopolis vs. the insertion of concrete in the nature. Beyond well-known examples by renowned architects, the site visit will serve to document vernacular, informal architecture.

Weiterführende Informationen

Juan O'Gorman House

House of Juan O’Gorman

Mexico City (1953–56, demolished 1969)